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From Scopes to Kitzmiller: The War on Evolution

By Leo Welch

An attempt by religious fundamentalist to denigrate or prohibit the teaching of biological evolution has a long history in the United States. The most well-known of these efforts took place in Tennessee in 1925 when a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was tried for violation of the Tennessee law prohibiting teaching evolution in public schools. Interestingly, the trail featured several well-known personalities from Illinois. John Scopes graduated from Salem, Illinois, high school. The prosecutor at his trial, William Jennings Bryan, was also a former resident of Salem and spoke at Scopes' high school graduation. One of Scopes' defense attorneys was the famous Chicago attorney, Clarence Darrow. Although Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, the nation-wide publicity regarding the trial gave a public relations victory to those who fought to include evolution in public education. The play, Inherit the Wind, and the subsequent movie starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March provide, even today, a captivating glimpse into the Scopes trial and the positions of those who promote and oppose the teaching of evolution.

An examination of biology textbooks published after the Scopes verdict, show that the public relations victory was short lived. Although there was significant opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools prior to the Scopes trial, it was after the trial when the real impact on high school biology textbooks took place. Judith V. Grabiner and Peter D. Miller in their article, "The Effects of the Scopes Trial," argue that some blame should be placed on the higher education scientific community for failure to pay attention to the teaching of science in the nation's high schools after the Scopes trial, leading to the success of creationists eliminating evolution from text books. In the decade following the trial, it was almost impossible to find the word evolution in the index or glossary of these texts. References to Charles Darwin, natural selection, or the tree of life all but disappeared.

A typical textbook was Moon, Man and Otto's Modern Biology frequently used in public high schools in the 1950s and 1960s. The text was essentially a taxonomic approach starting with the protozoans and ending with humans but with no treatment of anything resembling evolutionary biology. The late Harvard biologist, Steven Jay Gould, noted that this textbook did not even mention the word evolution and was anything but modern. An exception was a textbook authored by Alfred C. Kinsey, Professor of Zoology at Indiana University. Kinsey was a specialist on gall wasps but better known for his research on human sexuality. His textbook not only included significant material on evolution but also attacks on the opponents of evolution. It did not sell.

Based in part on the shock over Russia's scientific advances when Sputnik was launched in the late 50s, the U.S. scientific community started to examine and improve science education. The American Institute of Biological Sciences initiated new textbooks known as the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study texts. These textbooks were dramatically different with the use of experimental labs and strong emphasis on evolution and genetics. The education community supported and adopted the new texts, resulting in improvements in high school biology.

Fundamentalist attacked the textbook with full force. The most noted was a campaign against teaching evolution in public schools in Texas (where else) supported by newspaper editorials, church sermons, and, of course, the State Textbook Commission. In 1968 a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated legislated bans on the teaching of evolution by finding an Arkansas statute unconstitutional.

Attempts to block the teaching of evolution in public schools from 2004 to 2016 have been studied by Nicholas J. Matzke of The Australian University. He lists at least 71 bills that have been introduced, all by Republicans, in Alabama, Maryland, Florida, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, Indiana, and Montana. The topics targeted in these bills include evolution, origin of life, human cloning, and now global warming.

Other attempts to invalidate evolution include the teaching of so-called "balanced treatment," "creation science," "evolutionism," "critical thinking," "intelligent design" and the use of textbook disclaimers. All of these ideas have been found by courts as covers for biblical creationism.

Most recently, U.S. Federal District Judge John E. Jones (a George W. Bush appointee) issued a decision in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover. The 2005 case concerned the teaching of intelligent design as required by the Dover, Pennsylvania, public school board. Judge Jones found that intelligent design was a form of creationism, and, therefore, unconstitutional to teach in American public schools. He also referred to the Dover school board members as exhibiting a "breathtaking inanity."

Unfortunately, court cases have failed to stop attempts to limit or block the teaching of evolution in public schools. Adverse legislation attempts still continue. Even in states where there is no adverse legislation, many faculty do not teach evolution due to an unfriendly administration or school board or to avoid complaints by students or parents. The higher education scientific community and higher education community in general must continue to promote the teaching of evolution in public high schools and continue to champion scientific integrity.