Field of Science

Evolution and the candidates

Well, the election line-up is set. We know all four major-party candidates for president and vice president. And for those of us who believe it is important to teach good science to our children, the choice is pretty clear: the Republican candidates favor the teaching of creationist dogma in the science classroom. The Democrats support the teaching of evolution. On this issue, there is a clear different between the candidates in this election.

Let’s look at a few specifics. On evolution, John McCain has waffled. In 2005, he supported the teaching of creationism in the classroom, in this newspaper interview:
Arizona Daily Star: Should intelligent design be taught in schools?
McCain: I think that there has to be all points of view presented. But they’ve got to be thoroughly presented. So to say that you can only teach one line of thinking I don’t think is - or one belief on how people and the world was created - I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching different schools of thought.
Daily Star: Does it belong in science?
McCain: There’s enough scientists that believe it does. I’m not a scientist. This is something that I think all points of view should be presented.
(By the way, I’m not falling for the ploy by the Discovery Institute and other creationists that “intelligent design” is different from creationism. It’s not, so I will call it what it is.) The following year, in 2006, McCain reversed himself, saying: “I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view. I happen to believe in evolution… I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.“ And again in 2007, McCain stated explicitly to CNN: “I believe in evolution.”

However, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, is a firm believer in creationism. She is a fundamentalist Christian who has stated explicitly, when asked if creationism or evolution should be taught in science class:
Palin: Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And, you know, I say this, too, as the daughter of a science teacher.
This is the standard “teach the controversy” argument made by creationists. But it’s a bogus argument: within the scientific community, there is no controversy. Evolution has been widely accepted for over one hundred years, and virtually all of modern biology is built upon it. This argument is used merely as a ploy to get creationism into the classroom. It doesn't belong there.

How about the Democrats? Obama has made it clear he supports the teaching of evolution:
Obama: But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.“ (from the York, PA Daily Record)
That’s a refreshingly clear statement for a political candidate. And Joe Biden too has said that he strongly opposes teaching creationism alongside evolution.

McCain, as you can see above, has been wishy-washy about this topic, clearly trying to placate the Christian right, who would like to see their religious views on creationism taught in science classes (not to mention all their other views). And by picking an outspoken supporter of creationism who is anti-science in other ways too (Palin doesn’t agree with the scientific consensus on global warming, for example), McCain has placed himself solidly in the pro-Creationism camp, despite his attempts to avoid being pinned down.

This is serious business. Sometimes I feel like politicians treat all these topics as a game, and maybe it is – to them - but it shouldn’t be. If science education is going to be taken over by religious fundamentalists, then we are in big trouble as a country. Our science education is already well behind many other countries, and we are pathetically behind on educating students about evolution. We can’t elect leaders who would put us further behind, but that’s exactly what Sarah Palin would do.

I realize there are many other issues separating the candidates, some of them perhaps more important. But for our long-term future, we need to restore respect for science, not only in our classrooms, but at all levels of government. On this topic, Sarah Palin would be a huge step backwards.

Other blog posts on this topic (a selection among many):
Brian Switek on scienceblogs
Matt Nisbett on scienceblogs
Brandon Keim at Wired
Jonathan Eisen at phylogenomics


  1. I agree with Sarah, but in a more open and affirming way. Instead of teaching just evolution and creationism, teach ALL the creation stories. This website is a good place to start, it has 20 different creation stories.
    Oh, and needless to say, none of these creation stories should be taught in a science class.

  2. Should we also teach that storks bring babies to their parents?

  3. Storks bring babies to their parents? I thought that boys were coming from cabbages, and girls from roses. I hope they'll also teach this fairy tail at school soon! This is real science!
    Faith-related beliefs should be taught in religion classes (btw, if someone needs to be taught faith, I call this brainwash), not in science classes where they have nothing to do.

  4. Regardless of your position on evolution vs. creation, I hope all can see that this article is intended to mislead rather than inform.

  5. Francis,

    Do you care to clarify your accusation? What, in particular, do you find misleading about Steven's article? To me, the point of the article seems crystal clear. John McCain previously supported the teaching of creationism/ID in the classroom, and has since come around. Sarah Palin believes that creationism/ID has a place in science class. Barak Obama does not believe that creationism/ID should be taught in a science classroom. If you are resigned to voting for one of the major party candidates, and the teaching of creationism happens to be a hot-button issue for you, then the article provides you with some helpful information.

    I think Steven has made it clear that he believes creationism has no place in the science classroom. I happen to agree. Though there are a host of other reasons I won't be voting for Barak, this article presents one of the multitude of reasons I won't be casting my vote for a McCain/Palin ticket. I think it's important that people become informed about the beliefs and policies of presidential and vice presidential candidates. I also think that it's important that people come to realize that, regardless of one's faith (or lack thereof), creationism -- and it's cargo-cult science cousin, ID -- have absolutely no place in science class. This article helps to inform those of the former of these points, and Steven often writes articles to convince people of the latter. Again I ask, what about this article is misleading?


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