Learning from the American Evolution Wars

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“Evolution is not a peripheral subject but the central organizing principle of all biological science,” explained the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reacting to a 1999 decision by the Kansas state board of education to downplay evolution in the state’s science standards, the ultimate source of guidance for Kansas’s public school science teachers. “No one who has not read the Bible or the Bard [Shakespeare] can be considered educated in Western traditions; so no one ignorant of evolution can understand science” (Gould 1999a). Gould might have added that understanding evolution is also practically vital. In a world in which the biological sciences are, and are sure to continue to be, increasingly important in fields such as agriculture, biotechnology, epidemiology, climate change, genomics, and medicine, today’s students need to understand evolution in order to become tomorrow’s informed consumers, workers, and citizens (Johnson 2022).

Gould was by no means alone in his insistence on the importance of evolution education in the face of a concerted attack. In 2006, no fewer than sixty-seven national science academies, from Albania to Zimbabwe, endorsed a statement that advocated the teaching of evolution as “established by experimental results from a multitude of scientific disciplines” (IAP 2006). The statement was prompted by a concern that “in various parts of the world, within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science.” But such concerns are graver in the United States. Not every nation elevates a legislator who once called for evolution to be taught only as speculation and alongside supposed alternatives (Pence 2002) to the second-highest position in the government, but the United States did so with Mike Pence.

Why is the United States so hospitable to attacks on evolution education? Part of the reason is clearly the prevalence of anti-evolution sentiment in the general population, largely due to evangelical Christianity. In a 2006 study, the United States was next-to-last in a group of 34 developed countries for its acceptance of evolution, with 40 percent of Americans accepting and 39 percent rejecting evolution, and the remainder expressing uncertainty or agnosticism (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto 2006). A more recent study shows substantial improvement, with 52 percent accepting and 36 percent rejecting evolution (Miller et al. 2022). But the improvement was seen elsewhere in the world too. So even today, the United States still shows a relatively low level of public acceptance of evolution, equal to that in Lithuania, Poland, and Romania and well below that in Iceland (86 percent) and Ireland (84 percent), according to a recent multicountry survey in Europe (European Commission 2021, p. 55).

As the absence of noteworthy attacks on education evolution in Lithuania, Poland, and Romania suggests, however, the prevalence of anti-evolution sentiment is not the only factor contributing to the distinctive American susceptibility to attacks on evolution education. The decentralization of American education plays a large role. In American educational governance, decisions about curriculum and instruction are primarily the responsibility of local school districts—of which there are over 13,500, together governing almost 100,000 schools, serving upward of fifty million students. Local school districts are typically overseen by locally elected school boards, but they also answer to their state governments’ executive and legislative branches. With so many potential ways to exert pressure in so many venues, it is hardly surprising that creationists manage to stay hopeful about the prospect of influencing the teaching of evolution in American public schools (Branch, Scott, and Rosenau 2010).

The main rhetorical themes used by creationists hoping to influence public education have been dubbed the pillars of creationism (Scott 2009, pp. xxiii–xxvi): that evolution is on the brink of scientific collapse; that accepting evolution is connected to religious apostasy, moral turpitude, and social decay; and that fairness, objectivity, or a similar ideal counts against teaching evolution straightforwardly. Constant in outline, the details have changed over the years. With 98 percent of American scientists now accepting evolution (Pew Research Center 2015), the first pillar now mainly involves magnifying uncertainty and manufacturing doubt. As American society secularized, the evils invoked by the second pillar secularized as well: teaching evolution is now blamed for promoting eugenics and racism rather than imperiling students’ souls. Likewise, as evolution gained wider public acceptance, the third pillar changed from asserting the rights of the majority to asserting the rights of the minority.

The pillars of creationism have been deployed throughout the creationist campaign against the teaching of evolution in the public schools of the United States. That campaign arguably began a century ago, in 1922, when a bill was introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly to prohibit “the teaching in public schools and other public institutions of learning, Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism or evolution as it pertains to the origin of man.” It was defeated on a narrow vote of 42 to 41, but a spate of similar bills followed through the 1920s. The most famous was the Butler Act, enacted in Tennessee in 1925, under which John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted, convicted, and fined $100—about $1600 in today’s money. Although Scopes’s conviction was overturned on appeal, the Butler Act remained on the books until it was repealed in 1967, just before the Supreme Court overturned a similar statute in Arkansas in Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968. The last such ban in Mississippi was overturned in 1970.

