As the 2016 presidential election season begins (US politics, unlike nature, has seasons that are two years long), we will once again see Republican politicians ducking questions about the validity of evolution. Scott Walker did that recently in response to a London interviewer. During the previous campaign, Rick Perry answered the question by observing that there are “some gaps” in the theory of evolution and that creationism is taught in the Texas public schools (it isn’t, of course). In the campaign before that, Mike Huckabee went further, asserting that humans were the “unique creations” of God, and not descended from other animals.
Statements such as these should simply disqualify a candidate from public office. Why would we want a leader who is willing to ignore established facts? After all, no reputable scientist disputes the validity of evolutionary science. The politicians who reject it, however, generally do so by invoking their religious beliefs, and most reasonable people (that is, people who recognize that evolutionary science is valid) want to respect the religious beliefs of others. The way they usually resolve this conflict is to suggest that Christianity is not inconsistent with evolution, as long as you don’t read Genesis is a mindlessly literal way. But that’s too easy a response; in fact, there is an inconsistency, and the way many Republican politicians respond to it makes them even more unfit to be our leaders.
The process of natural selection that Darwin discovered (many people already believed in evolution but didn’t know how it occurred) reveals an apparently godless world. Christian doctrine had a well-developed theory to explain the multiplicity of animal life — it was called the Great Chain of Being. If God only does what is best, Christians wondered why, having created angels, why he created obviously inferior humans. And why, having created humans, did he then create banana slugs? The answer was that multiplicity is better than uniformity, and you can’t have multiplicity unless there are some things that are lesser than others. But, the theory went on to assert, everything fit together in God’s overall plan. Everything had its appointed place in the harmonious totality, the Great Chain of Being.
The natural selection process that Darwin discovered reveals an entirely different kind of world. It is a world a savage conflict and merciless competition, where the weakest members of a species perish and only the fittest survive. It bears little resemblance to any world that one can imagine being created, as a unified whole, by an all-controlling, benevolent deity. In fact, responding to the shock of Darwin’s discoveries, many political and social theorists decided that we must dispense with benevolence entirely. Life is intrinsically a struggle for survival they said. Nations that are weak will perish. Public policies that protect or reward the weak will inevitably fail, or will undermine the nation that adopts them and lead it to lose out in the competition with its rivals.
That is simply the wrong lesson to derive from Darwin’s theory, however. We are not compelled to reiterate the natural struggle for survival any more than we are compelled to live in naturally occurring caves, or on the open savanna. The true glory and grandeur of humans, as a species, or America, as a nation, is the regime of justice, kindness and mutual support that we have created for ourselves. We did so in the face of, and in opposition to, the cruelties of nature and the primordial struggle for survival. At the most basic level, the task of any leader we elect is to maintain and extend that victory. A politician who ignores the Darwinian realities of the natural world is likely to fail at that task. He is likely to endorse “days of prayer for rain” as Rick Perry did in 2011 instead of addressing water conservation, or declare, as did Jim Inhofe, that “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” Our nation needs leaders who recognize harsh realities and respond to them in an effective, rational manner, not ideologues who invoke God to deny established truths.
Featured image: Evolution-des-wissens By Johanna Pung. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.