Tennessee was home to the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in the 1920s.  (Source: Google Images)

Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson (R) (center) insists the state's new bill isn't an attack on evolution, despite the fact that the bill explicitly labels it a "controversial" theory.  (Source: Times Free Press)

Even politicians supporting the bill acknowledge that religious-based alternative ideas to the theory of evolution may not have scientific foundations. But they argue they should be able to be taught in science classes, if teachers want.  (Source: MASS Live)
But will the politicians protect those who believe the Sun orbits the Earth?

Tennessee is an infamous hotbed of rhetoric attacking the merits of researching evolution and teaching what scientists have learned.  Returning to a long history of legislative efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, state representatives are trying to push a bill through the House that would allow students to reject evolutionary teachings in the schools and not comply with testing, assignments, and examinations on the topic.

I.  Scopes, 86 years Later

In 1925 Tennessee witnessed the Scopes Monkey Trial, or The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, which sought to ban a teacher from sharing modern scientific theory and the insight of Charles Darwin with his students.  Scopes ended up losing the case in Tennessee Supreme Court, but was later vindicated by the higher U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Epperson v. Arkansas.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on teaching evolution contravene the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Today the situation has shifted dramatically.

Armed with new fossil discoveriesgenetic evidence, and directly observed evolution of radically new metabolic pathways in bacteria, evolution in the schools is taught as a rule, rather than an exception. 

Like other theories rebuked by religious organizations of yore, such as the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, scientific evidence has eroded religious barriers mounted against evolution and the theory is now widely accepted.

But in Tennessee, 86 years later, there is still strong opposition to evolution in the religious fundamentalist community.  Christian organizations in the state continue to ardently reject evolutionary theory, and in particular the idea of "macroevolution".

To be fair, they are not alone.  Followers of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East also believe in a young Earth and rebuke the idea that life evolved naturally over millions of years.  And hard line elements in the Judaism do as well.

II. Bill Provokes Passionate Debate

The Republican-controlled Tennessee House has proposed a controversial new law entitled HB 368 Dunn/SB 893 Watson.  The bill states:

This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.

By lumping global warming and evolution advocates have united their conservative base in support of the measure.

But the bill raises tough questions.  Who can be the fair judge of whether a theory broadly accepted by the scientific community is "controversial".  If a cultist believed the Sun to orbit the Earth, could they break with curriculum and present this idea to students?

Ultimately the language of the bill isn't overly troublesome as much as its ambiguity and decision to single out evolution, a strongly supported theory.

III. Advocates Say Bill Will Improve America's Science

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) insists the bill isn't about evolution, despite the fact that it specifically singles it out.  He states in an interview with the Times Free Press, "It’s not an evolution bill. That’s a red herring. It germinates an emotional response that [critics] want."

But he adds, "[Creationism and intelligent design] may not meet the scientific standard, but if they come up in a science class ... and it’s not listed in the state’s curriculum, a teacher should not be off-putting and say that’s not in the curriculum — if you want to talk about intelligent design you should go down the hall to the religious studies class. Teachers should be able to say, look, there are people who view that as a competing idea."

The bill has received limited support Tennessee's scientific community.  States, "[Current scientific teaching methods are poor and] our falling national aptitude reflects this. This bill offers an improvement in our approach to science education."

Similarly Nashville biology teacher Harold Morrison states, "Now I would never try to proselytize any of my students into believing what I think. But I do think students should be knowledgeable of scientists who go against conventional thought so students can draw their own conclusions."

Religious groups also staunchly support the measure.  David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, is one of those advocating it.  He states in an interview with Nashville Public Radio:

I met earlier in the year with some teachers. I met with the Professional Educators of Tennessee and discussed the question of whether or not there were teachers who might be concerned to bring up any of the questions that are raised by scientists about the difference between microevolution, for instance, and macroevolution…

Essentially it would be the starting from some kind of amoeba, or some kind of single-celled organism out of which all the complex diversity of life has come. That’s what macroevolution would essentially be.

He adds:

To ever cast any questions about some of the evidence offered in support of macroevolution gets them blackballed from the academy.

This bill would make clear that schools should create an atmosphere conducive to questioning scientific theories and that no teacher can be fired for questioning scientific theories.

Critics claim a recent ranking of scientific education by nation supports their theory that the current system is flawed.  That ranking put the U.S. in 31st place.

