Many Scientists See God's Hand in Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Many Scientists See God's Hand in Evolution
Author(s): 
Larry Witham
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
33
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
While most US scientists think humans are simply smarter apes, at least 4 in 10 believe a creator "guided" evolution so that Homo sapiens are ruled by a soul or consciousness, a new survey shows. Scientists almost unanimously accept Darwinian evolution over millions of years as the source of human origins. But 40% of biologists, mathematicians, physicians, and astronomers include God in the process.

"I believe God could work through evolution," a South Carolina mathematician wrote in a marginal note on the survey "Bell shaped curves describe how characteristics are distributed.. . so I think that God uses what we perceive to be 'random processes.'" Despite such affirmations, however, 55% of scientists hold a naturalistic and atheistic position on the origins of man, according to the random survey of 1000 persons listed in the 1995 American Men and Women of Science.

"I am surprised to find that so many are theistic evolutionists" Duncan Porter, a Virginia Tech botanist and Darwin scholar, said in an interview. "As an Episcopalian, I don't compartmentalize those things," he said of God and evolution, "I put them together in an overall view." Rick Potts, director of human origins at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said it is not unusual to find religious beliefs in any community including scientists.

But "I'm happy to see that 55% are taking a naturalistic approach," he said. "Most anthropologists would draw the line heavily toward the naturalistic side. We want to explain our phenomenon without recourse to things we can't observe or measure." The survey, which had a 60% response rate, asked scientists the same Gallup Poll question posed to the public in 1982 and 1991. In the 1991 round, 40 percent of Americans said God "guided" evolution to create humans.

While this 40% is a middle ground of agreement between scientists and the public, there is a sharp polarization between the groups taking purely naturalistic or biblical views. While most scientists are atheistic about human origins, nearly half of Americans adhere to the biblical view that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10 000 years." Forty-six percent of Americans agreed with this view of human origins in the 1991 Gallup poll. Only 5 percent of the scientists agreed.

Because only a quarter to a third of Americans are Protestant evangelicals or fundamentalists, the 1991 Gallup Poll showed that many mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews believe in a "last 10,000 years human creation." The 1991 poll also showed that college-educated Americans were far more likely to accept evolution, underscoring their closer affinity to the views of scientists.

The standard view in science is that modern-day Homo sapiens emerged 40,000 years ago and began to organize societies 10,000 years ago. The oldest humanlike ape is called Australopithecus, or "southern ape." It was found in Africa and is believed to date back 4 million years. Homo erectus developed 1.8 million years ago. Neanderthals roamed Europe and Asia beginning 100,000 years ago.

The survey was a separate but parallel study to one reported in Nature (1997 Apr 3; 386:435-6) in which 40 percent of the same scientists reported a belief in a God who answers prayers and in immortality. Both surveys were conducted by a reporter for the Washington Times and Edward J Larson, a historian of science at the University of Georgia. The report in Nature was based on a replication of a 1916 survey that scandalized Americans by finding that 45 percent of scientists were atheists and 15 percent were agnostics. Before the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, scientists and the Western public agreed that God designed human life. Afterward, they became sharply divided.

The belief that God creates through evolution has been called "theistic evolution" though there are different views on how much God intervenes in the process. A physicist from New Mexico wrote on the survey that God created man "within the last 10,000 years, but the universe is billions of years old." Two biologists from Ohio refined the question about God and evolution. One said, "God created the universe and principles of energy and matter, which then guided subsequent evolution." The other said God did not guide the process "but did create the conditions that allowed the process to take place." "Creation science," most visible in school board debates and court rulings, is only one brand of creationism. It holds that the earth is about as young as human creation. But many Bible believers combine an ancient earth and some evolution with a recent human creation.

[This article appeared in the Washington Times on April 11, 1997, pA8. It is reprinted here with permission.]