Understanding Rick Perry’s Texas Two-Step on evolution

Melina Mara THE WASHINGTON POST Surrounded by media, presidential candidate for the GOP nomination and Republican Governor of Texas, Rick … Continued

Melina Mara


Surrounded by media, presidential candidate for the GOP nomination and Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, spoke to New Englanders at the Politics and Eggs breakfast, in Bedford, New Hampshire, Wednesday, August 17, 2011.

This past week, the complex issue of evolution had the GOP presidential field struggling to find their footing. Texas Governor Rick Perry, the newest suitor at the big dance, had to dust off his two-stepping skills after leading off a bit heavy on the down beat. In response to an interview question, he first talked about evolution as “a theory that’s out there” that “has some gaps to it” and emphasized that they taught both evolution and creationism back home in Texas.

Sensing Perry’s possible misstep, rival Jon Huntsman–one of two Mormon candidates in the race-cut in and lambasted Perry with a post on Twitter that quickly went viral affirming his own view in evolution. Perry quickly jumped back in by recalibrating his position to leave space for the possibility of evolution with guidance from a supreme being.

Perry’s two-step highlights the potential difficulty the issue of evolution presents for Perry and the rest of the GOP candidates. On the one hand, it is an important symbolic culture war issue among white evangelical Protestants in the GOP base. On the other hand, Republicans overall and Americans generally hold more nuanced views on evolution.

The challenges for the GOP primary field are highlighted in the results produced by two different questions on evolution conducted in 2009, the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Gallup asked a binary question, which found that only 39 percent of Americans said they believed in evolution, 25 percent said that they did not believe in evolution, but notably fully 36 percent had “no opinion either way.”

A three-part question from Pew Research Center the same year, however, captured more clearly the complicated terrain. Pew found that a majority of the public said they believed humans had evolved over time with some caveats: 32 percent attributed the process to natural selection, and 22 percent pointed to some form of supreme guidance of the evolutionary process. Approximately one-in-three (31 percent) Americans fully rejected evolution, saying they believed humans had existed in their present form since the beginning of time. In other words, while only about one-third of Americans believe in evolution guided exclusively by natural selection, another one-in-five incorporate a supreme being into their understanding of the evolutionary process.

Graph via Public Religion Research Institute

The Pew data shows that Perry’s first statement strongly questioning evolution would have been appealing to white evangelical Protestants, virtually the only major demographic group in the country in which a strong majority (57 percent) say humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time; less than one-in-three evangelicals believe in evolution of any kind, whether by natural selection (9 percent) or helped along by supreme guidance (20 percent). But by the time Perry’s other shoe hit the floor, Perry must have realized that Republicans overall hold more balanced views. Nearly half of Republicans believe in evolution either guided by natural processes (23 percent) or by a supreme being (26 percent), compared to 39 percent who say humans have always existed in their present form. And looking forward to the general election, political independents affirm some form of evolution over a creationist position by a margin of two-to-one.

The danger, for politicians, is to ignore the complex ways most Americans negotiate faith and science, particularly on this issue. As I pointed out in a column for “On Faith” last January, most Americans have found a way to reconcile their faith and science; they don’t see a need to reject science to be faithful to their religion or to reject their religion to have intellectual integrity. Finding their feet on this issue is particularly delicate for GOP primary candidates, who need to appeal to conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants during primary season, while not stepping on the toes of political Independents in the general election.

Robert P. Jones
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  • alan40

    Just call evolution a theory and we’re all good — same for creation. I believe in creation, but have no problem if anyone wants to refer to it as a theory — because no one can scientifically prove creation. Macro-evolutionists can’t scientifically prove their theory either.

    “There are no scientific experiments to prove the molecules-to-man scenario. Molecules-to-man is not scientifically testable or experimentally verifiable or reproducible or able to be authenticated in any way. The process of moving from non-living things to the first living, reproducing cell to man and giant Redwood trees is all an assumption.” (from “The Evolution of a Creationist” by Jobe Martin, D.M.D.)

