The politics of creationism

Evolution has become a touchstone issue for Republican presidential hopefuls.

Does it matter what a presidential candidate thinks about evolution? Richard Dawkins thinks it does. Blogging for the Washington Post, he writes:

It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry's and the Tea Party's pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician's attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory, where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all.

On this view, the main problem with Governor Rick Perry's apparent view that Darwinian evolution is "just a theory" is that it reveals that he has not troubled to acquaint himself with the evidence -- evidence that (as Dawkins can, of course, demonstrate in his sleep) is sufficiently overwhelming to amount to "fact". If he is ignorant about evolution, he must either be stupid or else willfully blind. Either way, it doesn't bode well for a holder of the foremost elective office in the world.

Perry isn't the first to be called out for his apparent doubts about evolutionary theory. During her vice-presidential run back in 2008, Sarah Palin was accused (on somewhat ambiguous grounds) of holding creationist opinions. The current Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann has been much more specific than either Palin or Perry, telling reporters in New Orleans: "I support intelligent design," before falling back on the default position among US religious conservatives that evolution was a subject of scientific debate and that schools should teach both sides of the "argument".

As she put it, "I don't think it's a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides."

Of course, there is a debate about evolution. It's not a debate within science about whether or not evolution by natural selection is an established fact. There is no "reasonable doubt" in this sense. It's an argument taking place largely outside science as to whether or not evolution can be a legitimate subject for debate. And this raises a delicate problem for politicians whose ambitions depend upon appealing to a religious base whose opposition to Darwinism is more cultural than scientific. It has become a touchstone issue, "a question every presidential candidate must dread", certainly every Republican candidate.

A bald statement of scientific consensus, of the type Dawkins seemingly requires of Perry, Bachmann and the others, would be a political risk and an act of courage that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect of most modern politicians. At the same time, any candidate who made a clear commitment to full-blown creationism would find it difficult to broaden their appeal beyond the religious right -- a body of opinion that, while powerful, is not electorally decisive. It's a subtle balancing-act, albeit one that makes little sense outside the very particular atmosphere of US politics.

Americans will be electing a president, not a professor of biology. It is indeed distressing to think that the "most powerful person in the world" (is that still true -- and, if so, for how much longer?) has an incomplete knowledge of the natural sciences. However, is it necessarily an indication of low political or administrative capacity, as Dawkins argues? Probably not. It is quite possible to be highly competent and efficient in most areas of life while holding eccentric beliefs (see, for example, the 19th-century congressman Ignatius Donnelly, who combined far-sighted views about tax reform with wacky ideas about Atlantis and the authorship of Shakespeare).

More to the point, perhaps, a belief in creationism and/or intelligent design correlates strongly with conservative positions on a whole range of seemingly unconnected issues: abortion, guns, capital punishment, taxation, even environmental policy. Meanwhile, public endorsement of evolution is a reliable marker for "liberal" policy platforms on these and other subjects. Unlike evolution, these are matters for genuine political debate and disagreement. Quite how evolution should have come to occupy its current place on America's cultural faultline is a puzzle that has much to do with peculiarities of culture and sociology but almost nothing to do with science.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.