Today is Darwin Day, which some people observe in order to celebrate Charles Darwin’s contributions to science. So this seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone that even 156 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, some politicians are still struggling with the concept of evolution – and trying to force creationism into public schools.
Earlier this week, probable GOP presidential candidate and current Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was asked during a discussion at a British think tank whether or not he believes in evolution. He didn’t even try to give a thoughtful answer.
“For me, I am going to punt on that one as well,” Walker said. “That’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you. I'm here to talk about trade, not to pontificate about evolution.”
This isn’t a surprise. During the preliminary scramble for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, just two candidates, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and eventual nominee Mitt Romney, admitted that they believe firmly in evolution.
It’s worth noting that both Huntsman and Romney have strong religious beliefs (both are Mormon), and yet they seemed to have found a way to reconcile God with evolution. That brings us to the first problem with Walker’s statement.
Walker likely did not want to answer because he knows that denying evolution will earn him some serious media mockery, while professing belief in evolution will alienate the Religious Right – a group he would need in order to win the White House in 2016.
But one of the logical fallacies among those who champion creationism is their belief that religion and science must be perpetually at war. It simply isn’t true. For example, Jeff Hardin, chair of the zoology department at the University of Wisconsin, identifies as an evangelical Christian. He also believes strongly in evolution and tries to explain to his fellow Christians that they, too, can embrace both God and science.
Hardin isn’t alone. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Cambridge University molecular biologist Denis Alexander both think the Bible and scientific facts can coexist.
So in reality, there is no truth to the argument that everyone who believes in evolution must also hate religion.
The second problem with Walker’s statement is one of naiveté if he actually believes that politicians should stay out of the creationism/evolution debate. Political leaders have a lot to say about education policy, after all.
Many far-right lawmakers meddle in this issue constantly. Just this week, a South Dakota bill backed by the Discovery Institute, which is a Seattle-based group that has attempted to undermine evolution since 1991, died in the South Dakota Senate Education Committee.
The legislation was marketed as an “academic freedom bill,” but in reality it would have opened the door for teachers to freely attack evolution and teach creationism in public schools. While it would not mandate the teaching of creationism or even specify equal time for both creationism and evolution, it would have ultimately led to more religion being taught in school.
In fact, critics said the bill would have protected fundamentalist teachers who want to indoctrinate their students.
“It provides cover for, as you might say, rogue teachers,” said Glenn Branch, director of the National Center for Science Education. “We know most teachers won’t do this, but we know that there are some.”
It’s unfortunate that this issue is considered controversial in America. Evolution is settled science and should be taught without apology in our public schools. But as long as misguided lawmakers keep working to undermine the concept and water down instruction about it in schools, legislators will have a role to play.
If he’s serious about running for the White House, Scott Walker won’t be able to “punt on that one” forever.