  • Rongoklunk

    Just call religion a fantasy and we’re all good – same for creationism. I don’t believe in creationism, which is simply a religious concept to help religious folks believe in the great invisible skygod, which is why it can never be proven. Ditto the great invisible skydude himself, including angels, devils, demons and the biggest hoax of all time – the afterlife; which was invented by people terrified of death – as a way of hoping to avoid it. Magic, if you will. If there was no death – we wouldn’t need religion, and we wouldn’t need to make up gods. We’d be too busy enjoying the only life we have for sure – this one.

    Death is death for you, me and all living things. There is no escape.

  • alan40

    You hit the nail on the head: “Pure naturalistic evolution absolutely eliminates God. The conflict of evolutionary theory against the Holy Bible is impossible to reconcile.”

  • oranG

    If you are using the word “theory” loosely as a conjecture or hypothesis, I guess, but evolutionary theory and creationism are not at all the same kind of theory. Creationism is a belief system tied to values and traditions. That’s not a conjecture or tentative hypothesis subject to testing by material evidence, it’s a religious belief system subject mostly to inspiration and intuition. It belongs in a church, but not in a science class. Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, is a framework for understanding the diversity of life based on the mechanics of the material world. Conjectures and hypotheses within the domain of evolutionary theory are subject to testing against material evidence. With the spectacular discoveries in biochemistry and genetics, evolution has come to be considered a fact and a central organizing principle of modern biology. Philosophical/religious domains can adopt or inherit the material truths of science as they wish, but the “spiritual truths” of those domains cannot be adopted or inherited by science unless or until they can be framed or tested withing the domain of the material/mechanical world. On that front, creationism has repeatedly and spectacularly failed every time it has tried.

  • lucid_hysteria

    What’s frustrating about the media’s handling of the evolution controversy is the oversimplification of the issues involved. “Creationist,” for example, can technically refer to the entire range of Christian believers (those who believe in a 6-10,000-year-old earth, those who believe in theistic evolution, and those (like myself) who believe most of the current scientific consensus (hot big bang ~14 billion years ago, formation of earth ~4.5 billion years ago) lines up quite well with the biblical account of creation out of nothing but who also think that macro-evolutionary explanations of life’s diversity are insufficient and founded on faulty assumptions about homology and analogy (namely, that they necessarily indicate common descent rather than common design) or about things we don’t have full knowledge of yet (so-called “junk” DNA, for example, as well as alleged vestigial features), and furthermore do not adequately explain the fossil record (Cambrian explosion, etc.) or instances of convergence with respect to historical contingency or many other details that seem to indicate a designer more than unguided natural processes).

    My point, which is quickly becoming overcomplicated, is that the heated nature of the oversimplified conflict between evolutionists and the often caricatured “creationists” distracts us from a deeper conversation about other issues that might be more directly pertinent to a candidate’s qualifications and leadership abilities.

    After all, just as the creationist position has philosophical implications, so, too, does the naturalistic position. For example, if we’re just glorified apes, where do our “human rights” – such a foundational concept to ours and other civilized societies – come from? If not from God, then from what/whom? If the answer is that the government bestows our rights upon us, then the government can just as rightly and easily take those rights away (and it tends to, if we let it). Honestly, I don’t see any way to reconcile a

  • alan40

    From our earliest school days, we are taught that science is based on careful experimentation, observation, and disciplined thought. Science gives us facts. We can trust it. The Scientific Method is the basic set of procedures that scientists use for obtaining new knowledge about the universe in which we live. Unless the teachings of the authorities on a subject are based upon scientific method, error can be just as easily transmitted as fact.

    Evolution requires just as much faith as any religion. Believing evolution is fact requires at least 7 major assumptions. These are the basic ideas an evolutionist “takes for granted” or “supposes” to be true.

