Why it’s important to ask Scott Walker about evolution

Yesterday, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote that Scott Walker’s recent refusal to say if he accepts the science behind evolution isn’t anything to get worked up over.

As he argued, evolution has very little bearing on public policy, save perhaps for the state-level issue of the science curriculum itself. After all, knowing how an individual feels about evolution doesn’t necessarily tell you where they’ll come down on other issues lying at the intersection of science and politics.

Especially if that person happens to be in a Democratic demographic: As Bouie points out, citing a recent Pew survey, 42 percent of African-Americans are creationists, but 56 percent say that humans are causing climate change. 73 percent of young people accept evolution, but only 39 percent think it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. And, as we’ve all learned recently, the same liberals who reject vaccine science overwhelmingly accept evolutionary science.

So why does it matter what a given presidential candidate thinks about evolution? If we want answers on the scientific issues of the day, shouldn’t we ask about them directly?

The evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian helps John Aravosis evolve.

The evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian helps John Aravosis evolve.

Sure, if all you care about is specific policy positions then ask about those policy positions. But, as Bouie himself points out, that isn’t why anyone’s asking: Journalists bring up evolution around Scott Walker because Republican primary voters want to hear him say that it’s bunk. In other words, evolution has become a wedge issue, an ideological proxy for establishing appropriate liberal or conservative bona fides. Just another battle line in the culture wars.

While positions on evolution may not perfectly correlate with positions on climate change, genetically modified foods or vaccines in particular, that only matters if you only consider important issues those that have direct, tangible effects on the public policy flavors of the week.

But I’m not listening for Scott Walker’s answer on evolution to derive his position on vaccines. Bouie’s right in saying that if we really cared about that, we could ask Walker directly. Instead, long after vaccines have left the news cycle, we should still care about whether candidates understand, or at least don’t actively push back against, evolutionary science because it serves as a proxy issue for all of the non-partisan attributes we want in a president.

None of the issues that fall under the umbrella of “science” should be partisan issues at all. Analytical thinking may correlate with liberal ideology, but that doesn’t mean that facts themselves are biased. A presidential candidate’s position on evolution is as important as their position on vaccines because both speak to that person’s respect for and ability to understand evidence. So evolution doesn’t need to serve as a proxy for the current scientific issues of the day; on the policy side alone, it serves as a proxy for the next issues of the day.

But it goes beyond that, since Bouie closes his article by dismissing evolution as yet another battle line in the culture wars — almost as if culture doesn’t matter. To this point, I think Bill Nye provides a fitting response:

Like it or not, those messy culture wars matter, especially when science is dragged into them. The President of the United States doesn’t just weigh in on policy, they are a major player in our national culture. Every time the president rejects or even waffles on basic scientific principles, our country becomes slightly less intellectually curious. And as I’m sure we’ll hear candidate Walker say, along with every presidential candidate for the next century and beyond, our country’s hopes rest on our ability to think, innovate and create. Any candidate who talks about technology and innovation while undermining the basic science behind that technology and innovation simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and the voters should know how clueless they are.

Furthermore, facts and evidence shouldn’t be wedge issues, and for thoroughly smart, on-point journalists like Jamelle Bouie to dismiss them as such is a problem that our entire political culture needs to deal with. Just because a certain percentage of our citizens choose to reject overwhelming scientific evidence doesn’t mean that such a rejection needs to be met with respect. As John Oliver put it, “You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact.”

So no, I don’t care what Scott Walker thinks about evolution because I’m just curious about his position on vaccines. I care about what Scott Walker thinks about evolution because I care about what Scott Walker thinks about evolution. Candidates who cannot accept scientific consensus on a given issue deserve to be called out accordingly. They don’t deserve a free pass just because that consensus isn’t up for a vote in 2016.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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45 Responses to “Why it’s important to ask Scott Walker about evolution”

  1. NetWorker says:

    Apparently you have evolved to grasp at straws.

  2. NetWorker says:

    Oh, I do apologize. I forgot to mention how evolution and climate change are also related. Evolution is often the result of environmental changes as species are genetically modified via natural selection to survive.

  3. Camera Obscura says:

    Apparently your education should have taken more time with reading comprehension.

