Stan P. Rachootin on Huckabee

Tuesday, January 8, 2008 - 12:00

The presidential candidacy of Governor Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) gained significant momentum with his victory in the January 3 Iowa Republican state caucus. Running on a platform of social conservatism and economic populism, Huckabee drew a large portion of his support from Iowa's evangelical Christians, beating second-place finisher and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in this voting bloc. One of the points that distinguishes Huckabee from his fellow candidates is his view on evolution: The former Baptist minister is a creationist and has said he believes intelligent design should be taught along with other viewpoints in American schools. Questioning Authority weighed in with professor of biological sciences Stan P. Rachootin, an expert on evolution and development, on what it might mean to have a creationist as president.

QA: Governor Huckabee has said he's not running to write a textbook on eighth-grade science and notes education is a state function, but how might a having a president who doesn't believe in evolution affect U.S. education?

SR: Belief is the key word here. Evolution is part of science, and science, at least ideally, is not about beliefs—it is about trying to connect theory and facts (to the extent that the facts can be discerned) into something that makes the natural world more coherent. Belief should not play a part, or, when it does, it is a slip that we hope we can catch.

Huckabee, an ordained minister, has had cause to think about belief. Perhaps this might make him better suited to understand the different goal of an eighth-grade science text, than say, our current president, who favors teaching intelligent design in the schools. Reagan endorsed creationism. Huckabee's inclinations are not exactly a novelty.

QA: How do you respond to his belief that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution and other "theories" in science?

SR: Intelligent design has been getting a very consistent assessment as disguised, sectarian religion, with the obvious religious elements hidden just beneath the surface. The judgment in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005) received a lot of well-earned attention. The National Academy of Science (see link below) and Institute of Medicine have just come forth with a very accessible account of the difference between intelligent design and science.

Intelligent design isn’t any form of science, or a critique of science. It should not be taught with or as science.

QA: What percentage of Americans believe in creationism? Do you think Huckabee's position on evolution could affect his electability one way or another?

SR: The polls are not terribly consistent—between 20 percent and 40 percent reject evolution. Being unhappy with an ape in one’s genealogy is not necessarily congruent with a belief in creationism. I don’t think there is a transitive property of ignorance.

Huckabee's views are an expression of American populism. William Jennings Bryan, it is worth recalling, was much more concerned with the silver standard, isolationism, and prohibition than with protecting schoolchildren from evolution. Populism has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Its view of evolution is a pretty minor part of a larger picture.

I doubt that Huckabee’s stand has much effect. In the end, few people go to bed worrying about evolution’s implications. Evolution conflicts with some fundamentalist religions, but those religions tend to have equally strenuous prohibitions in more immediate aspects of life—family, sex, contraception, gender. The report that the percentage of genes shared between a mouse and a rat points to a common ancestor 35 million years ago does not require anyone to change any behavior. Compare that to "abstinence only." I wonder if rejecting the former washes away unease over choosing to ignore the latter.

QA: Many intelligent people believe in the literal Bible and therefore reject evolution. That said, how concerned should we be when a political leader rejects a widely accepted tenet of science? Does that speak to his or her ability to reason or make sound decisions?

SR: I don’t think we should ever conflate science with values. Values and ethics have many sources, but science, the best estimate of what is going on in nature, does not happen to be one of them. Neither gravity nor natural selection inform our notion of inalienable rights. So, I would not worry.

QA: Are there other policy areas that could be affected by a belief in creationism, such as grant funding for scientific research?

SR: Emerging diseases, antibiotic-resistant traditional diseases, the concerns over genetically modified organisms in agriculture are all applied evolution questions, and the first two need study and funding as such. We can only pray that no one carrying antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis coughs on a candidate who can trounce Mitt Romney.

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