The evolution debate has returned to Tennessee. Almost 90 years after the famous Scopes Trial, a Tennessee bill that encourages students to question evolution will become law. The bill will go into effect without the governor’s signature.
“The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a 3-to-1 margin,” explained Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. “But good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.”
Critics of the bill say that although it appears to allow teachers more freedom to discuss controversies, it is, in reality, a thinly veiled pretext for the reintroduction of creationism into the classroom. The bill does not require teachers to introduce creationism into discussions of evolution, but it does protect them from administrative retribution if they do. It also encourages students to question accepted scientific theories – including evolution and global warming.
A solid majority (57%) of Americans agree that humans and other living things have evolved over time, but there is a significant dissenting minority (38%) who say that human beings and other living things have existed in their present form since creation. There are also disputes about the process of evolution (and, for that matter, creation):
- Among those affirming a belief in evolution, a majority (53%) say evolution is due to natural processes, compared to 38% who say a supreme being guided the process.
- Among those affirming creationism, fully half (50%) say humans and other living thing were created within the last 10,000 years, compared to 39% who disagree.
Previous research by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer suggests that the new standard might not actually have such profound effect on what students are taught – that is, some teachers in Tennessee are likely to have introduced alternatives to evolution without the law’s encouragement. In their book, Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, Plutzer and Berkman found that although science teachers are somewhat constrained by state standards, they tend to base their teaching decisions on their own scientific training, their confidence in the material, and their own personal beliefs. Considering that more than 6-in-10 (62%) Tennesseans embracing the belief that evolution is not the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth, it is a safe bet that at least some teachers will take advantage of this increased latitude to introduce the idea of creationism, or bring up doubts about evolutionary theory.
Do these debates belong in the classroom? Supporters of the bill say they do, while opponents correctly claim that evolutionary theory is largely a settled matter in the scientific community. Given the strong feelings about this issue, one thing is certain: this issue is unlikely to disappear. And for now the question about what should be taught in Tennessee will be left up to teachers to decide (although some would argue it always was).