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The Evolution of Anti-Evolution Laws

A biologist uses Darwin's theory to understand the history of creationist "academic freedom" and "science education" laws.
Charles Darwin, the man himself. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Darwin, the man himself. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For at least half the history of the theory of evolution, politicians have been trying to prevent educators from teaching it or, more recently, pushing for policies that allow ideas like "intelligent design" into the classroom in the name of academic freedom. According to a new study drawing on the tools of evolution itself, that'd be a serious, Constitution-defying mistake: "Academic freedom" laws and their descendants are firmly rooted in non-secular creationism.

The first outright bans on teaching evolution in American schools walked out of the muck early in the 20th century, not all that long before the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, the American Civil Liberties Union's high-profile and famously unsuccessful effort to overturn a Tennessee ban on teaching Darwin's theory. Of course, legal opinions evolved, and in 2005's Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal judge barred teaching "intelligent design" in classrooms, noting that it was creationism in disguise and therefore violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Yet along with legal changes, creationists were evolving too—even the term "intelligent design" grew out of language like "balanced treatment" and "creation science," writes Australian National University biologist Nicholas Matzke in a paper published online today in Science. Matzke's question: How have anti-evolution efforts themselves evolved in the decade since Kitzmiller?

"Academic freedom" laws and their descendants are firmly rooted in non-secular creationism.

Matzke started his analysis with the texts of 65 bills, each described as an "academic freedom act" (AFA) or "science education act" (SEA) along with the creationist Discovery Institute's Model Bill and a relatively obscure Ouachita Parish School Board policy titled, simply, "Academic Freedom." Then, Matzke constructed an evolutionary tree. Ordinarily, biologists construct those trees, called phylogenies, by comparing biological or genetic traits across a range of species and inferring which modern traits emerged from which ancestral lineages. In this case, all Matzke had to do was replace biological traits with linguistic ones—that is, individual words and phrases such as "biological origins" and "critical analysis."

Matzke's phylogeny of anti-evolution legislation yielded two major lineages—sequences of bills that copied, with some changes, from earlier bills—corresponding to AFAs and SEAs, which emerged from AFAs but have been more successful. That fact may be due to a particular innovation introduced in the Ouachita policy: the choice to target not just evolution and origin-of-life research, but also studies of global warming and human cloning.

"The tactic appears to be an attempt to circumvent earlier legal decisions suggesting that targeting evolution alone is prima facie evidence of religious motivation and, thus, unconstitutional," Matzke writes. In any case, the SEA tradition succeeded where AFAs have died out: A 2008 Louisiana bill, which was originally an academic freedom act, and a 2011 Tennessee bill both became law.

It's not a tactic that should be allowed to work any longer, Matzke argues. "Advocates for science education should not be dissuaded by the strategic vagueness of SEAs: The creationist origins of modern antievolution strategies are clear," he writes.


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