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Jon Huntsman was crazy to back evolution

Above: Republican candidates Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, New Gingrich and Rick Perry

On a Thursday afternoon last August Jon Huntsman, then a candidate for the Republican nomination in the US presidential race, used Twitter to send the shortest political suicide note in history: “I believe in evolution… Call me crazy.”

I call him crazy. Had the man done no message research? This single tweet did more even than Huntsman’s decision to pose for Annie Leibovitz in Vogue to confirm that the candidate was out of touch – not only with popular opinion in the small towns that Sarah Palin likes to call “real America”, but also with a philosophical anxiety that pervades the United States, from sea to shining sea.

The political salience of evolution is not new. In the last GOP primary round in 2008 the candidates were asked in a television debate whether there was anyone on the stage who did not believe in evolution. Three of them proclaimed their disbelief proudly and unambiguously. John McCain, who won the nomination, said that while he did acknowledge some truth in evolution, when he hiked the Grand Canyon he believed the hand of God was there also.

These candidates had done their research. Two years earlier, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had published evidence that only 26 per cent of adult Americans accepted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as it is understood by scientists and taught in public schools. Or, to put it another way, almost three in four American voters did not. The polling firm Gallup found Pew’s figure to be a considerable overstatement of support for the science side of the argument. According to its own 2006 survey, only 13 per cent of Americans accepted the truth of evolution.

For this year’s election, Gallup has been digging beneath the surface to produce numbers that allow candidates to optimise their responses to the inevitable evolution questions along the campaign trail. Voters were invited to choose between three options: “God created humans in present form within the past 10,000 years” “Humans evolved, God had no part in the process” or “Humans evolved, God guided the process”. The first of these is full-on Creationism. The second represents orthodox Darwinian science, while the third could be seen as congruent with Intelligent Design, but is not necessarily so, offering space for more nuanced theological and scientific positioning.

Gallup’s findings pose some radical challenges to the reflexive assumptions of secular, liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. For a start, those rejecting the scientific orthodoxy do not all conform to the media stereotype of an inbred, Right-wing, Christian fundamentalist redneck. Support for the “God guided” option is, for instance, stronger among Democrats (40 per cent) and Independents (39 per cent) than it is among Republican voters (36 per cent).

Smart alec acolytes of Richard Dawkins, who like to style themselves “Brights”, while dismissing anyone who questions their materialist outlook as intellectually deficient, will be peeved to discover that only one in four American voters who have been awarded Masters degrees accepts the Darwinian line on evolution. Indeed, Gallup found that scientific orthodoxy on this topic is a minority position at every level of education – from high school dropout to PhD – and in every category of political affiliation. Despite the barrage of publicity that attended the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 2009, the latest Gallup figures show that overall only 16 per cent of Americans today believe what they were taught about evolution in science classes at school. Consequently, any politician, of whatever stripe, who unambiguously sides with science on this issue puts him or herself at odds with the majority of voters.

So, what explains this bizarre political reality? It would be facile to attribute it to American stupidity. The United States is not, all things considered, a stupid society. During the last century it established itself as the most economically successful and technologically advanced nation on earth, leading the world in innovation and scientific achievement. Besides, as Gallup has shown, the majority of Americans with two or three university degrees reject the scientists’ story too.

The answer lies in the way evolution has evolved in the United States. It is not Darwin’s original scientific theory that so many sensible, well-educated Americans object to, but the ideological monstrosity that Darwinism has become over time. First, at the turn of the 20th century, scientists claimed that evolution had social implications. This found expression in Social Darwinism and eugenics, which saw the rural poor hunted across the Appalachians and young women forcibly sterilised for having children out of wedlock. Then came Scientific Racialism, which claimed that evolutionary science proved that America’s minorities – Blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Greeks and Jews – were biologically inferior to those of pure New England stock. Meanwhile, the Darwinists were asserting that evolution necessarily implied the triumph of philosophical materialism. Americans were told that the rights they held to be self-evident had no basis in reality at all and that a human life has no more intrinsic value than that of an insect.

Evolution began as a neat explanation of variation within species and a plausible hypothesis for the origin of species. But today it is held out as a sufficient explanation of the origin of all life, a general explanatory theory of the development of everything – including culture – a grand narrative to end all grand narratives. Evolution is presented by Daniel Dennett as a “universal acid” that dissolves all ethical and moral systems, and by Richard Dawkins as a compelling argument against the existence of God and a slam-dunk case for abandoning any search for meaning, purpose or direction in human affairs.

Does anyone seriously expect the American public to buy into all that? Science has broken its bounds. Instead of confining evolution to the natural world, scientists have sought to intrude its application into the social, political, philosophical and religious domains. Denying evolution’s veracity is for many ordinary Americans a way of rejecting that. It is righteous cussedness.

Astute politicians sense this indignation, and play to it. Some, like Michelle Bachman, Ron Paul and Rick Perry, have been prepared to go a long way to meet the Creationists and ended up being pilloried by the liberal media, who are themselves as plonkingly literal-minded in the way they frame this issue as the Christian fundamentalists they disdain.

Catholic candidates such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (a recent convert) enjoy an advantage in navigating the clashing rocks
of science and religion. Catholics have not been required to take the creation story in Genesis literally since Origen in the early second century AD. Consequently, they are more comfortable in asserting that faith and evolution are by no means mutually exclusive than many in the Evangelical Protestant tradition.

Catholics can (like Santorum) flirt with the Intelligent Design crowd when it suits, while still having an intellectually respectable sanctuary in a position that holds the Creator’s activity as something operating in the spiritual dimension rather than as a physical intervention. Or, (like Gingrich, whose hobby is paleontology) Catholics can choose to mollify the science crowd with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s doctrine of “non-overlapping magisteria”.

Catholic politicians are not the only ones to avail themselves of this political wriggle-room. The Mormon Mitt Romney, whose flip-flop politics could teach a Galapagos finch a thing or two about adaptation, maintains a studied ambiguity on evolution too. Of course, Romney believes in the scientific truth of evolution, as do Gingrich and Santorum. But they aren’t going to say so in any way that signals they endorse the philosophical extras that nowadays come bundled with Darwin’s theory. You can call these political stances flexible; you might even call them opportunistic at times; but given the polling data, you can’t call them crazy.

Dennis Sewell is the author of The Political Gene. How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics (Picador)