Scientists still wary after science minister says he believes in evolution

Canadian scientists say they are somewhat comforted that Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, has clarified that he believes in evolution, but his recent comments still raised some concerns and questions.

Canadian scientists say they are somewhat comforted that the minister of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear, has clarified that he believes in evolution, but his recent comments still raised some concerns and questions.

John Smol, a biology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said in an email Wednesday he found the clarification "reassuring."

Goodyear had said in a television interview late Tuesday that he believes in evolution.

In a newspaper article published earlier that day, Goodyear had refused to say whether he believes in the evolution, adding that he was a Christian and questions about his religion were inappropriate.

But, when pressed on the question during an interview on CTV's Power Play late that afternoon, he responded: "Well, of course, I do, but it's an irrelevant question … We are evolving every year, every decade."

Goodyear went on to give some examples from his experience as a chiropractor.

"That's a fact, whether it's to the intensity of the sun, whether it's to … walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that's not relevant and that's why I refused to answer the question."

On Wednesday, following a speech at the Economic Club of Toronto outlining the government's incentives and funding for science and technology, Goodyear refused to clarify further, insisting his personal views aren't important.

When asked whether there was a conflict with someone with his portfolio being a creationist, he responded: "Absolutely not. How ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous. That's why I didn't answer the question — because it has no relevance."

He added that decisions about what areas of science should be funded are mostly made by scientists themselves through organizations such as granting councils, not by him.

While Smol was relieved to hear the initial clarification about Goodyear's beliefs, he disagreed with Goodyear's insistence that questions about them were not relevant.

"It is sort of relevant, of course, for a science minister should be able to assess science … just as the finance minister should be able to assess information from financial people," Smol said, adding it would be worrisome if Goodyear could not follow the data.

Steven Carr, a biologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, said Goodyear's approach the question has bigger implications.

"If the minister were asked if he accepts the theory of global warming — an evolutionary phenomenon that will have massive impact on plant and animal species in the coming decades — I hope he would not say that environmental change is irrelevant to his portfolio," Carr remarked in an email.

'A fundamental misunderstanding'

Elizabeth Elle, a biology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said it's good to hear the minister accepts the theory of evolution, but she was concerned about the example he provided.

"I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how evolution by natural selection works," she added.

The fundamental premise is that genetic variation among organisms results in differences in their "fitness" — a biological term referring to the number of offspring they have. That ultimately leads certain characteristics to become prevalent among their descendents. However, the types of characteristics that result in more offspring change over time as the environment changes.

Elle acknowledged that humans are evolving every day, being naturally selected for characteristics such as resistance to certain diseases, but not likely for the type of footwear they use.

Carr said Goodyear is confusing evolution with ordinary, day-to-day change.

"A suntan is not evolution, tired feet at the end of the day are not evolution," he said, adding that the misunderstanding suggests that scientists need to do a better job of communicating the importance of biological evolution.

Elle said if Goodyear really doesn't understand evolution, that's a problem because the concept underpins scientists' understanding of biology, from wildlife conservation to medicine.

"To the extent that his portfolio includes anything biological, he should understand it," Elle said.

Goodyear might still be anti-evolutionist

Denis Lamoureux, a professor of science and religion at the St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta, said Goodyear's comments don't rule out the possibility that he could be a young Earth creationist who believes the world is only a few thousand years old instead of four billion years old.

Even such creationists believe change occurs on a small scale, allowing different breeds of dogs to arise, for example, Lamoureux said. That would still make him an anti-evolutionist.

In order to find out for sure, one would have to ask Goodyear more specific questions, Lamoureux added.

"Let's say he is an anti-evolutionist … If that's the case, then I think there would be some serious concern," said Lamoureux, a former anti-evolutionist himself who now teaches about religion and evolution. "We're in a downturn right now, so there's going to be some shuffling of money."

That's Elle's worry.

"I have some concerns about there being some prejudice against basic science that has evolution as a component of it," she said.

When Goodyear was told by interviewer Jane Taber on CTV that the scientific community is concerned his views could "compromise you and the way you handle the portfolio as a science minister," he responded, "I can assure them and assure everybody else that it does not."

Goodyear said he is "passionate about science and technology," and fully supports a government agenda to increase funding to the science and technology community.

"They should not have any worries about that at all," he said.

Lamoureux said he doesn't think Goodyear's views would translate into science policy even if he does prove to be an anti-evolutionist.

Scientists watching closely

Both Smol and Elle said they are watching to see what Goodyear's actions prove to be.

"My concern is more to what the future science policy is in this country, which of course is in Dr. Goodyear's portfolio and sphere of influence," Smol said.

Elle said she was somewhat reassured by Goodyear's verbal commitment to funding science and technology.

"It is good that he's saying that he's going to be open and he's going to support science," she said.

For now, she's giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"Nobody should be vilified for one … group of comments forever," she said. "Now we have to see what his future actions are. And I think scientists will be watching him carefully because of this."