More than 70 years after the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the scientific theory of evolution is still too hot for some American schools to handle.
In that infamous 1925 case, worldwide attention focused on John T. Scopes, who was on trial for teaching evolution and breaking a Tennessee law which banned teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Despite decades of scientific advances supporting evolution since the Scopes trial, despite numerous court rulings aimed at protecting science and educators from religious zealotry, and despite ever-increasing rhetoric about helping students compete in the modern world by giving them the best possible science education, schools all across the country are under pressure to downplay, ignore, or distort one of the fundamental theories of modern science. In at least some of those schools, the pressure is working.
What’s more, some observers say, the pressure is getting worse. Right-wingers and religious fundamentalists have been buoyed by newfound political strength in recent years. They are attacking evolution — as well as the whole concept of a secular, publicly funded school system — with ever-increasing vigor as they attempt to batter down the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state and stamp their own brand of religion upon school curriculum.
Creationists don’t often win outright victories; a court decision or legislative vote eventually stops many anti-evolution proposals. Nonetheless, the enemies of evolution often succeed in sending a message to teachers: If you value your careers, don’t teach this. And many teachers, fearing they’ll be fired or that their communities will shun them, comply.
Furthermore, in recent years creationists have adopted more sophisticated tactics. In particular, they have repackaged creationism to make such beliefs appear as legitimate scientific theory — which they then argue should be taught in conjunction with evolution.
What is Evolution?
Simply put, evolution is the scientific theory that all life forms on earth today are descended from a single cell, or at most a very few different cells. The diversity we see among species is the result of biological changes that have taken place over many hundreds of millions of years. During that time, new variations of plants and animals have appeared, through what the National Association of Biology Teachers terms “an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process of temporal descent … .” Those new variations best able to adapt — to find food, escape predators, protect living space, or produce offspring — survived to pass along their traits to future generations. This is the process that Charles Darwin termed “natural selection” in his seminal 1859 work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”
The scientific community attaches great importance to the theory of evolution. The National Association of Biology Teachers says it’s impossible to provide “a rational, coherent and scientific account” of the history and diversity of organisms on earth, or to effectively teach cellular and molecular biology, without including the principles and mechanisms of evolution. Similarly, leading national voices for the reform of science education, including the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, emphasize the importance of teaching evolution as part of a well-rounded K-12 science curriculum. An NSTA position paper on evolution, for example, notes that there is “abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology, and other sciences that evolution has taken place,” making it an important “unifying concept for science.” Scientific disciplines “with a historical component, such as astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology, cannot be taught with integrity if evolution is not emphasized,” NSTA concludes.
What Creationists Believe
Generally, there’s no conflict today between the theory of evolution and the religious beliefs of people who think that a supernatural entity guided the creation of the world. Many scientists and philosophers who accept the validity of evolution are nevertheless devoutly religious. Even Pope John Paul II, in a statement released in 1996, said that while the Catholic church holds that God created heaven and Earth, there is strong scientific evidence to support evolution.
In the realm of U.S. politics and education, however, the term “creationist” is generally used to refer to people actively pushing a particular, fundamentalist Christian religious perspective which rejects the theory of evolution as false. While there are different factions — some creationists insist that Earth is only a few thousand years old, for example, while others remain open to the possibility that it’s much older — people actively challenging evolution and seeking to promote creationism generally believe that:
- Life appeared on Earth suddenly, in forms similar or identical to those seen today. Humans, therefore, did not evolve from earlier species.
- All life was designed for certain functions and purposes.
- The Bible is an accurate historical record of creation and other events, such as the Great Flood. (Again, however, there are factional differences. Some creationists insist that the “creation week” was a literal seven-day week, while others believe the creation period could have lasted longer.)
Many creationists also believe that because evolution contradicts their interpretation of the Bible, it is therefore anti-God. For example Henry Morris, founder of a leading creationist think tank, the Institute for Creation Research, has written that evolution is dangerous because it leads “to the notion that each person owns himself, and is the master of his own destiny.” This, he argues, is “contrary to the Bible teaching that man is in rebellion against God.” (See the “Resources” article for more information on the Institute for Creation Research.)