With banning the teaching of evolution no longer feasible, the campaign shifted toward proposals to balance the teaching of evolution with supposed alternatives such as “biblical creationism,” “creation science,” and “intelligent design.” But these proposals, when adopted, were routinely challenged as unconstitutional in the federal courts: a statute in Tennessee requiring equal time for biblical creationism in textbooks in Daniel v. Waters (1975); statutes in Arkansas and Louisiana requiring equal time for creation science in classrooms in McLean v. Arkansas (1982) and Edwards v. Aguillard (1987); and a Pennsylvania school district policy requiring the teaching of intelligent design in Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005). In each case, the court held that the supposed alternative to evolution was, at the bottom, religious, so a public school’s presentation of the supposed alternative as scientifically credible would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution (Larson 2012).

As a result, the campaign shifted again, about twenty years ago, toward proposals to blunt the teaching of evolution. Without mentioning any supposed alternatives to evolution, such proposals typically allow (rather than require) public school teachers to present “the strengths and weaknesses” of controversial scientific topics, with evolution often the sole example adduced of such a topic. About eighty such bills have been introduced in state legislatures since 2004, with three enacted: in Mississippi in 2006, Louisiana in 2008, and Tennessee in 2012 (Matzke 2016). These laws have not been challenged as unconstitutional in court in part because they are permissive: in the absence of egregious conduct on the part of a teacher, it would be difficult to demonstrate the harm caused by such a law to a prospective plaintiff. By the same token, however, it is unclear to what extent teachers in these states avail themselves of the license that the laws afford them to miseducate their students about evolution.

But surveys of public high school biology teachers—who bear the chief responsibility for teaching evolution—indicate a recent and rapid improvement. A national survey conducted in 1939–1940 found that “somewhat less than 50%” of teachers who answered the question “indicated that they teach evolution as ‘the principle underlying plant, animal and human origin’” (Riddle 1941, p. 157). The percentage of teachers reporting that they emphasized the broad scientific consensus on evolution while not endorsing creationism as a credible alternative in a national survey conducted in 2007 was only slightly higher, at 51 percent, as if to suggest there was virtual stasis over the intervening years, although the figures are not exactly comparable. But the percentage of teachers reporting that they emphasized the broad scientific consensus on evolution while not endorsing creationism was up to a commanding 67 percent in a replication conducted in 2019 (Plutzer, Branch, and Reid, 2020).

The researchers who conducted the 2019 replication attributed the recent and rapid improvement in part to the widespread adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, a 2013 set of model state science standards that feature “Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity” as a disciplinary core idea of the life sciences. It is likely that the demands of the new standards induced novice and veteran teachers alike to acquire the content knowledge of evolution needed to live up to those demands. For their part, creationists realized the importance of state standards when they first began to appear as part of the push for outcome-based education in the 1990s. Struggles over the place of evolution in state standards, including the decision in Kansas that Gould decried in 1999 and a similar episode in the same state in 2004, were common for a while but have subsided recently, in part owing to the dominance of the NGSS and similar standards, which are now in place in all but six of the fifty states.

The details of the battles over evolution education in the United States may appear to observers abroad as—to invoke a specifically American idiom—inside baseball, which is to say, specialized knowledge of interest only to a limited audience. But that would be a shortsighted view. Creationists in the United States export creationist material and rhetoric abroad to serve their own ends, often as part of a broader evangelistic project. In contrast, creationists elsewhere import creationist material and rhetoric from the United States, adapting it and mingling it with local views to serve their own ends, often including forms of ethnonationalism and antimodernism. (There is even reimportation: the most prominent creationist organization in the United States, the Kentucky-based Answers in Genesis, is led by the Australian Ken Ham.) Consequently, no nation is immune to threats to evolution education, as educators, scientists, and concerned citizens worldwide have found to their dismay (Branch 2008).

