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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

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Jon Huntsman and Evolution: A Missed Opportunity

Posted: 08/29/2011 8:15 am

It's not often that there's good news coming out of the Republican Party -- for science in general or for evolution in particular. That pattern was broken on Aug. 18, when GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman took to Twitter to announce: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

As the head of The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of more than 13,000 clergy and 1,000 scientists who promote the teaching of evolution -- and work for a nuanced understanding of the relationship between religion and science -- I was delighted and immediately thought that I should do a profile of Governor Huntsman for my HuffPost series "Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage."

I never thought that it would be all but impossible to write such a piece. But now, well over a week later, and without anyone in the Huntsman campaign willing to return phone calls or emails, I've come to the conclusion that I cannot write what I intended. Instead of learning more about Huntsman and what drives his respect for science, I'm beginning to understand why his campaign is mired in last place amid a non-distinguished field. As of today's Real Clear Politics poll, Huntsman's support is running 10-fold behind Rick Perry's (20 percent to 2 percent), significantly behind Michele Bachmann's (9 percent to 2 percent) and even a bit further behind the non-candidacy of Sarah Palin (11 percent to 2 percent). Amazingly, even Herman Cain's polling numbers (5 percent) are two and a half times better. Herman Cain!

Please don't misunderstand me. I recognize that I'm not a major media figure. Indeed, I recognize that I'm not even a minor media figure. However, the pieces I write for The Huffington Posttare well read and receive hundreds, and often thousands, of comments. To quote Huntsman, "call me crazy!" but I thought that a positive piece elaborating on his tweet would be seen as a positive bit of media attention. Apparently not.

My calls to his campaign merely yielded a referral to an email address. My emails to his campaign remain unanswered. In an attempt to work a back channel, I contacted Eric Holcomb, the Chair of the Indiana Republican Party. Eric immediately responded enthusiastically and said that he would pass my message along to friends in the Huntsman campaign. Although I'm confident that he did so, no one has gotten back to me.

So, after more than a week of phone calls and emails, I've been unable to have any questions answered. My efforts have not generated a single acknowledgement that I even exist. Well, that's not exactly true! About 10 hours after sending an email to a generic address on the Huntsman website, I received three copies of a solicitation from the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. Coincidence? Could be, but I doubt it.

The thing is, exploring what brought Jon Huntsman to his position on science, a position so dramatically at odds with the rest of his party, is not a trivial matter. Scientific knowledge need not -- and should not -- be a political issue and yet it has become just that within the Republican presidential field.

Huntsman himself explained the importance of science to Jake Tapper on ABC's This Week on the Sunday following his tweet:

The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party -- 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. When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.

The Republican Party has to remember that we're drawing from traditions that go back as far as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, President Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush. And we've got a lot of traditions to draw upon. But I can't remember a time in our history where we actually were willing to shun science and become a party that was antithetical to science. I'm not sure that's good for our future, and it's not a winning formula.

Huntsman is absolutely correct. It is neither good politics nor good public policy for one of the country's major political parties to shun science. Study after study has reached two consistent conclusions: First, the United States continues to lose its scientific edge. Second, the economic consequences associated with our collapsing scientific infrastructure are huge.

Evolutionary theory is as well understood a scientific theory as any and far better than most. Rejecting it on political grounds in an attempt to pander to a small but very vocal subset of the population that believes evolution and religious conviction cannot be compatible is a disgrace, and it distorts the public's understanding of what science actually is.

I am absolutely delighted that Jon Huntsman has opted to clearly state his support for both science and evolution, and I wish I could have been in a position to more fully explore the reasons for his actions. Given the current nature of the Republican Party, it was courageous of him to be as outspoken as he has been. However, if he has any hope of moving up from last place in the race, I suspect that his staff is going to have to be more willing to respond to requests for information about his positions. And since any campaign staff ultimately takes its orders from the top, I can't help but wonder about the direction Huntsman is providing.

 

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