Anti-evolution books are sold at a stand in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial. AP Photo

A new analysis reveals the "stealth" roots of anti-evolution education policy efforts in the U.S.

Some 90 years out from the Scopes Monkey Trial, and a full decade after the legal defeat of “intelligent design” in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the fight to teach creationism alongside evolution in American public schools has yet to go extinct. On the contrary, a new analysis in the journal Science suggests that such efforts have themselves evolved over time—adapting into a complex form of “stealth creationism” that’s steadily tougher to detect.

Call it survival of the fittest policy.

“It is one thing to say that two bills have some resemblances, and another thing to say that bill X was copied from bill Y with greater than 90 percent probability,” Nick Matzke, a researcher at the Australian National University and author of the new paper, tells CityLab via email. “I do think this research strengthens the case that all of these bills are of a piece—they are all ‘stealth creationism,’ and they all have either clear fundamentalist motivations, or are close copies of bills with such motivations.”

The rise of “science education acts”

Matzke performed a close textual analysis of 67 anti-evolution education bills proposed by local government since 2004. (Three U.S. states have signed them into law during this time: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.) The result was a phylogenic tree—in effect a developmental history—tracing these policies to two main legislative roots: so-called “academic freedom acts,” and “science education acts.”

This phylogenetic tree traces most of the 67 anti-evolution education policies proposed in U.S. states since 2004 to two main roots: one group of “academic freedom acts,” and another as “scientific education acts.” (Nicholas J. Matzke / via Science)

Matzke's analysis shows that academic freedom acts were popular in 2004 and 2005 but have since been "almost completely replaced" with science education acts, which emerged as the strategy of choice after the adoption of a 2006 anti-evolution policy in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. (That policy’s lingering impact on creationist teaching was thoroughly exposed by Zack Kopplin in Slate earlier this year.) These acts tend to call for “critical analysis” of scientific topics that are supposedly controversial among experts. They often lump evolution alongside research areas like climate change and human cloning—an effort, argues Matzke, to skirt legal precedents that connect policies solely targeting evolution with unconstitutional religious motivations.

Kitzmiller was mostly about policies that specifically mention ‘intelligent design,’” says Matzke, who uncovered an explicit link between creationism and intelligent design during that case while working for the U.S.-based National Center for Science Education. “If a policy encourages evolution bashing, and has the same sorts of sponsors and fundamentalist motivations, but doesn't mention intelligent design or creationism, is it unconstitutional? If I were a judge, I would say ‘yes, obviously,’ but judges have all sorts of different philosophies and political biases.”

Another marker of science education acts is that they typically go out of their way to note that only scientific information, not religious doctrine, is protected by the policy. That’s a revealingly insecure stipulation, given that U.S. public schools are secular arenas by default.

A school bus collects students at Dover Area High School in 2005; the Pennsylvania town’s school system was a focus of a 2004 court ruling that teaching “intelligent design” as a scientific concept was unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

At least 6 bills adopted that strategy in 2015

A review of six anti-evolution education bills proposed at the state level in 2015 shows many of these legislative tactics on display:

  • Missouri. This act looks for ways “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies”—with “biological evolution” among them.
  • Montana. This House bill pushes “critical thinking” in science class on the grounds that “truth in education about claims over scientific discoveries, including but not limited to biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, random mutation, natural selection, DNA, and fossil discoveries, can cause controversy.”
  • South Dakota. State S.B. 114 gives teachers full freedom to help students “understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” with “biological evolution” mentioned as one such theory alongside global warming.
  • Oklahoma. This bill—creating a “Science Education Act”—urges teachers to help students develop “critical thinking skills” about unidentified “controversial issues” with the understanding that it “not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”
  • Alabama. Much in line with the aforementioned legislative efforts, the sponsor of this bill, Representative Mack Butler, betrayed its intentions when he noted on Facebook that its aim was to "encourage debate if a student has a problem learning he came from a monkey rather than an intelligent design!"
  • Indiana. S.B. 562 only mentions “human cloning” as a controversial scientific subject, but its mission to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing conclusions,” with its caveat about protecting “only the teaching of scientific information,” tags it firmly within the science education act lineage.

That none of these bills passed in 2015 isn’t the point, says Matzke. After all, several states have adopted such policies into law in recent years, placing millions of public school children in the hands of educators who might promote creationist alternatives to evolution, either because they have religious motivations themselves or simply weak scientific backgrounds. That Matzke’s analysis links two such laws to science education act language—those in Louisiana and Tennessee—is evidence enough that anti-evolution policies can, indeed, adapt to new times.

“Successful policies have a tendency to spread,” he says. “Every year, some states propose these policies, and often they are only barely defeated. And obviously, sometimes they pass, so hopefully this article will help raise awareness of the dangers of the ongoing situation.”

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