In her memoir, "Going Rogue," Sarah Palin reveals that she has creationist leanings, explicitly rejecting the belief that humans and other species evolved from a common lineage.
There's no precise definition of "creationism," but the term generally encompasses those who oppose all or part of the theory – held almost universally by biologists and supported by overwhelming amounts of empirical evidence – that all known species are descended from a common ancestor or gene pool and that complex life arises as a result of random mutation and natural selection.
On the hard-core end of the creationist spectrum are biblically inspired "young-earth creationists," who tend to believe that Earth is less than 10,000 years old, that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, and that God created all species "as is" in their present form. They usually don't mind being called creationists.
On the other end are proponents of "intelligent design." This hypothesis does not reject the timescale of evolution, nor does it reject the belief that all living things share a common ancestor. But intelligent design proponents do hold that certain living structures, such as the bacterial flagella, blood cells, and cellular pumps, are too complex to have arisen by mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection.
Instead, they posit a powerful being at the beginning of the process who consciously designed and built these structures. Intelligent design supporters generally don't like being called creationists, but a US federal court has ruled that they are.
Palin – whose father taught high school science – seems to fall somewhere in between, and is probably closer to the "young earthers." She doesn't reject Darwin's theory wholesale. She says that she believes in small evolutionary changes over time, but she clearly doesn't buy into common descent of different species, a concept central to modern biology.
[Schmidt] knew my position: I believed in the evidence for microevolution – that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time. 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 through a random process, but were created by God.
"But your dad's a science teacher," Schmidt objected.
"Then you know that science proves evolution," added Schmidt.
"Parts of evolution," I said.
"But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt."
Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows. In the dim light, his sunglasses shifted atop his head. I had just dared to mention the C-word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.
Science says she is not. All the available evidence, from the fossil record to DNA to comparative anatomy and biochemistry, point to a common ancestor of all species.
Evolutionary anthropologists would agree with Palin on at least one point though – humans did not evolve from monkeys – but rather an ancestor of monkeys, apes, and humans. But scientists are almost certain that all vertebrates are descended from fish.
Others remember Palin's conversation with Schmidt and Salter differently.
Writing on the website for CBS News, Shushannah Walshe and Scott Conroy, coauthors of the book "Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar," published earlier this month, note that, if Palin was a creationist at the time, she wasn't exactly advertising that fact.
Palin's version of the conversation contradicts the reporting we conducted for our own book, "Sarah From Alaska," which was published earlier this month.
"I'm the daughter of a science teacher. My father showed me fossils. I know about evolution, and I accept evolution," Palin said, we report in our book. "That doesn't mean that God didn't set everything in motion."
In "Sarah From Alaska," we reported that contrary to Palin's description of a pair of sunglasses shifting ominously atop Schmidt's head, both Schmidt and Salter were actually quite satisfied with Palin's answer, which dovetailed with the theory of Intelligent Design.
Two former McCain aides each independently maintained that Palin's recollection of the conversation in "Going Rogue," was inaccurate.
"If she had been, 'I am a creationist,' she would not have been the nominee," one former aide said. "McCain wouldn't have gone for that."
Another former McCain campaign aide maintained not to have recalled ever hearing Palin use the word "creationism" and said that it had been Palin, not Schmidt, who had raised the issue of her father's occupation as a science teacher.
Walshe and Conroy's account of this conversation is closer to what Palin said in her much-scrutinized interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric. If you watch this YouTube clip starting at about 2:10, you'll hear Palin say that she thinks evolution "should be taught as an accepted principle."
Palin adds that she sees "the hand of God in this beautiful creation that is Earth," but that "science should be taught in science class." In this interview, she doesn't qualify her acceptance of evolution, nor does she suggest that creationism should be taught alongside the science.
Two years earlier though, that's exactly what she said. During a televised debate for the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial race, she was asked whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms. Here's her response, according to the Anchorage Daily News:
"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject – creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides."
The ADN spoke with Palin after the debate:
Asked for her personal views on evolution, Palin said, "I believe we have a creator."
She would not say whether her belief also allowed her to accept the theory of evolution as fact.
"I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be," she said.
So it looks like Palin was skeptical of evolution in 2006, but that she dialed back her creationist beliefs for the 2008 presidential campaign, only to let them loose again in 2009. This isn't surprising: as this blog noted last year, her thoughts on climate change are similarly slippery.
Palin's beliefs about our origins may be vague and contradictory – as Slate's Christopher Beam points out, she has no reservations about describing people as "Neanderthals" – but she's in excellent company. A Gallup poll taken in February 2009 shows that only four in 10 Americans believe in evolution. Another 36 percent have no opinion, and 25 percent said that they do not believe in evolution.
A large number of Americans seem to have scant understanding of how mutation and natural selection can give rise to complex life: When Gallup asked which scientific theory Charles Darwin is associated with, only 55 percent were able to answer correctly.
Palin's rejection of human's evolutionary kinship with other species expresses itself in other ways. In a line that tweaks vegans, Palin quipped: "If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?"
Humans, she seems to believe, are made of something else entirely.