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Do Americans really care where politicians stand on evolution? Recently, Phil Plait informed his shocked readers at Slate of a dreadful secret about Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence:
You know anyone picked by Trump to be his running mate almost certainly will have a problem with established science, of course, but it turns out Pence is also a young Earth creationist. And one with a lot of conviction about it, too. In 2002, while a congressman from Indiana, he gave a short speech on the floor of Congress denying evolution, and used quite a few misleading, if not outright false, claims.1
The fact that approximately two-fifths of Democrat voters are apparently young Earth creationists attracts no similar attention.2
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It's a curious feature of U.S. politics, as seen from Canada, that American media—in the face of serious science-related problems like totalitarian nations having access to plutonium—continue to obsess about what Republican politicians believe about evolution. They do not seem to grasp that the remote past may not matter much if the next two weeks prove to be an apocalyptic horror.
One day, years ago, a Canadian political maven turned to me and asked (with respect to a different campaign), "Who cares how old that guy thinks Earth is? Why [does it matter]?" Was he running for president of the Evolution Society?
Who cares indeed? Having thought about the subject for some years, I think I can offer a partial answer: the traditional big media care about it—but pretty much no one else does. That fact helps account for their accelerating collapse.3
This disconnect between media and public interest became apparent to me in early 2015, when a number of journalists appeared gravely concerned about where Wisconsin governor Scott Walker "stood" on "evolution." Having come to national prominence during a brutal struggle with public service unions in Wisconsin, Walker was considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination, but he refused to discuss evolution with the media. Highly concerned, Time magazine even quizzed Walker's high-school science teacher on the governor's evolution views. Walker later dropped out of the nomination race, but for reasons that surely had nothing to do with where he "stood" on "evolution."
Stepping back a bit, one observes that this obsession with politicians' opinions on evolution likely stems from a cultural narrative that derives from Baltimore-based culture snob H. L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes trial in 1925. Mencken had nothing but contempt for the common sense of humbler people4 and, as is so often the case with men like him, little regard for truth.5
His horror at challenges to conventional Darwinism are economically summarized in one of his dispatches:
Let no one mistake [the Scopes trial] for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by sworn officers of the law. There are other states that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.6
Mencken did Americans no favors by introducing into political debates a sort of narrative according to which anyone who questions Darwinism is a danger to the public, irrespective of his stance on critical public policy issues. In an age when even the Royal Society is inching toward questioning Darwinism,7 Mencken's most useful legacy to science in politics would be his oblivion.
Human Life Demeaned
A good way of unintentionally promoting bad government is to zealously advance irrelevant issues over critical ones.
For example, many people today tell pollsters they do not think human life is anything special because "evolution shows that human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals."8 In the era of trafficking in human organs from executed Falun Gong members and late-term aborted babies, along with growing assent to and increase in the practice of euthanasia, why are we more concerned about how old a politician thinks Earth is than whether that politician doubts that humans are special, based on "evolution"?
It goes beyond life-and-death issues. U.S. millennials are among the groups most likely to believe that humans are not special and they are the group most likely to vote to curb free speech.9
That should not surprise us. Civil liberties activism in the past generally derived from a sense that human beings are unique and worthy of respect in principle. Today, the concept has degenerated into demands for the accommodation of "identity," the allaying of grievances, the suppression of opposing viewpoints, and the indulgence of a sense of entitlement, as thousands of incidents on campuses in recent years show. Academic freedom and civil liberties are superfluous if humans are merely evolved animals whose brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth. They are best managed when they are kept contented.
A More Crucial Question
However, the University of Chicago sent a surprising welcome letter to incoming freshmen:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.10
This letter was highly controversial in an academic environment where publicly funded Northwestern State University in Louisiana, which has a speech code that permits public speech and demonstrations for only two hours a week in only one of three designated areas, is closer to the norm.11
If we think it is important to know what politicians believe about evolution, perhaps the questions an American voter should be asking are: "Do you believe that humans are in some way special? And, if so, do citizens therefore have civil liberties—expressed at one time as 'the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'?"
The voter should be prepared for some highly revealing and unsettling answers. •
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