‘Monkey’ business, again, in Tennessee

Among its more dubious claims to fame, Tennessee was the site of the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law against teaching that “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Eighty-seven years later, the Tennessee Legislature is itching for an encore. It has sent to Gov. Bill Haslam a bill governing the teaching of “scientific subjects that may cause debate and disputation,” including evolution and global warming. The legislation says teachers cannot be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”

The governor should heed the plea of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and veto the bill. And similar laws in nine other states should be repealed.

Unlike the Butler Act under which Scopes was prosecuted, the bill does not require that the creation story in Genesis be taught as science. In fact, it states that the legislation “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.” The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which provides state lawmakers with a model for such “academic freedom” laws, says this is proof that the bill isn’t designed to further religion. Critics, the institute says, are “putting up a smoke screen to divert attention from their goal to censor dissenting scientific views.”

In deciding whether the bill advances a religious agenda, the governor needs to look at context and history as well as the text. A useful reference work would be a 2005 decision by a federal judge in Pennsylvania striking down a school board policy requiring that students be made aware of “gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” In that case, Judge John E. Jones concluded that intelligent design and teaching about “gaps” and “problems” in evolutionary theory are “creationist, religious strategies that evolved from earlier forms of creationism.”


Religious motives aside, the Tennessee bill reflects the view that there is a significant scientific controversy about the basic accuracy of Darwinian theory. There isn’t. But what of the “dissenting scientific views” the Discovery Institute cites? It is true that a tiny minority of scientists embrace some version of creationism or intelligent design (an even smaller cohort than the minority of scientists who question human contribution to global warming). There’s nothing wrong with a biology teacher acknowledging that fact as long as she makes it clear that evolutionary theory is the linchpin of the biological sciences, including medicine. It isn’t censoring a point of view to inform students that it is subscribed to by a tiny fringe.

Like such measures in other states, the Tennessee bill contains beguiling language about the importance of helping students to develop critical thinking skills. That is a vital part of education, especially in the more interactive atmosphere of a high school (though it is often opposed by religious conservatives who decry “relativism” in the classroom). But even in high school, and especially in science class, teachers have an obligation to the truth. The truth in this case, discomfiting as it may be to some Tennesseans, is that evolution is not “just a theory.”