Lawmakers Put Theory of Evolution on Trial

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Lawmakers in Ohio last week defeated a bill instructing science teachers to discuss the pros and cons of the theory of evolution, punctuating a year in which debate over man's origins returned to the floor of state legislatures.

Bills considered this spring in Georgia, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Tennessee suggest that the teaching of evolution is still on trial, seven decades after the issue was aired in Tennessee's celebrated Scopes case.

None of this year's bills would have completely forbidden the teaching of evolution, nor did any mandate teaching creationism in its place. And none of the bills passed. But the revival of the contentious subject in statehouses may add to an already active grassroots debate and have a ripple effect in science classrooms.

Wayne Carley, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers in Reston, Va., said he worries that the debate may have a "chilling effect" on teachers.

One of the most strongly worded measures, a bill introduced by a Democratic senator in the Tennessee legislature, would have allowed school boards to fire any teacher who presented evolution as fact rather than theory. (See Education Week, March 13, 1996.)

Although the bill ultimately died, Mr. Carley said it and similar efforts elsewhere have already created an intimidating climate. If teachers worry that teaching evolution will create controversy, they will simply avoid the topic altogether, he said. And that, he maintained, is precisely what their opponents want.

But others say students should learn all the arguments about evolution.

"There is a great deal of scientific information that is censored from our schools by the textbooks--by the evolution-only teaching," contended John Morris, the president of the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research, a research organization that seeks out scientific evidence to support creationist theories.

"What intimidation exists comes from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union that promise a lawsuit for anyone who dares to teach anything other than evolution. Now there's a 'chilling effect.'"

'Battle on Two Fronts'

The theory of evolution holds that the universe evolved over billions of years and species diversified as a result of genetic mutations from parent to offspring and survival of the fittest. Creationists believe that God created the world in a single act and that human beings, animals, and other forms of life exist today much as they did then.

During the 1970s and 1980s, bills to require the teaching of creation science were introduced in more than 20 states, according to Eugenie C. Scott, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a watchdog group in El Cerrito, Calif., that supports the teaching of evolution. After all the action, only Arkansas and Louisiana passed such laws.

The Arkansas law was overturned by a federal district court in 1982. And in 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana law, which prohibited the teaching of evolution unless it was accompanied by a "balanced treatment" of creation theory.

Most of the state-level efforts disappeared after the 1987 ruling, and a new phase of activity--concentrated at the grassroots--began in the late 1980s. Ms. Scott said the center began fielding more calls from people supporting the evolution theory who complained, for example, that school boards were requiring instruction in creationist theories or that individual teachers were espousing creationist beliefs.

The resurgence of state-level activity this year has given the issue a fresh twist, Ms. Scott said. "Now we are fighting the battle on two fronts."

In addition to the Tennessee bill, a measure proposed in Georgia would have given teachers "the right to present and critique any and all scientific theories" about the origins of life. The House passed the bill, but the Senate education committee did not act on it.

In a "parent and pupil rights bill" proposed in New Hampshire, evolution was included in a list of topics--along with witchcraft, abortion, and nuclear policy, among others--that would have required written parental approval before they could be taught to children. The evolution-teaching provision was struck from the bill before it passed the Senate. The rights bill died this spring in the House education committee.

In Alabama, the state school board voted last year to include disclaimers in science texts that "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." And Gov. Fob James Jr. mailed copies of a book questioning the theory of evolution to the state's science teachers.

Information Lacking?

On a 13-8 vote last week in Ohio, the House education committee defeated a bill that said that whenever evolution was taught, "both scientific evidence and related arguments" for and against the theory were to be discussed.

An aide to Rep. Ron Hood, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said it "has nothing to do with creationism."

"We are not indoctrinating our kids, we are teaching them to think for themselves," the aide said.

Carl Wagenknecht, a physics and general-science teacher at Akron Central-Hower High School who has testified in support of the bill, said it protects academic freedom. "My concern is that students have been denied opportunities to look at all the information, and critically question a topic," he said.

While some observers say the debate is worthwhile, others call it pointless.

"Why would you legislate teaching evolution as a theory?" said Homer Delk, the president of the Tennessee Science Teachers' Association and the math and science coordinator at the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institution in James-town, Tenn. "All of the people I have been talking to are teaching it as a theory, and they continue to teach these theories as theories."

Vol. 15, Issue 37, Pages 12, 20

Published in Print: June 5, 1996, as Lawmakers Put Theory of Evolution on Trial
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