. . .and with help from Professor Ceiling Cat! Yesterday I had a long chat (while sitting in the Atlanta airport) with Jonathan Cohn, formerly with The New Republic and now with PuffHo. He wanted to know, vis-à-vis Republican governor’s Scott Walker’s ducking of questions about evolution, about what the theory of evolution really said (it’s in my book) and what evolutionists really find controversial (Dawkins and I wrote about that here).
Cohn wrote a piece for PuffHo Politics, “Why Scott Walker’s views on evolution are totally relevant,” which gives a pair of tw**ts by Walker (governor of Wisconsin), and then Cohn’s analysis of why it is completely relevant to question candidates about evolution. First Walker’s tw**ts (I dispel the first one in The Albatross):
If that’s what he believes, why did he duck the question about whether he accepted evolution?
Then Cohn’s analysis:
But there’s a reason reporters are curious to learn what Walker thinks about evolution. Some 90 years after the Scopes Trial, the theory of evolution and its place in the schools remain matters of public debate. Two states, Louisiana and Tennessee, now allow public schools to teach “alternatives” to evolution. Several others allow public funding to support such teaching through charter schools or vouchers. At least for the sake of politics, the issue isn’t really whether “faith & science are compatible,” as Scott put it; Pope Francishas said he believes in evolution, for example. Rather, the issue is whether discussions of divine intervention belong in the classroom. That raises fundamental questions about the boundaries between religion and science that Walker, as a president appointing federal judges, would have to consider.
Basic respect for, and appreciation of, science is another issue. Put a bunch of evolutionary biologists in a room and you’ll get a lively debate over the precise origins of some species, such as the bat, and the extent to which “random processes,” rather than the familiar power of natural selection, shaped populations over time. What you won’t get is denial or skepticism of the insights we now associate with Darwin — the idea that the species on Earth emerged over a very long time, through a process of hereditary, generation-to-generation change. The science on this is just not up for reasonable debate. “You have to be blinkered or ignorant not to know that,” says Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and author of the bookWhy Evolution Is True.
Interrogating Democrats about whether they accept the expert consensus on evolution, or any other scientific issue, is absolutely fair game. But Republicans have given the press, and the public, more reason to ask questions. Walker’s silence turns out to be typical of the GOP presidential field, as Salon’s Luke Brinker noted this week. And Republicans have shown similar disregard for science on other issues — most critically, climate change. As with evolution, you can get a spirited, meaningful debate among the experts over precisely how quickly global warming will take place or exactly what consequences it will have. What you won’t find is a significant number of scientists questioning that the planet is warming because of human activity. And yet Republicans routinely deny this, citing supposed uncertainty over the details as reason not to take action on reducing emissions or pursuing alternative energy more aggressively.
I think it’s absolutely fair game to ask Republican candidates (and there will be many opportunities for such queries over the next year and a half) how they feel about evolution—and global warming. For although many Americans are creationists, they also know that creationism isn’t a respectable intellectual position, and that a President should be down with science. If the Republicans really were proud of their evolution denialism, and thought that it would help them politically, most of them wouldn’t hide it as they do.