70 Years After Scopes, Evolution Hot Topic Again
More than 70 years after the famous "monkey trial" focused worldwide attention on Tennessee, the state is once again embroiled in a debate over whether students should be taught that humans evolved from apes.
State lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow teachers to be fired for presenting evolution as fact. Last week, the bill was sent back to the Senate education committee after it bogged down in proposed new amendments and arguments over its legality.
The full Senate is not expected to consider the measure again until late this month. It was unclear last week when the House, whose education committee has also passed the bill, will take it up.
The debate has drawn inevitable comparisons to the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, who was convicted of teaching evolution in a Dayton, Tenn., high school.
The subject has long been a touchy one in Tennessee and other states where many Christian residents hold a strong belief in the literal truth of the biblical account of creation.
Evolution vs. Creation
Some Tennessee teachers acknowledged last week that they would avoid teaching the already delicate subject if the bill passes.
"I'd probably skip the theory of evolution as a part of the origin of mankind or the earth," said Anne Primm, a biology teacher in Knoxville's South-Doyle High School. "We live in the Bible Belt, and it's offensive to some students to hear the theory that man came from monkeys."
Sen. Tommy Burks, a Democrat, said he introduced the bill because evolution had been taught as fact in some schools. In its original form, the bill read that a teacher or administrator who presented evolution as fact "shall be dismissed." That was later amended to "may be dismissed."
One of the amendments filed last week but not voted on would put creationism on an even classroom footing with evolution.
Sen. Andy Womack, the Democratic chairman of the education committee, opposes the bill. As a protest, he offered an amendment that would let educators be fired for teaching that the planets revolve around the sun.
"The state school board sets curriculum," he said last week. "I don't feel comfortable with legislators writing bills that interrupt responsibilities of other groups."
State Attorney General Charles W. Burson has also criticized the bill. In a letter to Mr. Burks, he said that based on state history and recent debate, he had concluded that "the bill has a religious, not a secular purpose."
Mr. Burson also cited the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, in which the high court struck down an Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution. He also cited the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the court struck down a Louisiana law that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless it was accompanied by the presentation of creation theory.
Scopes was convicted of violating the 1925 Butler Act, which made it unlawful to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." The state supreme court dismissed his conviction on appeal, and the law was repealed in 1967.
Though more than 70 years have passed since the landmark trial, many Tennessee educators say it has had a lasting legacy.
Ms. Primm said that on her first day at South-Doyle nine years ago, the school's principal warned her, "'Be careful how you teach evolution."' She said she interpreted that to mean, "Don't teach it."
Today, Ms. Primm teaches evolution as a specific process of genetic mutation, and said she is less inclined to discuss it as a broad explanation for the origin of human life.
Homer Delk, the president of the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, said the bill is unnecessary. State-approved textbooks, he noted, already present evolution as theory, not fact. "Why are we trying to pass a bill to that effect when we're already teaching it as theory?"
Jerry Winters, the director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, said union leaders worry that the bill is too vague. "We don't want teachers' professional lives subject to legislation that's ambiguous," he said.
Action in Other States
Tennessee isn't alone in efforts to restrict the teaching of evolution.
The bill is part of an "anti-evolution theme that's possibly growing these days," said Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif.
"We're watching very closely because we don't want this to metastasize," she said. "It's hard enough to get teachers to teach evolution without scaring them off."
Last fall, the Alabama board of education approved a one-page insert for science books used in the state's public schools that says "evolution is not fact." (See Education Week, Nov. 8, 1995.)
And in February, the Georgia superintendent, Linda C. Schrenko, asked the state attorney general for an opinion on whether creationism can be taught as part of the science curriculum.