Among the seven candidates getting the most public attention in the Republican caucus and primary campaigns, religion beats science on the theory of evolution.
Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Ron Paul either question or reject the theory of evolution, a theory which has won almost unanimous support in the scientific community. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney accept it, while Newt Gingrich borrows from both sides to form his position.
In their search for caucus and primary votes, the candidates reject what the scientific community accepts because of religious influence, said Darren Dochuk, an assistant professor specializing in history and religion at Purdue University.
He said evangelical Christians have been working at a local, grassroots level for the past few decades to have more control within the Republican Party.
“To be a successful Republican Party candidate, you have to, more so than in the past, play to that constituent,” Dochuk said.
According to Dochuk, evangelicals have been quite successful at gaining political traction because of the effort and organization of their churches, preachers and communities. The Tea Party movement has provided an outlet for evangelicals to get involved politically on a larger, more unified scale.
“[Working at a grassroots level] has paid dividends for them,” he said. “That is why they have such a voice today, [and] that is why in primaries they can be such a unified source.”
Caucuses and primary voters are known to be more partisan than their general election voter counterparts, so GOP candidates may gain more traction if they appeal to the more conservative, religious crowd.
“The way you gain influence is by the precinct level battles, and that is when they make that concerted effort to shift their political focus,” Dochuk said.
Many of the GOP voters are on the same page as the majority of the candidates, but come general election time, Republicans may have a different challenge.
“You have to make arguments not only that emerge out of your religious beliefs but also arguments that appeal to the support you’re going to need to succeed based on non-religious arguments, because not everybody’s motivated by the same religious beliefs,” said Cary Covington, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Disparity Between the Consensus of Scientists and the GOP Candidates
In the media, the major GOP contenders have emphasized the word “theory” in a way that attempts to discredit evolution.
Perry says there are gaps in the theory of evolution. Bachmann claims that “hundreds and hundreds” of scientists consider intelligent design as a legitimate theory, and Ron Paul says he doesn’t accept evolution as a theory.
“But many scientists, and certainly the great majority of biologists concerned with evolution, use [theory] to mean a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence,” said Douglas Futuyma, a distinguished professor of evolutionary processes at Stony Brook University.
The four candidates who reject or doubt evolution say that creationism or intelligent design are theories equal to the theory of evolution.
According to a poll from the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of scientists believe in evolution. Even among scientists who believe in both intelligent design and evolution, intelligent design is not accepted as scientific theory.
“Proponents of intelligent design invoke a supernatural phenomena to explain material effects,” said Peter Park, a research and teaching assistant of evolution at Stony Brook University. “By definition, science is an intellectual tool that seeks only to explain the natural, material world.”
Intelligent design and creationism are not falsifiable, since they cannot be disproved through the scientific method. Also, knowledge on creationism has been debunked through science, and there has been no “replicable, reliable, tested results for many of their claims,” Park said.
Covington said that since the president has advisors in the Office of Science and Technological Policy, it is not crucial that he or she agree with scientists.
“I think these guys who cultivate votes among the right wing Republican Party, are probably pretty practiced at walking a fine line between respecting the views of their supporters but not necessarily trying to impose them on the country’s public policy.”
But evolutionary scientists are a little more concerned about a president who discredits or rejects ideas of the scientific community.
The executive branch has a responsibility to agree, or at the very least, understand and appreciate modern science, “because the government makes the final decisions that have the potential to drastically impact the everyday lives of individuals, communities and society,” Park said. “Also, if some of those decisions go against what the science suggests, we may not get a second chance to rescue some aspects of our physical world.”
When Presidential Policy Conflicts with Science
If one of the contenders was to be elected president, it would not be the first time a U.S. president clashed with the scientific community.
Covington said that when Nixon wanted to develop a supersonic transport to compete with the Soviet Union, his scientific advisors “went public with their criticisms,” and so “he fired them and disbanded the organization.”
When Ronald Reagan ran for president, he “downplay[ed the] environmental impact of human activity” and said the U.S. “did not need the (EPA) doing as much as it did,” Covington said.
Covington said the White House Council of Environmental Equality spoke out against Reagan.
“When Reagan won, he fired all those guys, and the organization was ‘widdled’ from a staff of like 60 down to about five.”
In 2001, GOP candidate Rick Santorum proposed and fought for an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that required science teachers to teach all aspects of the “evolution controversy.” Several other GOP candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, advocated the same.
If one of these candidates were to become president, however, it would be very unlikely that a piece of legislation with specific educational requirements would pass. Although the president could always put a grant system in place to reward institutions they favor, any piece of legislation would need to go through several checks and balances.
“It’s one thing to talk the talk, and it’s another thing to actually commit your administration to those kinds of difficult fights,” Covington said. “So it could be a nice symbolic gesture, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The law also prohibits blatant religious policy. Covington said he would not expect any president to try to enforce such deliberately religious policies.
“[The president] couldn’t require organized prayer in school,” he said. “Those things are prohibited clearly in the Constitution, and the courts have ruled on that decisively .”
Evolution vs. Creationism: How the Candidates Stand
(Emily Woodbury is news director of KRUI radio and a senior at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication)