At one of the first Republican Presidential candidate debates, three of the contenders raised their hands when asked if they do not believe in evolution. These were Tom Tancredo, a Congressman from Colorado, Senator Sam Brownback, and former Governor Mike Huckabee. Since then, they’ve been clarifying their position . This is not a surprise – they weren’t allowed at the debate to “take a position”, merely raise their hands if they didn’t believe. That’s not debate, and that format is insulting to the intelligence of Americans. Putting that aside, all three have said that their positions are compatible with science.
However, it’s interesting to ask what they mean by “science”. What do they think “science” means? Science is, at its most functional essence, a process by which a hypothesis is posed, an experiment is conducted to collect data about the natural world, and that data is used to test the hypothesis. Huckabee feels that his belief in scripture is not in conflict with science, which is good because they really seem to be two things that have little to do with one another. Science is a process, while scripture is a collection of stories which have passed through many human hands and purport, though it has been translated, re-translated, and miscopied, to be the “word of God”. Scripture relates to a personal belief system, while science is a common practice by which facts about the natural world can be established. Trying to force science into personal belief, or personal belief into science, cheapens both.
One thing I thought was very telling about a person like Huckabee was the following paraphrased statement: “Huckabee argues that voters don’t care about evolution — they ask about things like gas prices, health care, college tuition and Iraq.” [ibid.] This statement already shows the short-sightedness of this kind of politics. In fact, evolution has a direct bearing on many of these things, because evolution is a general framework for understanding how new forms arise from old ones, how environment influences development, how social order is established. Another way to read this statement, which has even more dangerous implications, is that voters don’t care about science. In that case, all four of the above have something to do with science.
What do I mean by this? Well, gas prices are connected to energy policy, and a sound energy policy makes efficient use of existing resources, invests money in R&D for future resources (some of which may not pay off), and provides incentives to adopt existing alternative energies. Certainly, good science and good policy go hand-in-hand on this one. Health care, and in particular the development of new drugs for solving common but “non-sexy” diseases, are directly related to evolution. The challenges faced by this nation as relates to obesity (diabetes, etc.), diseases of aging (which have a huge relevance to the baby boomers), and re-emerging diseases (TB, for instance), can only be addresses by a society committed to the principles of evolution. As for college tuition, how can you have a society committed to the principles of evolution if you cannot educate them? And as for Iraq . . . well, if more of an actual honest process, and a review of the process, had been applied to the motivation for the war, maybe we wouldn’t be up to our hips in this quagmire.
Today, as I was browsing in Barnes and Noble, I saw Sam Brownback’s book, “From Power to Purpose”. One chapter (“Miracles of Science”) dealt with science. I thought that one of the passages in that section was very telling not only of Sen. Brownback’s understanding of science, but also religion. At one point, he said that there are people out there who don’t think that ethics should have anything to do in the practice of science (who are these people, I wonder?). He then immediately talks about religion as ethics, as if religion is the only thing that informs ethics. This all suggests that Brownback lacks both an understanding of science and a deep reading of scripture. I find it fascinating that evolution is an example from science which begins to give us a basis for ethics that doesn’t come from an old book. It teaches us that in systems based on cooperation (like a society), there is a benefit to those who would cheat (for instance, be lazy and let the others in the society do the work) but that benefit is limited. This is because eventually the society collapses (too many cheaters) or backlashes against the cheats. Cheating, an “unethical” behavior, has an evolutionary advantage on the small scale, but on a large scale causes collapse or retaliation. One can weigh the benefits of cheating, but also recognize the consequences of doing it for society, and all without reference to an angry superbeing.
There is a famous saying attributed to Einstein that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” That’s a fine sentiment, and for Brownback I’d like to take it further: ethics without religion is functional, religion without ethics is dangerous. To equate religion and ethics is ridiculous. If they were synonyms, then it would be fine to have sex with your father , something with modern religions tend to frown upon. Please note two things: first, evolution gives us a rational basis to frown upon incest, as it tends to accentuate bad genes and thus promote genetic diseases; second, the story of Lot occupies the same book of the Bible as the creation story that some tend to take so literally, begging the question: where do they draw the line?
 The Story of Lot