  4. Camera Obscura says:

    I didn’t say it wasn’t important to biology, I said it was of little importance to almost every student who will study biology in only one high school class. Most of whom won’t go into science or biology.

    Evolution isn’t any more important than organic chemistry, why not insist that all students take that course in high school if it’s so important that they have a comprehensive view of it. I’ll tell you why, because 1. it’s hard and 2. no one has an ideological interest in issues of organic chemistry. Evolution has assumed the importance it has in the public debate and the public consciousness solely due to its usefulness in a totally non-scientific ideological struggle. And it isn’t just biblical fundamentalists who use it that way and they weren’t the ones who started out using evolution as an ideological weapon. Thomas Huxley, Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckal and Herbert Spencer all started that use of Darwin’s version of natural selection for their ideological purposes as soon as the ink on the first edition was dry.

  5. Camera Obscura says:

    It’s a lot more important for children to learn how to save the environment and why that’s of paramount importance, how their lives are dependent on the lives of all other organisms in the environment and how they can avoid infections, STDs, pregnancies, injuries and why nutrition is such an important part of that. Compared to those topics, their need to understand evolution is of minor importance, one that has been given ridiculous attention for ideological reasons, not scientific or educational reasons.

  6. Camera Obscura says:

    Because when you consider how much of the time devoted to biology in a required biology class in high school can be devoted to teaching what with settling students, taking attendance, dealing with behavior problems and inattention, misunderstanding…. by the time the 50 minute “hour” is over, relatively little time has been spent on the teaching of anything. Even in the + or – 180 days in the school year that’s not a lot of time to give to one of the most important science topics in most peoples’ lives. Evolution is about as important to most of them as the study of an obscure branch of ancient history. When you figure in the time inevitably spent dealing with
    “the controversy” it eats up a massively ridiculous amount of that time.

  7. Reginald8Cooper says:

    “You are wrong.”

    You’re missing the point though. All biology is about evolution, and all of the processes and systems that are taught in schools support the more difficult, abstract and now politically inflammatory set of ideas around evolution. You can’t “teach evolution” without reference to those underlying concepts. That’s what he’s talking about, not that we shouldn’t teach evolution.

  8. Camera Obscura says:

    No, that;s not why it’s “uncomfortable” it’s been used ideologically to attack religious beliefs from at least the 1860s, not to mention to promote racism, ethnic bigotry, to enhance the injustice of social classes, etc. All you have to do is read the works of Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckel, and Herbert Spencer to see that the political use of evolution started with the scientific side of it. And I do mean you should read the actual books, articles and essays by those people named, not the secondary and tertiary junk that informs most of the discussion.

    I doubt one in a hundred people who get good marks in high school or even university biology classes ever have the need to use anything they learn about evolution in those classes, it is a topic of minor importance to almost everyone who studies it, except for the atheist ideologues who have been trying to use it to discredit religion for the past hundred sixty years, to little effect. In the mean time all they’ve done is turn people off to science, including that science which is necessary to save peoples’ lives and very likely all of our lives when it comes to climate change science, probably the most important current topic in science, perhaps the most important in the history of science. Which, by the way, has been minimized and denied by some rather prominent atheists like Penn Jillette and James Randi – only coercion by people who know what they’re talking about got them to retract their B.S.

  9. NetWorker says:

    Agreed. Saying evolution is not important to biology is akin to stating gravity has no real importance to physics.

  10. NetWorker says:

    “The primary use of evolution outside of those areas of biology that require referring to it is political and ideological” Yeah, why should we emphasize the teaching of a keystone theory that ties together the fields of biology, anatomy, anthropology, genetics, palaeontology, embryology and taxonomy when it’s just so uncomfortable politically and ideologically?

  11. caphillprof says:

    May you live so long.

  12. Houndentenor says:

    Nope, same problem, just different bosses. Do you really think Elizabeth Hasselbeck has ever had an original thought in her life?

  13. emjayay says:

    Yes, but Fox News, the preferred source of the great unwashed, is rather more than a steno pool. Or less.

  14. emjayay says:

    Also, pro cheese.