The Roots of Creationism
In the decades immediately following the publication of Darwin’s landmark book in 1859, colleges began revising their curricula “to purge religious influences,” says Gerald R. Skoog, a professor of education at Texas Tech University and a past president of the National Science Teachers Association. High schools began following suit around 1900, but the process was by no means swift or comprehensive. In 1925 in Dayton, TN, science teacher John T. Scopes was put on trial for breaking Tennessee’s law banning the teaching of evolution. The case became an international spectacle because of the appearances, and impassioned arguments, of lawyer Clarence Darrow on Scopes’ behalf and political giant William Jennings Bryan in opposition to evolution. Scopes was convicted, although his conviction was later dismissed on appeal by the state Supreme Court. The anti-evolution law remained on the books in Tennessee until 1967, when it was finally repealed.
In recent decades, numerous state and federal court decisions have sought to protect scientists and educators who advocate the teaching of evolution. At the heart of the decisions is the courts’ view that banning the teaching of evolution is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. Among the more significant decisions:
- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. In essence, the court held that creationists were attempting to foist a particular religious philosophy in the schools.
- In 1981 the Supreme Court rejected a California creationist’s claim that classroom discussions of evolution infringed on his right, and the rights of his children, to free exercise of religion.
- In 1987, the Supreme Court tossed out a Louisiana law that required the teaching of creationism whenever evolution was taught in schools, saying the law was an endorsement of religion.
- In 1990, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school district could prohibit a teacher from teaching creationism and that such a prohibition wouldn’t violate the teacher’s free-speech rights.
- Similarly, in 1994 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a teacher’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is not violated by a school-district requirement that teachers include evolution in biology curricula.
- In September 1997, a U.S. district court in Louisiana struck down as unconstitutional a three-year-old policy in Tangipahoa Parish that required teachers to read a disclaimer before teaching the theory of evolution.
Evolution also received a major boost, oddly enough, from the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. Critics of the U.S. education system seized on the launch, saying America’s “defeat” in the space race was due to poor schooling. This issue quickly became part of the national political agenda, and schools began putting new emphasis on math and science education.
Despite these court decisions, however, and the resurgence of interest in science education that flowed from the space race, evolution remains a popular target in school board meeting rooms, legislative halls, and courthouses from Virginia to California. The last decade in particular has seen a surge in creationist political activity.
On the Rise
“It certainly looks as though it’s on the rise,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution and opposes allowing creationism in schools. “I think the increase can be largely attributed to religious conservatives getting elected to school boards,” she says. “It only takes one or two creationists on a school board to generate significant controversy, especially if the science curriculum undergoes periodic review.”
Religious right groups like the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education have pushed hard to get right-wing Christians elected to local school boards in recent years. That’s because school-board elections often elicit jaw-droppingly low voter turnout, making it easier for a small but motivated faction to elect its hand-picked candidate. School boards are also attractive to right-wingers because board members have — or at least appear to have — tremendous influence over what can and can’t be taught in a community’s schools.
Right-wing political activists also got a tremendous boost in 1994, when an electorate disenchanted with Bill Clinton voted an unprecedented number of Republicans into state-level and local offices. The legislatures in many states slid rightward literally overnight. Today, right-wing lawmakers are carrying out attacks on public education on numerous fronts, with an eye toward pushing a fundamentalist political agenda — regardless of the wishes of most parents, teachers, and educators — and eroding the separation of church and state that has long been the hallmark of public schools. In addition to creationism, major battles are being waged around the country on such issues as school prayer, school-sponsored religious activity, so-called “parental-rights initiatives,” sex education, and vouchers. Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, has called these attacks on public education “one element of the Right’s attack on the fundamental institutions and values of American society. In attacking the schools, the Right is taking aim at the fundamental notion of opportunity for all. … What better way to deny real opportunity could be devised than to hamper the institutions that furnish children with an education?”
Examples of creationists trying to use their political might to foist their religious beliefs on public schools include:
- In Vista, California in 1992, voters elected a school board member who was also an accountant for the Institute for Creation Research. After the district’s teachers rejected his suggestion to use the creationist book “Of Pandas and People” as a science textbook (see the related article for more on this book), he began advocating that teachers teach “weaknesses in evolution” whenever evolution was taught. Eventually, the board member and two others who had consistently voted with him on such issues were recalled.
