It’s not New Year’s Eve without some fireworks. Per the new Pew poll, the share of the public that believes in some form of human evolution (divinely guided or not) stands at 60 percent, about the same as it was in 2009. Dig down into the partisan splits, though, and you find some movement.
Democrats and indies have held roughly steady but Republicans have moved fairly dramatically against evolution in just four years, from majority support in 2009 to near-majority opposition now. Is that number accurate? I looked around to see what other polls have said about GOP views on evolution lately. Here’s what Gallup found in 2007:
And here’s what Gallup found five years later, in 2012:
Gallup detected movement away from the creationist position among Republicans over roughly the same span that Pew was detecting movement towards it. Is that a bona fide trend, though, or a function of Gallup wording the question slightly differently in its two polls? In 2007, the evolution question didn’t mention God; in 2012, they refined it so that evolution by divine guidance was an option. It may be that the numbers were more or less consistent in both polls but that some chunk of people who wanted to answer “evolution supervised by God” felt they had no choice in 2007 but to say no when given a binary choice between evolution and no evolution. “Evolution” is, after all, associated with Darwinism, and Darwinism is typically understood to mean evolution without divine guidance. If you don’t give some religious believers an option involving God, they might assume the pollster’s version of evolution is an atheistic one and that nudges them into the “no” category.
More data? Okay. When YouGov asked about evolution in July of this year, the numbers they got were strikingly similar to Gallup’s from 2012: 55 percent of Republicans said God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 30 percent said humans evolved over millions of years and that God guided the process; and five percent said humans evolved over millions of years without divine guidance. The Harris Poll on faith from a few weeks ago didn’t get into the weeds on this subject, but when they asked whether people believe in “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” 36 percent of Republicans said they did — a number that’s right in line with the other polls I mentioned although a bit surprising in that “Darwin” evidently did not equal “atheist” for the Harris respondents.
So, what’s it all mean? Gallup, YouGov, and Harris all see ~35 percent of GOPers backing evolution in some form and 55-60 percent favoring creationism; Gallup in particular found numbers along those lines all the way back in 2007, albeit with a bit more creationist support than recent polls. Pew’s numbers over time have deviated from that baseline wildly, so much so that not only do their 2009 figures show a majority of Republicans backing evolution, even their new 2013 numbers show the GOP as being comparatively more supportive of evolution than other pollsters do. That’s ironic since all the headlines yesterday were about Pew detecting a trend back towards creationism among Republicans. Even if that’s accurate, with a split of 43/48 between evolution and creation, Pew finds GOPers to be several points more sympathetic to evolution than other major poll outfits do. Maybe they’re just an outlier.
Or maybe they’re not. Maybe Pew’s the most accurate pollster here, in which case what explains the Republican tilt back towards “God created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years”? There’s been no major religious revival in the last four years that would explain it. My hunch is that, as strange as it may seem, it might be a partisan reaction. I’ve seen polls on abortion and gun control that show pro-life and pro-gun positions spiking as O entered the White House. Some people who’d normally be on the fence on those subjects are nudged over to one side by the prospect of a federal government run by liberal Democrats taking a renewed, possibly regulatory interest in them. It may be that some people who are tentatively in the “evolution is real but God guided it” camp are taking a more absolutist position because they’re worried that the government under O will teach only the atheistic version of Darwinism in schools. Or maybe schools have nothing to do with it; maybe this is a simpler partisan impulse, where contempt for the political worldview as personified by the president bleeds over into some people’s judgments about perennial cultural disputes too. Wouldn’t surprise me to find support for evolution among Democrats rising a few points once the next Republican president takes office. It’s a defensive impulse against a political opponent who’s taken power, whether that impulse is really justified or not.
By the way, in both the YouGov poll and the new Pew poll, one of the few groups to rival Republicans in support for the “man created by God in his present form” thesis is blacks. In YouGov, 49 percent take that position; in Pew, which slightly refines the sample to black Protestants, 50 percent take that position versus 44 percent who believe in evolution. Rarely will you see those numbers flagged in the usual look-at-these-Republican-rubes media pieces.