  15. emjayay says:

    Kind of like how Chris Christie, who used to be the tell it like it is guy, now waffles or makes stupid anti-science decisions on Ebola and Common Core and vaccinations. Also pigs growing in crates. Something about wanting to get some of the ignorati on the presidential bandwagon.

  16. Don Chandler says:

    I’m amazed that we are still trying to get out of the dark ages. I read that people and their dogs have more than a connection with each other. In fact, they share similar brain structures that help process voice and emotions. It explains something that people actually want to understand! If you are brainwashed by religion, you might not be able to process this truth very easily. It’s really important to understand that humans have animal ancestry. From understanding ones origins, one might be able to grasp the importance of climate change or perhaps the rudiments of climate change–don’t put the horse before the cart, my friend.

    And I don’t even want to trivialize ancient Etruscan language:

    Some time ago, I read an article on the South American Tribe, the Pirahá–in the New Yorker. The Pirahá speak a form of Mura. It was a fascinating story about a people that are not so far removed from the animal world. Weirdly enough and in part thanks to you, Today, I come across the word: agglutinativity when reading about Mura and Etruscan language :)

  17. Mike F says:

    Thanks for emphasizing the importance of your second paragraph. No evolutionary theory, no vaccines, no antibiotics, no modern medicine, etc. Most of everything in the biological sciences is based upon the findings of evolutionary science.

    Which is why I find it so infuriating when the ignorant say they don’t like or believe in evolution.

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  19. Anthony_McCarthy says:

    Because not everything can be covered in the very limited time that a biology teacher has to actually teach students in a high school biology class. The atheist-Biblical fundamentalist side show that the issue of “evolution” has turned into doesn’t take precedence over what they actually need which will be put to use in their lives. Science classrooms shouldn’t be in the business of teaching Biblical literalism but they shouldn’t be skewed for any other ideological purpose either. Evolution is about as important to most people as ancient Etruscan language.

  20. Don Chandler says:

    Health education is important. Not sure why we have to rank importance. Health education is something both parents and schools can teach. But Evolution is probably beyond some parents…I have no idea why…oh yeah, religion…and pandering politicians.

  21. mf_roe says:

    Knowledge is not a given set of facts it is the methodology of assembling facts and interpreting those facts. The only test that need be applied is the simple arithmetic test does the positions of a goup add up or do their claims amount to a collection of random self-serving delusions. People who accept (NOT BELIEVE) evolution spend most of their effort adjusting their understanding of the infinite implications of evolution and how we can best utilize our evolutionary capacities to improve our existence.

    Those who deny evolution must do so because acceptance of the reality of evolution is admission that their beliefs are discredited by the facts. Admission that your total belief system is wrong is a high hurdle. But if civilization is to survive those unable to accept truth and proof must be excluded from positions of control.

  22. Anthony_McCarthy says:

    Evolution is not important in the lives of most of the people who are required to take high school biology. For you to claim that it is because it is “the foundation of all biology” is false because biology was done before evolution became widely believed in. You don’t need to refer to it to teach people how to avoid pregnancy, infection, diseases, etc. The importance of environmental protection, the most important of all biology related topics.

    The primary use of evolution outside of those areas of biology that require referring to it is political and ideological, that’s the reason it has gained such an absurdly oversize sense of importance among people as ignorant of it as any fundamentalist fanatic. And that’s certainly not something that is legitimately a part of science or part of a public school science class room.

  23. Houndentenor says:

    And because it evolved slowly I’m not sure Americans understand that the US press corps is nothing more than a steno pool at this point. They don’t dare challenge a politician no matter what they say for fear of losing “access”. Access of course just means being a stenographer for whatever story the politicians wants leaked to the press. See also: Miller, Judith.

  24. Houndentenor says:

    I do. I think I have a right to know if the person who wants to set public policy is a religious nut who ignores science in favor of mythology.

  25. DGT says:

    “That said, in public school science classes only the science of
    evolution should be taught, though it’s not anywhere near the most
    important topic in a biology curriculum.”

    You are wrong. Evolution is THE most important topic in a biology curriculum, because it is the foundation of all biology. Evolution is the explanatory theory for everything in the field. You can’t understand the progression of studies from one-celled organism to mammal without evolution.