  • dlatty79

    I wonder if all the creationism belivers have any idea where they rank on the conspiricy theory scale. Forget about all the facts that support the Theory of Evolution for just a bit. Let’s focus on what would have to be true in order for the claims of creationists to be believable.

    1. 95% of biologists, anthropologists, taxonimists, palentologists, geologists, ect. are pulling off a grand lie.

    2. All of these people are secretly keeping up this over 150 year old lie by faking results, faking peer reviews and falsifying new discoveries.

    3. Every year as thousands of new people worldwide enter these fields of science there is a huge induction of them into this lie.

    4. The morals of the people involved in the fields are so low as to lie, day after day, to everyone not involved or knowledgeable about these fields.

    Can you imagine the amount of coordination that a conspiricy of this scale would entail? Everyone of these people keeping up to date with faked new discoveries? No dissent over the years? Not one of these people grabbing the fame and riches sure to go to someone who broke the news that it’s all been a lie? We can’t even keep children from discovering the truth abouth Santa Claus but the backbone of biology is the wool pulled over the eyes of the worldwide public for over 150 years?
    As a society we have words for people who dismiss facts simply because they don’t conform to the world view that they want to be true: children, wishthinkers or delusional.
    Over the past century and a half the evidence for common ancestry has grown so much that many topics of study have branched off into their own department of research. What evidence do the creationist bring to the table? What have they presented for peer review? What discoveries have creationists uncovered that have revolutionized our understanding of our place on the globe?
    If you’re interested in understanding why evolution is a fact and why it is called a theory (the highest award given in science) there are several


    Everyone knew Republicans and Evangelicals (really, one and the same – they have litmus tests, you know) were going to be anti-science. They act that way, they vote that way.

  • boboberg

    Rick Perry is a joke. The voters’ rage against the tea party has only just begun. As a Democrat I am pleased at the way the republican drive for the White House is progressing. Rick Perry, the right-wing lunatic that proposed Texas seceed from the USA and who wants to eliminate Social Security. Medicare, Medicaid and most of the Federal government has taken the lead from wishy-washy Mitt Romney, the only republican who has a dream of beating Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Perry is simply unelectable so I hope he stays in front of the rest of the GOP. Michele Bachmann is also unelectable as is Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. The voters can see what the tea party really is: a small group of elederly, white, rich racists who hate minorities, immigrants and Muslims and who hope to destroy Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid. We reject the tea party and their evil cronies in the GOP. Mark Montgomery NYC, NY boboberg@nyc.rr.com

  • jiji1

    Your attempt to dilute the nature of the term “theory” is only exceeded – in terms of stupidity – by your regurgitation of creationist dogma. No scientist is going to refer to your creation myth as a theory because it’s not science, no matter how many dentists you quote.

  • jiji1

    Moderate republicans need to get their act together to the point that rejecting science becomes as suicidal a campaign stance as supporting tax increases. Our best nuclear physicists now have to go to Switzerland and stand in line behind the rest of the world to use the Large Hadron Collider while we spend five billion dollars to dig a hole in Texas the size of the Beltway and then fill it in when the project is canceled. We no longer have a space shuttle and have nothing on deck to replace it. We’re going to have to buy our cures for diabetes and Parkinsons from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, or one of the other nations that lapped us in stem cell research while ideology trumped innovation.

    Science has been one of the United States’ pillars of prosperity and a major factor in our national security. There is an entire generation of voters who grew up watching America lead the world in science and yet somehow religious fundamentalists – who reject any hard fact they find distasteful – are getting elected to the highest offices. Such intellectual dishonesty has to be an immediate disqualifier in the minds of the electorate or this country will continue to bear witness to the rise of other world powers, and its own decline.

  • hzcummi

    As long as the Clergy refuses to learn the truth about Genesis, this stupid argument will continue to go back and forth. Genesis does not have any “Creation accounts”. Both the worlds of Creationism and Theology do not understand the Genesis text.

