Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh, Canada

A couple of years ago, many on the left in the U.S. were threatening to stampede our northern border for what they perceived as a more enlightened society in Canada. Free healthcare. Culturally ingrained politeness. Thankfully boring politics. Most importantly, no W and, with that absence, no religious-based war-on-science. OK, that last probably didn't make it to the top of the list of reasons why anyone renounced their U.S. citizenship, but it would have been close to mine.

Last year, many cheered the impending arrival of a new U.S. administration that promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Those who fled—though I doubt the exodus ever reached a trickle, much less the epic flood that anyone held it out to be—were probably feeling a little dazed, then, when recent developments in Canadian politics had them thinking about lining up at the border again. This time facing south.

Last month, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, evaded questions put to him by the Globe and Mail about whether he believed in evolution, saying, "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

He later backtracked somewhat on Canadian television, saying that "Of course" he believed in evolution, but that it was an irrelevant question. Mr. Goodyear, formerly a chiropractor went on to add:

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.

Unfortunately, it appears that he's mistaking adaptation with evolution. A person adapting to waking on cement might put on shoes. A species evolving to the same environment would, over generations (ie, not decades for humans) and through the processes of mutation and selection, eventually produce young with the biological equivalent of running shoes—thickened soles or wide feet, perhaps. Goodyear also claimed that he was being quoted out of context, that the questions were not relevant to Canada’s leadership in science and technology.

One hardly knows where to begin. First, and most obviously, Goodyear may believe in evolution, as he states, but it's an evolution that is starkly at odds with the evolution biologists have documented in the natural world. Second, he is the Canadian minister in charge of science policy, so I would argue it most certainly is relevant whether he believes (and understands) something as fundamental as evolution to Canada’s leadership in something as non-trivial as biotechnology or pharmaceutical development.

Oddly, few if any U.S. news outlets decided to cover the story. Odd because, in addition to being our largest trading partner, the U.S. receives quite a few Canadian researchers looking for labs and students looking for advisors—both of whom are looking for funding. In January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government cut funding to the sciences at the same time that the U.S. wants to expand science funding as part of broader economic stimulus plans, leading to fears of a brain drain to the south. Now one has to wonder whether Goodyear’s comments will further sour the atmosphere in labs across Canada and increase the number of Canadian scientists looking the exit signs.