At a Republican primary debate in 2007, John McCain was asked to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he believed in evolution.
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation.
The remaining candidates were then asked to raise a hand if they disagreed and did not believe in evolution. Several hands went right up. Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo identified themselves as proud creationists who did not accept the scientific theory of evolution. (Later, Ron Paul explained that he too denied evolution. He would have raised his hand but he didn’t hear the question correctly).
It was a depressing display. I’m not a Republican but I took no pleasure in this backward race to the bottom - a sordid competition to see which candidate could go the furthest spouting nonsense and pandering to the ignorant. I'm old fashioned enough to actually think that we are best served as citizens when the respective parties actually put forth the best and more capable candidates. But I could take solace in the fact that four years ago, the majority of the leading Republican candidates actually kept their hands down. John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were not about to declare that they reject basic science or the foundation of modern biology. Presumably, it’s because they don’t.
Four years later, it’s déjà vu all over again. Except this time around, it’s not just a few fringe Republican candidates who are boasting of their scientific backwardness and stupidity. It’s the entire top-tier.
The winner of last week’s Iowa Straw Poll, was Michelle Bachmann who wants creationism (i.e. “intelligent design”) to be taught in public schools. According to Bachmann, “Evolution is a belief…not a fact.”
Ron Paul finished second in the poll. He does not accept evolution.
Tim Pawlentey finished third and he also supports the teaching of creationism in public schools. (He has since dropped out of the race).
Finishing fourth in the Iowa poll was conservative culture warrior Rick Santorum. Santorum has been cagey on this issue, (possibly because his own church, the Roman Catholic Church, accepts evolution, whereas his political base does not). Santorum has previously stated that so-called Intelligent Design is a “legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in the classroom.” He doesn’t explicitly reject evolution but he refers to it pejoratively as an “ideology” and he has urged schools to “teach the controversy” (whatever that means).
Former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain (5th place), has avoided the topic, but Texas Governor, Rick Perry (6th place), dismisses evolution as “a theory that’s out there.” In response to a young teenager's question, he said, “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."
Sure, it’s embarrassing. But does any of it really matter? We’ve got big economic problems, high unemployment, tens of thousands of troops in harm’s way and serious global unrest. Why is it important to know where a Presidential candidate stands on evolution? Should we also test them with questions about geology or algebra? It has even been suggested that asking about evolution is an inappropriate inquiry into a candidate’s religious faith. Well let’s address that last charge first because the constitutional proscription against a religious test for public office is one that we ought to take seriously. But asking a candidate about his or her understanding or acceptance of evolution is NOT a religious test – it’s a test of scientific literacy. And scientific literacy matters. For one thing, our economic future and competitiveness depends on it.
Yes, we have other challenges and many other problems. But a Presidential candidate who does not accept evolution, the unifying principle of modern biological science, is not fit for the office. For starters, it’s a mark of astonishing ignorance that ought to give any voter pause. It is also suggestive of a lack of commitment to scientific education and scientific achievement. At a time when our nation is lagging behind and is no longer the global leader in research and technological innovation that it once was, we can ill afford a leader who rejects basic science and scientific inquiry. And finally, it suggests a willingness to pander the worst elements of America's right wing Christian fundamentalists. Such theocratic dominionists don't represent most Christians in the U.S. and they have already had far too much influence for far too long. Being a scientific ignoramus is bad enough. But rejecting basic biology and instead teaching creationism (a religious doctrine not a scientific theory) in our public schools, not only stunts the education of our nation’s children, it plainly violates the First Amendment to our Constitution.
One of the GOP candidates who has intrigued and even impressed me is Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Governor of Utah and, until recently, the U.S. ambassador to China. Last week, Huntsman tweeted the following response to Rick Perry’s dismissal of evolution and climate change: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
This tweet was the opposite of crazy. It was refreshingly sane. But from someone who is seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2012, it may also have been political suicide. I hope I’m wrong.