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Three anthropoid paws shot up last week during the Republican presidential candidates’ debate when the 10 contenders were asked who among them didn’t — did not — believe in evolution. One of the three raised hands belonged to the candidate from Arkansas, the one the candidates with some money have taken to calling Po’ Boy.

I felt just a fleeting smidgen of pity for those three hands-up confessors because that was something of a trick question. It was meant to draw out the yahoos on the slate, to allow them to show themselves as yahoos, willing and even eager to troll for votes in the creationist fens and sties where the happy suspicion abides that God erred in not going with the baboons.

The reality is, Wapo polls notwithstanding, there’s nobody left who doesn’t believe in evolution. Not believing in evolution makes no more sense than not believing in gravity or disease germs. If you believe that children turn into adults, and acorns into oaks, and cute little puppies into hateful mongrel curs that harass old people out walking, then you qualify as one of them e-word rascals whether you like it or not.

You may not know that your PC evolved from a Univac, but refusing to believe that it did is just foolishness. When a politician thus cynically professes disbelief in the obvious, it’s often called posturing. The Sage of Baltimore named it boob bumping, and somebody, Carville maybe, or the Original Greaser Bob, ventured both yokel unction and the barrel-bottom scrape.

All critters evolve, indeed all things evolve, if not always for the better, as the evolution of the Republican Party, for example, makes evident in its long, slow, sad descent from Lincoln to Grant to Warren G. Harding to the contemporary embarrassment. And just because you can’t bring yourself to admit it doesn’t make it not so.

There aren’t many holdout disbelievers in evolution even if you narrow the scope of the thing to the purely Darwinian. Even clinical imbeciles nowadays concede that you can breed a trim conformation into your hogs, or sweetness into your grapes; and its only a small step to realizing that mountain ranges have come and gone, and will continue to, and so have and will species, and galaxies. All of that is evolution at work — is evidence, as one of the old Greeks noted, that whirl is king eternal, that what goes around comes around, that the more things change the more they stay the same.

I want to think there was at least a teensy measure of sincerity in that raising of hands. Probably not. Probably vote fishing, yokel massage, and just being aholes for the sake of being aholes — altogether a party tradition. And not that it would have made it any better, but a touch of earnestness might somehow have made the spectacle a little less shameful.

So I’d give them this much credit for possible (and possibly unconscious) nuance:

• That they have no quarrel with evolution, as long as you exempt human beings from its dictates and implications. They think human beings, alone among living things (except that Billy Graham includes beloved pets), received a special creation and a unique quotient or endowment of immortality, God only knows why. The baboons must’ve been off somewhere, monkeying, redding their butts.

• That they also raised those hands against the notion that evolution is an ongoing process or dynamic, especially as it applies to human beings. It might have helped bring us about, but since we’re the crown of creation, what would be the point of its continuing on? It can’t improve on perfection, and it would be counter-intuitive, might near Manichean, to suppose that it would be permitted to try.

To pity such claptrap is not to agree with it, though, I must remember. And as I suddenly weary of the whole stupid business, I feel a digression coming on. I was just wondering if we’re missing the real moral of this story of the elevated paws. Maybe the issue is this: that you don’t learn anything useful about a candidate, or about anybody, by asking him what he doesn’t believe. Ask him what he does believe.

I’ve just been enumerating some of my own non-beliefs. I don’t believe that nocturnal space aliens remove vital organs from standing pastured cattle. I don’t believe Barbara Bush once test-rode all the mechanical bulls they brought into Gilley’s. I don’t believe you can trace the rise of Naziism to Hitler’s fondness for having trashy girlfriends squat on him. I don’t believe Francis or Mr. Ed either one really talked, because I just don’t believe horses are that smart. Baboons, maybe.

I don’t believe in the Heisenberg Uncertainty, or in spontaneous generation, or in whipping okra or coddling wasps.

Those non-beliefs — and I’ve got a million of them — tell you almost nothing about ol’moi. They shed no light on how good a president I might be. But if I raised my hand in testimony to having personally witnessed extraterrestrial cow surgeries, or if I averred to have seen with my own eyes her silver eminence astride one of those thrashing monster machines, and to have seen her actually “break” or tame the thing, that would tell you plenty.

So, too, if I told you that me and God chat, or that I believe good might come of the Iraq War.

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