First off, the clarification. When asked later if he believes in evolution, he said:
“Of course I do….We are evolving every year, every decade. That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment. But that’s not relevant and that is why I refused to answer the question. The interview was about our science and tech strategy, which is strong.”
I’m not a fan of gotcha politics, the heart of which is taking comments out of context. But there’s a risk here of reverse-gotcha-ism. Some news outlets are reporting that the minister “ended the evolution brouhaha” with that statement, and the CBC carried only the first sentence. What I take from the full quote is that he believes in the word evolution. He believes things change over time, possibly in response to their environment. Things like shoes, and yearly change in response to “the sun”. Which is not of course the same thing as believing in the evolution of species and their traits over generations through natural selection of the fittest genes. Natural selection is the kind of evolution the minister was originally being asked about, and so far he hasn’t answered that question.
That could mean just a few possible things. One is that he didn’t understand that the question was about Darwinian evolution, and really thought the question was about general things like footwear changing over time, but that’s unlikely. Another is that he doesn’t understand the distinction, but nobody gets through a science-based degree (at Waterloo no less) without being vaguely aware that Darwin had a particular mechanism for evolution in mind. What seems more likely is that he is aware of the distinction, but figures the news-reading public might not be focused on it, and is using that confusion to avoid admitting that he really doesn’t believe in evolution.
So is it fair to ask a politician about their religion? Because creationism is a religious issue, he’s right about that, and that links a person’s views on the evolution of species to their religious views. As a general rule, I personally don’t think politicians should be asked about their religion. But sometimes the general rules get murky, such as when a science minister gets asked about an issue that bridges both science and religion. It’s hard to say, but in this case I think it probably was appropriate to ask him that, and I think he probably should answer, eventually.
He signaled the real answer by telling us that his views on evolution are tied to his religious faith. And unless he belongs to some hyper-rationalist religious community that I’m not aware of, one which has strong views say on punctualism versus gradualism, that pretty much means he thinks God settled the species.
So does that matter? Is it a problem for a Minister of Science to not believe in evolution? I don’t know. What does a Minister of Science do anyway? Not science, presumably. Some people seem to think he controls the balance between applied and pure research funding. Some people think that this minister is a fan of commercialized engineering over broader research. Well, okay, and if so that would worry me. Personally, I figure you need to spread research funding all up and down the applied:pure continuum, focusing especially on those areas of pure science which bear on those areas of applied science which bear on topics of significant worldly impact. That’s my opinion, and as far as I can tell, that doesn’t derive from my religious beliefs.
Maybe the unsettling thing about having a creationist Science Minister is just the sense that seriously religious types sometimes seem suspicious about science. There are lots of religiously faithful folks who are effective professional scientists, but I suspect that most of those are the sort whose religious perspective is such that it can be reconciled with adeterministic mechanisms like genetic drift. I have trouble seeing how those who adhere more closely to literalist gospel truth can simultaneously muster the disciplined intensity of respect for worldly truth that purest research science gathers around it.
Do we want a science minister who is suspicious of scientists? Yes, absolutely. Do we want a science minister who is suspicious of science? Maybe. Do we want a science minister who lets religion trump the most well-established, central tenets of scientific theory in his personal world view? All of this is to say that I’m just not sure, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a good idea.