Making John Scopes Proud—Finally

We need more science teaching, not less. In fact, today’s evolutionary scientists have become the modern-day equivalents of those who tried to silence Rhea County schoolteacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925, by limiting even an objective discussion of the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

John Scopes, the Rhea County schoolteacher who in 1925 stood trial for violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, would surely support new legislation pending before the General Assembly. After 86 years, Tennessee lawmakers have a chance to get the “scope” of science instruction right.

The crux of the infamous Scopes trial was the Tennessee General Assembly’s effort to reduce, by law, the scope of what could be taught in the science classroom, namely, to prevent the then relatively new theory of Darwinian evolution from being taught in the science classroom. The law was called the Butler Act, named after state Rep. John Butler, head of an organization known as the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association.

But now the shoe is on the other foot, and the scientific community, generally speaking, wants to use the law to limit the scope of what can be taught in science class, and they often seek to impugn any school of thought critical of Darwinian evolution.

For example, one high school science teacher in Tennessee last year did her best to make sure that students didn’t get a balanced understanding of intelligent design. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Now Tennessee does not require the teaching of intelligent design. In fact, the curriculum standard for Tennessee on the subject of evolution is one of the most one-sided, pro-evolution standards in the country. It provides that students shall be able to “summarize the supporting evidence for the theory of evolution.” No mention is given to the educational value of learning how to think critically about the state of the scientific evidence on evolution and to know both the strengths and weaknesses of that evidence.

But this teacher apparently wanted to make sure she didn’t do anything to undermine her students’ understanding of the evidence “supporting” evolution. She brought up intelligent design, a rival theory to evolution, and then made sure it was discredited. In fact, after having her class watch a rather one-sided PBS documentary decrying the theory of intelligent design, she then had her students write an essay about what they learned. To assist with the paper she provided students with writing prompts such as:

Why is evolution the only current acceptable scientific theory to explain the origin of the species?
How is bias a problem with [Intelligent Design] Theory?
What religion is spearheading the intelligent design movement?
And the coup de grace for the lesson on intelligent design was the prompt for the final paragraph:

Why is the separation of church and state so vital to the foundation and continuation of our way of life in America?
Certainly intelligent design theory is not without its critics, and if the subject is going to be taught, then discussion of those criticisms is appropriate. But it is also appropriate that students understand that intelligent design is a theory that many scientists are beginning to consider and hold because of the weaknesses in the scientific evidence supporting evolution. In fact, over 850 PhD.-level scientists from some of the finest universities around the world have subscribed to this statement:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

The point is this: We need more science teaching, not less. In fact, today’s evolutionary scientists have become the modern-day equivalents of the legislators who passed the Butler Act. They want to limit even an objective discussion of the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

To correct this problem, state Rep. Bill Dunn and state Sen. Bo Watson have filed legislation (Senate Bill 893/House Bill 368) that would permit science teachers “to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” Note that the law does not require the teaching of intelligent design or creationism since they are not “scientific theories” that are being “covered in the course[s] being taught” in Tennessee. And the law is clear that the teacher is limited to discussing scientific evidence.

But the bill does one more important thing. The bill would make clear that no teacher can be disciplined for helping students evaluate all the evidence on the subject. Such a law in 1925 would have protected John Scopes.

Thus my bet is John Scopes might say that, with this bill, the Tennessee legislature has a chance to finally get it right when it comes to teaching science on the subject of evolution. They get their first chance this Wednesday when the bill comes up for its first hearing in the House Subcommittee on Education.