09/17/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Evolution Ascendant: Polls Show Darwin's Explanation of Human Origins Up, Creationism Down

Texas Governor Rick Perry, the GOP presidential front-runner, began his campaign by planting his flag in the anti-evolution camp.

Evolution, he told a boy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, is just "a theory that's out there" -- one that's "got some gaps in it." With startling candor he added that in Texas they teach both creationism and evolution. Actually, a bill to authorize the teaching of "intelligent design," a supposedly scientific theory distinct from creationism, died in the Texas legislature earlier this year. But no doubt the Gov. is right -- the illegal infliction of biblical creationism on public school students in Texas continues. Perry's parting words to the lad were laden with mock ambiguity: "I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right." Wink, wink.

In Republican primaries, coming out for creationism might seem as courageous as taking a stand for mom and apple pie, but does this really reflect the views of the nation? New evidence indicates that acceptance of evolution is on the rise, even as biblical literalism sinks.

A long-running Gallup poll on the question of human origins finds that evolution beats creationism 56 percent to 40 percent. Now, it's important to note that the evolution figure is a composite of those who believe in theistic evolution, God guiding the process from off-stage and purely natural evolution. Nevertheless, it is striking to note that those who choose theistic evolution are in a statistical dead heat with those who opt for creationism: 38 percent to 40 percent.

Yet, even that pales in comparison with the trendlines. The percentage of strict creationists has fallen by 10 percent in just the last three years, to its lowest point since the poll began in 1982. What's more, the proportion who chose strictly natural evolution has rocketed up by more than 75 percent since 2000 to 16 percent in the poll just released.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Fox News has a different poll with different results. Its poll leaves out the option of theistic evolution. Instead, it presents these choices:

* The theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin and other scientists
* The Biblical account of creation as told in the Bible, or
* Are both true?
* (Don't know)

Notice the framing: by putting "theory ... as outlined by Darwin and other scientists" in the question, the pollsters make it as repulsive a choice as possible for anyone with religious leanings. It's practically like asking, "Do you identify yourself with atheist scientists and their theories?"

The second choice brings the Bible to the fore twice in a ten-word question. Now, that third choice is really interesting. It makes about as much sense as asking whether the Earth is both 4.5 billion years old and 10,000 years old. All the same, 27 percent of respondents picked "both are true."

If you presume that they were taking this choice as a proxy for theistic evolution, then together with the 21 percent who chose the "Darwin" answer, then even in this poll, evolution beats creationism 48 percent to 45.

But once again, it's the trendlines that are really impressive. Since Fox News last ran this poll in 1999, the proportion of respondents choosing the "Darwin" answer has shot up by 40 percent, from 15 to 21 percent. In the same period, the proportion picking creationism has fallen by 10 percent, from 50 to 45 percent. There's no fudging that.

Perhaps Governor Perry, who is if nothing else a canny politician, has picked up on the evolving public view. His response to another question about evolution in South Carolina has a more than a hint of waffle in it. Here's MSNBC's account:

[Perry] talked again about evolution, when a woman congratulated him on his comment that evolution was theory. He said, "Well, God is how we got here. God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don't know. But I know how it got started."

Waffle? On second thoughts, it tastes like weak-tea theistic evolution to me.