    Even your laundry list of important topics is impossible to truly understand without understanding evolution. Vaccines are based on evolution, as well as nutrition (our body’s physiology has evolved so that our digestive and endocrine systems work together in a certain way, which is well-suited for life in the wild, but less so for modern life). Reproduction is a biological process that has evolved (although avoiding pregnancy and STD’s is more of a health class topic than biology). Environmental protection is important because ecosystems have evolved to work in balance over millions of years.

    If we want to educate scientifically literate students, evolution is indeed the most important foundation for biology education.

  26. Anthony_McCarthy says:

    Not all of those things are as well established in science as evolution is or in the same way. Climate change is and the predictions made around it are so obviously happening and the consequences so profound that it is the most important of those topics in science and ignoring it could well get us all killed. Also the importance of vaccination, which is extremely important. The safety of GMO foods is hardly proven and is driven by economic interests from some of the most grotesquely dishonest and criminal corporations and scientists they hire that it would be safe to conclude that nothing that scientists say in its favor is free from their own financial interests. I will point out that I’ve concluded that they have been using a number of the “skeptical” groups to promote GMOs and I strongly suspect that they are paying them off, as well.

    That said, in public school science classes only the science of evolution should be taught, though it’s not anywhere near the most important topic in a biology curriculum. Just about anything to do with people understanding things like vaccination and why they need to be vaccinated, nutrition, avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, the vital importance of environmental protection, etc. are more important than evolution which is only of real importance to people who are going to go into science which deal with evolution and to people who want to use it as an ideological campaign issue, which should, as well, be kept out of public school science classes.

  27. Demosthenes says:

    While I don’t care what a politician believes about “evolution”, I do care if they can’t even handle responding. It shows their character.

  28. rmthunter says:

    I agree that it’s important to ask candidates whether they accept the evidence for evolution, but don’t expect an honest answer, at least not on the right. The objections are not anything to do with science, they are religious, and any candidate who rejects the theory might as well be wearing a big sign that says “theocrat,” whatever the truth of their belief. All that dodging the question means is that they’re thinking farther into the future than their compatriots, realizing that they’re going to have to appeal to the general public and not just the fringe if they make it past the primaries.

  29. Baal says:

    A person’s views on evolution tell me if they are either ignorant, fanatical, deluded or pandering to a particularly insidious base. It is a crucial question.

  30. Bill_Perdue says:

    She’d have to explain why she supports the zionist bunkerstaat and its
    policies of apartheid, mass murder of Palestinians and the theft of tier lands. And why she says the use of nukes against Iran is ‘possible’.

    She’ll have to explain why she supports Romneycare/Obamacare, a right wing alternative to socialized medicine that vests medical decisions in the hands of profit gouging insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

    And why shhe refuses to support open borders and the absolute right to citizenship and legality for all imported and immigrant workers.

    And why she opposes the outright legalization of marijuana.

    And why she supports Obama’s antiworker, rightwing proposal for a $10.10
    minimum wage to tak3 effect in 2016.

    Items 2-6 are from

    7 – Warren voted to confirm John Brennan to run the CIA. Brennan is a war
    criminal. “President Obama has expended extraordinary efforts to
    protect from accountability all Bush-era officials responsible for torture,
    rendition and warrantless eavesdropping, programs that numerous human rights groups have insisted constitute war crimes and violations of U.S. criminal law. … The president’s nomination on Monday of John O. Brennan, a Bush-era C.I.A. official, to head the C.I.A. illustrates how complete this disturbing process now is.”


    Warren also voted for the confirmation of Obama’s billionaire friend Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce. “Why ‘unions don’t like’ Penny Pritzker – Pritzker’s nomination as Secretary of Commerce shows how the Democratic party is leaning towards the rich… She raised some $745m for Obama’s 2008 presidential run, and was influential in 2012 as well, though quieter. Perhaps the campaign’s tough tone on wealth soured her, or perhaps the appearance of closeness to someone who, as Jodi Kantor and Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times noted at the time, was engaged in some of the same shady practices as Mitt Romney – and had her very own subprime scandal to boot.” Al Jazeera 05 2013 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/05/20135873932733462.html

  31. Bill_Perdue says:

    Like the vast majority of politicians in both parties, the main objections to Walker center around
    his role as a union busting, pro-war anti-Bill of Rights political prostitute paid to service the rich.

