Scientists issue call to support teaching evolution in public classrooms

Monday, May 4, 1998

Teaching evolution in the public schools remains a contentious battle between scientists and certain sects of Christianity almost 80 years after William Jennings Bryan led fundamentalists in efforts to stifle the scientific theory.

Responding to renewed interest by some state lawmakers to discourage the teaching of evolution — the scientific theory that life on Earth developed over billions of years — in public school science classes, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a guidebook, “Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science.” It explains the importance of the scientific theory and how students’ and parents’ questions should be answered.

The guidebook, written by scientists and educators affiliated with the academy, maintains that evolution theory — which originated in Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On the Origin of Species — is central to biology, but is not receiving proper treatment in schools because of pressure from religious groups.

“The widespread misunderstandings about evolution are of great concern to the scientific community and the academy,” said Bruce Alberts, academy president and one of the guide’s authors. “Evolution is the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world. If we want our children to have a good grasp of science, we need to help teachers, parents, school administrators, and policy-makers understand both evolution and the nature of science.”

The historic and often vitriolic campaign against evolution was born from fundamentalists’ fear that the massive amount of scientific evidence in support of the theory that current species evolved from preexisting species would undermine the belief that God created the world and its inhabitants in a few days.

Bryan, a Democrat who entered Congress in 1890, was the catalyst behind antievolution laws — the first of which was passed by the Tennessee legislature in 1925 — barring public school teachers from teaching any theory that would deny the teachings of the Bible. Such laws would later be found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court has denounced antievolution laws as violations of the separation of church and state, a campaign to muzzle science teachers on the topic of evolution has revived across the country. Recently The Washington Post reported that several school boards have ordered teachers to give equal time to creationism. Lawmakers in a few states want to remove the term evolution from their science curricula. In Alabama, biology textbooks include a statement telling students that evolution is a controversial theory.

The academy’s new guidebook notes that “even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism is a religious idea that cannot be mandated in public education” some lawmakers are “advocating creationism be taught in public schools.”

Before that 1987 case, however, the Supreme Court invalidated a 1928 Arkansas “monkey law,” making it illegal to teach in its public schools man’s evolution from apes. The 1928 law was not challenged until 1964, when a 10th-grade biology teacher at a Little Rock high school was put in a rather precarious situation. She was subject to a school policy requiring her to use a new biology textbook that included a section on evolution. She was also under a state obligation not teach evolution. The teacher brought suit asking either the school policy or the state ban against evolution be invalidated.

In the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, the high court ruled that the state’s law — identical to Tennessee’s — must be struck down “because of its conflict with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, noted that the Arkansas lawmakers “sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be exclusive source of doctrine as to the origin of man.”

Because the law was created solely for religious purposes, Fortas concluded that “the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s announcement, citizens and state lawmakers continued to argue that the creation story, as told in the Bible, should be taught in public schools if evolution could be taught. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in 1987 that “creation science” is not a science but a religious idea that cannot be mandated to be taught in the public schools.

In that case, Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court by a 7-2 vote invalidated Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” barring evolution from being taught in the public schools unless accompanied by instruction in “creation science.” As in Epperson, the court ruled that the Louisiana law blatantly violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, noted that the state’s sole purpose for enacting the bill “was to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.

“Similarly, the Creationism Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science which embodies a particular religious tenet by requiring that creation science be taught whenever evolution is taught or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects by forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught.”

The academy’s guide acknowledges that a source of “resistance to the teaching of evolution is the belief that evolution conflicts with religious principles.”

Alberts, the academy’s president, however, said the guide would help people recognize “that many scientists are religious people, and that religion and science represent different approaches to understanding the human condition that are not incompatible with each other.”

The Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson’s political lobbying group, has been behind many efforts to alter the way evolution is taught in public schools. A spokesman for the group criticized the academy’s guide as intrusive.

“We believe communities have the right to have their values reflected in the curriculum,” Arne Owens said. “Public schools are harmed when they exclude important, legitimate points of view.”

If citizens’ values, however, are based in religious dogma, the Supreme Court has already ruled that government, state or federal, cannot constitutionally impose them upon or endorse them in the public schools.

As Brennan concluded in Aguillard, a government act that “advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety,” violates the First Amendment.