    If you want the truth, I’m the one to contact. Else you are just wasting your time, indulging in foolishness.

    Herman Cummings


    Evolution IS A FACT. That’s why Perry backpedaled. Read this from Wikipedia:

    “The application of the terms “fact” and “theory” to evolution is similar to their use in describing gravity.[20]

    The most obvious fact of gravity is that objects in our everyday experience tend to fall downwards when not otherwise prevented from doing so. People throughout history have wondered what causes this effect. Many explanations have been proposed over the centuries. Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein have all developed useful models of gravity, each of which constitutes a theory of gravity. (Newton, for example, realized that the fact of gravity can be extended to the tendency of any two masses to attract one another.) The word “gravity”, therefore, can be used to refer to the observed facts (i.e., that masses attract one another) and the theory used to explain the facts (the reason why masses attract one another). In this way, gravity is both a theory and a fact.

    In the study of biological species, the facts include the existence of many different species in existence today, some very similar to each other and some very dissimilar, the remains of extinct species in the fossil record, and so forth. In species that rapidly reproduce, for example fruit flies, the process of change from generation to generation — that is, evolutionary change — has been observed in the laboratory.[21] The observation of fruit fly populations changing over time is also an example of a fact. So evolution is a fact just as observations of gravity are factual.

    There have been many attempts to explain these biological observations over the years. Lamarckism, transmutationism and orthogenesis were all non-Darwinian theories that attempted to explain the observations of species and fossils, as well as other evidence. However, the modern theory of evolution is the explanation for all relevant observations regarding the development of life, based on a model that explains all the available data and observatio


    Perry original stance: “It’s a theory that’s out there,”…“It’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution.”

    Perry new stance: “Well, God is how we got here. God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don’t know. But I know how it got started.”

    As long as science has gaps of unexplained phenomena, religious people will keep filling those little gaps with God. Christians take clues from the Bible to fill the gaps, but differ on what part of the Bible are facts revealed by God and what is just filling from the iron age editors. And they kill each other to discover the truth. The new prophet Perry has revealed that the Genesis may be just junk literature. Well, many of us already new that.

    In other words: evolution may be a fact and the Genesis book may not be a fact.

  • JoeT1

    Perry has just discovered that it isn’t easy to pander to the pure Creationists without sounding like an idiot. He must hope that his new statement isn’t read by those he pandered to, or that they don’t understand that he just rejected their views completely. Evolution guided by God is the accomodation the Catholics arrived at long ago, and simply allows as how God added a soul somehwere between apes and humans. That is anathema to the Creationists, whom Perry must be hoping aren’t listening closely.

  • alan40

    As a Tea Party supporter and creationist, I don’t know who I will be voting for in the republican primary. I do know that his/her religion and position on evolution has nothing to do with it — which is consistent with other tea partiers I know. If the candidate has the right perspective on limited government and personal freedom, then they will get careful consideration.

  • alan40

    I can agree with your last sentence in this regard: What scientists call microevolution (genetic variation/random changes/errors), obviously occurs — a fact.

    However, macroevolution, where something becomes something else due to changes that produce NEW information in the genes — such as a cold-blooded reptile coming a warm-blooded bird — has never been observed/reproduced/etc., and is therefore a theory.

  • lucid_hysteria

    The overwhelming majority of bible scholars throughout the ages would disagree with you, based on every kind of hermeneutic evidence. I would very much like to know the justification for your biblical revisionism.

  • alan40

    I’m not proposing that scientists should treat creationism as a theory. I don’t think creationism should even be in a public school science class. My point is that evolution should be treated honestly for what it is — a theory — because there are too many holes in it to be considered settled scientific fact.

    G.A. Kerkut was a noted evolutionist. His book “The Implications of Evolution” pointed out some existing unsolved problems and points of concern for evolutionary studies. He referred to seven evolutionary assumptions which he felt lacked sufficient evidentiary support.

