Jon Huntsman, the lone voice of scientific sanity in the US Republican Presidential race

Jon Huntsman, the Republican of Science. (Photo: Reuters)
Jon Huntsman, the Republican of Science. (Photo: Reuters)

In his excellent piece on last night’s Republican debate, our blogger Dr Tim Stanley gave me a little chill with a throwaway line in his first paragraph. After noting the ding-dong battle between frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, and pointing out that Michelle Bachman was uncharacteristically quiet, he added: “a couple of nobodies might bail after failing to get noticed”.

One of those nobodies, it should be pointed out, was Jon Huntsman. Mr Huntsman is (was?) the only Republican candidate who can face up to scientific reality. He tweeted back in August: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Let’s not focus on the climate change thing. There is, at least, a debate still over how much the planet is warming and what the best course of action is. But it is a stone-cold tragedy that the only way you can be a conservative presidential candidate in the US and believe in evolution is if you are a joke no-hoper. It’s almost as if the Raving Loony Party were the only party in Britain to acknowledge the reality of Boyle’s Law.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, as the old saw goes. Nothing: not anatomy, not biochemistry, certainly not genetics. Not species distribution or death or the immune system or sex. Nothing. It’s like trying to explain the behaviour of football players without acknowledging the existence of a game of football. Why are these strange people running around after a sphere and kicking it to each other? What is the significance of the rectangular white box at the end? Why don’t they use their hands? Sure, we could posit some “laws” of “Association Football”, but that’s just a theory! An alternative theory, of course, would be that an Intelligent Choreographer has ordained them to run in specific patterns for 90 minutes, with the four at the end stepping up together from time to time not because of some mooted “offside rule” but because that is where they have been told to stand. Let’s teach both theories in PE classes, eh?

It’s really that clear-cut. A few simple rules (essentially: no handball, no fouling, score by putting the ball in the net, no offsides) can explain enormously complicated behaviour (overhead kicks and flowing 40-pass moves). Similarly, the three simple rules of heritable traits, variation within a population, and differential reproduction can and do explain an incredibly complicated biological world. It’s elegant, predictive, entirely falsifiable (“Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!“) science. It has been demonstrated beautifully in the lab, in the astonishing Lenski experiment; the evolution of microbes in the face of antibiotics is well documented and dangerous. But, for some reason, in the United States, the greatest scientific powerhouse the world has ever seen, you can’t be a serious conservative politician and admit to believing in it.

It’s bizarre. Rick Perry, one of two out-and-out frontrunners, recently told a young boy at a campaign stop that evolution is “just a theory that’s out there” and that it “has got some gaps in it”. Michelle Bachmann says she “supports intelligent design” and adds, weirdly, “there are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.” Mitt Romney, in fairness to him, has said “evolution is most likely the process [God] used to create the human body” but is careful not to denigrate intelligent design. Rick Santorum, he of the unfortunate Urban Dictionary entry, has said “If Governor Huntsman wants to believe that he is the descendant of a monkey, then he has the right to believe that”. Ron Paul: “I think there is a theory, a theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it.” It’s just embarrassing.

Why is it evolution that inspires this? After all, the theory of plate tectonics just as firmly disagrees with any literal interpretation of the Bible. The Earth can’t be 6,000 years old if Laurasia didn’t split into North America and Eurasia until 55 million years ago. Similarly the theory of star formation, which tells us that the Solar System couldn’t have formed until earlier stars exploded and formed the heavy elements we find on Earth; careful observations have put the birth of the Universe at 13.7 billion years ago. Why aren’t Republican candidates asked how old they think the Sun is or whether their distant ancestors could have walked from New York to Paris?

There are lots of worthwhile debates to be had between Left and Right: about how big we want the state, about the pay-offs between providing a social safety net and encouraging entrepeneurial zeal, about law and order and fiscal policy. But wilfully ignoring the simple facts of science makes Right-wingers look as though they think reality has a liberal bias. As the fantastic Jon Huntsman, joke candidate, says: “I think there’s a serious problem. The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012.” Too right.


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