article

11.18.09

Sarah Palin, Creationist?

Sarah Palin's book has resolved one thing for sure this week—she's a creationist, but with a twist. Benjamin Sarlin reads between the lines of her views on "microevolution."

Questions about Sarah Palin’s stance on evolution have trailed her since she appeared on the national political stage, but in her new book, Going Rogue, she finally comes out of the closet as a creationist—or as she puts it, “the C-word.” In doing so, however, she manages to obscure the extent of those creationist beliefs by citing her acceptance of “microevolution.”

The former Alaska governor outlines her views on evolution in the book by recounting a conversation in 2008 with McCain strategist Steve Schmidt. “[He] knew my position: I believed in the evidence for microevolution—that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time,” Palin writes. “But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings—thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees; I believed we came about not through a random process, but were created by God.”

“Her stand is basically a biblically oriented stand...that has no basis in fact,” the professor said. “It is a ridiculous ploy of the ‘duck kind,’ i.e. a canard.”

Palin’s acceptance of “microevolution,” she writes, is a “nuanced position” that she contrasts with “images of wild-eyed fundamentalists burying evidence for any kind of evolution under an avalanche of Bible verses.” But both evolutionists and creationists say the “microevolution” distinction is often employed by exactly the old-fashioned, Bible-thumping crowd Palin describes.

“It’s a common criticism by creationists,” Joseph Travis, a professor of biology at Florida State Univesity, told The Daily Beast.

Palin’s beliefs about evolution had been difficult to piece together before the publication of her book. At a gubernatorial debate in 2006, she responded to a question about whether creationism should be taught in schools by saying, “Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools” and that she was “a proponent of teaching both.” But in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News shortly afterward, she said she did not favor including creationism in the school curriculum but believed discussions on the subject should be allowed if they came up in the classroom.

The issue came up again during the 2008 presidential race, in an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. Asked whether she believed evolution should be taught in schools, Palin said the theory was “an accepted principle” and that “science should be taught in science class.” She added, however, that “I won’t ever deny that I see the hand of God in this beautiful creation that is Earth.” The distinction was similar to one made by John McCain, a believer in evolution, who said at a Republican primary debate in 2007: “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”

Biologists use the phrase “microevolution” to refer to changes within a group of organisms over a relatively short period of time. The most-famous example is the peppered moth of England, which became darker over generations in response to pollution from a local factory that blackened the trees it relied on for camouflage, encouraging the survival of similarly colored moths. Because these changes are so easily observed, creationists tend to concede their existence. But only to a point: They do not acknowledge that over time, natural selection will lead to radically different new types of organisms, the process known as “macroevolution,” responsible for bigger leaps like birds evolving from dinosaurs.

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The basis for this distinction is rooted in Christian doctrine, not science. According to Dr. David Menton, a staff scientist at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, microevolution is acceptable only if species vary within the same “kind,” a translation of a Hebrew phrase from the Old Testament describing the original sets of species that traveled on Noah’s ark.

“The point is you get a lot of different kinds of dogs but dogs remain dogs,” Menton said. “They don’t become cats.”

Scientists say it’s an argument that has long floated around creationist circles in order to address examples of evolution that are impossible to ignore, like the development of bacteria that resist antibiotics. University of Chicago ecology and evolution professor at Jerry Coyne calls the passage in Palin’s book a “typical creationist ploy” easily refuted by fossil evidence suggesting transitions between animals as fish and amphibians or land animals and whales.

“Her stand is basically a biblically oriented stand...that has no basis in fact,” Coyne told The Daily Beast in an e-mail. “It is a ridiculous ploy of the ‘duck kind,’ i.e. a canard.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.