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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.