New Year Brings New Attacks on Evolution in Schools

Charles Darwin's notes on evolution.
Naturalist Charles Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree, found in the First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837) (Image credit: public domain)

The new year is bringing new controversy over teaching evolution in public schools, with two bills in New Hampshire seeking to require teachers to teach the theory more as philosophy than science.

Meanwhile, an Indiana state senator has introduced a bill that would allow school boards to require the teaching of creationism.

New Hampshire House Bill 1148 would "require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism."

The second proposal in the New Hampshire House, HB 1457, does not mention evolution specifically but would "require science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes."

Innovation can indeed overturn old ideas, but the theory of evolution is too well-established to be tossed out like yesterday's garbage, scientists say.

"Bill 1457 turns skepticism into bewilderment," said Zen Faulkes, a biology professor at the University of Texas, Pan America. "It would ask teachers to say to students, 'Don't commit to the hypothesis that uranium has more protons than carbon,' or 'Remember, kids, tomorrow we might find out that DNA is not the main molecule that carries genetic information.' Evolution is as much a fact as either of those things, so it should be taught with the same confidence."

Religion and science

The theory of evolution has become a flashpoint for religious conservatives, many of whom argue that the idea of life evolving over billions of years clashes with Biblical beliefs. Republican State Rep. Gary Hopper, who with his Republican district mate John Burt introduced HB 1457, told the Concord Monitor that the theory of evolution teaches students that life is nothing but an accident.

"I want to introduce children to the idea that they have a purpose for being here," Hopper told the newspaper.

Hopper said he would like to see intelligent design, or the idea that a creator sparked life's development, taught in schools, but that he did not write the requirement into his bill because similar attempts have failed around the country.

Jerry Bergevin, a Republican who introduced HB 1148, went further, telling the Concord Monitor that atheism was linked to Nazism and the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

"I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the idea to be presented," Bergevin said. "It's a worldview and it's godless."

New Hampshire isn't the only state where battle lines have been drawn over evolution. In 2011, at least seven states considered bills that would limit the teaching of evolution in public schools. Anti-evolution bills in the last several years have failed except in Louisiana. That 2008 law gives teachers the right to bring in supplemental classroom materials that teach ideas contrary to established science in fields including evolution, climate change and the origin of life.  

Doomed to failure?

New Hampshire's two bills are set for hearings in the state's House Education Committee in February. Nashua Telegraph columnist David Brooks, who has been following their course, said bills related to evolution in public schools are rare in the state. The last time evolution was an issue was in 1994.

Brooks added that New Hampshire, with 1.3 million people, has 400 state representatives, each of whom gets paid $100 a year to serve. "Most of them are volunteers, many of them are retirees, so a lot of unusual bills get proposed," Brooks told LiveScience. "So the fact that an unusual bill gets proposed in New Hampshire is not always as big a deal as it would be in other states."

Indiana's proposal, state Senate Bill 89, would require that "the governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation." [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

"This is a bill that directly promotes that teaching of creation science," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change in public schools.

"What a dinosaur. Bills specifically saying 'Thou shalt teach creation science' haven't been around for a couple of decades," Scott told LiveScience.

That's because a 1987 Supreme Court decision in the case Edwards v. Aguillard found that teaching creationism as science in public schools is unconstitutional. Any laws passed requiring the teaching of creationism would thus be thrown out by the courts.

Nevertheless, Scott said, the NCSE is keeping a close eye on state legislatures around the country. The organization helps local groups oppose anti-evolution legislation.

"Teaching students that scientific explanations that are not controversial are controversial is mis-educating them," Scott said. "And that's why these bills are bad."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.