Scott Walker doesn’t want reporters to ask him about his position on evolution. That’s one more reason why they should.
Walker, the newly re-elected governor of Wisconsin, is a front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination. This week he was in London to promote his state’s business interests and, undoubtedly, to establish himself as a credible figure on the world stage. But then a reporter asked Walker whether he believed in evolution. Walker said he would “punt” on that question and added “that’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other.”
Later, he took to Twitter:
Supporters and other conservatives rallied to Walker’s defense, suggesting that the question itself was out of bounds -- or at least another example of the mainstream media ganging up on Republican candidates.
But there’s a reason reporters are curious to learn what Walker thinks about evolution. Some 90 years after the Scopes Trial, the theory of evolution and its place in the schools remain matters of public debate. Two states, Louisiana and Tennessee, now allow public schools to teach “alternatives” to evolution. Several others allow public funding to support such teaching through charter schools or vouchers. At least for the sake of politics, the issue isn't really whether “faith & science are compatible,” as Scott put it; Pope Francis has said he believes in evolution, for example. Rather, the issue is whether discussions of divine intervention belong in the classroom. That raises fundamental questions about the boundaries between religion and science that Walker, as a president appointing federal judges, would have to consider.
Basic respect for, and appreciation of, science is another issue. Put a bunch of evolutionary biologists in a room and you'll get a lively debate over the precise origins of some species, such as the bat, and the extent to which "random processes," rather than the familiar power of natural selection, shaped populations over time. What you won’t get is denial or skepticism of the insights we now associate with Darwin -- the idea that the species on Earth emerged over a very long time, through a process of hereditary, generation-to-generation change. The science on this is just not up for reasonable debate. "You have to be blinkered or ignorant not to know that," says Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and author of the book Why Evolution Is True.
Interrogating Democrats about whether they accept the expert consensus on evolution, or any other scientific issue, is absolutely fair game. But Republicans have given the press, and the public, more reason to ask questions. Walker's silence turns out to be typical of the GOP presidential field, as Salon's Luke Brinker noted this week. And Republicans have shown similar disregard for science on other issues -- most critically, climate change. As with evolution, you can get a spirited, meaningful debate among the experts over precisely how quickly global warming will take place or exactly what consequences it will have. What you won’t find is a significant number of scientists questioning that the planet is warming because of human activity. And yet Republicans routinely deny this, citing supposed uncertainty over the details as reason not to take action on reducing emissions or pursuing alternative energy more aggressively.
It’s possible that Walker believes in evolution and is simply wary of offending voters -- particularly the white evangelical voters who hold enormous sway in the Republican primaries and are more likely than other groups to question the theory’s basic tenets. Walker’s carefully worded tweets, which manage to talk about science without using the word “evolution,” would be consistent with such caution. Of course, this would only render the question more relevant. As president, Walker would surely have those same voters in mind when contemplating decisions about other issues -- reproductive rights, for instance, or same-sex marriage.
Jon Huntsman proclaimed his belief in evolution when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. So did Mitt Romney, whose support among white evangelicals was notoriously weak. Is Walker less willing to take stands that might not play with this group, whether out of political expediency or philosophical affinity? The question certainly seems worth asking.