Take Turkey, for example, where the level of public acceptance of evolution is 37 percent (European Commission 2021, p. 55). A significant attack on evolution education emanated from the Islamic creationist organization Bilim Araştirma Vakfı, which, under the byline Harun Yahya, produced a steady stream of publications and audiovisual material, circulated in translation around the world, aimed at dismissing evolution as baseless and pernicious (Reixinger 2014). Harun Yahya initially based its critique of evolution on American “creation science,” although without its commitment to a young earth or a global flood, and later flirted with “intelligent design” but ultimately denounced it as insufficiently Islamic. The organization also aimed to influence global opinion on Islam, terrorism, and world affairs. Although its leader Adnan Oktar is now serving a 1075-year sentence in prison, Harun Yahya’s efforts appear to have significantly damaged the integrity of evolution education in Turkey.

The global proliferation of creationism might have surprised Gould, who, three years before his death in 2002, described creationist attacks on evolution education, such as the Kansas state board of education’s, as being “as locally and distinctively American as apple pie and Uncle Sam” (1999b, p. 129). The historian Ronald L. Numbers later demurred, slyly citing different Americana in the process: “Although Gould remained oblivious to it, the worldwide growth of creationism by 2000 had already proven him utterly wrong. Antievolutionism had become a global phenomenon, as readily exportable as hip-hop and blue jeans” (2006, p. 399). Yet Gould was not utterly wrong, for his “apple pie and Uncle Sam” comment was immediately followed by a clarifying assertion that “no other Western nation faces such an incubus as a serious political movement.” Learning about the basic contours of the American wars over evolution thus may help to abate the effects of skirmishes over evolution education around the world.

 

References

Branch G. 2008. Creationism as a global phenomenon. In Robbins RH, Cohen MN, editors. Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation. Boston: Pearson Education. pp. 137–151.

Branch G, Scott EC, Rosenau J. 2010. Dispatches from the evolution wars: Shifting tactics and expanding battlefields. Annual Review of Human Genetics and Genomics 11:317–338.

European Commission. 2021. European citizens’ knowledge and attitudes towards science and technology. europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2237

Gould SJ. 1999a August 23. Dorothy, it’s really Oz: a pro-creationist decision in Kansas is more than a blow against Darwin. Time 154:59.

Gould SJ. 1999b. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine.

IAP [InterAcademy Partnership]. 2006. IAP statement on the teaching of evolution. www.interacademies.org/statement/iap-statement-teaching-evolution

Johnson NA. 2022. Darwin’s Reach: 21st-Century Applications of Evolutionary Biology. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press.

Larson EJ. 2012. Creationism in the Classroom: Cases, Statutes, and Commentary. St. Paul (MN): West.

Matzke NJ. 2016. The evolution of anti-evolution policies after Kitzmiller v. Dover. Science 351(6268):28–30.

Miller JD, Scott EC, Okamoto S. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313(5788):765–766.

Miller JD, Scott EC, Ackerman MS, Laspara B, Branch G, Polino C, Huffaker JS. 2022. Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985–2020. Public Understanding of Science 31(2):223–238.

Numbers RL. 2006. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

Pence M. 2002 July 11. Theory of the origin of man. Congressional Record, p. H4527. www.congress.gov/107/crec/2002/07/11/CREC-2002-07-11-pt1-PgH4527.pdf

Pew Research Center. 2015. An elaboration of AAAS scientists’ views. www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/07/23/an-elaboration-of-aaas-scientists-views/

Plutzer E, Branch G, Reid A. 2020. Teaching evolution in U.S. public schools: a continuing challenge. Evolution: Education and Outreach 13(14).

Reixinger M. 2014. Turkey. In Blancke S, Hjermitslev HH, Kjærgaard PC, editors. Creationism in Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 180–198.

Riddle O. 1941. Preliminary impressions and facts from a questionnaire on secondary school biology. The American Biology Teacher 3(5):151–159.

Scott EC. 2009. Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.

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1 thought on “Learning from the American Evolution Wars”

  1. will knutsen

    Religions are founded on terrorism: “If you doubt that God created everything He will kill you. I and I am his appointed assassin. Do you believe that God created everying thing?” Doubters can also lose jobs, family, and home. Terrorism works! Ancient Eygptians knew that, so they created a theocracy. The Roman Catholic Church followed their example: Through centuries of “Join us and pay us, yearly, 10% of your earnings to plead your case to God to let you return to his loving bosom or you will die and be tortured forever!” In that sweet and loving way the RC Church became the righest and most powerful corporation in the world. Ain’t life grand? Cheers.

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