Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous
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A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.
Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute -- both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields -- and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.
But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party's rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.
By contrast, the Republican party's denial of evolution is much older and more grassroots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science, from Tennessee's Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana's 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that "creation science" had to be given an equal share of classroom time.
But while fundamentalists have always been hostile to evolution, the modern creationist movement got its start in the 1960s, primarily due to the influence of an evangelical author named Henry Morris. Morris' 1964 book The Genesis Flood argued, among other things, that Noah's flood happened just as the Bible describes it -- in other words, it was reasonable to believe that eight people could care for a floating zoo containing at least two members of every species on Earth.
Imagine trying to run the entire Bronx Zoo with just eight employees. Now consider that Noah's leaky tub, by even the most forgiving estimates, would have to have had far more kinds of animals (including dinosaurs, which creationists believe existed simultaneously with humans, a la the Flintstones). Imagine how much feeding, watering, and manure-carrying that would be. Imagine all this frenetic activity taking place in the cramped, dark, foul-smelling confines of a wooden boat, with predators and prey side-by-side in narrow pens, during the most violent and catastrophic storm in the history of the planet, with an absolute requirement that not a single animal get sick or die. Now try not to laugh too hard at the people who seriously believe all this really happened.
As already mentioned, the creationist movement's original strategy revolved around getting friendly state legislatures to decree that their ideas had to be taught in public schools, regardless of scientific merit or lack thereof. This strategy hasn't fared well in court: aside from a Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, judges have repeatedly recognized this for the obvious violation of separation of church and state that it is. And each time they lost, the creationist movement responded the same way: like a snake shedding its skin, they rebranded themselves with a new name, then tried again with the same ideas. "Creation science" became "scientific creationism," which became "abrupt-appearance theory," and so on. The currently preferred nomenclature is "intelligent design" (which is totally constitutional and not at all religious, because we're not saying who we think the intelligent designer is -- nudge nudge, wink wink!). But even this watered-down creationism met with defeat in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a judge appointed by George W. Bush handed down a resounding ruling that teaching intelligent design in public school is unconstitutional.