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Christine O’Donnell has said a lot of kooky things. Right now people are focusing on her Creationism. Though I’m obviously not a Creationist I think mocking someone for this belief in a political context is somewhat strange: the survey literature is pretty robust that Americans are split down the middle on opinions about evolution. More specifically most of the polling shows that around ~50% of Americans tend to reject the validity of evolutionary theory when asked. This is what I like to call a broad but shallow belief; for the vast majority of Americans attitudes about evolution are really just cultural markers, not stances of deep feeling or impact. One point of evidence for this conjecture is that polling on evolution is easy to massage through framing. Another is that Republican candidates for the presidency do not invariably hew to a Creationist line despite the likelihood that the majority of primary voters are Creationist. Politicians react to incentives, and my own hunch is that there isn’t a strong push from the Christian Right on evolution as there is on abortion or gay marriage.

I’ve posted plenty on how Creationists are more female, less intelligent, more conservative, more likely to be ethnic minorities, less educated, etc. Here I want to put the spotlight parameters which might shed some light on the O’Donnell race. Is her kooky opinion on evolution a particular liability in Mid-Atlantic Delaware? Are Creationists less likely to vote? And what are the regional breakdowns which might explain the bi-coastal shock and amusement at O’Donnell’s opinions?

First, to gauge a sense of Delaware’s religious culture I looked at the Religious Landscape Survey. Because of the small sample size the margin of errors were large, but going through the data I think it is safe to say that Delaware is near the “middle of the road” in reference to the national sample, perhaps just a bit on the more secular and/or religiously liberal end of the spectrum. In the South it seems that Delaware would be very religiously liberal, while in the Northeast it is probably a touch on the more conservative side.

Next, I used the GSS data set. There are four variables which address evolution:


1. God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years

2. Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.

3. Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man’s creation

EVOLVED: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. Is that true or false?

SCITESTY and SCITEST4: Both also ask if human beings developed from earlier species of animals. Answers though are definitely true, probably true, probably not true, and definitely not true.

I looked to see who voted in the year 2000, variable VOTE00. Note that the questions were asked between 2000-2008, so the “Not Eligible” category simply points to the individuals in the samples in the mid-to-late 2000s who were not yet 18 and could not vote in the 2000 election.

Voted in 2000 Election Did not vote in the 2000 Not eligible to vote 2000
God Created Man 43 44 32
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 41 42 45
Man Has Evolved 13 10 16
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 50 46 59
False 50 54 41
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 16 12 21
Probably True 28 31 38
Probably Not True 15 15 15
Definitely Not True 41 41 27

It does not seem to me that the electorate is much less Creationist than the non-voters. The bias toward evolution in the not eligible to vote category is because these are younger age cohorts, who are more secular and less Creationist.

censdivNext I wanted to do some regional analysis of attitudes toward evolution. The GSS has a variable REGION which is broken down into nine categories. The map to the left shows the divisions, as they’re from the Census definitions. 1 = New England, 2 = Mid-Atlantic, 3 = Great Lakes, 4 = Upper Midwest and Plains, 5 = Atlantic South, 6 = Central South, 7 = South Southwest, 8 = Mountain West, and finally, 9 = Pacific West. To increase sample sizes I aggregated some of these together, so 1 + 2 = Northeast, 3 + 4 = Midwest, 5 + 6 + 7 = South, and 8 + 9 = West. Unfortunately the divisions don’t always quite map onto real social and geographical divisions. Missouri is in the same class as North Dakota. The Mid-Atlantic border states of Maryland and Delaware are thrown together into the same category as Florida. In contrast, the Mountain, Great Lakes, New England and Pacific regions are coherent. New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do form a tight unit in the Mid-Atlantic (though I think today Maryland and Delaware should be included in the same class).

In any case, I took REGION and recombined it like so: REGION(r:1-2 “Northeast”;3-4 “Midwest”;5-7 “South”;8-9 “West”). Delaware might be in the South in this system, but the Northeast is probably more representative of its values and attitudes. All of the results are for the year 2000 and later.

Northeast Midwest South West
God Created Man 31 41 54 34
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 50 46 33 45
Man Has Evolved 15 11 9 16
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 64 52 40 57
False 37 48 60 43
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 22 13 11 21
Probably True 40 34 23 30
Probably Not True 11 13 15 20
Definitely Not True 27 40 51 30
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITEST4)
Definitely True 22 9 12 21
Probably True 39 34 26 30
Probably Not True 16 20 19 15
Definitely Not True 23 38 43 34

Let’s limit the sample to non-Hispanic whites:

Non-Hispanic Whites Only
Northeast Midwest South West
God Created Man 29 40 53 35
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 42 46 34 40
Man Has Evolved 15 12 10 19
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 70 54 41 55
False 30 46 59 45
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 24 13 12 24
Probably True 42 35 23 25
Probably Not True 11 14 16 20
Definitely Not True 24 39 49 32
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITEST4)
Definitely True 22 10 13 25
Probably True 46 32 25 32
Probably Not True 16 22 20 12
Definitely Not True 16 37 43 32

Observations? First, both the Northeast and West tend to be much more accepting of evolution than other regions of the nation. But the West is more polarized, with a larger Creationist minority. This makes sense, as the American West tends to be more secular than the Northeast, but the religious institutions which do exist are generally more fundamentalist in orientation. In the Northeast Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism are much more influential than evangelical Protestantism. In the West the situation is more balanced between Catholics and evangelicals, and includes Mormons who tend to have skeptical attitudes toward evolution. The South is more Creationist than the Midwest, though the Midwest tends toward more fundamentalism in belief than the Northeast and West. This I think aligns with our intuitions, the Midwest tends to be the “swing-vote” in culture and politics, though part of this is because there are more “Southern” regions of the Midwest. The “Butternut” areas of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio were settled from the South, while Missouri is also split between Southern and Midwest leaning areas. In contrast, northern Ohio and Illinois, Michigan, and the Upper Midwest states were part of “Greater New England,” and later settled by Scandinavians and Germans who were not congenial toward American Protestant fundamentalism (with the exception of Missouri Synod Lutherans).

As for as Christine O’Donnell and her Creationism, I think she would have benefited from running in Alabama or Mississippi. In some ways the coastal elites are out of touch with how common and pervasive Creationism is, but though Delaware may not quite be part of BosNyWash megalopolis, it’s on the margin of its sphere of influence.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Data Analysis, Evolution, GSS, Poll 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"