    In this case his cult posturing is probably a moot point in terms of the vote, especially in the primary, where Republicans still have the upper hand in terms of cult based voters, but also in the general election. . According to a PEW poll in late 2013 “… six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

    A more recent poll by Gallup says “More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guidedthe evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved
    is rising.”

    If Democrats want to oppose Walker they’ll have to concentrate on his record as a union buster, a warmonger and as someone in the pay of the rich, which will be impossible considering the records of Hillary Clinton and Obama.

  32. nicho says:

    I agree — and there are others. I shouldn’t have generalized that much. But most of them shouldn’t even speak here. I still giggle when I think of the Wasilla Wonder being peppered with questions on a wide variety of subjects one right after the other.

  33. 2karmanot says:

    IE. Remember Bush Petite’s ‘Grecian Formula?’ He though it was some foreign policy.

  34. caphillprof says:

    Elizabeth Warren would have no need to cancel any trip abroad.

  35. Butch1 says:

    “Drones” are easier to manipulate than educated people.

  36. Butch1 says:

    He’s waiting for the Koch brothers to give him his opinion.

  37. FatRat says:


    I don’t think Walker has a backbone, ergo evolution is a sham. If you showed Scott mugshots of Darwin and Wallace vs. Wallace and Gromit in a lineup, he couldn’t readily point them out. (BTW they are all Brits and pro science.)

  38. nicho says:

    Any US politician who wants to travel abroad and face the media should watch Prime Minister’s Question Time on the BBC. They would probably cancel their trip and go hide under the bed.

    I love to watch it, not because I know or care anything about the issues, but because I imagine George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin — or any other intellectual and semiliterate flyweight in the GOP — facing the barrage of questions. And I laugh myself silly.

  39. Naja pallida says:

    It just amazes me how Republicans don’t take any time at all to prepare before traveling overseas. Especially when they know they will be facing a foreign press. Facing the American press is like playing T-ball at the youth center, where they’re handed the softest of softball questions, and even then they’re never pressed on anything difficult, or held to account when they say something completely stupid and get a special trophy just for participating… and then they travel out of the country and it’s like they suddenly got bumped up to the major leagues where they’re expected to hit a 90 mile an hour fast ball. Five minutes of research would have told Mr. Walker that the European press considers how his religious views impact his job as governor to be, at the least, laughable, if not utterly contemptible. His hubris should be embarrassing to him, but it isn’t. He’s proud of being seen to be a fool on the international stage.

  40. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I think it’s always appropriate to press politicians on wishy-washy stands they’re taking solely to not put off any constituents. It’s funny, I’m sure some of Walker’s supporters will tell you they like him because he “Says what he really feels.” How do they square that with this weaselly approach to a critical subject like evolution? Not sure. (I do like that Walker said that it wasn’t his place to “pontificate”. I’m pretty sure neither “Yes” nor “No” qualify as pontificating.)

  41. Indigo says:

    Until our Billionaire Social Set decides they need an educated population, evolution and all things techno-different will remain in the category Henry Ford once referred to as “bunk.”

  42. keirmeister says:

    I knew John Kerry was going to lose because of his response to the Swift Boat folks. As I told my wife at the time, “If he can’t vigorously defend his war record against a bunch of jerks, how will the American people think he will defend us against our enemies during a time of war?”

    The evolution question is the same.

    If you punt on the question, you’re a coward to your convictions and not worthy of the office.
    If you don’t believe in evolution, it calls into question your ability to think (and govern) outside of your religious faith – making you (probably) unfit for the office.
    If you do believe in evolution…well no duh! You better!

  43. 2karmanot says:

    Love the illustration! Clearly that handsome primate on the left has learned to shave and that, in itself, is proof of evolution. —just say’un.

  44. BeccaM says:

    Much of the GOP base is hostile to science, knowledge and critical thinking. This particular Know Nothing ideology is useful and has been cultivated quite deliberately because it makes it all the easier to instill Double Think habits and get people to support positions that are against their own best interests.

  45. angryspittle says:

    Scott Walker doesn’t believe in evolution because he is a perfect argument against it.

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