Republicans should answer questions on evolution

Why do so many Republican politicians dodge questions about evolution? Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and a likely presidential candidate, turned down a chance to explain his views on the topic Wednesday. Three other likely candidates have done the same.

They’re being too skittish – and only hurting themselves politically, whatever their views are.

A sizable chunk of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form” – 42 percent of them, according to the Gallup Organization. The percentage is probably higher among Republicans. But that doesn’t mean that Republican candidates should be afraid to affirm evolution. People who reject the concept seem to be open-minded about candidates who accept it.

The party’s last two presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both indicated that they accept the strong scientific consensus that the human species is the product of evolution. Obviously that stance didn’t keep either man from winning the nomination, and it doesn’t appear to have played any role in their general-election defeats (to a man who also accepts that consensus).

The silent Republicans may also fear that it will seem like they’re taking sides against religion if they embrace evolution. Both McCain and Romney were able to avoid that danger, though, in essence by saying that they believed that evolution was part of God’s plan. (Another 31 percent of the public takes that view, again per the Gallup Poll.)

In refusing to address evolution, Walker said, “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other.” It’s true that vanishingly few questions of federal policy turn on whether human beings have evolved from other species. But it does appear that for at least some Americans, belief in that proposition is a marker of a candidate’s acceptance of science and modernity, and rejection of it marks a candidate as anti-intellectual or just plain dumb.

Which raises another possible explanation for Republicans’ unwillingness to answer questions about the issue. They may themselves belong to that large anti-evolution bloc and not wish to turn away voters for whom a candidate’s belief in evolution is important. But for many of these voters, silence on evolution is nearly as bad as a candid rejection of it.

So while Republicans may not like the question, they should probably just answer it.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.