In the second half of 1987 and the first half of 1988, "scientific" creationists suffered three major court defeats in a row, their most significant legal losses in a battle that has raged continuously since 1964. First, they lost their battle in defence of the Louisiana "equal time for creationism" law when the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 against them in June of 1987. Second, Pat Robertson's National Legal Foundation decided to cut its losses by intentionally missing its December 1987 deadline for filing its appeal of the Eleventh Circuit Court's ruling against Judge W. Brevard Hand's ban of forty-four "secular humanist" textbooks in Alabama. And, third, the U.S. Supreme Court refused in February of 1988 to hear the Tennessee Mozert case, thereby upholding a lower court ruling against a group of fundamentalist parents who wanted alternative textbooks for their children.
You'd think then, that with all this, creationism would by now be a dead issue in America's public schools. But it hasn't left us yet, and here's why.
Right after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Louisiana case, creationist attorney Wendell Bird issued a press release that stated:
. . . the Court Ruling was narrow and did not say that teaching creation-science is necessarily unconstitutional if adopted for a secular purpose. In fact, the Court said the exact opposite:From this, attorney Bird concluded:"Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."The Supreme Court recognized that teachers "already possess" a flexibility . . . to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life, and are "free to teach any and all facets of this subject" of "all scientific theories about the origins of humankind."
The majority opinion leaves open at least two alternatives . . . (1) the right of teachers to teach "a variety of scientific theories" and to bring Scopes-type lawsuits if punished or prohibited, and (2) the right of schools, school districts, and perhaps legislatures to encourage or require teaching of "all scientific theories . . . about origins."That Bird's hopeful view of the future wasn't just so much hot air to make his supporters feel better was made clear in March of 1988 when an Illinois social studies teacher sued his school district and superintendent in federal court for opposing his "right" to teach creationism. He claimed that his freedom of speech was violated. And even though he ultimately failed to win the day, the Institute for Creation Research and other leading anti-evolution organizations continue to promote such "scopes trial in reverse" test cases by encouraging existing Christian fundamentalist teachers to present arguments against evolution in their science classes. And not only are the teachers responding favorably to this appeal, there is evidence that they were cooperating even before being asked!
In 1986 Dr. Michael Zimmerman, professor of biology at Oberlin College in Ohio, conducted a survey of high school biology teachers in his state. Not only did he find that 37.6% of the teachers responding favored teaching creationism in public schools (25% favored doing it in the science classroom), but he discovered that creationism was actually being taught in 19% of the public high school biology courses. When he added data that indicated creationism was being taught in 40% of such courses in non-sectarian, private schools and in 67% of such courses in sectarian schools, he found that 22% of all Ohio high school students were studying creationism in the science classroom!
Zimmerman also found that when teachers offer creationism, they devote less time to material on evolution. As a result, an average of only 7.5 class periods are were devoted in 1986 to evolution, as compared to 10 class periods in 1949. In the light of this, it is small wonder that U.S. high school students continue to come out on the bottom of the list in biology in comparisons of industrialized nations. Students in the major European and Asian countries tend to score much higher.
And this carries over to college. According to a November 1986 poll of liberal arts majors, conducted by Francis Harrold, professor of archaeology at the University of Texas, 30% of college students believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time! (We are witnessing the rise of what might be called "the Flintstone generation.") To provide a little perspective, one article reporting the story opened with the sentence, "The good news is that only 15 percent of 1,000 college students polled in three states said they had faith in astrology."
So, despite a long line of court victories against creationism, creationist ideas are gaining in acceptance among the general population. Furthermore, creationists don't recognize defeat. They just regroup and launch another offensive.
A fairly recent development in this controversy is the reentry of Paul Ellwanger into the fray. In case the name doesn't ring any bells with you, he is the respiratory therapist from the South who drafted the "model creationism bill" that became the basis of the "equal time" laws passed in Arkansas and Louisiana before the courts overturned them. Well, now he has a new "model bill," called the "Uniform Origins Policy," that he believes will get around the constitutional problems of the old one. And he's encouraging creationists everywhere to seek its passage both as state legislation and as a local school board resolution.
Ellwanger also offers a "powerful" 19-page paper "containing 36 easily understood scientific weaknesses of evolution" which he feels should accompany the Uniform Origins Policy. This combination, he believes, "would make crystal clear to [legislators] exactly why this Policy is urgently needed in our schools."
The Policy itself calls for "disclosure of relevant scientific information that makes classroom presentations more objective by including both the strengths and weaknesses of concepts on origins presented by the public school teacher or textbook." On the face of it, this doesn't sound too threatening. It even sounds laudable, which could make the Policy popular. However, keep in mind that there is no such subject matter as "origins" except in the lore of creationism. Since creationists consider evolution to be an "origins" theory, this Policy would require that pseudoscientific anti-evolutionism be presented every time evolution is discussed. And fundamentalist teachers who use class time to actively "debunk" evolution would be protected under the Policy's provision that no teacher "acting in good faith to carry out the intent and provisions of this Policy" could be fired or disciplined.
The only plus would be that staunchly pro-evolution teachers could devote considerable class time to debunking creationism. But this is scant consolation when one realizes that few teachers will want to brave criticism from fundamentalist parent groups in a conservative political climate. When it comes to taking a stand, it will more often be fundamentalist teachers who enter the lists. Most of the rest will quietly avoid the subject of evolution altogether, which is how creationists today continually succeed in suppressing evolution even when the courts are against them. They make evolution "controversial" and thus win by default.
"Evolution," in fact, has become a dirty word. A headline over an article covering Alabama's science curriculum declared, "New science curriculum dodges the 'E' word." That says it all.
And this Alabama science curriculum, which will be in effect into 1994, is worth noting. The word "evolution" appears nowhere in it. Sometimes the term "species modification" is used as a substitute, which gets the state down to some serious waffling. Such a term can easily be interpreted to mean mere changes within an existing species (which creationists accept) rather than the replacement of old species by new ones.
Furthermore, when this science curriculum was approved in the late 1980s, local school superintendents were notified in an official letter that teachers may supplement the curriculum with various theories of the origin of life. That opened the door to the introduction of creationism. As a result, we continue to hear from Alabama's creationists.
And so it goes. Even with an astonishing array of victories chalked up by the evolution side, creationism still flourishes and grows. Whether the newspapers daily report it or not, the creation-evolution controversy rages on. Creationism is not dead. It is not even dying. What is dying is American science education. We are graduating a generation of scientific illiterates who will be the voters of tomorrow. It is they who will determine how we fare in international technological competition. And, given that the high stakes issue of the future could be biotechnology, we may be moving toward a particularly ominous tomorrow.
This is the updated text of a paper that, since 1988, has been presented in slightly varied forms both orally in public forums and in print in local and national periodicals. Its author, Frederick Edwords, is the executive director of the American Humanist Association and founder and former editor of Creation/Evolution journal.
© Copyright 1994 and 1988 by Frederick Edwords
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