WASHINGTON — Determining whether we are descended from ape or angel, as former British Prime Minister Disraeli once put it, is hard enough. Disraeli sided with the angels. But teaching schoolchildren about the matter has apparently made a monkey out of too many primates.
At least, that's the conclusion after reviewing press coverage in the aftermath of a poll in March commissioned by the People for the American Way (PFAW).
Offering us "the results of a comprehensive national survey," the poll, prepared by market-research firm DYG Inc., was titled "Evolution and Creationism in Public Education: An In-Depth Reading of Public Opinion."
But the results must have been written on a banana peel, given the way journalists slipped on the findings.
According to the Austin American-Statesman (March 11), the verdict was for the angels: "Poll: Creationism has Support; Majority of Americans Want Biblical Teachings."
Just the opposite was true according to USA Today (March 13) headline, "Teach Evolution as Science, Most Say in National Poll." Similarly, The Washington Post (March 12) favored the simian set with, "Polled Americans Favor Teaching of Evolution." The Kansas City Star agreed, offering "Poll Finds Preference for Teaching Evolution Rather Than Creation," followed by the lead sentence, "Most Americans want evolution, not creation, taught in public schools."
All three of these pro-primate stories echo PFAW's own press release, which declared, "Public Wants Evolution, not Creationism, in Science Class." Contained within each story, however, were data that failed to support (when they did not directly contradict) these headlines.
The angels came out winging in other rounds, scoring enough points to earn an apparent tie. As the Associated Press reported it, "Poll Finds Support for Teaching two Origin Theories," with the lead sentence: "Most Americans think creationism should be taught along with Darwin's theory of evolution, according to a new poll."
This opinion was seconded by The New York Times, which declared, "An overwhelming majority of Americans think that creationism should be taught along with Darwin...."
To summarize the media's take in response to the poll, Americans want evolution rather than creationism in the classroom, except for the majority who wants creationism taught, and leaving aside the "overwhelming" number who want creationism and evolution to both be taught. This is clearly an evolving position.
So, what did the survey actually find? The data show that 83 percent of Americans support the teaching of evolution, but 79 percent also accept the place of creationism in the curriculum. While nearly half regarded evolution as a theory "far from being proven scientifically," fully 68 percent regarded an evolutionary explanation of human presence to be compatible with a belief in the role of God "creating" and "guiding" human development. Only 20 percent thought that schools should teach only evolution, with no mention of creationism.
In this case, a genuinely ambivalent finding was rendered by various reporters in the manner of the blind men and the elephant, each grasping a portion of the data and proclaiming the character of the whole.
As The New York Times article noted, "people on all sides of the issue seemed to find something to like in the study."
But many in the press appeared eager to collapse the ambivalence into their preferred choice. One should no more conclude that Americans "favor" evolution (or creationism) based on these results than one should conclude that in a survey of ice cream preferences, those who asked for a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla thereby showed a preference for chocolate (or vanilla).
Yet this was the suggestion of a "warning to public officials" from PFAW's chairman Ralph Neas, who noted, "If [officials] cave in to pressure to eliminate evolution or to force creationism..., they will be acting against the views and wishes of most Americans." The problem is that the converse is comparably true.
Perhaps most important, Americans seemed less than confident as to how "evolution" and "creationism" should be defined - as were some reporters.
The Washington Post was right to note that "thirty-two percent incorrectly believe evolution means humans developed from apes" (both modern apes and Homo sapiens are thought to be descended from a common ancestor), but the Post's characterization of evolution ("the correct definition is that humans developed from less advanced forms over millions of years") is not a proper account of the central tenet of evolution. The theory argues only that natural selection, or "descent with modification," affects all earthly organisms which share a common heritage.
Likewise, many Americans thought of "creationism" as no more than the notion of a divine role in our lives, rather than the strict argument of "creationists" that the earth and all organisms appeared in their current and immutable form relatively recently (according to the 17th century's Bishop Ussher, it was early on an October morning in 4004 BC).
Oddly, the research firm DYG Inc. suggested that the support for both creationism and evolution was due to the spread of a "postmodernist perspective ... characterized by a wide tolerance for many different beliefs, since no single belief is seen as the final and complete answer to any issue."
According to the report, Americans have a, " 'Hey, you never know' mentality." Such an explanation has the unfortunate effect of demoting evolutionary theory from the status of empirical science to that of mere "belief."
Moreover, given that fewer than half of all Americans were clear as to what evolution is, the prospect that an arcane lit-crit posture has leaked out of the academy and suffused to the Kansas heartland seems dubious.
Perhaps the most important message is that we would be unwise to guide either science or theology by a telephone poll.
Hey, it's a real jungle out there.
*David Murray is director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonpartisan science and public-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society