The Huckster's Artful Dodging on Evolution

January 11, 2008

In a January 8 article, Inside Higher Ed profiled former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s record on issues important to education. While Andy Guess gave a sterling summary of his record on issues specifically related to higher education, professors need to take a closer look at Huckabee’s record on the teaching of evolution in the public schools -- an issue that is not specific to higher education, but that ultimately can have a major impact on science education policy and the nature of intellectual debate in the United States.

During Huckabee’s tenure as Governor, evolution education in Arkansas languished in an environment of general hostility and insufficiency. Two anti-evolution bills were introduced in the state’s House of Representatives; textbooks in the Beebe, Arkansas public high school carried disclaimer stickers denigrating evolution; the state’s science curriculum earned a grade of “D” overall and an abysmal “zero” for its treatment of evolution; a creationist “museum” enjoyed state-funded advertising; and evolution was systematically and broadly squeezed out of schools and other educational institutions across the state. Huckabee did nothing to deter any of this – in fact, some of his public statements might indicate his tacit support.

To avoid potential labeling of this analysis as a mere partisan drubbing of a GOP front-runner, it bears mention that I have written favorably on the evolution education positions of prominent Republican Rudy Giuliani and independent Michael Bloomberg, the latter having commendably affirmed the validity of evolutionary theory and decried the creationist attack on the teaching of evolution saying it “...devalues science, it cheapens theology. As well as condemning these students to an inferior education, it ultimately hurts their professional opportunities.”

Contrasting starkly with the New York mayor’s recognition of the importance of evolution to public science education, Huckabee has adopted a deplorably dismissive line of response when asked about his adherence to creationism saying, "I'm not sure what in the world that has to do with being president of the United States." However, a nonpartisan coalition, which includes 11 Nobel laureates and the editors-in-chief of Science and Nature among its impressive list of signatories, believes that such issues have a great deal to do with the office of the chief executive. In fact, they are calling for a debate between presidential candidates on science and technology. John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American and a member of the coalition's steering committee, explained, "Matters of science and technology underpin every important issue affecting the future of the United States. It's crucial for the nation's welfare that our next president be someone with an understanding of vital science, a willingness to listen to scientific counsel, and a capacity for solid, critical thinking.”

Apropos to the willingness of a potential president to listen to scientific counsel, during the same week as Huckabee’s triumph in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the National Academy of Sciences and The Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress to advise the government of scientific matters, released Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a book that affirms the current scientific understanding and solid acceptance of evolution and warns against undermining science curricula with nonscientific material such as creationism under any of its various guises. And, although the former Arkansas governor now attempts to deflect attention from his support of creationism with lines like, "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth grade science book," exposing public school students to creationism is exactly what Huckabee has proposed numerous times, and with more explicit language than George W. Bush’s comments on the teaching of Intelligent Design, which drew fire from scientists in 2005.

In 2004, a concerned student from Arkansas confronted then-Governor Huckabee about the teaching of evolution on a local PBS television station:

Student: Many schools in Arkansas are failing to teach students about evolution according to the educational standards of our state. Since it is against these standards to teach creationism, how would you go about helping our state educate students more sufficiently for this?
Huckabee: Are you saying some students are not getting exposure to the various theories of creation?
Student (stunned): No, of evol … well, of evolution specifically. It’s a biological study that should be educated [taught], but is generally not.
Moderator: Schools are dodging Darwinism? Is that what you … ?
Student: Yes.
Huckabee: I’m not familiar that they’re dodging it. Maybe they are. But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution.

Huckabee’s claimed ignorance that schools were failing to teach evolution properly is quite curious given a previous exchange with another young Arkansan on an earlier installment of the same PBS program only one year before:

Student: Goal 2.04 of the Biology Benchmark Goals published by the Arkansas Department of Education in May of 2002 indicates that students should examine the development of the theory of biological evolution. Yet many students in Arkansas that I have met … have not been exposed to this idea. What do you believe is the appropriate role of the state in mandating the curriculum of a given course?
Huckabee: I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism....

As Guess reported, Huckabee does concede that we should teach evolution “as a theory”. However, the candidate’s misuse of the word “theory” incorrectly implies that evolution is scientifically controversial. His continued vocal rejection of evolution; his use of the creationist pseudo-argument “I wasn’t there”; his recent ill-informed quip about “anyone who wants to believe they are the descendants of a primate”; and his egregious equation of acceptance of evolution with necessary rejection of the existence of God, do not speak well of his attitude toward nor his understanding of science. These sentiments send a message to the nation’s students that this man, who could lead the nation, thinks that the scientists, science teachers, science curricula, and science textbooks are all wrong.

Finally, the teaching of creationism alongside of evolution in public schools for which Huckabee has called has been repeatedly rejected by the nation’s courts. The oath of office obliges the president to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is unacceptable for a presidential candidate to advocate such clearly unconstitutional educational policy. University scientists, professors who train science teachers, and others who care about the quality of science education ought to oppose candidates who disparage evolutionary science and who condone the injection of religious doctrine into the public school science curriculum.

Bio

A native Arkansan, Jason R. Wiles is manager of the Evolution Education Research Center at McGill University and a new member of the biology faculty at Syracuse University. He is co-editor of a recent special issue of the McGill Journal of Education that focuses on the teaching and learning of evolution.

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