An evolutionary biologist working at the Australian National University (ANU) decided to map the history of American conservatives’ attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution in school – and found that the anti-evolution legislation itself has been “evolving” in a very familar way.
Using software typically meant to study genetic family trees, he discovered that lawmakers for decades have been drafting different bills in different states that branch off and share traits like scientists know plants and animals do. They even have a common ancestor: The infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920s.
For close to a century, conservative lawmakers have sought to undermine science that conflicted with their religious doctrine by legislating away the problem. In more recent decades, the battle over evolution has focused on public schools, where lawmakers have fought with educators, scientists, judges, and in some cases students themselves, to impose censorship on the teaching of evolution. In other cases, they insist that schools also teach biblical creation stories or the pseudoscience of “intelligent design.” Needless to say, the attempts bear many of the hallmarks of grasping at straws.
From Science Daily:
“Some of the bills don’t make sense, they’ve been copied from another state and changed without thought,” said Dr Matzke, and evolutionary biologist from the ANU Research School of Biology.
“They are not terribly intelligently designed.”
To study American conservatives more recent history of attempting to quash science, Dr. Matzke painstakingly entered the contents of 65 bills proposed since 2004. He then ran an analysis looking for similarities, differences, changes over time, and other traits that might better explain their evolution.
“Creationism is getting stealthier in the wake of legal defeats, but techniques from the study of evolution reveal how creationist legislation is evolving,” Dr Matzke said.
One of the recent strategies has been encourage critical analysis of not just evolution, but also of human cloning and global warming.
Dr Matzke’s study determined that the origin of this line of argument was a school board policy in Louisiana in 2006. Descendants of this bill have since been passed in Louisiana and Tennessee.
“It’s sneaky, because it doesn’t mention creationism, yet it gives teachers permission to include pseudo-science and protects them from administrators who say you shouldn’t teach this stuff,” Dr Matzke said.
In other words, creationists have had to – ahem – evolve and adapt to circumvent many of the defeats they had suffered from courts and school boards. They’ve stumbled upon the idea that they can slip in religious dogma as long as they camouflage it as any but religious dogma. It may explain why all of a sudden we are seeing less about the Bible and more about “teaching the debate.”
Dr. Matzke says his analysis makes it clear that the markings of creationism are all over the “stealthier” legislation. It may fool a few school board members, but it can’t trick the statistical analysis.
The sheer amount of energy devoted to undermining science in the classrooms also gives us a depressing explanation for why American students lag so far behind in science compared to many parts of the developed world. Lawmakers and religious groups are intentionally working to keep kids ignorant, because they don’t like the implications of science. The censorship is slowly eroding, however. Fewer people are buying it, and especially young people.
In the latest polls, evolution is finally edging out creationism. Americans under 30 are leading the way.
73 percent of American adults younger than 30 expressed some sort of belief in evolution, a jump from 61 percent in 2009, the first year in which the question was asked. The number who believed in purely secular evolution (that is, not directed by any divine power) jumped from 40 percent to a majority of 51 percent. In other words, if you ask a younger American how humans arose, you’re likely to get an answer that has nothing to do with God.
Is the battle over? Certainly not. Even as young people warm to evolution, America still lags behind many nations in the basic understanding of science. It does show, however, that even while anti-evolution legislation is evolving, there are signs that it may one day finally go extinct.
Featured image via The Simpsons