Legislating Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — May 26, 2009 2 min read
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The end of state legislative sessions has brought the death of a batch of evolution-related bills in various state capitols. One of those measures was aimed not at critiquing the landmark theory, or the man who pioneered it, Charles Darwin, but rather at taking on prominent British scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins.

Legislation emerged and receded in recent months in three states, Alabama, Missouri, and Oklahoma, according to the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution. (For a more exhaustive search of bills from around the country, go to the center’s web site directly.)

An Alabama proposal sought to promote “academic freedom” in discussions of evolution—using language that closely resembled the wording of proposals in other states. The measure would have protected teachers and other school officials from being fired or disciplined for presenting “scientific information” on various topics, including “biological or chemical origins.” Defenders of similar proposals in other states have argued that being allowed to question evolution is a constitutional right. Critics say the measures open the door to presenting misleading depictions of evolution in classrooms.

A bill in Missouri, meanwhile, called for school officials to allow students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.” Most scientists, of course, say there is nothing controversial about evolution, one of the most vetted theories in all of science.

One of the most peculiar evolution proposals (actually, a pair of them) to come and go this spring arose in Oklahoma, where a lawmaker introduced bills denouncing a visit by prominent British biologist Richard Dawkins, who also happens to be an atheist, to the University of Oklahoma. The two bills, HR 1014 and HR 1015 were introduced by Todd Thomsen, a Republican lawmaker. With the end of the session, and Dawkins’ speech before Sooner Nation on March 6, the bills now seem moot.

One of the bills criticized the university’s department of zoology of promoting a “one-sided indoctrination of an unproven and unpopular theory.” The bill further stated that Dawkins, pictured at right, has made statements about evolution that “demonstrate an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking and are views that are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma.”

Perhaps it’s best to let Dawkins speak for himself. Here’s a video of his lecture at the university.

“Well I don’t want to blow my own trumpet,” he told the crowd at one point, “but it isn’t everybody who’s the subject of legislation.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.