Legislators Debate Bills on the Teaching of Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — April 03, 2006 5 min read
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Despite a recent string of legal and political setbacks, critics of the theory of evolution have taken up their fight once again in statehouses across the country.

Bills seeking to encourage students to approach the theory skeptically in public school science classes, or to allow the teaching of alternative explanations for life’s development, have emerged in at least 10 states so far this year.

The number of state-level proposals appears to have fallen slightly from last year, when bills were introduced in 12 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None made it into law, says the nonpartisan research and policy organization, located in Denver, Colo., which has tracked bills on the issue.

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As of last week, this year’s batch of bills had fared no better, with none having won final approval from lawmakers. Nonetheless, several observers say they see no lessening of interest in the charged topic among state lawmakers, even if the prospects for the bills remain unclear, at best.

By the time lawmakers in the various states adjourn, most of them this spring or summer, “I would not at all be surprised to find out that it’s a record year,” in the number of bills being introduced, said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that opposes what it sees as anti-evolution measures.

“There’s been a lot of interest in it,” he said of the movement for such proposals.

Setting the Stage

The legislative activity this spring follows a series of well-publicized losses for those seeking to cast doubts upon evolution’s scientific status, or subject it to new criticism.

In December, a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued a lengthy, highly publicized ruling in a case from Dover, Pa., declaring that “intelligent design” was not legitimate science but religion. Intelligent design is the belief that features of some living things, including humans, show signs of having been guided by an unnamed, possibly divine force. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

In January, a school district in Lebec, Calif., agreed to drop an elective philosophy class suggesting that evolutionary theory was “not rock solid,” stated a course description. (“Calif. District to Scrap Course on ‘Intelligent Design’,” Jan. 25, 2006.)

In February, the Ohio state board of education reversed an earlier decision and voted to strip language from state science standards encouraging students to “critically analyze” evolution. (“Ohio Removes Anti-Evolution Language,” Feb. 22, 2006.)

And in South Carolina, the state school board voted March 8 to reject similar wording in its standards, though state officials have said the debate over that language could continue.

State Proposals

Mississippi state Sen. Charles Edwin Ross introduced legislation this session seeking to expose students to criticism of evolution, saying his goal was to combat the “intimidation” of teachers who challenge the theory’s standing.

Mr. Ross’ measure said that schools cannot bar a teacher from discussing “flaws or problems” in evolutionary theory, or from talking about intelligent design. Though his Senate bill died in committee, Mr. Ross said he believed it has a chance of becoming law, if similar legislation could be included in a pending, education-related House bill.

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The Dover case, in particular, has had “quite a lot of impact” in making Mississippi school leaders wary of trying to encourage greater criticism of evolution, he said. But Mr. Ross, a practicing lawyer, said he was not deterred by the prospect of a legal challenge.

“I don’t feel it’s proper for a judge to say whether something is credible science or not credible science,” the Republican senator said. “Intelligent design has laid an ax to the trunk of the evolution tree.”

The theory of evolution holds that humans and other living things have evolved through random mutation and natural selection, an explanation that is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community. Over the last few years, however, activists across the country have launched new efforts to raise doubts about the theory, and to rewrite state standards and school curricula to reflect such criticism.

The vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as religion in disguise, or at least an unscientific view. Those scientists also say that critics overstate alleged weaknesses in evolutionary theory, which they say is supported by a mountain of scientific research.

Academic Freedom

Critics of evolutionary theory remain unconvinced. Some proposals, such as a recently defeated bill in Utah, seek to alter school curricula to reflect the view that there is a lack of scientific consensus about evolution.

Several other state proposals liken the right to question evolution, or scientific concepts generally, to issues of academic freedom.

A pending Missouri bill would forbid schools from disciplining teachers for attempting to distinguish between “theory, hypothesis, conjecture” and opinion from “verified empirical data.” A Missouri science teachers organization, which opposes the bill, says the measure is an underhanded attempt to denigrate evolution, even though the legislation doesn’t mention the term specifically.

In Oklahoma, where at least four evolution-related bills are being debated this session, one proposal would allow teachers to discuss intelligent design while prohibiting them from emphasizing religious beliefs.

The failure of bills on the subject of evolution is often as much a reflection of lawmakers’ attitudes toward local control of schools as it is an indication of their opinions on the theory itself, Mr. Branch of the National Center for Science Education speculated.

“There’s a kind of folk wisdom among legislators that it really isn’t their job to micromanage curriculum,” he said.

One piece of legislation, offered by Wisconsin Rep. Terese E. Berceau, seeks to defend, rather than dispute, evolution’s scientific status. The bill says school boards must ensure that any material presented as science is “testable as a scientific hypothesis, describes only natural processes,” and is consistent with definitions of science used by the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences—which strongly defended the teaching of evolution.

Ms. Berceau, a Democrat, said she had received encouragement about her bill from scientists across the country. She does not believe it has a chance of passing the legislature before the regular session ends in May, though she plans to introduce it again next year.

“I don’t see that we have to pass the bill to accomplish [something],” she said. “To me, this is an education project for the public.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Legislators Debate Bills on the Teaching of Evolution


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