Skip to main content

Who is Darwin, and Why Is His Name Inside a Fish?

  • Author:
  • Updated:

It being Darwin's birthday and all — Happy 200th, you old British naturalist; you don't look a day over 190 — it's worth reflecting on the nature of fame.

While the evolution wars roil on in the United States, with Darwin's name bandied around as either a rational angel or an irreligious demon, you'd think he'd be enough of a cultural touchstone that anyone asked would identify him with the theory of natural selection or evolution, or something of that ilk.

According to our good friends at Gallup, you'd only be half right. In a poll conducted last weekend (and please keep in mind Charles Darwin has been prominently featured all over the place these days for both his b-day and the 150th anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species), only 55 percent of those questioned could correctly answer, "Can you tell me with which scientific theory Charles Darwin is associated."

One in 10 gave a wrong answer, and a third said they had no idea.

The numbers get better the more educated the respondent was, but even 14 percent of individuals with post-graduate education didn't know. And among the religious? "Americans who seldom or never attend church are slightly, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to correctly identify Darwin with this theory than are those who attend more often," Gallup's Frank Newport reports.

Based on that last tidbit, it may not be surprising that those who know Darwin's claim to fame were more likely to believe in evolution.

Of course, the headline on the Gallup study ain't about how poorly most Americans would do on Jeopardy? Instead, it's that only 39 percent say they believe in the theory of evolution, while 25 percent say they don't - and 36 percent say they have no opinion, which, as St. John might attest, is kinda scary in itself.

Gallup's been asking this type of question since 1982, and despite the real push made by intelligent designers and others, the numbers have been pretty constant. In 1982, the pollsters asked if humans were hand-built by God, whether they developed from less-advanced lifeforms but with a hand from the almighty - hey Vatican, we know you answered! -or whether man developed from lower forms with no help from above.

In 1982, 44 percent said it was all God, all the time; that was still 44 percent in last summer's poll. Some 38 percent believed in a bit of evolution and bit of Adam and Eve, in 1982, compared to 36 percent now. And the number who said that had a Timex but there is no Timex Inc., came to 9 percent in 1982 but rose to 14 percent in 2008. While that's a big jump in a sense - a 5-percentage-point gain over a 9-percentage-point start is more than half again as large, but that's mighty small base.