- In Alabama in 1995, the state school board voted 6-1 in favor of a inserting a disclaimer into biology textbooks. Written by the right-wing Eagle Forum, it reads in part: “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. … No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.” According to People for the American Way, Alabama Governor Fob James, who is president of the state school board, urged the board to accept the motion, saying: “If one wanted to know something about the origin of life you might want to look at Genesis and you can get the whole story, period.” James also used his discretionary funds to purchase and send more than 900 copies of “Darwin on Trial,” a creationist book, to all biology teachers in the state.
- In Hall County, Georgia in 1996, the school board adopted a resolution directing the textbook and curriculum committee to include materials in the science curriculum that explain and discuss creationism. The board rescinded this resolution after the state attorney general warned that this would be unconstitutional.
- In Tennessee in 1996, the Senate and House education committees both approved a bill that would have allowed schools to fire any teacher who presented evolution as a fact. A Senate amendment “defined” evolution as an “unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.” Debate over the bill continued for months, despite an opinion issued by the state attorney general saying that the bill was unconstitutional. It was finally voted down by the Legislature.
Wesley Roberts, an ecology and environmental sciences teacher in Nashville, got himself — and his students — involved in the struggle to kill the Tennessee bill. He attended several sessions of the Legislature during the debates, sometimes bringing students from his school with him. “I think they (the students) were smart enough to realize that their teachers were about to be censored,” he says, “and regardless of their position on creation and evolution, they did not like that at all.” The students “definitely had an impact on the debate,” he says. “The media were all over them, interviewing them. They loved getting sound bites from angry kids and plastering them all over TV and the newspaper.”
While the rejection of the bill was “a real victory,” Roberts says, it will take much more to really pave the way for evolution to be taught in Tennessee. Many teachers, mindful of all the ill will focused on evolution for so long, “won’t even mention it in class,” he says. Even students in his advanced-placement environmental science class “have very rarely had any instruction in evolution.” In fact, in a class Roberts teaches at a nearby college, “I always ask my students how much instruction they’ve had in evolution, and it’s always the case that if they’ve had it, they went to a private school or they’re from the North,” he says.
This “chilling effect” stifles teachers all across the country, North as well as South. Even when creationists seem to lose a struggle, as in Tennessee, the controversy they generate can leave teachers wary to so much as mention evolution to their students. “There’s a tendency for teachers to be noncombative,” says Scott of the National Center for Science Education. “Generally teachers are not looking for a fight. … If they perceive that a subject is going to get them in trouble, they may very well decide to just steer clear.”
The Evolution of Creationism
Despite suffering some political and judicial setbacks, anti-evolutionists are not about to give up applying that pressure. Leaders of the creationist movement have been industrious and relatively skillful about repackaging and reintroducing their beliefs.
Take, for example, the creationists’ response to the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as Edwards v. Aguillar, which struck down the Louisiana law requiring teachers to give equal time to “creation science” whenever they taught evolution. The late Justice William Brennan, writing the majority opinion, made it clear that “creation science” wasn’t science at all, but an endorsement of faith-based religious belief. He also rejected the idea that the Louisiana law was promoting “a basic concept of fairness” by requiring that both evolution and creation science be taught. “Instead,” he wrote, “this Act has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting evolution by counter-balancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism.”
Brennan delivered a powerful rhetorical blow against anti-evolutionists. But deep in his 3,800-word opinion, creationists found a single sentence that gave them something they could build on. Brennan had written: “Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.” And in the dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, they found another useful phrase: “The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools …”
These two statements set the stage for the two most current versions of creationism: the so-called “theory of intelligent design” and the efforts to inject “scientific evidence against evolution” into school curricula. Both are perhaps best exemplified by the creationist pseudo-textbook “Of Pandas and People.” Similar reasoning lurks behind the many efforts to slap disclaimers on science textbooks, reminding students that evolution is “only a theory” and not fact. This is a serious misuse of the scientific meaning of “theory,” making it sound like a synonym for “guess” or “hunch.” In fact, according to the National Association of Biology Teachers, “a (scientific) theory is not a guess or an approximation, but an extensive explanation developed from well-documented, reproducible sets of experimentally derived data from repeated observations of natural processes.” In other words, just because the theory of evolution is subject to continued testing and examination in light of new evidence doesn’t make it untrue.
The reasons behind such attacks on evolution are obvious, according to a statement written by Rob Boston, a spokesman for the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “They’re shifting their attacks by trying to water down the teaching of evolution–put doubts in children’s minds. They figure that if they can’t get creationism taught in public schools, then the next best thing is to take the instruction about evolution and undercut it.”