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Jon Huntsman was crazy to back evolution

Dennis Sewell says most US voters reject the theory because of claims that it makes God and Christian morality redundant

By on Monday, 30 January 2012

Above: Republican candidates Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, New Gingrich and Rick Perry

Above: Republican candidates Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, New Gingrich and Rick Perry

On a Thursday afternoon last August Jon Huntsman, then a candidate for the Republican nomination in the US presidential race, used Twitter to send the shortest political suicide note in history: “I believe in evolution… Call me crazy.”

I call him crazy. Had the man done no message research? This single tweet did more even than Huntsman’s decision to pose for Annie Leibovitz in Vogue to confirm that the candidate was out of touch – not only with popular opinion in the small towns that Sarah Palin likes to call “real America”, but also with a philosophical anxiety that pervades the United States, from sea to shining sea.

The political salience of evolution is not new. In the last GOP primary round in 2008 the candidates were asked in a television debate whether there was anyone on the stage who did not believe in evolution. Three of them proclaimed their disbelief proudly and unambiguously. John McCain, who won the nomination, said that while he did acknowledge some truth in evolution, when he hiked the Grand Canyon he believed the hand of God was there also.

These candidates had done their research. Two years earlier, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had published evidence that only 26 per cent of adult Americans accepted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as it is understood by scientists and taught in public schools. Or, to put it another way, almost three in four American voters did not. The polling firm Gallup found Pew’s figure to be a considerable overstatement of support for the science side of the argument. According to its own 2006 survey, only 13 per cent of Americans accepted the truth of evolution.

For this year’s election, Gallup has been digging beneath the surface to produce numbers that allow candidates to optimise their responses to the inevitable evolution questions along the campaign trail. Voters were invited to choose between three options: “God created humans in present form within the past 10,000 years” “Humans evolved, God had no part in the process” or “Humans evolved, God guided the process”. The first of these is full-on Creationism. The second represents orthodox Darwinian science, while the third could be seen as congruent with Intelligent Design, but is not necessarily so, offering space for more nuanced theological and scientific positioning.

Gallup’s findings pose some radical challenges to the reflexive assumptions of secular, liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. For a start, those rejecting the scientific orthodoxy do not all conform to the media stereotype of an inbred, Right-wing, Christian fundamentalist redneck. Support for the “God guided” option is, for instance, stronger among Democrats (40 per cent) and Independents (39 per cent) than it is among Republican voters (36 per cent).

Smart alec acolytes of Richard Dawkins, who like to style themselves “Brights”, while dismissing anyone who questions their materialist outlook as intellectually deficient, will be peeved to discover that only one in four American voters who have been awarded Masters degrees accepts the Darwinian line on evolution. Indeed, Gallup found that scientific orthodoxy on this topic is a minority position at every level of education – from high school dropout to PhD – and in every category of political affiliation. Despite the barrage of publicity that attended the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 2009, the latest Gallup figures show that overall only 16 per cent of Americans today believe what they were taught about evolution in science classes at school. Consequently, any politician, of whatever stripe, who unambiguously sides with science on this issue puts him or herself at odds with the majority of voters.

So, what explains this bizarre political reality? It would be facile to attribute it to American stupidity. The United States is not, all things considered, a stupid society. During the last century it established itself as the most economically successful and technologically advanced nation on earth, leading the world in innovation and scientific achievement. Besides, as Gallup has shown, the majority of Americans with two or three university degrees reject the scientists’ story too.

The answer lies in the way evolution has evolved in the United States. It is not Darwin’s original scientific theory that so many sensible, well-educated Americans object to, but the ideological monstrosity that Darwinism has become over time. First, at the turn of the 20th century, scientists claimed that evolution had social implications. This found expression in Social Darwinism and eugenics, which saw the rural poor hunted across the Appalachians and young women forcibly sterilised for having children out of wedlock. Then came Scientific Racialism, which claimed that evolutionary science proved that America’s minorities – Blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Greeks and Jews – were biologically inferior to those of pure New England stock. Meanwhile, the Darwinists were asserting that evolution necessarily implied the triumph of philosophical materialism. Americans were told that the rights they held to be self-evident had no basis in reality at all and that a human life has no more intrinsic value than that of an insect.

Evolution began as a neat explanation of variation within species and a plausible hypothesis for the origin of species. But today it is held out as a sufficient explanation of the origin of all life, a general explanatory theory of the development of everything – including culture – a grand narrative to end all grand narratives. Evolution is presented by Daniel Dennett as a “universal acid” that dissolves all ethical and moral systems, and by Richard Dawkins as a compelling argument against the existence of God and a slam-dunk case for abandoning any search for meaning, purpose or direction in human affairs.

