Evolution, creationism have a place in schools, poll finds

Public has high tolerance for differing viewpoints

March 11, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

An overwhelming majority of Americans think that creationism should be taught along with Darwin's theory of evolution in the public schools, according to a new nationwide survey by an independent polling organization.

Some scientists characterized the seemingly contradictory findings as a quixotic attempt by the American public to accommodate incompatible world views. As Americans continue to argue over what children should learn about human origins, the poll offers encouragement to both sides in the debate.

The poll results were released yesterday by the People for the American Way Foundation, the liberal civil-rights organization that commissioned the study. It was based on extensive interviews with 1,500 Americans drawn representatively from all segments of society across the country.

In results emphasized by the foundation, the poll found that 83 percent of Americans generally support the teaching of evolution in public schools.

But the poll, which had a statistical margin of error of 2.6 percentage points, also found that 79 percent of Americans think creationism has a place in the public school curriculum, though respondents often said the topic should be discussed as a belief rather than as a competing scientific theory.

As for evolution, almost half of the respondents said that the theory "is far from being proven scientifically." And 68 percent said it was possible simultaneously to believe in evolution and also that God created humans and guided their development.

"You can read the poll as half-empty or half-full," said Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of DYG Inc., the polling and market research firm in Danbury, Conn., that performed the study. He suggested that the public's sense that creationism and evolution are compatible "translates in a pluralistic society and public to there being a place for both."

Dr. David Haig, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, said he was "cheered that the majority of people are happy for evolution to be taught in the schools," though he added that "it is logically inconsistent both to believe in the theory of evolution, that humans did descend from animals, and to believe the opposite, that they were created in their present form."

Yankelovich said the poll's results might reflect a postmodern feeling that no single view can provide complete understanding of most issues -- as he put it, "the attitude, `Well, you never know.' "

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