Sunday, August 21, 2011

Republican Evolution

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.



innisart said...

I heard some interesting comments a decade back from a Creationist. First, he said Darwin had sought revenge against the church and God, and that was the basis for his theory. Then he said there is no proof of evolution; we should expect to find fossil remains of all sorts of creatures in transitional phases (presumably, short-necked giraffes and the like). Evolution, he suggested, is a matter of mutation in which the resultant physical change is beneficial to the species, but since Darwin's theory debuted, there have been no mutations observed in nature in which the changes have not been detrimental, or at the very least, unnecessary (polydactyl cats, for instance, or five-legged frogs which cannot jump). It was the best argument I have ever heard for Darwin's Theory not being Darwin's 'Law.'

I also knew an orthodontist and amateur archeologist who had some interesting ideas he published. His specialty in examining remains was of course the dental record. He himself had been trained by the person who was called in to identify Hitler by his remains in the bunker in which the dictator died. This amateur archeologist had made some significant finds in England, but was laughed out of serious circles because he believed that Neanderthals and other early humans were actually just very old homo sapiens - not old remains; old humans. He believed in the veracity of the Bible, and Neanderthals were just humans who like Methuselah and Moses, had lived to a very advanced age. He had dental evolution to back up his claims. Carbon dating the remains was pointless, as carbon dating is woefully inaccurate (his son, a physicist, back him up on this).

I find it fascinating how anyone and everyone manipulates the data they are given to produce the results which match their beliefs. Noetics is proving that this bias runs deeper than ever thought before.

I would rather we question everything for ourselves. We should not have to re-invent the wheel and disregard the scientific efforts of our predecessors, but I still think we should be willing to question our leaders (and lead thinkers).

What frightens me most about today's crop of voters is their willingness to believe everything presented to them by the candidates as long as they share that one key belief, such as the denial of evolution. I have no other way to explain the persistent rumors and manner of thinking that allow falsehoods like "Obama's Death Panels" to still hold water.

I see our country headed for some bad times ahead.


Sounds like some interesting individuals you've encountered.

Personally, I've never known any scientist who manipulates data but I don't doubt that it sometimes happens.

The reason science is "trusted" is not because scientists are authority figures or because they aren't biased - it's because the scientific process itself, however imperfect, is built on skepticism and builds in controls to guard against bias. (Peer review is great because scientists relish the chance to prove other scientists wrong).

Still, it's always good to take nothing for granted, to ask ourselves why it is that we know what we think we know.

Biologists have identified any number of beneficial mutations though most mutations are considered neutral (neither beneificial nor harmful) - but that always depends on the environment.

And the creationist you encountered might be interested in reading about the fossils found of ancestral giraffes with both short necks and necks of intermediate length.

Of course creationists have ready responses to such discoveries. After all, every transitional form that is uncovered results in two more "gaps" in the record.

innisart said...

Because of noetics, scientists are starting to approach results knowing that they will be biased, rather than assuming they are neutral observers. So-called 'neutral observers' are more likely to manipulate data.

There was a recent article in the NYT where a racist scientist set out to prove that caucasians were superior to other races. He assumed larger craniums equalled higher intelligence, and he found data supporting that caucasians had bigger skulls than those of Africans. When the first scientist died, another researcher, who was not a racist, went through the data, and showed that the measurements were random, and that the first scientist had manipulated the data to fit his bigotry. When the second scientist died, the data was examined again. It turns out the first guy had represented his findings correctly, and it was the second man, who thought he was unbiased in his reading of the data, who manipulated the results.

The final conclusion, of course, was that skull size was not a determinant of intelligence, but of environmental factors.