The forces opposed to teaching evolution in U.S. public schools just got a new reason to resent the bedrock scientific theory: A researcher has used the principles of evolutionary biology to show that laws ostensibly aimed at improving science education are firmly rooted in efforts to make classrooms safe for creationism.
The analysis of dozens of bills introduced in state legislatures around the country reveals how a single innovation from a small Louisiana parish (population 156,325) was incorporated into 32 subsequent bills through a process the study describes as "descent with modification." Two of those 32 bills became law and now "negatively affect science education" for students throughout Louisiana (population 4.7 million) and Tennessee (population 6.5 million).
"The creationist origins of modern antievolution strategies are clear," according to the study by Nicholas Matzke, who recently became a research fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.
Matzke is no stranger to the battles over teaching evolution in public schools. He spent three years at the National Center for Science Education, where he aided the parents of public school students from Dover, Pa., who filed a federal lawsuit to remove intelligent design from their school district's curriculum. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, was decided in favor of the parents in 2005, with the court ruling that attempts to insert Biblically inspired creationist theories into public school classrooms were unconstitutional.
Matzke went on to earn his doctorate in integrative biology at UC Berkeley and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tenn. As a computational biogeographer, he studies how plant and animal species got to the places where they live today and where they might wind up in the future — and he uses a lot of complicated computer programs to help him.
He took a similar approach to map the family tree of 65 anti-evolution bills that have been introduced in 16 U.S. states since the Kitzmiller decision. Those bills do not to mention creationism or intelligent design by name, but they generally give teachers legal cover to present a "critical analysis" of evolution.
Matzke also included two other texts in his analysis — the school board policy from Louisiana's Ouachita Parish and a model bill produced by the Discovery Institute, a major proponent of intelligent design. The Discovery Institute's post-Kitzmiller plan has been to promote "Academic Freedom Acts," which are "aimed at encouraging teachers to promote antievolutionism," Matzke wrote in Science.
The Ouachita approach was to combine skepticism of evolution with criticism for two other hot-button science issues: climate change and human cloning. This strategy has been widely copied by bills that have come to be called "Science Education Acts."
"This tactic appears to be an attempt to circumvent earlier legal decisions suggesting that targeting evolution alone is prima facie evidence of religious motivation and, thus, unconstitutional," Matzke wrote. "An additional motivation may be the dislike of climate change research by economic and religious conservatives."
Matzke ran the text of all of these documents through a computer program to identify portions of some bills that were copied, and perhaps modified, in subsequent bills. These searches turned up "strong evidence of bill-to-bill copying and 'descent with modification,'" Matzke wrote. "At least 63 of 65 antievolution bills considered here can be tied directly to creationism through statements in the legislation or by sponsors."
This statistical phylogenic analysis also makes clear the outsize influence of the Ouachita policy – it "almost completely replaced" the Academic Freedom Acts put forth by the Discovery Institute, according to the study.
"The addition of human cloning and global warming was copied in over a dozen subsequent bills, two of which passed," Matzke wrote.
Efforts to keep evolution out of American public schools go back nearly a century, to the outright bans that were challenged (unsuccessfully) in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In their current iteration, however, they have the potential to undermine knowledge across a broad range of scientific topics, Matzke warned.
"Societal debate over evolution education has the potential to leak into other societal debates where high-quality science education is inconvenient to certain established interests," he wrote. "Science educators have substantial work to do to ensure that science classes teach the best science available, rather than false critiques and controversies promoted by creationists."
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