A recent Salon article provides a synopsis of the views the GOP’s current 2016 presidential hopeful hold regarding evolution. In aggregate, they take a bold stance against science and reason, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. Jeb Bush holds the most enlightened view by a considerable margin, accepting evolution on the one hand and arguing that it should not be a part of school curricula on the other. Compared to his fellow presidential hopefuls, this is a remarkably intelligent and nuanced position, but it still ultimately boils down to sycophantic pandering to the far-right religious zealots the GOP depends on to remain competitive. That anyone holding any of the views expressed by the GOP’s potential 2016 candidates – even Bush’s milquetoast appeals to the lowest common denominator – has some chance of securing the presidency is exceptionally disheartening.
The worst offenders – Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum – have adopted a position in abject opposition to all measures of rationality and evidence, essentially casting their lot with emotional/ideological preferences rooted in flimsy interpretations of ancient myths and, I suspect, deep fears regarding their own cosmic insignificance. The sad thing is that there is a significant proportion of the U.S. electorate that finds this sort of vehemently stubborn, fact-averse religious fanaticism appealing. According to a recent Pew poll, some 31% of Americans reject the reality of human evolution. This is disconcerting, but offset by the 35% or so (depending on who you ask – Gallup comes up with a different number) who recognize that evolution by purely natural means in the best explanation for human origins. Still, the 31% who more or less reject everything the best evidence and most coherent theory tells them regarding the origins and diversity of life on the earth should not be written off.
Not being a Jedi master/mind reader, I can only speculate about the motivations behind the GOP candidates’ stated beliefs. I get the impression that the four gentlemen mentioned in the previous paragraph aren’t being anything less than genuine. They are religious fanatics, pure and simple. The actual beliefs of the other candidates are harder to discern, clouded as they are in the nebulous miasma of obfuscation and pandering that seems to follow career politicians wherever they go. All of the candidates endorse some breed of “teach the controversy” nonsense (read: allow Christian creation myths to be taught in science class), and obsequious attention to the right-wing base seems like a plausible motive. Though the 31% of the population that rejects evolution aren’t likely to decide an election on their own, it’s worth noting that their votes aren’t evenly distributed. Results of a Gallup poll indicate that 58% of Republicans endorse the Creationist view that humans were created by god within the last 10,000 years, as opposed to 41% for Democrats. Consequently, pandering to anti-evolution religious zealots is essentially mandatory for anyone hoping to secure a chance at the Republican presidential nomination. The relationship between religious belief and party affiliated tells a similar story. 64% of white Protestants reject evolution; 67% of white Evangelical Protestants are registered as Republicans. The exact degree to which these two subsets of the white “I find reality intensely unsettling” demographic overlap is unclear, but I suspect it is considerable.
In any event, the outlook for modern Republicans with presidential aspirations is bleak: grovel at the feet of superstitious troglodytes or lose. But perhaps I’m being too partisan in my analysis. Certainly the fact that Republicans can’t win an election without pandering to the one of the most stubbornly ill-informed subsets of the modern American populous should be properly viewed as stain on their party: the only way they can maintain their brand is to sell snake-oil to eager dupes. More disconcerting, however, is that any member of any party has to invest energy in either placating or pleasing society’s most grossly ignorant factions. No one who expresses any of the views enumerated in the Salon article should have a chance of becoming the president of the United States – or any other 21st century, for that matter. The answer, of course, is not to disenfranchise the ignorant. Rather, it is to work to eradicate ignorance by remedying the flaws in our educational system and the broader social milieu in which it rests that have allowed that ignorance to persist. In a supposedly advanced, modern society with near-instant access to endless information, the proportion of the population that rejects evolution, believes GMOs are unsafe, thinks vaccinations are dangerous, or any number of the hair-brained, lunatic fringe notions that have taken up residency in the popular consciousness should be 5% or less.
From this perspective, there is some reason to be hopeful. The proportion of the population that accepts naturalistic evolution is up to 19% (from 15% in 2012) even as the percentage of the population that takes the nonsensical creation myths of the Bible serious has dropped to 42% (from 46% in 2012). Slims improvements, to be sure, but I’ll take them enthusiastically. Viewed through properly rose-tinted glasses, this is a silver-lining that can be magnified, unfolding into a future in which presidential candidates don’t have to pander to religious zealots, and sincere religious nuts don’t even register as even far-shot options for the presidency. Maybe it’s a long shot, but I’m not quite prepared to abandon hope.