This week in federal district court, a group of parents is challenging the Dover, Pa. school board’s decision to require the teaching of “intelligent design” in science classes, on the grounds that this policy violates the principle of separation of church and state. The case is just the latest in a long series of court battles between advocates and opponents of the teaching of evolution in the schools. Opinion polls over the past two decades have found the public deeply divided in its beliefs about the origins and development of life on earth, while broadly supportive of schools teaching evolution as well as alternative theories on how life began.
An analysis by the Pew Research Center finds a great deal of consistency across polls in what the public believes about the origins of life and how the issue should be taught in the schools. While solid majorities believe that evolution should be taught in science classes, roughly two-thirds of Americans favor adding creationism to the school curriculum.
Surveys are also fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion.
Opinions on the theory of “intelligent design,” however, are far more complex, making it difficult to determine how many Americans subscribe to this view of life’s origins. In part, this reflects the public’s lack of familiarity with the concept of intelligent design, which holds that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is inadequate in explaining the development of complex life forms.