    “There are seven basic assumptions that are often not mentioned during discussions of evolution. Many evolutionists ignore the first six assumptions and only consider the seventh.

    The assumptions are as follows:

    1. The first assumption is that non-living things gave rise to living material, i.e., spontaneous generation occurred.
    2. The second assumption is that spontaneous generation occurred only once.
    3. The third assumption is that viruses, bacteria, plants and animals are all related.
    4. The fourth assumption is that protozoa (single-celled life forms) gave rise to metazoan (multiple-celled life forms).
    5. The fifth assumption is that various invertebrate phyla are interrelated.
    6. The sixth assumption is that invertebrates gave rise to the vertebrates.
    7. The seventh assumption is that within the vertebrates the fish gave rise to amphibian, the amphibian to reptiles and the reptiles to birds and mammals.

    From Wikipedia: G. A. Kerkut was a noted British zoologist and physiologist. He attended the University of Cambridge from 1945 to 1952 and earned a doctorate in zoology. He went on to establish the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry at University of Southampton where he remained throughout his career. He became Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry in 1966 and went on to become the Dean of Science, Chairman of the School of Biochemical and Physiological Sciences and Head of the

  • dcrswm

    The real issue here is not that creationism is a view that is held by the religious. The problem is tax dollars are being spent to teach this religious view in Texas according to Perry. A person is entitled to believe whatever they want, but to spend tax dollars to spread a religious belief is a clear violation of church and state. Why not teach voodoo in schools? It is no lmore a superstitious belief then the idea that a man could walk on water and return from the grave. Or does Perry want to say that Christianity is the only true and accurate religion? If that’s his claim….we non-christians should prepare for the coming religious purge that Perry will attempt to bring with him.

  • lucid_hysteria

    While I understand and sympathize somewhat with your points (there are many on my side, unfortunately, who claim some kind of conspiracy or reject virtually the whole enterprise of science), neither I nor a great many other creationists (usually “old-earth” types like myself) are crying “conspiracy” – I don’t question the “facts” of modern science (the great age of the universe and of earth, the existence of pre-human hominids, etc.) – just a few of the conclusions. But I do think that when the scientific community starts out with a certain bias (naturalism), evolution is the conclusion they HAVE to come to, more or less, and so they will interpret the data however they have to in order to fit; for example, if, hypothetically, there were a God and He did specifically intervene throughout history to create new species without any sort of macro-evolutionary processes, what we would expect to see is the sudden explosions of life (like the Cambrian Explosion) that we DO see, but since they’ve ruled out a Creator from the outset, they have to keep probing and trying to explain it away as “rapid evolution,” and the big picture of evolution gets more and more convoluted as researchers (artificially limiting themselves to naturalistic explanations) connect more and more dots that don’t really connect. But I don’t blame them, really, given the presuppositions imposed on them, and in any case I don’t think we should ever stop investigating something, even if it appears there is no naturalistic explanation to be found (abiogenesis comes to mind) – the ongoing investigation will either strengthen a naturalistic case or weaken it, and I am confident that the biblical account has nothing to fear.

    But it’s not a “conspiracy” – I don’t think anyone’s out there hiding evidence of a creator, and really, they couldn’t if they tried, because – as even such notable atheists as Paul Davies and Richard Dawkins have conceded – the impression of design in nature is overwhelming (though they

  • lucid_hysteria

    (And I realize this does not excuse the many vocal evolution critics who DO seem to think there’s some conspiracy and evidence of a 6-10,000-year-old earth (which the biblical account in no way requires or describes, by the way) that these sneaky evolutionary biologists are hiding away, but I had to point out that rejecting evolution does not necessarily equate to distrusting or disliking science in general. And I had to put in a good word for those of us who are fascinated by both science and the Bible and find both to be trustworthy records of God’s truth that both ultimately point to the redemptive work He accomplishes through Christ, who bore the wrath we deserve for our sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.)