Does anyone seriously expect the American public to buy into all that? Science has broken its bounds. Instead of confining evolution to the natural world, scientists have sought to intrude its application into the social, political, philosophical and religious domains. Denying evolution’s veracity is for many ordinary Americans a way of rejecting that. It is righteous cussedness.

Astute politicians sense this indignation, and play to it. Some, like Michelle Bachman, Ron Paul and Rick Perry, have been prepared to go a long way to meet the Creationists and ended up being pilloried by the liberal media, who are themselves as plonkingly literal-minded in the way they frame this issue as the Christian fundamentalists they disdain.

Catholic candidates such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (a recent convert) enjoy an advantage in navigating the clashing rocks
of science and religion. Catholics have not been required to take the creation story in Genesis literally since Origen in the early second century AD. Consequently, they are more comfortable in asserting that faith and evolution are by no means mutually exclusive than many in the Evangelical Protestant tradition.

Catholics can (like Santorum) flirt with the Intelligent Design crowd when it suits, while still having an intellectually respectable sanctuary in a position that holds the Creator’s activity as something operating in the spiritual dimension rather than as a physical intervention. Or, (like Gingrich, whose hobby is paleontology) Catholics can choose to mollify the science crowd with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s doctrine of “non-overlapping magisteria”.

Catholic politicians are not the only ones to avail themselves of this political wriggle-room. The Mormon Mitt Romney, whose flip-flop politics could teach a Galapagos finch a thing or two about adaptation, maintains a studied ambiguity on evolution too. Of course, Romney believes in the scientific truth of evolution, as do Gingrich and Santorum. But they aren’t going to say so in any way that signals they endorse the philosophical extras that nowadays come bundled with Darwin’s theory. You can call these political stances flexible; you might even call them opportunistic at times; but given the polling data, you can’t call them crazy.

Dennis Sewell is the author of The Political Gene. How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics (Picador)

  • Anonymous

    A prayer for spiritual Darwinists (Christian or otherwise):

    We believe in Darwin, the Father all-sovereign, explainer of all things visible and invisible, and in one Thomas Henry Huxley, the bulldog of Darwin, begotten from the substance of Darwin.

    We believe in his son, Julian Huxley, of one substance with his Father.

    We believe in Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins who proceed from the spirit of Darwin and Huxley and through whom all things were understood, things on heaven and things on earth:

    who for our enlightenment were made flesh and became men, who suffered grievously at the hands of petty academics, were denied tenure and publication at State schools, but rose to preeminence at superior universities and ascended into endowed chairs and chancellorships without end.

    By their convictions and firmly held beliefs may we and all our works be judged. Amen.

    For we are the chimps of his lab and the apes of his zoo …

  • Anonymous

    It was explained to you at length, I use standard dictionary definitions for words. You obviously do not. You think you have some clever play on word meanings that will disprove the theory of evolution. So just give us your literary gem and then try to explain why you accept creationism with all its gaping holes, inability to predict zip and it of course being unfalsifiable (according to you) while rejecting a theory that explains all the biological phenomena that is observed. If I was that interested, I could of course look up the phrase on your creationist misinformation sites to see the tiresome little argument but I have no need to make my eyes bleed this early in the morning.

  • Anonymous

    Acleron wrote earlier: “But you are the design experts, define your own terms, you usually do.”
    So if you are one of the “evolutiondidit” experts, then define your own terms.

    Oh, yeah. You didn’t answer these either:

    Name an example of the formation of a new species by the accumulation of mutations.Give one example of an evolutionary process which can be seen to create new functional information at the genetic level.Give one reference for any study that has shown duplicated genes acquire different functions, during an experiment or series of experiments.

    I’m outta here. 

    “My theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted.”
    —Steven Wright

  • piobairean

    Your response will not pass peer review.

  • piobairean

     Quoting scientists 300 years dead  will probably not get your paper published either.

  • Fourth Norn

    Yep, I’ll go along with this. But if the suggestion is that one must lie about evolution because some idiots  - well, not idiots, but over-reaching ideologues (and sadly, we can’t exculpate Darwin from this entirely) – have distorted the best case scientific argument, then I’m not with you. If you can’t stand for election on the reasonable probabilities of science because views you have not expressed will be attributed to you, then it’s not worth standing. Looking at US politics and the pork-barrelling and mendacity, I can’t imagine too many good people would feel tempted. Then comes all this appalling stuff about one’s religion, evolution and one’s golf handicap. This ain’t democracy, whatever stories Americans tell themselves. As for Dennett and Dawkins, it’s time they were called out. Dennett is big on claims and short on delivery. But Dawkins, this is a man who was a professor of science communication at Oxford and turned the position into a chair of evolutionist propaganda. This is the baggage Sewell refers to. What about the bunkum explanations of quantum physics or the intricacies of theoretical chemistry? Dawkins didn’t have much to communicate about these topics. So much nonsense is spouted about quantum physics that one would have expected the celebrated Dawkins to break into print to enlighten us, but no: he was too obsessed with his ideological rants. Ha! 

