Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is Canada's Minister of Science and Technology a Creationist?

In a newspaper article published on Tuesday day, Canadian Conservative MP and Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear 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."

Canadian scientists say they are somewhat comforted that Goodyear clarified that he believes in evolution, but his recent comments still raised some concerns and questions.

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.

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.

Which begs the question, how will Goodyear cast his vote in Parliament on issues such as stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, gun control, capital punishment, climate change, etc.? Will he consider the empirical evidence, or will he simply vote according to his faith?

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