Are We Sliding Backward on Teaching Evolution?

Antievolution legislature is gaining steam now that Tennessee's new "monkey bill" has taken effect

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Tennessee was the center of the national debate when it prosecuted John Thomas Scopes for the crime of teaching evolution. Now, 87 years after the Scopes “monkey trial,” Tennessee is once again a battleground over the origins of man. This month, it enacted a controversial new law — dubbed the “monkey bill” — giving schoolteachers broad new rights to question the validity of evolution and to teach students creationism.

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The Tennessee legislature has been on a determined campaign to impose an ideological agenda on the state’s schools. Last week, the house education committee passed the so-called “Don’t say gay” bill, which would make it illegal to teach about homosexuality. The state senate just passed a bill to update the abstinence-based sex-education curriculum to define hand holding as a “gateway sexual activity.”

Unlike those bills, Tennessee’s “monkey bill” is now law. School boards and education administrators are now required to give support to teachers who want to “present the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of various “scientific theories,” including “biological evolution” and “the chemical origins of life.” The new law also supports teachers who want to question accepted scientific thinking on two other hobgoblins of the far right: global warming and human cloning.

Backers of the “monkey bill” argued that it is intended to defend academic freedom. But the law encourages teachers to inject dubious ideas into their instruction. As the National Association of Biology Teachers said in a letter to the governor of Tennessee, evolution “should not be misrepresented as controversial or needing of special evaluation.” It should be presented as a scientific explanation “for events and processes that are supported by experimentation, logic analysis, and evidence-based revision based on detectable and measurable data.”

But the “monkey bill” is not just bad science — it is also bad education policy. The new law sweeps away the professional decisions of Tennessee’s educational administrators and replaces them with a political take on what should be in the state’s science curriculum. Chris Peck, editor of Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, wrote in a signed column that “the legislature has embarrassed itself, and the state, by passing a law suggesting that the part-time legislators know best when it comes to teaching the science of evolution …”

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The Tennessee law has been criticized as a solution in search of a nonexistent problem. In fact, it is worse than that. Tennessee’s problem is not that its schools are teaching too much evolution, but too little. Becky Ashe, president of the Tennessee Association of Science Teachers, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that even before the law was passed Tennessee teachers were avoiding teaching the politically charged subjects of the origins of life and the ascent of man. “We know enough to stay away from that,” she told the newspaper.

In the Scopes “monkey trial,” the forces of creationism were defeated. Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was reversed on a technicality and he was freed. This time, the antievolution forces have prevailed, and their attack on science could spread. Louisiana passed its own “monkey bill” in 2008, and battles over similar bills have raged this year in New Hampshire, Indiana, Oklahoma and other states. Even in states without “monkey bills,” evolution is not being taught consistently. A 2011 survey found that about 13% of biology teachers across the country are currently teaching creationism or the “intelligent design” theory as legitimate alternatives to evolution.

This is a particularly bad time for politicians to be mucking around with science education. If state legislators want to give their young people the best chance of holding their own in this increasingly competitive world, they should be embarking on the sort of campaign for improving science education that America embarked on in the 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — the first satellite to orbit the earth.

America should be investing more in science laboratories, math and science teachers, and other components of a world-class scientific education. No state needs to focus on this more than Tennessee, which ranked dead last in 2009-10 in state and local spending on its schools, and whose students have lagged in science achievement tests. Ideological attacks on teaching about evolution — and gay people and hand holding — are a costly distraction.

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