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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.