Unnatural Selection: Charles Darwin and the GOP Primary

The Republican presidential primary shows the power of evolution-denying fundamentalist Christians

 

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

“You say man evolved from an ape . . . but if we evolved from an ape, why is an ape still an ape and a person still a person?”

It’s a question often asked by religious critics of the theory of evolution. To answer it Brown University Professor Kenneth Miller reached back to expert-witness testimony he delivered in a Harrisburg courtroom a decade earlier. Miller was speaking at a three-day symposium celebrating the 10th anniversary of the December 2005 Kitzmiller decision, which dashed evangelicals’ hopes that “intelligent design” could be taught in public schools as a counter-theory to evolution.

First, he said, man didn’t evolve from an ape, but man and the other great apes share a common ancestor.

The proof? The great apes most closely related to humans have two pairs of 24 chromosomes while humans have two pairs of 23, so if Darwin was right about common ancestry, where did the 24th chromosome go? The answer, the biology professor said, is found in the head-to-head fusion of two chromosomes, unique to human lineage and evidence that our predecessors had two pairs of 24 chromosomes.

It’s one of those findings that leaves you bedazzled with the beauty and elegance of science, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Not everyone in the standing-room-only crowd in the York College auditorium was buying it.

A man in his sixties sitting at the end of the third row stood up, asked a question, then turned to face the audience. Waving a Bible held high above his head he shouted, “All the answers you need are right here in this book! All the answers!”

The crowd began to jeer as Miller leaned toward the microphone and said the man with the Bible was doing a perfect impersonation of Captain Robert FitzRoy, the British vice-admiral who sailed Charles Darwin halfway around the world on the HMS Beagle, only to regret it. After Darwin published The Origin of Species, FitzRoy confronted him at an Oxford debate, “raising a heavy Bible above his head and imploring the audience to believe in God rather than man.”

This latter-day Admiral FitzRoy was Larry Reeser. I first encountered him (and Miller) 10 years ago in pre-trial depositions filed in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. When Reeser was working at Dover High School during summer break, he had ripped a student’s “ascent of man” mural from a biology classroom wall and burned it. His act of pious vandalism got him name-checked in a 139-page legal opinion that prohibits the teaching of any form of biblical creationism in public school science classrooms.

“In the midst of this panoply, there arose the astonishing story of an evolution mural that was taken from a classroom and destroyed in 2002 by Larry Reeser, the head of buildings and grounds for the DASD,” Judge John E. Jones III wrote.

I covered the six-week trial in Harrisburg in 2005. It’s worth returning to because Judge Jones (a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench) wrote a magisterial opinion, which, while binding only in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, serves as a deterrent to any public school official who would introduce biblical creationism into a science curriculum anywhere in the country.

More important, as the Republican presidential campaign caravan turns toward Iowa, and shortly thereafter South Carolina, the lawsuit is a window into the world of fundamentalist Christians, who dominate the primaries in both states and without whom Republicans cannot win a presidential election.

Scopes Monkey Trial Redux

In brief, a fundamentalist majority of the Dover (population 1,999) School Board threatened to block the adoption of a biology textbook that one board member described as “laced with Darwinism”––unless the district purchased a companion set of Christian biology texts (Of Pandas and People). The board majority also required teachers to read an evolution disclaimer to all students enrolled in ninth-grade biology. School board members secretly solicited donations to purchase the Christian biology textbooks, required teachers and students to watch a video produced by a religious advocacy group opposed to Darwin’s version of evolution (there is no other), and ignored the chairwoman of the science department who warned that what teachers were required to do was illegal. It was; and the board’s conduct made them ideal defendants in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Americans for Separation of Church and State, the National Center for Science Education, and a half dozen courageous parents and teachers in Dover.

The board had retained the Roman Catholic Thomas More Law Center to advise them at no cost in textbook selection and to defend them if they were sued. The quality of the pro bono defense provided by Thomas More attorneys suggests that board members got what they paid for. The fundamentalist majority was voted out of office after Judge Jones handed down his December 2005 decision, but not before saddling the small, rural school district with $1 million in court costs and attorneys’ fees.

The judge could have enjoined the teaching of intelligent design in Dover’s schools, assigned responsibility for legal fees, and headed for the golf course. Instead, he wrote an opinion that defined intelligent design as creationism masquerading as science, and upheld the teaching of evolution in public schools. He criticized the “breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision” and observed that it was “ironic that several of these individuals who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

He referred his findings to the U.S. attorney, because it was evident that some members of the board had committed perjury.

Here’s the thing: every decision the fundamentalist Christians on the Dover School Board made, in public or behind closed doors, was rational. To adopt a biology textbook “laced with Darwinism” was to expose children to a “theory” that contradicted biblical teaching that God created man in his image at exactly the same time he created “fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings”––all beings exactly as they exist today.

For a biblical literalist, allowing a teacher to expose a child to Darwin’s scientific findings is to risk consigning that child to hell. Exploring the diverse speciation of finches on the Galapagos Islands might be acceptable; teaching that man shares a common ancestor with chimps, orangutans, and bonobos is a threat to a belief system grounded in a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.

Underlying the venality, thuggishness, and dishonesty of the fundamentalist majority on Dover’s school board and the constituents who supported them was a genuine fear that science education would undermine the faith of their children. Like the janitor who burned the mural, they cannot change. And they are 36 percent of the Republican Party nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals will account for 60 percent of Republican voters in the Iowa Caucuses, says Pew. They will make up from 50 to 70 percent of South Carolina’s Republican primary voters, according to political scientist and pollster Larry Sabato.

Unevolved candidates

No candidate running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination has publically accepted the theory of evolution. Their views on the subject—from the imbecilic observations of neurosurgeon Ben Carson to the disingenuous position of Jeb Bush—are calculated to attract evangelical voters.

Speaking to a group of Seventh Day Adventists in 2011, Carson attributed evolution to the Adversary (Satan). “I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the Adversary, and it has become what is scientifically, politically correct.”

Carson intends to write a book called “The Organ of Species” to correct the errors in Darwin’s theory. “Not The Origin of Species,” he said, “the Organ of Species, and we’re going to talk about the organs of the body and how they completely refute evolution.”

In a 2007 GOP primary debate, former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee dismissed the idea of common ancestry: “If anyone wants to believe that they are descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it. I don’t know how far they want to march that back.”

Rick Santorum was unequivocal in a 2008 interview with the Center for Religion in Public Life: “I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution, and do believe that it is used to promote a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

Ted Cruz doesn’t take a position on the issue, but defers to his father, a self-taught itinerant preacher. Rev. Rafael Cruz speaks at campaign events––and at a 2011 men’s prayer breakfast in Houston he described evolution as Marxist propaganda.

“There is nothing scientific about evolution,” Cruz explained. “Evolution is one of the strongest tools of Marxism because if they can convince you that you came from a monkey, it’s much easier to convince you that God does not exist.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bristled when a reporter asked in 2011 if he accepted the theory of evolution. At a town hall meeting the same year, Christie described evolution as “required teaching,” but with a caveat. “If there’s a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism, that’s not something we should decide in Trenton.”

Marco Rubio refuses to address evolution, although a widely circulated quote regarding the age of the earth suggests he’s determined to keep science at arm’s length.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States,” he told GQ magazine in a 2012 interview. “I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think . . . people should have the opportunity to teach them all.”

Rand Paul came close to accepting the theory of evolution. Backed into a corner in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the Kentucky senator said: “Obviously, we evolved.” But he split the difference on how we evolved. “It’s harder to argue the contrary, that there was no God involved,” Paul said.

Carly Fiorina has said nothing in public on evolution, and the two candidates described as moderates equivocate. While running for governor of Ohio in 2009, John Kasich said he supported teaching evolution and what he called “creation science” in the state’s public schools. Asked about the Dover decision when he was governor of Florida in 2005, Jeb Bush told The Miami Herald: “I don’t think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you. And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.”

That is, the theory that is understood to be the unifying theme of all biological science should not be a part of the curriculum.

In the end, what Christie, Bush, and Kasich propose—teaching something called “creation science” to balance what students learn about evolution—is illegal, at least according to the Kitzmiller decision and the Supreme Court decisions that inform it.

In his opinion Judge Jones referred to a problem that has nothing to do with legal precedents or the First Amendment’s separation clause. Quoting Berkeley paleontology Professor Kevin Padian, the judge wrote that confusing “students about science generally and evolution in general . . . makes students stupid.”

Dr. Carson has no problems with Newtonism. For the moment, the rules of gravity remain in place.

Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.