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Tennessee Skewers Teaching of Evolution in Schools — Is Your State Next?

Thanks to ALEC, the Volunteer State has adopted a law intended to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. Just don't expect them to stop there.

Photo Credit: Andy Dean Photography |


Four score and seven years ago, a Tennessee high school biology teacher named John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution. At the time, Tennessee had a law called the Butler Act, in honor of John W. Butler, the leader of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, that turned Scopes’s efforts to educate his students into a criminal offense. The enemies of Darwin won in court but suffered a nearly catastrophic loss in the public sphere. The press portrayed them as anti-intellectual and un-American in their opposition to science and progress. They were the “sharpshooters of bigotry,” according to Scopes’ celebrated attorney, Clarence Darrow. “I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it — religious fanaticism,” he said. The fallout was so toxic that Christian fundamentalism retreated as a political force for decades.

We now have compelling evidence that evolution doesn’t happen — at least not in Tennessee. As of April 10, 2012, Tennessee has on its books a new law intended to undermine the teaching of evolution and promote the teaching of creationism in public schools. The legislation was opposed by pretty much every credible organization involved in the teaching of biology: the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences. But the legislators of Tennessee thought they knew better, and Gov. Bill Halsam, demonstrating neither courage nor conviction, allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature.

Why is Tennessee moving backward on evolution? We’re all pretty familiar with the cultural and political forces at work here in a general way. But there is a much cruder, perhaps less obvious force driving the resurgence of biological ignorance in Tennessee: money. If you follow the trail of greed, in fact, you will quickly see that the problem doesn’t have much to do with Tennessee, and it isn’t just about evolution.

Tennessee’s new pro-creationism law represents itself as an effort to teach students “critical thinking” by encouraging science teachers to discuss “scientific controversies.” The law mentions “biological evolution” as the subject of one such alleged “controversy,” but it is also concerned with another such “controversy,” namely, what it calls “global warming.”

Tennessee’s brilliantly Orwellian act, House Bill (HB) 368/Senate Bill 893, is based on model legislation bearing the eerie title “The Environmental Literacy Improvement Act,” provided by the corporate lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is on record supporting the view that human activity plays little to no role in harmful climate change—and that even if the earth does warm substantially, it is likely to be “of benefit to the United States,” according to an August 2011 article in ThinkProgress. ALEC has also described EPA regulations as a “ train wreck.” The group’s sponsors include, among others, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, United Healthcare, Pfizer, Bayer and Koch Industries.

The person overseeing the ALEC committee that created the model legislation, Alexandra “Sandy” Liddy Bourne, left ALEC some time ago to work for the Heartland Institute. Bourne, incidentally, is the daughter of Watergate felon-turned-conservative-activist G. Gordon Liddy. Recently leaked internal memos show that her new group, the Heartland Institute, is pursuing an astonishingly cynical strategy to undermine public faith in climate science in part by manipulating public school science curricula. Heartland Institute, along with pro-voucher groups such as the Foundation for Educational Excellence, anti-sex-education crusader Dr. Judith Reisman, and at least five members of the Tennessee House and Senate, is on ALEC’s “Educational Task Force.” 

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