The widening divergence of partisan views about evolution, recently reported by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, must be understood within the larger context of a shift toward extreme political positions.
Pew’s extensive poll found that, overall, opinions about whether human beings have evolved over time or have always existed in their present form have not changed since the last research conducted on the topic in 2009. About 33 percent still believe humans have not changed since the beginning, and about 60 percent believe that we have evolved over time.
The views of people who identified as Democrats and Independents remained relatively stable. About 67 percent of Democrats believe in evolution, up from 64 percent.
There was a major change among Republicans, however. Four years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said they believed in evolution. That number dropped a stunning 11 points in the new poll, to 43 percent.
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It’s unlikely that 11 percent of Republicans have stopped believing in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, upon which modern biology and other scientific fields are based. It’s more probable that a smaller group of people were willing to identify themselves as Republicans.
Why? Some political pundits have suggested that asking a Republican if they believe in evolution is akin to asking them to choose which faction of the GOP they support: moderate conservatives, or the extreme wing. And the extremists haven’t been winning the public opinion battle lately.
The Republican party at both the state and federal levels has been wagged for some time by its extreme right-wing, tea-party tail. That division is causing some tension within the party. It’s happening right now in our Legislature.
Just last week, several of the most conservative state senators removed their names from the Republican majority caucus website to protest passage of a bill that allows students who were illegally brought to the United States as children to compete for state-funded financial aid.
On the national stage, some moderate Republicans have started embracing immigration-related issues, if only for political expediency.
And earlier this month, the state House Republican caucus bumped one of its moderate members, Rep. Mike Hope, from the judiciary committee. Hope, a former police officer, has supported universal background checks on all gun sales.
But most Americans — whether liberal or conservative — live closer to a centrist political viewpoint and eschew being grouped with those on the fringe.
An NBC News poll last fall found that a plurality of Americans (40 percent) think of themselves as moderate in their political views. Thirty-seven identified as conservative and 23 percent as liberal. But within the partisan camps, 13 percent said they were “very conservative,” while 9 percent said they were “very liberal.”
If there’s a silver lining in the Pew Research, it may be that moderate conservatives disassociate from their radical colleagues, and that central America may yet prevail.