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Quit Monkeying Around: We need leaders with an evolved understanding of faith and science

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There they go again. At last night’s Republican presidential debate Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) once again refused to acknowledge their belief in evolution. At the first Republican candidate debate last month, three out of 10 participants raised their hands when asked if they did not “believe” in evolution: Brownback, Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO).

Their arguments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the interaction of faith and science, treating science as an ideology to be ignored rather than empirical facts to be considered. While the candidates equivocated in answering the question, neither Brownback nor Huckabee last night acknowledged support for evolution.

Huckabee claimed he did not know the answer because “I wasn’t there,” millions of years ago. Brownback was equally vague, and though he recently claimed in a New York Times opinion piece that he believes in “small changes over time within a species,” he avoided acknowledging a belief that all life evolved from a common ancestor.

Unfortunately, there was no follow-up question in either debate about why a new flu vaccine is needed each year or why we are running out of antibiotics that kill bacteria. The answers to these questions presuppose the mechanisms that underlie evolution and much of biology, and it would be nice to hear the candidates’ answers.

Rather than directly address the issue, both candidates attempted to twist the question into an attack on faith. In his opinion piece, Brownback lashed out at what he calls the “exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world,” which he associates with evolution. He said that aspects of evolution that contradict his beliefs “should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.”

Huckabee was equally caustic last night, claiming the question about his belief in evolution was “an unfair question because it simply asks us in a simplistic manner whether or not we believed… there’s a God or not.”

Here Brownback and Huckabee reveal their true colors. Rather than acknowledge that faith and science address different questions, they want to treat science as a rival ideology to be dismissed at their whim. But there is no reason to view evolution as an attack on faith.

The Catholic Church, for example, does not deny evolution any more than it contends the Earth is flat or the center of the universe. In fact, many scientists believe in God, like Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, and Darwin himself, both Christians. And evolutionary theory makes no claims about religious issues; it simply explains the processes that have led to the diversity of life on Earth.

The candidates’ real concern lies not with evolution but with the conclusions that some people have drawn from evolutionary evidence, and with the moral anxiety that many people feel today. They have every right to argue against the notion of a materialistic world that lacks meaning or purpose, but they’re wrong to equate such philosophical and cultural concerns with scientific evolution. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.

This dismissal of evolution could not be more ill-timed. Scientific knowledge is more important than ever, particularly in the biological sciences. Just as the 20th century saw the exploration of the New Frontier of space, the 21st century will witness the exploration of the Next Frontier of the human body.

Biomedical research will lead to life-saving new treatments for diseases and advances that will improve the quality of life and increase prosperity. It will also pose new questions about the best ways to use this technology to serve humankind. In order to ensure that this work proceeds ethically and effectively, Americans—both religious and secular—need to be scientifically literate.

Our growing understanding of the world is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Shouldn’t our leaders celebrate it? When Huckabee was asked about evolution last night, he claimed: “I don’t honestly know, and I don’t think knowing that would make me a better or a worse president.” But he misses the point entirely.

We need our leaders to set a positive example. They should be clear that they will not allow personal ideology to color facts or dismiss evidence that does not fit with their preconceived notions. And they must be courageous enough to engage honestly with the new promises and challenges of biomedical research.

Increasingly, science presents us with discoveries that expand our understanding of the world and how our beliefs apply to it. The solution is not to deny these facts, but to continue to explore our values and our faith in light of new knowledge.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Sam Berger is a Researcher at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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