In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.


Science and “The Question”

In a recent scathing review of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, science writer John Horgan argues that science will never answer “The Question.”  That is, Horgan thinks that science–the way we usually understand science–will not be able to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

For those following the creation/evolution debates, “the Question” has long been a central bone of contention between creationists and evolutionists.  Creationists have always rested their arguments on the notion that science could not explain the fundamental creation of life ex nihilo.

As Horgan insists, one does not have to be a fundamentalist anti-evolutionist to doubt the ability of science to answer such fundamental questions.  In fact, Horgan concludes his review by warning scientists that they must not overextend.  If mainstream scientists claim to be able to answer “The Question,” Horgan warns, “they become the mirror images of the religious fundamentalists they despise.”

I imagine many of those fundamentalists will take solace from the fact that prominent scientists dispute Krauss’ ex nihilo argument.  There is a vibrant tradition among anti-evolutionists of following evolution debates among scientists.  Anti-evolution writers and activists have always used such debates to demonstrate to their audiences that scientists do not agree on the science of evolution.  As Ronald L. Numbers demonstrated in Darwin Comes to America and The Creationists, anti-evolutionists have long celebrated disagreements among mainstream scientists.  My hunch is that some pundits from Fundamentalist America will cite anti-Krauss arguments as evidence that science will never be able to answer “The Question.”

REQUIRED READING: The Long March against Evolution

Michael Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Want to make a mainstream scientist apoplectic?  Remind him or her that about half of American adults agree with the notion that the earth was created in six literal days, at some point in the past 10,000 years or so.  This idea is so utterly at odds with mainstream scientific understanding that it remains beyond the understanding of most of the other half of American adults.

Readers of ILYBYGTH will likely agree that these notions go beyond any narrow definition of scientific thinking.  In order to understand the durable cultural divide between evolutionists and creationists, we need to understand both evolution and creation as much more than mere scientific ideas.

I recently had the pleasure to review a book that furthers this understanding.  The review described its merits for an audience of educational historians, but Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning should be required reading for anyone interested in the nature of the creation/evolution struggle.  A political scientist, Lienesch uses social-movement theory to make sense of the ways creationism has thrived in an intellectually hostile environment.

Fundamentalists might hope that creationism’s success is due to its God-given truth.  Evolutionists might insist, on the contrary, that creationism has thrived in the same way as have meth labs and Twinkies—Americans love dumb things that are bad for them.

Lienesch’s analysis presents a calmer and more sensible answer.  Creationism is more than just a scientific idea, more than just a theology.  It is a social movement, with all the attendant complexity.  As such, the social-science literature on social movements can go a long way toward making sense of the twentieth-century career of creationism.

Lienesch remains agnostic on the question of ultimate truth.  He is not much interested in the truth claims of either evolution or creation.  Rather, he explores the ways creationism—and I’m afraid it is the best word here—has evolved across the course of the twentieth century.

Pro-Evolution Ia: What Evolution Does NOT Mean


What is evolution?  People use the term in a lot of different ways.  One of the things that will help explain why so many people believe in evolution will be clarify what people mean when they say it.  Here are a couple of things it DOESN’T mean:

  • Humans evolved from apes.  This idea has been curiously offensive and distracting to the real argument.  In the
    modern evolutionary synthesis, the consensus is that all living things on earth had a common ancestor.  Over millions of years, different forms of life developed from that common ancestor.  Humans and other primates all diverged from
    one another relatively late in this process. But humans didn’t evolve out of monkeys or apes.  Rather, humans and other hominids split off from the same “branch” of the “tree (or bush) of life” that monkeys and apes split off from.
  • “Darwinism.” A lot of confusion can come from using Darwinism as a synonym for evolution.  Those who are trying to
    obscure the truth about evolution—some of them merely to profit from the huge market for anti-evolution materials—often confuse the issue by telling audiences that “Darwinism” has been rejected by scientists.  That’s true enough, sort of.  Darwin’s original ideas about evolution have been tested and challenged vigorously since the publication of Origin of Species in 1859.  Some of them have been discarded.  Thus, it is easy to find examples of prominent scientists in various decades saying that “Darwinism” is dead.  What they mean is that Charles Darwin’s ideas about the mechanism of evolution have been challenged by scientists.  They do NOT mean that the fact of organic evolution has been rejected.
  • God is a lie.
    The fact of evolution doesn’t have a bearing on theology.  It does not disprove the Bible.  Some of the most famous theologians in history, such as St. Augustine, embraced an evolutionary worldview.  And many prominent evolutionists, including Dobzhansky, believe in God.  They simply believe that evolution is God’s method.  Nor
    does the theory of evolution shackle God in some way.  Just because there is a mechanism by which species can change and develop does not mean that God has been robbed of power.  A tree grows from a seed.  That does not imply that God has been locked out of the process.  It does not have any bearing on the possibility of miracles or God’s supernatural involvement.  It would be fair enough to say, in fact, that a tree developing from a seed is a miracle that requires God’s guiding hand.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution,”  The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar., 1973), pp. 125-129; Edward J. Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (New York: The Modern Library, 2006).