From Scopes to Dover-17: Teaching of evolution is back in court

(Note this has been updated)

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

1968 was a watershed year for attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. The events of that year arose because of the rise of creationist thinking in the 1960s. Influential in the rise of the creationist movement was the publication in 1961 of the book The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris. This was a 500-page book that tried to make the case that scientific evidence supported a literal interpretation of the Bible, down to a 6,000 year old Earth and Noah’s flood. While Whitcomb was a theologian, Morris had a doctoral degree in hydraulic engineering with minors in geology and mathematics. He later founded in 1970 the Institute for Creation Research to advance these ideas.

These new creationist groups took the Bible very literally, more so than William Jennings Bryan, and in fact they thought that during the Scopes trial Bryan had betrayed Christianity by allowing that the creation days of Genesis may have lasted longer than 24 hours, thus allowing the possibility that universe may have been around for more than 6,000 years. The new creationists were having none of that wishy-washiness. Coupled with their strict literal interpretation of the Bible was the powerful feeling that the teaching of evolution had to be countered.

As I wrote in Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000, p. 4):

Initial challenges to the theory of evolution took the form of demands that schools and textbook publishers acknowledge that Darwinian evolution was “only a theory” and not a scientific “fact,” and hence it should be eliminated from the science curriculum since science was supposed to be only concerned with facts. . . But these initial challenges had only minor success. Schools and teachers could hardly be expected not to say anything at all to students about how life and the universe came to be. Since Darwinian evolution had become accepted by professional scientists as the main organizing principle in understanding the appearance of different life forms, it was inevitable that science textbooks and the training of science teachers would reflect that thinking, albeit in a fairly ad-hoc manner.

The paradox was that despite the near universal teaching (in one form or another) of Darwinian evolution in schools, surveys showed a surprising resistance among the general public to key tenets of the theory, especially the one that said that humans and apes had common ancestors. As recently as 1988, 38% of college students believed that human life originated in the Garden of Eden. Feeling that perhaps the reason for this state of affairs was that evolution was not being taught properly, the scientific community planned and implemented a thoroughgoing reform of biology science texts, culminating in the 1960s with the BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) textbook series that had evolutionary ideas as a major theme permeating the texts. In these books, there was no escaping the fact that evolution was seen as the organizing principle in biology with no viable alternative.

The BSCS series was widely adopted by schools; but was perceived by creationists as a direct assault by the scientific community on their religious beliefs and galvanized them into responding.

Part of the thrust towards better science education was due to the shock that the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 created. The sense of panic that accompanied the idea that the US was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and technology no doubt helped policymakers override religious believers. These developments led to the next round of court cases.

Recall that even as late as the 1960s, the 1925 Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution was still technically on the books in Tennessee as being constitutional although in the wake of the Scopes trial nobody had enforced it. Texas and Louisiana had also passed laws prohibiting any mention of evolution in textbooks that were approved by the state. ((Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 221)

In 1928, Arkansas (like Tennessee in 1925) had passed a law by popular referendum that made it unlawful for a teacher in any state supported school or university to teach or to use a textbook that teaches “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” This law, like the Butler Act after Scopes, was also never enforced until 1965 when the state adopted the BSCS textbooks that emphasized evolution. But since the law banning the teaching of evolution was still on the books and since the new textbooks explicitly required the teaching of evolution, the state teacher’s organization saw the opportunity to put the law to the test and challenged it using, as in Scopes, another young biology teacher (Susan Epperson) as the key player, this time as the lead plaintiff challenging the validity of the law, rather than as someone accused of breaking the law.

The trial judge ruled in favor of Epperson and overturned the law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally limited the teacher’s freedom to teach about theories of origins. The state appealed and the Arkansas Supreme Court overruled the trial judge saying that the Arkansas law was a valid exercise of the State’s power to specify the curriculum in public schools.

(As a footnote, as the Arkansas case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, in Tennessee another teacher Gary Scott was threatening to take similar legal action against the Butler Act. This case was initiated in 1967 and coming along at the same time as the release of the memoirs of Scopes, had the potential to make Tennessee the laughing stock of the nation again. This put pressure on the state legislature and in 1967 they finally decided to repeal the Butler Act, bringing that particular chapter of the religion-evolution wars to a close, although other battles would continue.)

So after the passage of more than four decades, the Epperson case achieved what the Scopes case had aspired to do but had failed: be a test case on basic First Amendment issues to be adjudicated by the US Supreme Court. When the Epperson v. Arkansas case finally reached the US Supreme Court in 1968, the court unanimously ruled that the statute effectively banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. But the court but did not agree on the reasons for doing so. Most initially wanted to overturn it on the grounds that the statute was too vague rather than that it violated the establishment clause, but in the end Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion saying that it was indeed a First Amendment establishment clause violation.

In the summary of the ruling on Epperson v. Arkansas 393 US 97, it states among other things:

“(b) The sole reason for the Arkansas law is that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis. . .

(c) The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion. . .

(d) A State’s right to prescribe the public school curriculum does not include the right to prohibit teaching a scientific theory or doctrine for reasons that run counter to the principles of the First Amendment.. . .(my italics)

(e) The Arkansas law is not a manifestation of religious neutrality.”

Note that in the italicized section, the court rejects simple majoritarian thinking, saying that constitutional restrictions limit the power of school boards to completely prescribe the curriculum.

But while the 1968 Epperson ruling was a clear victory for the teaching of evolution and provided the definitive answer that the 1925 Scopes case had sought and failed to deliver, the opinions of the various judges provides some interesting perspectives and arguments that are worth reviewing, and will be the subject of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Teasing telemarketers

Telemarketers are annoying but I also feel sorry for them because it must be a really awful job. I do not give them a hard time, instead politely terminating the conversation quickly. But someone named Tom Mabe decided to have some fun at the expense of a telemarketer.

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