‘Teach the Controversy’

Creationism’s Latest Trojan Horse Edges Toward Virginia Schools

After years on the defensive, opponents of evolution and climate change are learning that subtle language may be the ticket to sabotaging science education in public schools.

Jahi Chikwendiu

America’s whack-a-mole debate about evolution in the public schools has reappeared in Virginia, where state assembly has proposed legislation to modify curriculum to include study of the “scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” If the anti-evolutionists get their way, Virginia elementary and secondary schools will have to develop new curricula that explores the weaknesses of evolution, a strategy intended to make room for alternative theories of origins.

Taken out of context, the Virginia bill appears attractive, which is why such bills can get traction so quickly. Who wouldn’t want to “create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes”? Shouldn’t we applaud efforts to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes”? Or to “review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories”?

Placed in appropriate historical context, though, the Virginia bill is far from benign; it is, in fact, the latest attempt by anti-evolutionists in their ongoing efforts to remove Darwin from America’s classrooms.

Such anti-evolutionary efforts are far from new, but they keep getting subtler. The movement to get Darwin out of the public schools began a century ago, just shortly after he showed up. Anti-evolutionary bills were introduced and became law in many states. The most famous of these was Tennessee’s Butler Act (PDF) that John Scopes was arrested for violating. Scopes and his fellow Tennessee public school teachers were forbidden to “teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The anti-evolutionists won and Scopes was convicted. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, as the anti-evolutionists ended up embarrassed by the proceedings and humiliated by the play and movie, Inherit the Wind, that became the unofficial historical record. The controversy did, however, motivate publishers to downplay evolution in their public school textbooks.

Anti-evolution laws like the one that Scopes broke remained on the books for decades, even as evolution became the central organizing principle of the entire field of biology. The Scopes question resurfaced in 1968 when an Arkansas judge struck down that state’s version of the Butler Act, ruling that teachers should be able to teach what was in the science textbooks, even if that included evolution. (The Arkansas judge thought a trial to approve the teaching of the science in high school texts so absurd that he scheduled the hearing on April Fool’s Day.)

Into the 1980s, many schools were technically supposed to balance the treatment of creation and evolution. This was challenging on two fronts: evolution was the only topic in the science texts, and there was virtually no secular material presenting creation. One of these “balanced treatment” acts was defeated in Arkansas in 1982 on the grounds that creationism was religious, making Louisiana the only state where creationism, understood as a secular, scientific alternative to evolution, could legally be taught. Louisiana’s law, pushed by creationists eager to have their view of origins declared appropriate for the public schools, made it to the Supreme Court in 1988. As had happened in Arkansas, it was defeated on the grounds that it was religious (although Justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia both dissented).

With creationism’s expulsion from the public schools, things had come full circle: John Scopes had broken the law by teaching evolution instead of creation; now it was illegal to teach creation instead of evolution. In his dissent, Scalia threw the creationists a small bone: The people of Louisiana were entitled, he wrote, “to have whatever evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools.”

Although creationism was now officially defined as religious and unlikely to ever get another day in court, the anti-evolutionists were undeterred. Creationism conveniently and rapidly evolved rapidly into “intelligent design” (ID), developed and guided by the brilliant Berkeley lawyer Phillip Johnson. The ID movement, as it became known, was aggressive in asserting its secularism, claiming only that the purely naturalistic forces of the evolutionary biologists were incapable of producing life as we know it today. The champions of ID called attention to various puzzles within evolutionary theory, like the origin of the blood-clotting mechanism or the clever tail on the bacteria that had not yet been adequately explained.

ID was effectively promoted by the politically savvy and well-funded Discovery Institute. The leaders scrupulously avoided the overt religious character that sank creationism, although they were almost all deeply religious and quite open about how Christians should embrace ID. But there were no ID texts suitable for the public schools, until Of Pandas and People appeared in 1989.

But Pandas had a skeleton in its closet, in addition to those that adorned its pages. It was, in fact, an unpublished creationist text that had been around for some time. It was lightly edited, with “creation” removed and replaced with “intelligent design.” This editorial transformation was trivial, it turns out, since both creationism and intelligent design consist primarily of a list of things that evolution cannot explain very well, from which it is inferred that either God—if you are a creationist—or some transcendent “intelligence”—if you are an ID theorist—is required.

ID got its first legal challenge in 2004 when Pennsylvania’s Academic Standards included it and recommended Of Pandas and People for “gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.” This political strategy made headlines in 2004 in Dover, PA when the ACLU filed suit on behalf of some parents with children in the Dover Schools. The anti-evolutionists were as humiliated in this performance as they were in Inherit the Wind. The Bush-appointed judge suggested in his decision that the Dover school board, under the prodding of the Thomas More Law Center—“Battle Ready to Defend America”—had acted with “breathtaking inanity.”

The Dover ruling was local, however, with no explicit influence anywhere else, which is why the anti-evolution agenda remains alive and well in so many states.

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House Bill No. 207 in Virginia, taken out of context, looks benign. But there can be no doubt that the stated goal of presenting “scientific controversies in science classes,” will turn out to be a Trojan horse for presenting views of origins held by virtually nobody in the scientific community. If bills like this become the foundation of science education in Virginia schools, its students—and those in several other states moving in similar directions—will learn that evolution is a deeply flawed theory, unable to explain very much, enduring through coercion and the herd mentality of the scientific community; they will learn that intelligent design is a better explanation, but has been marginalized because scientists are closed-minded and irrationally committed to naturalism. They will learn these and countless other things that students in Japan, Germany, France, Canada and the rest of the developed world are not learning.