The Evolution of Pew Research Center’s Survey Questions About the Origins and Development of Life on Earth


Globe Showing Asia, True Colour Satellite Image

True colour satellite image of the Earth showing Asia, half in shadow, and the sun. This image in orthographic projection was compiled from data acquired by LANDSAT 5. The Muslim Times has the best collection for guided evolution

Source: Pew Research Center

Have living things always existed in their present form, or did they evolve? And if evolution occurred, was a divine hand at play?

Measuring public opinion on evolution has never been an easy task for survey researchers. With Americans’ views on the topic tapping into the highly charged realms of religious conviction and scientific knowledge, question wording becomes extremely important. For this reason, in recent years, Pew Research Center has experimented with different ways of asking about evolution and studied whether these variations affect the public’s responses. And because they do, the Center is moving toward a revised wording.

First, a bit of survey history: For a decade and a half, the Center asked Americans what they believe about the origins of humankind, most often in a two-step process. An initial question asked respondents whether they think humans and other living things have evolved over time – in line with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – or whether they believe humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, as in the Book of Genesis’ creation story. Those who said they accept the idea of evolution then have been asked a second question: whether they think evolution has occurred due to natural processes such as natural selection, or due to processes that were guided or allowed by God.

Recently, however, the Center conducted a survey in which respondents were randomly assigned to be asked about evolution in one of two different ways. Half of the respondents were asked about evolution in a two-step process much like the one described above. The other half of respondents were asked a single question about their views on evolution and given three response options: “Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process”; “Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power”; or “Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

The data show that respondents in the latter group (those who receive a single question with three options) are more likely than those in the former group to say evolution has occurred. Overall, eight-in-ten in the single-question group say humans have evolved over time (and just 18% say humans have always existed in their present form), while only two-thirds of those who receive the older, two-step approach say humans have evolved (and 31% express the creationist view).

Put more simply, our estimate of the share of Americans who reject evolution and express a creationist view drops considerably (from 31% to 18% of U.S. adults) when respondents are immediately given the opportunity to say God played a role in human evolution. The effect of the different question wording is especially pronounced among white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants.

Asking about evolution with one question or two: an experimental approach

The experimental findings illustrate why testing multiple ways of asking about evolution is necessary and important. For some people, views about the origins and development of human life are bound up with deeply held religious beliefs. Pew Research Center’s goal in designing questions on this topic is to allow respondents to share their thoughts about both the scientific theory of evolution and God’s role in the creation and development of life on Earth – and to do so in a way that does not force respondents to choose between science and religion. Indeed, the data show that many Americans believe that life on Earth has evolved over time AND that God or a supreme being played some role in the evolutionary process.

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