While most of the nations ahead of the U.S. do not include creationism or intelligent design in their curriculum, proponents of the bill seem to believe that doing so would help propel the U.S. ahead, nonetheless.

IV. Opponents Label Measure a "Monkey bill"

Former House Speaker Rep Jimmy Naifeh, (D-Covington) dislikes the measure. In a House debate he called the bill an attacked on science and labeled it a "Monkey bill" alluding to the Scopes trial.

Many members of the scientific community are opposed to it as well.

Molly Miller, a geology professor at Vanderbilt University, says that the bill is an effort to attack a theory that is well researched and long-standing.  She states:
My objection to this bill is primarily based on the fact that it is not needed. There are science standards that are already set in place.

She says the use of the term "theory" is sufficient qualification.  A theory is a set of rules confirmed by careful scientific observation.  But theories are not infallible and may have limitations or exceptions.

Rep. John Deberry (D-Memphis), who is also an ordained minister, took offense at Ms. Miller’s comments, calling them "totally anti-American."

But Ms. Miller is not alone in her criticism.  Even in conservative Tennessee the bill has many other opponents, particularly in academia.

In testimony before Tennessee's state assembly Hume-Fogg High School biology teacher Wesley Roberts complained that the bill would create an atmosphere in which myths and fairy tales would prevail over science.  He points to a Chinese creation myth "in which fleas become humans" as a sufficient example of the outlandish ideas that could occur.

He comments:

Part of our rich cultural history in Tennessee is opposition to evolution education. This bill is part of that tradition. It is not inviting students to discuss the controversy of the Vietnam war. It's not encouraging students to discuss the true value of pi. It’s aimed at science and evolution.

[The bill is a] mandate to allow any idea, no matter how scientific or nonscientific into the classroom.

However attractive it may sound to have the discussions of nonscientific ideas in our science classroom, it's not the souls of our students that are at stake here. What is at stake is how they will perform on standardized tests in which they will be compared to students across the state, the nation and the world.

Opponents argue the bill would leave America further behind more-educated nations that don't teach such theories.

V.  What Does Science Say?

It's important to consider the science here, in addition to the support and criticism of the bill

While science can offer no evidence directly contradicting fantastic faith based arguments -- such as that the notion that the Earth is thousands of years old and that the world was created in an elaborate fashion to make it appear as if evolution occurred, when it actually did not -- what it can offer is theory based on real-world observation.

Part of many people's difficulty in accepting evolution is difficulty in understanding the theory.

In fact the term "macro-evolution" so beloved by opponents of evolutionary theory, is viewed as rather outdated by evolutionary theorist themselves.  Modern genetics has shown us that minor alterations to genes can create dramatic anatomical and physiological changes.  So the distinction between "micro" and "macro" evolution is virtually non-existent making such terms somewhat inappropriate.

What is clear is that evolution is the result of pressure.  Direct observations of this principle in action include the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria in hospital settings, and the evolution of a unique sugar metabolism pathway by famished E. Coli bacteria in a Michigan State University lab.

Genetic changes tend to occur more slowly in animals, especially vertebrates, than in "lower" lifeforms, like bacteria.  Thus typically it might take hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years to witness such an event.

What used to be called periods of "macro-evolution" refers to an era of dramatic population reduction.  During times of mass extinction genetic drift can greatly accelerate the evolution process, by allowing modifications that might formerly have been selected out.  But in reality, these modifications, again, return to simple changes to the genome.

The fossil and genetic record offers evidence to fill in the gaps of what Mr. Fowler or other critics would term "macro-evolution".  While not infallible, this scientific evidence gives researchers a good idea of how these kinds of events work.

Fortunately or unfortunately, researchers have not been able to directly observe such dramatic events in the wild, because mass extinction has not yet occurred in the modern era of man (though some believe we may be on the verge of causing one).

In contrast with the body of evidence supporting evolution, theories like creationism and intelligent design have little in the way of scientifically verifiable evidence Thus most scientists feel these ideas are novel, but have no place currently in science or scientific education.

VI.  Vote is Upcoming

Tennessee's State House will soon get to decide on this bill.  The measure passed the House Education Committee via a voice vote and will now head to a full vote on the House floor. 

Thus for better or worse the bill is now green lighted to potentially become law.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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