Science & Technology

Evolutionary Politics

Why we should care what candidates think about biological evolution.


Biological evolution became a hot topic in the presidential campaign last May when Republican presidential hopefuls were asked during a debate if "there was anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution?" Three held up their hands, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.). Evolution deniers Brownback and Tancredo have now dropped out of the race. So what do all the remaining candidates—Republican and Democratic—think about biological evolution? And does it matter?


In December 2007, former Gov. Huckabee, who was once a Baptist minister, declared at an Iowa press conference, "I believe God created the heavens and the Earth." He noted, "I wasn't there when he did it, so how he did it, I don't know." Besides, he added, "What I believe is not what's going to be taught in 50 different states." (Huckabee has been endorsed by action movie star Chuck Norris, prompting a mildly amusing quip: "There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.")

What about Sen. John McCain (Ariz.)? McCain answered that he did believe in evolution during the May 2007 debate. He added, "But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also." It turns out that McCain's views have, well, evolved over time. Back in 2005, McCain thought that intelligent design should be taught in public school science classes because "all points of view should be presented." By the next year, McCain said that he respected those who believed that world was created in seven days. However, he asked, "Should it be taught in a science class? Probably not."

Former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) has said, "I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body." Romney also stated, "In my opinion, the science class is where to teach evolution." He added, "If we're going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why [the world] was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that's for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class."

Search as I might I could find no specific reported comments by Rudy Giuliani about evolutionary biology. He appears to be skittish about addressing science policy issues. But to his credit Giuliani did not hold up his hand during the May debate to declare disbelief in biological evolution. When journal Science looked at the science policy positions of various candidates in its January 4, 2008 issue, it reported that Giuliani's campaign had "successfully discouraged key advisors from speaking to Science about specific issues." However, during the November CNN/YouTube debate, when a questioner holding a King James Bible asked all of the candidates, "Do you believe every word of this book?," Giuliani replied, "The reality is, I believe it, but I don't believe it's necessarily literally true in every single respect." It should be noted that Romney also said that the Bible was subject to interpretation and even Huckabee acknowledged that some portions were allegorical.

During the Values Voter Debate in September, Tom DeRosa, president of the hardcore anti-evolution Creation Studies Institute asked the candidates: "Will your office support and encourage a more open approach to education in the presentation of scientific facts that contradict the theory of evolution?" Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), and Huckabee all answered yes. A reasonable interpretation is that they favored allowing creationism to be taught in science classes. The debate was not attended by McCain, Romney, Giuliani or Thompson.

In a South Carolina forum, Paul was asked about his views on evolution, to which he replied, "I think it's a theory, the theory of evolution and I don't accept it as a theory." He also said that he thought it was an inappropriate question to be asking presidential candidates.

As far as I can tell former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) has not told the world his views on evolutionary biology. However, campaign spokeswoman, Karen Hanretty was asked in a radio interview if Thompson "thinks intelligent design is a credible curriculum?" Hanretty responded, "I think that what he is most concerned about is that families, parents who sit on local school boards, local elected school boards ought to be making those decisions for themselves."


On CNN back in May 2007, Democratic operative James Carville claimed, "Every Democratic candidate believes in evolution." And that appears to be so, although Democratic candidates seem to be asked about their views of evolutionary biology far less than do Republicans.

For instance, in October The New York Times quoted Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) as declaring, "I believe in evolution, and I am shocked at some of the things that people in public life have been saying." She added, "I believe that our founders had faith in reason and they also had faith in God, and one of our gifts from God is the ability to reason."

During a debate sponsored by the progressive Christian group Sojourners in June, 2007, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was asked, "Do you believe in evolution or do you believe in creationism?" Edwards replied, "I believe in evolution." He was then asked if he thought that the people who believed the world was created in six days were wrong. Edwards said that he had been brought up a Southern Baptist (he is now a United Methodist), and explained, "I think it's perfectly possible to make our faith, my faith belief system consistent with a recognition that there is real science out there and scientific evidence of evolution."

An extensive search could find no explicit statement on evolution from Democratic frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). In June 2006, Obama gave a keynote talk at a Sojourners conference in which he noted, "Substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution." Obama declared in that speech that the single biggest political gap in America was "between those who attend church regularly and those who don't." He then excoriated "conservative leaders" for exploiting this gap by suggesting that "religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design." At the very least, this implies that Obama believes intelligent design is unnecessarily divisive.

The LiveScience website reported on January 3, 2008 that it had asked various candidates if they thought creationism should be taught in public schools. Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) tersely responded, "No."

I could find no explicit comment by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) about creationism and evolutionary biology. I was reassured, however, by his 2004 statement reported by the Jewish Review that, "it is important to remember that our Constitution protects all of us to worship as we choose in the faith of our choice. Our founding fathers recognized that for us to enjoy religious freedom, there must be a complete separation of church and state." On the other hand, I am somewhat less reassured by his apparent belief in UFOs.

My favorite response from any candidate about the evolution/creationism debate was from former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska). When LiveScience asked the senator if he thought creationism should be taught in public schools, Gravel replied, ""Oh God, no. Oh, Jesus. We thought we had made a big advance with the Scopes monkey trial….My God, evolution is a fact, and if these people are disturbed by being the descendants of monkeys and fishes, they've got a mental problem. We can't afford the psychiatric bill for them. That ends the story as far as I'm concerned."

All of the candidates say they believe in God. So even those candidates who accept biological evolution as the scientifically valid way to describe how living things came to be are theistic evolutionists. They believe that God has somehow guided the process of evolution to create us (perhaps by intervening undetectably at the quantum level). It looks as though all of the Democratic presidential candidates are theistic evolutionists. Among the Republicans McCain, Giuliani, and Romney also appear to be theistic evolutionists. Both Huckabee and Paul say that they don't know how God created the world, but they both say that they don't accept biological evolution as the explanation. They, along with Hunter and Thompson, apparently would allow creationism/intelligent design to be taught in public school science classes.


Does it matter what presidential candidates believe about biological evolution? After all, they are running for commander-in-chief, not scientist-in-chief. For example, why not practice educational federalism as many Republican candidates suggest and let local school boards and individual states decide what should be taught in science classes? This may seem like an initially appealing option until one considers that schooling is mandatory.

The problem is that creationism and its latest intellectual spawn, intelligent design, are clearly religious teachings. So a local school board or state would be imposing religious teachings on all students if they required the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. The U.S. Supreme court acknowledged this fact in 1987 when it ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard against a Louisiana law that required the teaching of creationism whenever evolutionary biology was taught. The Court struck down the Louisiana law because it "impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind." In 2005, a federal district court found in Kitzmiller v. Dover that the goal of the local school board's mandate that schools teach intelligent design "was to promote religion in the public school classroom."

Americans simply would not tolerate it if public schools were required to teach their kids religious doctrines with which they disagreed. One way out of this morass would be a thoroughgoing privatization of elementary and secondary education. But until that glad day dawns, it is not acceptable for presidential candidates to argue that teaching religion in the guise of creationism and intelligent design in public schools should be just a local matter. Furthermore, as the foregoing court cases highlight, it is essential that a president nominate federal judges who understand the importance of maintaining the separation between church and state.

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence. A January 4, 2008, editorial by Science editor Donald Kennedy correctly argues, "The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?" Kennedy concludes, "I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

Since science and technology policy issues are only going to become more important as the 21st century unfolds, we should all care how scientific knowledge informs a president's leadership.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.