It's a question every presidential candidate must dread, one that promises to come up repeatedly as the political season advances: "Do you believe in evolution?"
Evolution is the speed trap of presidential campaigns. Though a president doesn't have much influence over state and local science education policy, reporters lie in wait for the unwary candidate, ready to pounce with a question he's poorly prepared to answer yet that is important to millions of voters. Fortunately, there's a reply that not only avoids the trap but helps advance public understanding.
Rep. Michele Bachmann is the latest to get pulled to the side of the road, lights flashing in her rear-view mirror. Talking with reporters in New Orleans following last week's Republican Leadership Conference, she said "I support intelligent design," referring to the theory that nature gives scientific evidence of purpose and design.
She continued: "What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don't think it's a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides."
Government neutrality would be welcome, as Bachmann rightly notes. But unfortunately the candidate's statement generated headlines ("Bachmann: Schools should teach intelligent design," as CNN.com summarized) that made her sound like she was ready to go a lot further than the intelligent design (ID) movement, which merely advocates that Darwinian theory's weaknesses be taught along with its strengths. Allowing teachers to discuss ID in class would be much more appropriate and advisable than requiring them to do so.
In the Republican debate last month in South Carolina, Juan Williams asked Tim Pawlenty, "Do you equate the teaching of creationism with the teaching of evolution, as the basis for what should be taught in our nation's schools?"
Creationism usually refers to the belief that God created the universe in six, twenty-four hour days just a few thousand years ago -- often called young earth creationism. Governor Pawlenty answered by confusing the term with intelligent design:
"Well, Juan, the approach we took in Minnesota is to say that there should be room in the curriculum for study of intelligent design. Didn't necessarily need to be in science class, it could be in a comparative theory class. But we didn't decide that at the state level. We left that up to the local school districts, and the communities, and parents in that area."
That sounds nice and federalist till you think about it for a moment. In not challenging Williams's use of the scare word "creationism," Pawlenty seemed to accept the media's misleading equation of young earth creationism with intelligent design, a much more modest and defensible claim.
At another recent press conference, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, dream candidate for many conservatives, fielded a question about whether he believes in evolution. He responded indignantly -- "That's none of your business!" -- as if someone had inquired about his intimate relations with Mrs. Christie.
He tried to clarify, saying that "evolution is required teaching. If there's a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism, that's not something we should decide in Trenton."
The problem is that the Supreme Court has declared (Edwards v. Aguillard) that teaching creationism in public school runs afoul of the First Amendment's establishment clause. So Christie failed to avoid the trap even while refusing to answer.
It falls, in general, to a candidate's staff to prepare him to answer any question so that he neither embarrasses himself nor needlessly alienates any constituency. Yet evolution lies outside the expertise of most political professionals, including those behind the scenes.
Fortunately, there's an easy way to answer that takes account of the dilemma. Asked about evolution, here's what Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, or Chris Christie could have said:
"Life has a very long history and things change over time. However, I don't think living creatures are nothing but the product of a purposeless Darwinian process. I support teaching all about evolution, including the scientific evidence offered against it."
Dogmatic neo-Darwinians won't like that answer (they admit of no scientific arguments against their theory, unlike in any other area of scientific inquiry). But some other scientists will be fine with it, and, according to Zogby polling data, so will the 80 percent of Americans who favor allowing students and teachers to discuss evolutionary theory's strengths and weaknesses.
Such a formulation, true to the scientific evidence and to the Constitution, would also be devilishly hard for rival candidates to disagree with. Campaign staff and advisors would do well to commit something like it to memory.