A poll carried out for 32 years finds Australian biology students are abandoning the idea of divine involvement in human origins

A new study just published in Evolution: Education and Outreach suggests that contemporary Australian university students give far more credit than the previous generation to the science of human evolution and far less credit to creationism or divine guidance.

Ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species, Creationists have waged war on the idea that natural evolution is the best explanation for the origin and diversification of life on Earth, including humans. In the USA, commonly 40% or more of the population embrace one or another creationist belief system. Most are committed to the view that Earth is less than 10,000 years old, the Garden of Eden was a real place that contained all the basic kinds of creatures that have ever lived including dinosaurs, talking snakes and humans, that Adam and Eve were created de novo by God on Day 6 of the literal 7-day week during which he created the whole universe and everything in it including angels, devils, Heaven and Hell. To defend this view, they deny the credibility of evidence that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old and that humans evolved naturally from other animals over millions of years, long after (non-flying) dinosaurs were gone.

The poll

Curious as educators about the willingness of incoming undergraduate students to consider the validity of scientific evidence for evolution, every year since 1986 we polled an annual average of 530 first-year biology students at UNSW Sydney. Each student was handed a slip of paper and asked to circle one of the following four options, the one with which they most agreed (without putting their name on the paper in order to insure anonymity):

  1. God created people (Homo sapiens) pretty much in their present form at sometime within the last 10,000 years.
  2. People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the whole process, including our development.
  3. People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
  4. I honestly have no opinion about this matter.

In assessing the last 32 years, belief that God is the ultimate or contributing cause of human origins has steeply declined from being a majority view (60%) in 1986 to being a small minority view (29%) in 2017.

This question has been used in Gallup polls in the USA, which is why we used it in our survey. The first option is the common creationist view among fundamentalist Christians. The second represents the more common theistic evolution idea embraced by most mainstream Christian religions, that evolution may have been God’s method of creation because it doesn’t say in the Bible how God created living creatures. The third represents the non-theistic explanation for the origin of humans.

Declining theistic views

In assessing the last 32 years of results (see Figure 1a), we found that belief among these Australian students that God is the ultimate or contributing cause of human origins has steeply declined from being a majority view (60%) in 1986 to being a small minority view (29%) in 2017. Conversely, conviction that humans evolved without divine involvement of any kind (25% in 1986) rose steeply over the same period to become the dominant view among students (62% in 2017).

Figure 1. The percentage of each year’s students at UNSW choosing each of four options in relation to human evolution (a) and the percentage of the wider Australian public declaring in the national census between the years 1986 and 2011 that they had no religion (b)

In terms of the reason we began this survey in the first place, curiosity about the percentage of our Australian students who endorsed the creationist option, it is clear that this option was embraced by far fewer Australian students (generally less than 10%) than appeared to be the case in the USA—and had declined to only 5% in 2017.

While the same question hasn’t been a normal part of the Australian national census, the option to tick a box declaring that one ‘had no religion’ has shown a similar increase over the same period of time as our survey run in UNSW Sydney suggesting that the direction and rate of change we have determined for our students is reflected in the general public as well (see Figure 1b).

In our study it is clear that there has been a decline in the overall commitment to creationism—a core component of most fundamentalist religions. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has long argued that to maintain relevance among the younger generation, modern churches need to re-evaluate their commitment to the reality of supernatural miracles because of universal growth in understanding about the origin and nature of the natural world.

Mike Archer

Professor Mike Archer has been Curator of Mammals at the Queensland Museum, Director of the Australian Museum and Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales where he’s now Professor in the UNSW PANGEA Research Group. His research includes the World Heritage fossil deposits at Riversleigh, conservation through sustainable use of native resources and DeExtinction efforts to revive extinct species. He has supervised >85 research students, produced >350 scientific publications and received awards including Fellowships in the Academy of Science and Royal Society of NSW, Eureka Prize for the Promotion of Science and Member of the Order of Australia.

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