The “Monkey Bill”: Creationism through the back door?

A new law in the U.S. state of Tennessee, the second in the country, will allow science teachers to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution with their classes. They may also use class time to present alternative explanations, such as intelligent design, the new incarnation of creationism. Although proponents of the law claim it simply defends “academic freedom” and encourages critical thinking in students, supporters of science see it as a veiled effort to bring creationism into the classroom.

A new law in the U.S. state of Tennessee, the second in the country, will allow science teachers to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution with their classes. They may also use class time to present alternative explanations, such as intelligent design, the new incarnation of creationism. Although proponents of the law claim it simply defends “academic freedom” and encourages critical thinking in students, supporters of science see it as a veiled effort to bring creationism into the classroom.

 

On April 10, a new law was passed in Tennessee that will allow science teachers to call into question the validity of the theory of evolution. Nicknamed “the Monkey Bill”, it conjures up uncomfortable memories of another affair in the state’s history: the 1925 “Monkey Trial”. In this earlier anti-evolution episode, the state government sued schoolteacher John Scopes for teaching Darwin’s theory in his classes.

Nearly 90 years later, the Tennessee bill states that "Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories," citing evolution, climate change, and the chemical origins of life as specific examples. The language for the proposed law was drawn up with the help of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based seat of the intelligent design movement. Presenting such topics as controversial, under the guise of academic freedom, leaves the door open for non-scientific, even religious, “alternatives”.

Larisa DeSantis, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, launched an effort to stop the bill with a petition, gaining more than 6,000 signatures. “Essentially, the legislation permits teachers in public schools to teach the controversy of evolution and climate change in terms of scientific literature; however, there is no real controversy on whether either occurs,” she told the University publication, Inside Vandy.

A similar law to Tennessee’s “Monkey Bill” was passed in Louisiana in 2008. Proponents of both states’ initiatives argue that the Louisiana law has not resulted in major changes to curricula, nor provoked legal action against it. Yet fears remain over the downstream effects these changes may have: Science teachers may now use religiously-inspired, anti-evolution materials in class, and a 2011 study suggests that many could indeed feel inclined to do so.

Sixty percent waver on evolution

Two political science researchers at Pennsylvania State University examined a national survey of 926 high school biology teachers. Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that 13% of those teachers “explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.” Even when the endorsement is not so direct, they found that 60% of biology teachers “fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments.”

For the latter group, which the authors call the “cautious 60%”, part of their motivation is to avoid controversy – for example, when students or families are not accepting of evolution. “They may teach evolutionary biology as if it applies only to molecular biology and fail to explain evidence that one species gives rise to others”. This group, the authors feel, “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy…than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

Source: Noel A. Tanner / Flickr
evolution vs intelligent design

 

It may not happen overnight, but with time, creationism could slip into classrooms through the back door. To avoid this, the Penn State researchers conclude that the nation’s science teachers need better preparation. Many do not have the benefit of training at large research universities, and do not feel confident tackling the evolution “controversy” head-on. Berkman and Plutzer advocate a mandated evolution course for all future biology teachers, as well as outreach courses throughout their career.

For as many as 25% of high schoolers, biology is the only science course they will ever take. This makes the need for sound science education in public schools even more vital. Scientific literacy will become more and more important, not less, in a democratic society like the U.S., whose economy, development and innovation depend so heavily on science. Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson knows this and, for the second time, is attempting to have the anti-evolution law in her state repealed.

 

Similar articles on MyScienceWork:

L'origine des espèces, Darwin http://blog.mysciencework.com/2011/04/26/l%E2%80%99origine-des-especes-darwin.html

To find out more:

"Monkey bill" enacted in Tennessee, National Center for Science Education http://ncse.com/news/2012/04/monkey-bill-enacted-tennessee-007299

Text of the "Monkey Bill": Tennessee Senate Bill 893 / House Bill 368 http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf