PolySciFi Blog

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


The Evolution of the Instruction of Evolution

In this comment, Scott asserts that
it was the Scopes trial (with the creationists winning) that embarrassed the nation enough to spur the teaching of evolution in schools nationwide.”
While this is a common belief, it’s not true - the opposite occurred. Quoting Eugenie C. Scott:
“since 1925 and the Scopes trial, the discussion of evolution in textbooks decreased rapidly. By the late '50s and early '60s there was virtually no evolution in high school biology books.”
Yet now, evolution in the classroom is the rule. So what caused the change? To quote one of my favorite Game Show Network advertisements – SPUTNIK! (Skylab? *buzz* Sorry. The answer was Sputnik. We also would’ve accepted the “moops”)

Now, I’m not saying that the year after Sputnik launched that evolution was in every classroom in America. Rather, Sputnik convinced the powers that be that the US was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and compelled the US to action. That’s right, before the missile gap, there was the Darwin gap (not to mention the dogs in space gap, but in the 70s we sure showed those commies when we got Pigs…in… Spaaaace!!!!).

Anyways this compulsion to action led to the NSF attempting to jumpstart science education in America. In 1958, the NSF founded the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) which was tasked with creating “State-of-the-art science textbooks .. as part of a plan to cultivate top-notch homegrown scientists”. In BSCS’s words:
"In 1958," begins BSCS Executive Director Rodger W. Bybee "BSCS set out to change the way biology was taught in American high schools. We accomplished that with the leadership of noted biologists and dedicated biology teachers. The science education community now has the fruits of this early period firmly recorded in its history."
However, most schools didn’t have evolution textbooks in school for a while still. Indeed, 'twasn’t until 1975 that 50% of schools used the BSCS program. Of course, the introduction of a federally funded biology textbook that taught evolution created some pushback, e.g., Creation Research Society which was founded in 1963 and has its own peer reviewed journal – the CRS Quarterly! (somehow my previously stated displeasure with a jury of one’s peers seems relevant). However, this pushback wasn't what was limiting the instruction of evolution in the classroom - rather it was still against the law in most states.

Yes, the fact that Scopes lost the case actually contributed to the prolongation of schools not teaching evolution in the schools (Or perhaps more accurately the TN State Supreme Court vacating the Dayton decision kept the case from proceeding to the US Supreme Court, but no matter - I doubt that the pre-New Deal 1928 Supreme Court would've interfered in state matters.). These laws remained on the books until 1968 when the Supreme Court heard Epperson vs Arkansas.

While I think the ruling is crappy jurisprudence (specifically, under this ruling you couldn’t fire a teacher for teaching Flying Spaghetti Monsterism), Epperson did get evolution into the class room as it held that a state prohibition against instructing evolution violated the 1st and 14th amendments because the law wasn’t religiously neutral.

This of course opened the door for the Creationists (or Flying Spaghetti MonsteristsPastafarians) to demand equal time in the class room less the state be accused of violating Epperson – a tactic that they’ve been doing ever since. In fact alot of the anti-evolution-instruction tactics that you see today have been used regularly since the 70's.

For instance the putting "evolution is just a theory" stickers on textbooks recently in vogue in Cobb County, Georgia, were used in New Mexico in the 70's (New Mexico also banned the instruction of evolution in 1997). California, which required the instruction of creationism until 1972, also removed references to "evolution as fact" in 1989.

The "both sides of the debate" approach is typified by Arkansas and Louisiana which passed laws in 1981 and 1986, respectively, that required that both Creationism and Evolution be taught, just like we just saw in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Of course, Creationism morphed into Intelligent Design in response to the Edwards vs Aguillard ruling (another crappy ruling in my opinion) (to those a little up on the history of evolution in school but not insanely up on the history - that's the Louisiana case)

1) In brief, this has been going on for decades. However, with a little historical perspective you can see that the state of instruction has "evolved" from a state of all fundamentalist creationism/no evolution instruction just fourish decades ago to virtually all evolution with a little ID on the side today.

2) To those who think that the US is about to enter some technological Dark Age because Creationism is ready to sweep away Evolution, know that this result would be very much counter to the prevailing trends of the last 4 decades. (I'm not trying to pick on Scott here - if he had been the first person I had heard express this sentiment, I wouldn't have bothered with this blog post. However, I need some reference to make clear that I'm not responding to a strawman, and Scott's comment required no effort to look up.)

3) If a single event can be credited with getting evolution in the classroom it wasn't Scopes - it was Sputnik. And it wasn't a groundswell thing, rather it was a top-down imposition on the states by the feds.

Since the blog seems to be on an evolution kick, if I have time tomorrow I'll explain how Jacob Weisberg is wrong about his claims on evolution contradicting religion and how public figures like him (*cough* Dawkins *cough*) have seriously retarded and are continuing to retard the popular acceptance of evolution.


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