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
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left