Rubio's Perplexing Punt on the Age of the Earth

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Just because he speaks feelingly about immigrants and the poor doesn't mean the Florida senator is going step away from the conservative war on science.

cavesPhilippe Wojazer/Reuters

Is Marco Rubio ready to be a leader of the GOP? His remarks on the humanity of undocumented immigrants and the poor show him to be much more in tune with his generation than was losing vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Only a year Rubio's senior, Ryan put forward a Randian vision of a nation that does little to lift up the economy's losers -- or newcomers -- while Rubio has become a powerful advocate for an as yet unnamed strain of forward-looking conservatism. When it comes to the lives of Latino voters, the Republican Party may have no more articulate and reality-based spokesman than Rubio.

That's one reason it was so disappointing to hear his remarks in an interview with Michael Hainey, the deputy editor of GQ, in the December issue of the magazine. As Hainey sets the scene, Rubio knew he would be speaking for the long-haul. Writes Hainey:

I met up with Rubio in the back room of a local community center in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. He had just come from the GQ photo shoot and was still sweating from the early-morning heat. Rubio smiles a lot and likes to put people at ease. But he also speaks with the restraint of a guy who knows everything he says will be parsed and, most likely, used against him. "I've learned the hard way," he says. "You have to always be thinking how your actions today will be viewed at a later date."

Hainey asked Rubio, a U.S. senator who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a very basic question that has somehow become a trick question in conservative circles.

"How old do you think the Earth is?" he asked.

Rubio's reply:

I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.

There are an astonishingly large number of things wrong in this statement -- some which mark Rubio's greenness on the national stage, and some that merely show the extent to which biblically-literal conservatism continues to hold sway over the GOP during the most broadly culturally liberal era, ever.

To begin with, Rubio's remarks are not even an accurate description of what's laid out in the Bible. It was not a seven-day process to make the Earth, according to the King James Bible's Genesis. The Earth itself was made on the first day, though it took until the third day for the waters to be gathered together and dry land to emerge. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is first thing that Genesis describes, even if "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep," and it was not until the third day that "God called the dry land Earth."

Secondly, scientists estimate the age of the Earth from geological research on rocks from this planet, the moon, and from meteorites -- not from "recorded history." Recorded history only takes us back to the Sumerians in the 4th millennium B.C., though the history of art takes us back another 34,000 years or so after that. So the dispute is not between the historical record and theological interpretations -- history and theology were actually quite intertwined at the start of writing. The dispute is between science and an anti-modern strain of Christian theology rejected by leaders of a number of the major Christian denominations, including Pope Benedict XVI, who has said, "there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such."

Rubio is not actually wrong that there have been other scientific theories about the creation of the universe beyond the Big Bang theory, and that there are some questions that are not fully explained by current models. But there is no way to reject the Big Bang model without also rejecting a century's worth of physics research -- research which sometimes underpins the technologically sophisticated world in which we now live. And while there is necessarily always a certain humility involved in an endeavor like estimating the age of the universe, it is now calculated to be 13.7 billion years old, with an uncertainty of only 1 percent.

One doesn't expect political leaders to necessarily know things like this -- or that the Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old -- off the tops of their heads. But it's not unreasonable to expect enough of an allegiance to reality to be able to acknowledge that the science is based on solid ground and should be treated as such by our public education systems. And one expects a certain agility on the topic from anyone who hopes to be more than a marginal GOP figure.

Matt Lewis points to the way John McCain finessed the question of his belief in evolution during a 2008 debate as a model for how Republicans can acknowledge both religion and modernity. "I believe in evolution," McCain said. "But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also."

The vastness and magnificence of nature and the world in which we live gives rise to similar sentiments in many religions. But just because the dawn is beautiful does not mean than we reject efforts to understand what we see in the darkness beyond our world, or lack the capacity to discover its origins.

"I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that," Rubio told GQ. But if he wants to oversee the world's premiere space program, the high-tech U.S. military, the education of America's youth, and policies to address our climate changing climate, he is going to need to be.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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