May 16, 2007

An Evolving Debate about Evolution

by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The evolution controversy, traditionally a state and local issue, has vaulted into the national political arena, making a surprise appearance at the first Republican presidential candidate debate on May 3 and garnering a large amount of press attention in the days following the event. Whether the evolution debate will continue to play even a minor role in the 2008 presidential campaign is an open question. Still, the fact that the issue was raised at all in a national context and that the incident was widely reported is significant, demonstrating how recent high profile battles over teaching evolution in public schools have increased people’s awareness of the controversy.

At the May 3 debate, amid the expected questions about Iraq, immigration and abortion, one reporter asked the GOP hopefuls the following: “Is there anyone on the stage who does not … believe in evolution?” Of the 10 candidates, three — Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) — raised their hands. Arizona Sen. John McCain jumped in to say that while he believes in evolution, “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon…that the hand of God is there also.”

In the days following the event, there were stories in newspapers and on television expressing surprise that evolution was even mentioned during a presidential debate and that nearly a third of the candidates disagree with Charles Darwin’s theory on life’s origins and development. But while the debate over evolution has largely remained outside presidential politics, it has long been an active front in the nation’s culture war. In particular, state legislatures, town councils and school boards around the country have, for decades, grappled with the issue in schools.

Indeed, Americans have been debating Darwin’s ideas since they were first publicly proposed in 1858. The controversy reached a crescendo in the first decades of the 20th century, with Fundamentalist Christian leaders, like Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan, inveighing against evolutionary theory as being unbiblical, atheistic and socially destructive. In 1925, John Scopes became an international celebrity when he was tried, in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching evolution to high school students. While the issue has never again garnered the kind of attention it received during what became known as the Scopes “Monkey” trial, it has, to one degree or another, remained in the public eye.

While the evolution debate has centered on the state and local level, the issue has received a growing amount of national attention since the last presidential election in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, federal district courts in Georgia and Pennsylvania struck down a number of changes to local science curricula that evolution supporters alleged were religiously motivated. One ruling involved an attempt by the school board of Dover, Pa., to allow the teaching of a relatively new concept, “intelligent design,” which posits that life is too complex to have evolved without a Creator. The case received a large amount of media attention, with news of the decision — declaring the curriculum alterations unconstitutional — splashed across the front pages of most of the nation’s newspapers.
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Meanwhile, in August, 2005, the proceedings of the Kansas State Board of Education became national news when its members considered — and ultimately approved — curriculum changes mandating “equal time” for evolution and intelligent design. Around the same time, President Bush injected himself into the debate, telling reporters that “both sides ought to be properly taught…so people can understand what the debate is about.”

The American people have never fully embraced evolution, which is not surprising given the religious nature of the country. According to an August 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 42% of all adults, and 65% of white evangelicals, say that humans and other living things have existed in present form only. In other words, life did not evolve, but was created in its present state.
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Moreover, among the 51% who say that they accept some sort of evolution, 21% say that these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only 26% accept the idea that life evolved through natural selection, as Darwin and his successors have argued. And while substantial majorities of most religious denominations say that scientists agree about evolution, only a minority (43%) of white evangelicals subscribe to that view.

Given the high level of opposition to evolution and the prominence of religious conservatives in the Republican Party, no one should be surprised that three of 10 Republican candidates at the May 3 debate came out against Darwinian thinking. Indeed, it may be surprising that more candidates did not raise their hands as well.

Still, even though the evolution controversy has been injected into the national campaign, it is unlikely to become a major or even minor campaign issue. At this point, few Americans name evolution among those issues crucial to deciding how they will vote. Moreover, evolution didn’t come up again at the next GOP presidential debate on May 15. On the other hand, if reporters continue to ask the candidates questions about evolution and write stories about their answers, as they did on and after the May 3 debate, that could change.