Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) raised eyebrows Monday when he told GQ he couldn't answer a question about the age of the earth because "I'm not a scientist, man."
Having a top prospect for the 2016 presidential nomination say the age of the planet is "one of the great mysteries" comes at an awkward time for a party attempting to rebuild from its Nov. 6 drubbing at the hands of voters turned off by the GOP's embrace of social conservatives. But Rubio is hardly alone among potential Republican presidential contenders. Other big names for 2016 have weighed in publicly at various times over the years to position themselves as supportive of creationism proponents.
To science education advocates, these public statements fall into two categories: craven political panders to the conservative base and expressions of actual doubt in basic scientific principles. Both are disconcerting, the advocates say, and whether or not a president stands up for science has a broader impact than the education battles where creationism most often comes up.
"It's important beyond whether somebody has a direct impact on evolution [education] because it's an indicator of the way they look at the world and who they accept as reliable guides and authorities on subjects," said Dr. Eric Meikle, an anthropologist and director of education at the National Center for Science Education. "It's very important in terms of that."
For the record, Mitt Romney actually accepted the science of evolution and opposed the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" theory in science classrooms when he was governor of Massachusetts. That puts him to the left of some of the men potentially vying to be his replacement on the ticket in four years.
A look at some big names in 2016 Republican presidential speculation and what they've said about evolution or creationism:
Gov. Chris Christie (NJ)
The oft-mentioned 2016 contender -- and self-described straight shooter -- has declined open up about his thoughts on evolution. "That's none of your business," Christie said in May 2011 when asked where he comes down on evolution versus creationism.
At a town hall a week earlier, Christie said that he believed the decision to teach creationism alongside evolution should be made at the local level. A week later, Christie clarified that this position was not an endorsement of teaching creationism. "That is not to say, as it was interpreted by some that I was advocating for the teaching of creationism," Christie said. "Folks never really have a hard time figuring out when I'm advocating for something."
The Wall Street Journal story at the time pointed out that Christie's non-answer on creationism is a departure from the governor's promise not to use an "escape hatch" on the issues:
For a politician who has built a national reputation for straight talk and not shying from a fight, Christie's demurral on creationism stands out. In the past, he has said people need not wonder where he stands on an issue.
"When you guys ask me questions, I'm going to answer them directly, straightly, bluntly, and nobody in New Jersey is going to have to wonder where I am on an issue," he said a year ago, adding: "I think they've had enough of politicians who make them wonder ... They make them wonder so they got an escape hatch. So they have an escape hatch. And I'm not interested in an escape hatch."
Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA)
Jindal, a committed social conservative, has emerged lately as the potential 2016er most ready to criticize the rhetoric of the last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. But Jindal is no moderate, especially when it comes to evolution.
In 2008, Jindal signed into law the "Louisiana Science Education Act," a law that according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Annette Sisco, "cleared the way for creationism to be taught in biology class." That led groups like the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to boycott the state as host for national conferences.
Jindal created a new firestorm around the evolution issue this summer when schools with bible-based curriculums ended up on the list of institutions included in the state's expanded voucher program. Under Jindal's education reforms, thousands of Louisiana students can use taxpayer dollars to attend schools that, as Lance Hill, executive director of Southern Institute for Education and Research, explained to Reuters in July, "use an evangelical curriculum that teaches that humans walked the earth 6,000 years ago with dinosaurs."
A biology major at Brown and a Rhodes Scholar, Jindal has endorsed the idea that local school boards should determine whether creationism or intelligent design should be taught in schools. "I don't want any facts or theories or explanations to be withheld from [my children] because of political correctness," Jindal said during a 2008 appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Sen. Rand Paul (KY)
Paul is expected to take up his father's libertarian-bent presidential crusade next cycle. And like his dad, Paul has often mixed a healthy dose of social conservative outreach in with his fiscal libertarian purity.
Almost exactly like Rubio did this week, Paul demurred on the question of the earth's age back in 2010. Taking questions from a meeting of the Christian Homeschool Educators of Kentucky during his Senate campaign, Paul declined to answer the question "how old is the world?"
"I forgot to say I was only taking easy questions," Paul said. "I'm gonna pass on the age of the earth. I think, ah, I'm just gonna have to pass on that one."
Sen. Marco Rubio (FL)
Rubio's comments to GQ were unsurprising when compared with Rubio's rhetoric on creationism in the past. Facing creationist protests, the Florida Board of Education wrestled with curriculum standards in 2008 that accepted evolution as scientifically sound. Eventually, the board ruled that evolution should be taught, but only as a "scientific theory." It was a compromise decision that drew criticism from the scientific community who said it underplayed evolution's acceptance as the basis for biological science and criticism from creationists worried that it didn't go far enough to allow their theories about the creation of the world into the mix. Then-state House Speaker Rubio was on the side of creationists.
After the state Board of Education ruling, Rubio told the Florida Baptist Witness that he'd support legislation modeled on a proposal allowing teachers who so desired "to engage students in a critical analysis" of evolution. His reasoning, from the Witness:
The "crux" of the disagreement, according to Rubio, is "whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?"
Rubio added, "And for me, personally, I don't want a school system that teaches kids that what they're learning at home is wrong."
Rubio then "made a comparison to the strategy employed by the Communist Party in Cuba where schools encouraged children to turn in parents who criticized Fidel Castro."
"'Of course, I'm not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro,' he quickly added," according to the Witness.