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What Should Politicians Say When Asked About Evolution?


WhitehouseI spoke recently to the Faith and Law group on Capitol Hill in D.C., a regular meeting of congressional staffers. At their request, I addressed the topic: "What Should Politicians Say When Asked About Evolution?"

As you will no doubt guess, my talk was inspired by the media attention surrounding Scott Walker's handling of a question about evolution on a visit to the UK. When a British reporter asked Governor Walker "Do you believe in evolution?" he answered by saying: "I'm going to punt on that one. . .That's question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another. So I'm going to leave that up to you." After the encounter, both the British and the U.S. media had a field day criticizing him for being unprepared, evasive, and scientifically uninformed (or "anti-science").

Walker's campaign tried to help him recover from the slip by releasing a clarifying statement that clarified nothing. It affirmed that he believed in both God and science´┐Ż -- but he had not been asked about God, and the statement said nothing about what he believed about evolution specifically:

Of course, Walker is not the only Republican hopeful to have stumbled on the same question. In 2011 Chris Christie famously answered by saying: "That's none of your business," thus appearing both evasive and belligerent. Mike Huckabee, for his part, tried to laugh it off, saying: "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it," which only made him look evasive and flippant.

In my talk, I not only gave an answer to the question "What Should Politicians Say When Asked About Evolution?" but I first explained why it is a difficult question for many politicians, especially conservative ones, to answer. There are three main reasons.

First, the term "evolution" can mean several different things, ranging from (1) the scientifically uncontroversial idea of "change over time" (think of small-scale variations in the shape and size of Galapagos finch beaks) to (2) the more controversial notion of universal common ancestry (think of Darwin's tree of life) to (3) the increasingly controversial idea that the mechanism of natural selection and random mutation have produced all the forms of life we see today without any guidance or design. The last meaning of "evolution" is what Richard Dawkins calls the "Blind Watchmaker" thesis.

Equivocation in the definition of evolution can make it difficult for a politician to express legitimate skepticism about the controversial meanings of evolution without being presented to the public as being ignorant of established fact, or "anti-science." In Walker's recent case, media coverage traded on precisely this ambiguity to present him as being at odds with the majority of the American public, not to mention the scientific establishment. Media outlets repeatedly cited a poll showing that 65 percent of the American people believe that "human beings have changed over time" -- i.e., the first and non-controversial meaning of evolution -- without mentioning that a huge majority of Americans (and many scientists) reject the third and distinctly controversial meaning of evolution -- the idea that the cause of the change over time is an unguided and undirected mechanism.

Second, many conservative candidates are themselves either genuinely skeptical about some aspects of Darwinian evolution (without perhaps being fully aware of the above distinctions), or they are aware that much of their base rejects it. Either way, they are reluctant to express skepticism about the theory because they know the media regard the issue as "settled science."

DD-300X300-banner-1.jpgThis brings us to the third reason the question seems hard to answer. In the United States and Western Europe, there is a pervasive, yet false, perception that a scientific consensus supports contemporary Darwinian evolution (that is, "neo-Darwinism") in affirming all three meanings of evolution. As I argued in my book Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, there is a huge disparity between, on one hand, how popular spokesmen for evolution or "science" present the status of neo-Darwinian theory in its field, and on the other hand, the actual status of the theory as discussed in the peer-reviewed biological literature. Increasingly, even leading evolutionary theorists question the creative power of its central mechanism of natural selection/random mutation.

Among the popularizes whom I call "Darwin's Public Defenders," neo-Darwinism seems to enjoy almost universal acclaim. Science journalists and bloggers, biology textbook writers, spokespersons for official science (Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and the committees that write policy statements for scientific organizations such as the AAAS and the NAS), tell us that Darwinian evolution is the great unifying theory of all biology and that overwhelming evidence commands our agreement.

For example, in 2006 the AAAS declared, "There is no significant controversy within the scientific community about the validity of the theory of evolution." The media dutifully echo these pronouncements. As New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean asserted in 2007, "There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth." In a similar vein, Bill Nye "the Science Guy" has recently published a book proclaiming the case for the theory as "undeniable."

Yet in technical books and scientific articles, many biologists and other scientists now doubt key tenets of contemporary Darwinian theory. In particular, many doubt the creative power of the mutation/natural mechanism. Indeed, while almost all scientists accept that natural selection can produce small-scale microevolutionary variations, many biologists doubt that natural selection and random mutations can generate the large-scale changes necessary to produce fundamentally new structures and forms of life.

For just that reason, many evolutionary biologists seek to formulate new theories of evolution (six or seven of which I discuss and critique in Darwin's Doubt) though no clearly dominant, or widely accepted, new theory has yet emerged.

Most politicians, of course, don't know about this tumult in the field or of any of the scientific problems with modern Darwinism. They are thus often unnecessarily intimidated by the consensus that supposedly exists in its favor.

In light of all this, any candidate asked about "the theory of evolution" would be well advised to give an answer that affirms the need to teach about contemporary evolutionary theory, but one that also makes clear distinctions between the different meanings of evolution and indicates an awareness of the scientific problems with the standard theory as demonstrated in the scientific literature. And frankly this is not party-specific advice. The scientific literature says what it says, whether consulted by Democrats or Republicans.

Politicians can also say that they think students should learn about those problems since they regard knowledge of the actual status of the theory as a matter of basic scientific literacy. They should not frame the issue as one of "Science versus the Bible," or answer as if they were being asked about their personal religious beliefs, or as if they think the only alternative to current dogmatic teaching of Darwinian evolution (with its strict insistence on undirected evolution) is to teach Bible-based creationism. They can challenge the dogmatic (and often ideological) way the topic is currently taught and at the same time affirm their commitment to scientific literacy, academic freedom, and critical thinking.

Here's a set of sample answers that would allow them to do just that:

Reporter: "Do you believe in evolution?"

Candidate: "Of course, I believe that organisms have changed over time. I certainly believe in evolution in that sense. But I am skeptical about unguided evolution -- the idea that natural selection and random mutations have produced the major changes in the history of life we observe without any guidance or design. In fact, in peer-reviewed scientific publications, many scientists have expressed doubts about the creative power of natural selection and random mutation. I think that students in learning about the modern version of Darwin's theory should learn why scientists have these doubts. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a matter of basic scientific literacy. And there are scientific weaknesses in modern Darwinian theory."

Admittedly, this may be a bit on the long side. It could be shortened to:

Reporter: "Do you believe in evolution?"

Candidate: "Of course, I believe that organisms have changed over time. Yes, I believe in evolution in that sense. But I am skeptical about unguided evolution. I know that many scientists in peer-reviewed scientific publications have expressed doubts about the creative power of natural selection and random mutation. I think that in learning about the modern version of Darwin's theory, students should learn why scientists have these doubts. That's just a matter of basic scientific literacy."

Or even briefer:

Reporter: "Do you believe in evolution?"

Candidate: "I believe that organisms change over time, but I am skeptical about unguided evolution."

I hope this helps. The campaign trail isn't a science classroom, but voters naturally are curious to hear what a candidate thinks about a major scientific question, and an ultimate philosophical one, that deeply stirs the public. Every thoughtful person should have a seriously considered opinion about the origin and development of life. A man or woman seeking the Presidency, whether a Republican or a Democrat, is no exception.


Image: White House South Lawn, by Daniel Schwen [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.