“I’m curious, is there anyone on the stage that does not believe in evolution?” came the question at the first Republican presidential debate. Much has been made of the fact that three candidates raised their hands. The candidates were not allowed to elaborate, but what should they have said had they more time?
What makes the original question difficult to answer yes or no is that “evolution” can mean many things. It can range from simple change over time, which no one disputes, to the specifically Darwinian idea that all of life’s diversity — from bald eagles to newborn baby boys — is owed to the mindless process of natural selection and random mutations and nothing more. As the eminent Harvard Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson famously summarized it, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”
It is this specific Darwinian claim that change in the biological world is not owed to intelligence, that it has no goal other than immediate survival, which the majority of Americans reject. We still believe in the quaint notion that we are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. We believe that humanity was intended and is not the result of fortuitous mutations alone.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in his first homily, “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God.” While Americans are wary of rehashing court trials over evolution, candidates are on safe, middle-of-the-road ground in rejecting the Darwinian proposition.
But the question still arises, what does all this have to do with being president? Though he is not commander in science, the president can create an atmosphere of openness, freedom and honest dialog on this culturally hot subject. Many Americans are increasingly alarmed at the intolerance in this discussion at government and government-funded institutions.
As reported in Nature, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was recently denied tenure at Iowa State University. Despite “dozens of articles in top journals” and “an important discovery in the field of extrasolar planets,” Gonzalez’s pro-intelligent design views appear to have cost him tenure.
And as chronicled by a House subcommittee staff report, Richard Sternberg, a man with two doctorates in biology, faced harassment intended to force him to resign from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History after allowing the publication of a peer-reviewed article favoring intelligent design. This must stop. Good scientists should not be intimidated, especially using government funds, from expressing dissenting opinions.
Finally, what about the contentious issue of the teaching of evolution in public schools? Americans know that if our students are to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, they must learn to think critically. And this has implications for how science, especially contentious scientific issues such as global warming, embryonic stem cell research and evolution, should be taught.
Instead of dogmatically teaching kids only the arguments on one side of these debates, let’s encourage them to learn about the full range of informed views in the scientific community. Not only would this increase students’ knowledge of evolution and other scientific topics, but it would also allow them to weigh evidence and think critically about competing claims in science.
In short, we’d be teaching them to be better scientists. If qualified teachers want to discuss the scientific evidence for and against key aspects of Darwin’s theory with their students, they should be defended rather than reprimanded.
At the end of the day, surely presidential candidates can urge the American people to come together and discuss Darwin — and other scientific issues — thoroughly and openly. Students coming together to discuss and debate an idea that changed the world: What could be more American than that?
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington.