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Friday, December 28, 2007

Re: Hey, Dr. Paul, What Do You Think of Evolution?

posted by on December 28 at 12:13 PM

Both in the comments and in my apartment around midnight last night, the question arose: Does it matter what a presidential candidate thinks of evolution? (Notice I didn’t ask about “whether a presidential candidate believes in evolution,” which is a flawed question.)

My answer: Absolutely.

Ron Paul said:

At first I thought it was a very inappropriate question, you know, for the presidency to be decided on a scientific matter. And, uh, I think it’s a theory, a theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it, you know, as a theory. It probably doesn’t bother me—it’s not the most important issue for me to make the difference in my [life?] to understand the exact origin. I think the Creator that I know, you know, created us, every one of us, and created the universe—and the precise time and manner, and all, I don’t think we’re at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side. If that were the only issue, quite frankly—I would think it’s an interesting discussion, I think it’s a theological discussion, and I think it’s fine—but if that were the issue of the day, I wouldn’t be running for public office.

That first sentence isn’t awful. Presidential candidates should not be taking sides on current scientific debates—it’s a waste of time to inject politics into a process that universities, conferences, journals, grants, and other mechanisms are perfectly capable of working out independently. But the basic theory of evolution by means of natural selection is simply not a matter of current scientific debate. Current science adds to the theory of evolution, tweaks it, finesses its more complicated implications. But absolutely no one is saying: Uh oh, you guys, this theory is not up to the task of explaining this new trove of evidence, it’s no longer making useful predictions, it’s not as comprehensive or predictive as this other unifying theory. It just isn’t happening.

What the evolution-vs.-creationism debate is about is, instead, a culture war—and it’s a culture war with policy implications. Republican primary voters are clamoring for a candidate who professes disbelief in evolution. (I honestly have trouble believing that a medical doctor who graduated from Duke refuses to “accept” the theory of evolution, but whatever.) This has resulted in a president who publicly disavows evolution, throws massive amounts of publicity at think-tank pseudoscience, and in doing so erodes respect for the United States in much of the rest of the developed world and damages sorely needed scientific literacy here at home.

In the above quotation, Paul disparages evolution as “a theory” (“a theory of evolution,” even, not the theory, which it is), when we should all know by now that a theory is a robust set of statements or principles that explains a wide variety of observations, has stood up to repeated tests, is widely accepted, and successfully predicts natural phenomena. A presidential candidate should never confuse the American public by mixing popular and scientific definitions of the word “theory.”

Does anyone have “absolute proof on either side”? No. Paul is correct there. But we as a society don’t usually ask for “absolute proof.” We put people to death for lesser degrees of certainty. The real question is, is there evidence of equal weight supporting evolution and creationism? And the answer is no. The evidence that is better explained by and further confirms the theory of evolution is overwhelming.

So when Paul deems the analysis of the credibility of evolution “a theological discussion,” he is fundamentally perverting the question. Evolution is not susceptible to theological arguments. It seeks to explain only natural phenomena. The notion that you would start from a theological truth and work backward bespeaks an irrational, antiscientific worldview. And that, in my opinion, is anathema in a president.

Most importantly, federal funding makes science happen in this country. The idea that a cursory understanding of science fundamentals is not desirable in a president is, quite frankly, laughable. The evolution question is relevant. We should expect a more thoughtful answer from our next president.

(See also the libertarian blogger Eugene Volokh on this question when it applied only to Sen. Brownback; and DeWayne Wickham at USA Today.)

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Posted by grrrrr! | December 28, 2007 12:23 PM

Agreed - Forget as a presidential candidate, I was dumbfounded that someone with an M.D. could make any of these statements - not accepting the theory of evolution, using the "it's just a theory" dismissal . . . ridiculous!

Posted by Levislade | December 28, 2007 12:28 PM

I honestly have trouble believing that a medical doctor who graduated from Duke refuses to “accept” the theory of evolution, but whatever.

I think there was one person in my medical class who didn't believe in evolution. I'm voting for cynical pandering myself, but it is possible that despite the exposure to biology required for medical school he really believes in some version of creationism. I think the idea of him being sincere, and the comfort with cognitive dissonance it implies, is even scarier.

Posted by Beguine | December 28, 2007 12:32 PM

Wikipedia isn't the greatest source but this article does a great job explaining the confusion of the "Theory of Evolution" with the observable FACT of evolution.

Posted by Will | December 28, 2007 12:36 PM

So, you're saying that Ron Paul is a nutjob and I shouldn't vote for him? Noted.

Posted by Fnarf | December 28, 2007 12:37 PM

MC Hawking will stick his dick in RP's mashed potatos.

Posted by A. | December 28, 2007 12:50 PM

A theory?? Oh, like the theory of gravity, or the theory of our heliocentric solar system? This makes me feel sick, maybe i need to bleed myself and get rid of all of the demons.

Posted by mD | December 28, 2007 12:58 PM
Posted by NapoleonXIV | December 28, 2007 1:03 PM

It's worth pointing out that there is a great deal of semantics going on here. When Paul and his ilk say they don't believe in the theory of evolution, they don't mean they discount the entire theory, but rather the theory that evolution is the source of all life on the planet, especially human beings.

When you think about it in those terms, it's framed a little differently. I'm no Paul fan, but as a doctor I'm sure he believes life evolves, but doesn't believe it explains how life began on this planet.

I know it sounds like a silly distinction, but it's important to lay the ground rules when taking part in a debate.

Can we now go on to more Amy Winehouse rumors or something?

Posted by Matt Fuckin' Hickey | December 28, 2007 1:03 PM

You're preaching to the choir, hon. (I'm twice her age, I can call her hon.) Save it for the Bible-thumpers. Who, of course, won't listen to a word you say.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | December 28, 2007 1:07 PM

But but but Dr. Congressman RonPaul is the only candidate to personally felate the constitution.

Posted by giffy | December 28, 2007 1:28 PM

gee, and i was so going to vote for him until i read this...

Posted by max solomon | December 28, 2007 1:30 PM

@9: You give him too much credit. Someone could make that distinction, I suppose, but that's clearly not what Ron Paul is talking about here. For that kind of semantics wrangling to be legitimate, it has to be acknowledged, and it is not.

Posted by Greg | December 28, 2007 1:38 PM

@9: Bullshit. That evolution has anything to do with the origin of life is a strawman argument used by creationists to pretend evolution is something it isn't. There are various models of abiogenesis (

Posted by Sean | December 28, 2007 1:43 PM

Are you obsessed with bold-face or what?

Posted by pwa | December 28, 2007 2:01 PM

I have a theory that Republicants are an evolutionary dead end ... and God told me so when she and I had lunch today.

Posted by Will in Seattle | December 28, 2007 2:06 PM

@16: Talking to God isn't so crazy... it's when you hear God talking to you that you should be worried.

Posted by Greg | December 28, 2007 2:31 PM

FWIW, it did sound like he went from evolution to questions of ultimate origins of life. Which is somewhat a different question.

Posted by Fritz | December 28, 2007 2:56 PM

This is one of the most well-written Slog posts I've ever read. Thank you.

Posted by Sam | December 28, 2007 2:57 PM

The man majored in biology in college. Sheesh.

He could have been making the argument that the genesis of life is a theological discussion (which would be a valid thing to say). But, he sounds like he said, "I don't believe in the theory of evolution" rather than "I don't believe evolution explains how life began".

Posted by Julie | December 28, 2007 3:23 PM

"Most importantly, federal funding makes science happen in this country. The idea that a cursory understanding of science fundamentals is not desirable in a president is, quite frankly, laughable. The evolution question is relevant. We should expect a more thoughtful answer from our next president."

What do his personal beliefs matter? If he was convinced life began by alien intervention, not god or natural forces, then so be it. He wants to reduce and restrict the role of the federal government in our lives. Federal funding doesn't guarantee GOOD science is happening. We're falling behind in stem cell research because we let a religious goon in the oval office dictate how those precious federal funds are being used. The government will only fund the projects that fit someone's political agenda. By removing any federal involvement there may be better science. I don't care about RP's personal beliefs, nor does he particularly care about mine. He just wants the government to get out of both our lives.

Posted by RP for SCIENCE! | December 28, 2007 4:38 PM

@21: "Good" science is creepy Bushspeak. Science is science, and it doesn't get done when it's not funded. The example you cite gets right to my point. Scientists are not barred from doing embryonic stem cell research; they're just barred from receiving federal funding for work that involves new stem cell lines--a policy that effectively shut down that research entirely. I'd like to keep the federal government in the business of funding scientific research, thank you very much.

Posted by annie | December 28, 2007 5:12 PM

Exactly. And the NIH are arguably the highest-return government investments of all time, and certainly the best example of their kind -- the envy of the world. That envy is rapidly slipping away under Bush. We, as the richest country in the world, OWE it to ourselves and the world to work on these problems and get real results. Ron Paul wants to take us all back to 1900, when people routinely died of polio and smallpox.

Posted by Fnarf | December 28, 2007 9:12 PM

Your problem with electing a president of Ron Paul's beliefs seems to be that, once empowered, he would steer funding away from certain types of science. You are correct in the sense that he would steer federal funding from all types of science, and indeed from just about every other area of government action.

This expectation we have of our president to fulfill roles beyond what is allowed in the constitution is ridiculous. You are voting for a commander and executive in chief, not a scientist in chief or a minister in chief or a philosopher in chief. We should not have to make our decisions about leadership based off of such complex principles which are so open to interpretation and allow for so much prejudice to enter into the equation.

The bottom line is that we have placed the power over so much funding in the hands of one person, we should not be surprised when that person exercises that power in a manner in accordance with their personal morality and system of beliefs. That is to be expected. The only solution to the problem, or rather the best one, is to elect someone who would willingly give that power up, and specifically give it back to the people.

Posted by Cody | December 28, 2007 10:08 PM

It's also notable that this whole "absolute proof" bullshit righties and nutcases always throw out is a strawman -- science doesn't deal in absolute proof, and neither does any human being in his/her life. Science deals in probability, not certainty, and it's an assumption of science that a certain high degree of probability = it's worth behaving as though that thing is true. (Read any scientific study ever -- it's all about "this has been proved with a p(robability)-factor of XX.")

You don't know with absolute certainty that, if you were to walk out your front door with your eyes closed, your porch would still be there. Every human being makes uncountable assumptions every day that things that have a high likelihood of occurring (sky continuing to appear blue, gravity still existing, ad infinitum) are "true." Science does nothing different. I.e., if you don't "believe" in evolution, you'd better start praying that your god is going to stick you to the globe tomorrow.

I.e. yet again: Certainty does not exist. Get used to it. Probability is your friend. And science is allllll about the probability.

(Apologies: I realize this is self-evident to everyone here, but it needs saying, and saying often.)

Posted by Superfurry Animal | December 28, 2007 10:09 PM

In order for a free society to exist, it is not necessary that you agree with the beliefs of your leaders. What is necessary is that you elect leaders who will defend your right to not agree with them. If you believe that it should be the president's duty to provide money to scientists to conduct research, it is a natural extension that you should expect that money to be distributed according to what you believe to be the natural order of things. Ron Paul's position is that this is not the role of the president, and that simple fact renders any personal belief about anything to do with science irrelevant.

Posted by Cdy | December 29, 2007 5:51 AM

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