  • lucid_hysteria

    “The voters can see what the tea party really is: a small group of elederly, white, rich racists who hate minorities, immigrants and Muslims and who hope to destroy Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid”

    This is an extremely ridiculous accusation and misrepresentation of the Tea Party and it would be great if the Tea Party’s critics would confront them on the issues instead of always resorting to unfounded name-calling. What don’t you like about the idea of limited, responsible, Constitutional government?

  • georgebernardshaw

    alan40. Why are these seven (or more) “assumptions” not hypotheses? We are extrapolating backwards in time from what we observe today, both in the living world, and in the fossil and geological record. To do it, we make the hypotheses that we evolved from an apelike ancestor, and before that from reptiles and so on. The record in life, like genomes, and the fossil record confirm our hypotheses, albeit with less certainty the farther back we go. These hypotheses can perhaps be described as “working assumptions”, but the qualification means they are corrigible, and therefore are just a type of hypothesis. If the evidence we find merits it, we will correct the hypothesis. As others here have noted, science works because scientists are all trying to correct what we already know. It is not dogma. But I fear that creationists and fundamentalists never ask questions based on knowledge, but only on wilful ignorance.

  • georgebernardshaw

    Human rights are human morals. They are the rights we all expect from others of our kind as a consequence of our being social animals. Rights imply restrictions. If we each of us have a right to life, then others are not free to kill us. Solitary animals have no need of morals, or only rudimentary ones connected with parenting. Social animals like us, who live in groups do it for a reason– we are safer and more successful by living together. Ten of us have twenty eyes to look out for predators. Similarly when some of us failed to gather any roots or berries, others in our group would share theirs. We were more secure against predation and starvation, and, similarly, could care for each other when we are injured or ill, can co-operate to do things we could not do separately, can jointly look after the group’s children, and so on. It should all be familiar to Christians because Christ taught it all 2000 years ago, and made it a requirement of salvation that we loved other human beings, even our enemies. In other words, Jesus was teaching that we should follow our moral instincts to be kind and compassionate to each other. No God was necessary, unless God is seen as a metaphor for the social group.

  • georgebernardshaw

    Einstein and other believers in the Big Bang might have been correct. We are looking back into the past a long way to see the Big Bang, and it might be an illusion–to use an analogy–rather like seeing the railroad tracks disappearing into a point at the horizon. No one thinks they actually do, but who knows? Maybe the farther things are away from us the smaller the scale is! I repeat, it is an analogy to this: Maybe time goes slower the farther back it is. As the universe got smaller and smaller going backwards, there came a time when it was smaller than the Planck length. It was the Planck time. Times before that headed towards zero on a decreasing exponential scale. ie The closer to zero it got, the slower time was. Consequently, it never got to zero at all. In virtual time, the universe is eternal–calculations on such small scales require quantum calculations, involving virtual time, and S Hawking and a co-worker showed that the universe indeed did not have a beginning.

  • alan40

    george, I have been asking questions for 50+ years and care very much about truth. I know this is not unique among creationists and “fundamentalists” — whatever you mean by that. The science books I had in high school in the late 60’s are very different from the ones being used today — because the “science” has been corrected. I suspect that 50 years from now people will be laughing at what is considered settled science today.


    Did Rick Perry mention that he took a $1 million bribe… I’m sorry, “campaign contribution” from a businessman who wants to store radioactive waste in Texas?

    That radioactive waste will sure help the mutation rate in Texas for the next 50,000 years or so (unless it goes critical) and since mutation is an important part of evolutionary theory, Perry is certainly doing his part to advance evolution.

    We already know that h. texanesis won’t be as intelligent as normal human beings, but do you suppose they will evolve to be able to feed off of the slurry at the bottom of abandoned oil wells? Will they grow horns that resemble coeboy hats?


    Carl Sagan called it “the god of the gaps” argument in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Beacon in the Dark'”