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

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.” 

ALEC, Heartland and their incorporated friends, as it happens, aren’t the only people interested in “teaching the controversy” about global warming. The climate science denial industry has a new ally in God — or at least the God of a group that calls itself the Cornwall Alliance. The roster of the Cornwall Alliance represent a Who’s Who of the religious right — from Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council to pseudo-historian and darling of the Religious Right David Barton — and they have declared as a matter of high theology that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing global warming.” The leader of the Cornwall Alliance, E. Calvin Beisner, appears to have equally solid theological reasons to believe that “policies meant to reduce alleged carbon-dioxide induced global warming will be destructive.” It seems almost beside the point to note that Beisner also happens to think that the attempt to keep creationism out of biology classrooms is evidence of “aggressive extreme secularism.” 

Like all good marriages, the union of the corporate climate deniers and the theologians is based on more than just one common trait, in this instance an animosity toward science. They also hate public education. ALEC, the Heartland Institute, the pro-creationist Discovery Institute and the leading members of the Cornwall Alliance have public school “reform” at the top of their list. But by “reform” they basically mean siphoning money from public schools and diverting it to private religious academies. As I discovered while researching and writing my book, The Good News Club, many leaders of these groups see secular public education – that is, public education that does not endorse any particular religious viewpoint – as the root of much evil in modern society. If they can’t get their doctrines into the schools, they would be happy to see the schools fail.

Tennessee, as it turns out, was not the first and certainly will not be the last to benefit from the approach to education promoted by ALEC and friends. Louisiana already has on its books the Louisiana Science Education Act, a title that should be taken to mean that science in Louisiana is rather different from science elsewhere on the planet. Texas adopted a similar law mandating climate science denial in K–12 education in 2009, and South Dakota did the same in 2010. This year, a half-dozen anti-science bills have been put forward in state legislatures across the nation: two each in New Hampshire and Missouri, one each in Indiana and Oklahoma. And it isn’t even summer yet. 

Money helps the legislation go 'round, of course. Still, one has to wonder about the financial calculus of the corporate sponsors that have been footing the bill. Yes, it may be true that the more ignorant the public is about climate science, the more money they stand to make. But for how long? Don’t these people have children, too?

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