  • piobairean

     Dawkins is a biologist ; I doubt he knows more than the average under-graduate about quantum field theory.

  • piobairean

    We are the way we are because the universe is the way it is. It seems designed for us because we evolved in it. If the universe (or the planet) was different we would have evolved  differently and that universe would still appear to be designed for us. During the carboniferous age the atmospheric oxygen level on earth was over 30% and insects were huge; dragonflies  bigger than ravens. No mammal could survive that high an oxygen level but insects thrived because they have no lungs. An intelligent insect would think that the universe was designed especially for them, but really it’s the other way around.

  • Mal

    We know what happens when elements combine, but do we really know why and how is it that it does happen. And why all the time if the conditions are the same?

  • Anonymous

    Good question and the answer is no, we don’t know for certain but the evidence says it does. First we know what happens now and can predict these reactions now through knowing bond energies and thus equilibrium constants that tell us in which direction reactions will go. Alternatively we can look at the most precisely proven theory of all time, quantum electrodynamics, which tells us of all interactions of matter and light. We can use QED not only to predict matter-matter interactions (with great effort, the maths is hard) but we can derive a constant called the fine structure constant. This constant can be measured in remote galaxies, the light from which started from before the earth formed. The consensus is that from close to the creation of the universe, the fine structure constant is unchanged. Thus QED holds for times long before the earth was created. But there are no absolutes in science but we still be very, very sure that reactions at the time of creation of the earth are the same as we observe now.

    Incidentally, although QED is the most precisely proven theory in science, evolution remains the theory with overwhelmingly the most evidence.

  • m francis

    Dawkins primary concern is making money from his books and then getting shot down when he tries to manipulate the science with his own atheist beliefs.  He does not want to believe that religion and science can co exist, and believes mistakenly that in order to progress science you must destroy religious belief. SAD.

  • m francis

    We now know according to the particle accelerator that we dont know what the true speed of light is.  Quote ” Scientists should be on tap but never on top ” Winston Churchill.  

  • m francis

    And I think you forgot to mention that the chances of all these things happening is how many billions to one.   I think you are the only scientist on here.   The others are Darwinists who are incapable of thinking laterally.

  • m francis

    Atheist first, scientist second I think.   Unfortunately you allow your views on why bad things happen to obscure scientific reasoning.   Remember the golden rule in any form of investigation is that you keep an open mind. 

  • Anonymous

    Dawkins makes money from his occupation! Shock horror!!!

    So does every priest that lived. Some went into the priesthood solely to make money. At the very least, Dawkins books are good sources of evidence for evolution apart from being very good reads. Not many priests are so useful.

    You are immediately known for a theist when you cannot understand that atheism is not a belief. I know you have been indoctrinated from birth that you have to believe and therefore that everyone believes but like so much of your education, its a lie.

    I suspect, but don’t know for certain that Dawkins became more vocal about religion when he found creationist/IDers trying to destroy science, not vice versa. And if you want an example of that read the comments.

    But fundamentally, it is not about science vs religion it is about society vs religion.

  • Anonymous

    You know do you?

    Excuse me for correcting your gross ignorance, not that ignorance ever got in the way of a successful career in religion.

    1) Particle accelerators accelerate particles, not light.

    2) The particles in the experiment that you refer to were neutrinos, light doesn’t travel through 730 Km of rock. You may have noticed this yourself, it’s why night happens.

    3) Nobody knows whether the result that showed that neutrinos travelled faster than light are correct.

    4) The velocity of light in a vacuum remains the same today as it did yesterday.

    Now if the experiment is verified then it will lead to a lot of interesting work, but one thing it won’t lead to is light changing velocity. If it isn’t verified it will also lead to a lot of interesting work in establishing what effect misled the physicists.

    “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

    And a delusion is to think that you can ignore evidence because of a belief.

  • Anonymous

    So you don’t know any physics or chemistry and now you show a profound lack of knowledge in evolutionary biology, emergent properties of materials and the direction of study in abiogenesis. 

    Congratulations, having failed every evidence based system you are now welcome to the arena of ignorance, delusion and deceit, you will be happy here, just remember to hold your hands over your ears, your eyes closed and sing nanananana if anyone tries to show you any evidence, logic or even common sense.

  • Anonymous

    You haven’t shown any erudition in theism yet but your complete lack of knowledge of science convinces me you couldn’t tell a scientist from a second hand car dealer.

  • Brian A. Cook

     Thank you for your efforts to pierce the echo chamber.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry Mr. Sewell but being Catholic is about the search for truth is it not?

    Are you are suggesting it would be Christian to lie about scientific facts that a candidate firmly believes in?

    …because of the greater good perhaps? because that would make you a utilitarian my friend