The National Center for Science Education keeps an eye on public views on evolution. Recently it reported a poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, a UK organization, on the question of whether human beings evolved from less advanced forms over millions of years or whether they were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years. The result for Great Britain was 68% supporting evolution, 16% creation, and 15% unsure. The result for Canada was 61% evolution, 24% creation 15% unsure. The result for the US was 35% evolution, 47% creation, 18% unsure.
NCSE compared these results with a series of Gallup polls from 1982 to 2008 that asked respondents to chose from three options: (1) Humans developed over millions of years, God-guided; (2) Humans developed over millions of years, God had no part; (3) God created humans as is within 10,000 years. The results were fairly consistent over the years, the 2008 results giving 36% for God-guided but over millions of years, 14% for the long period with God having no part, and 44% with creation as is within last ten thousand years.
NCSE concluded that 50% of Americans therefore accept evolution. Looking at the same figures, I draw a totally different conclusion. While it is true that there were people before Darwin, including his own grandfather, who had speculated about evolution, today the term is understood to include the Darwin-Wallace mechanism of random mutations and natural selection. There is no crying in baseball, and there is no guidance, God or otherwise, in Darwinian evolution. Only the 14% who accept that God had no part in the process can be said to believe in the theory of evolution as the vast majority of biologists and other scientists understands it today. God-guided development is possible, but it is unnecessary and just another form of intelligent design.
How does this jibe with the Angus Reid result? Notice that their poll did not specifically ask about God guidance. I am sure that a good part of the 35% of Americans who said they supported evolution would have given a different answer if they had been asked about unguided evolution. So Gallup's 14% supporting evolution, not NCSE's 50%, seems more likely.
The National Center for Science Education is one of many respectable organizations, including most scientific professional societies and the National Academy of Sciences, that educate the public on science and its contributions to society. Most have taken what is called the "accommodationist" position in dealing with religion. That is, they avoid getting into disputes with those religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church and most moderate Protestant groups, who do not undermine science. In this way, it is hoped, science will maintain the support of an influential segment of society.
Certainly this policy has merit, but there are limits on how accommodating we should be. I think it is rather obvious that scientists and science organizations should not hesitate to challenge any misinterpreted science, even when presented in religious discourse, rather than quietly go along in order to avoid conflict and maintain political support.
Churches and clergy receive special treatment in America. It is hard to see why their tax breaks and faith-based funding have not been held to violate the U.S. Constitution, especially when they use the funds for political or religious purposes. We can't expect to eliminate these government benefits given existing demographics. But we scientists can at least challenge false or misleading claims made by religion instead of disingenuously sweeping them under the rug. NCSE should have commented on the fact that the 36% of Americans who believe in God-guided "evolution" evidently do not understand the role of random variation and selection pressure in the actual theory of evolution, and therefore do not accept the mechanism of evolution as scientists understand it. It is not being rude or polemical to correct a public misunderstanding of a scientific theory. It is not doing your duty as tax-exempt educational organization to ignore such misrepresentations for political gain.
Just because the Catholic Church and moderate Protestant congregations say they have no problem with evolution, that doesn't mean they don't. NCSE and other accommodationist groups insist that evolution is compatible with Christianity. They point to the statement by Pope John Paul II in 1996 that seemed to support biological evolution. However, he made it clear that it was still one of several hypotheses still under dispute. Furthermore, he unambiguously excluded the evolution of mind, saying that "the spiritual soul is immediately created by God" and that theories of evolution that consider mind as emerging from living matter "are incompatible with the truth about man." No doubt the Pope has never considered the possibility that the evolution of the human species was not controlled by God.
As I discussed in my book Quantum Gods, Catholic and Protestant theologians and scientists have grappled with the problem of how God can act in the universe in a way consistent with both science and traditional Christian teachings. Diddling with natural selection would interfere with a scientific law. But perhaps God can control evolution by interfering with randomness. We humans cannot detect whether any finite sequence of numbers is random, so we might not have a way of detecting this.
Einstein said he would never believe in a God who plays dice. Maybe God does after all, but the dice are loaded.
This article will also appear in the September 2010 issue of Skeptical Briefs.