The Evolution Of Anti-Evolutionary Legislation

The anti-evolution league outside the Scopes Monkey trial. Public Domain

It's not often that a peer-reviewed scientific paper could also be considered an example of first-class trolling, but Dr. Nick Matzke has achieved this combination in the journal Science. A study of the way legislation for the teaching of creationist beliefs in schools has evolved demonstrates that even anti-evolution activists behave according to many of the principles of natural selection.

In the 1920s, schools in parts of the U.S. were banned from teaching evolution, culminating in the famous Scopes Monkey trial. The status of science rose during the space race and bans on evolution in the classroom were struck down in 1968.

Anti-evolutionary laws have since made a comeback, primarily in less ambitious forms in the South. Instead of trying to ban evolution outright, the new laws demand things like “equal time” for pseudo-scientific claims like “intelligent design.” In an effort to get around court bans on religious indoctrination in schools, these laws carefully avoid referring to the designer as God.

In 2004, an effort to enforce the teaching of intelligent design was struck down in court, forcing fundamentalist religious groups to evolve their strategy again. Since then, there have been 71 bills proposed in American states and area school districts to try to get anti-evolution views into the classroom.

Matzke, formerly of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and now at the Australian National University, conducted a study of these post-2004 bills. Matzke explored the similarities in what are known as Science Education Acts (SEAs) and Academic Freedom Acts [AFAs], treating the language as if it was DNA. After eliminating some that were too short to usefully study, Matzke created this phylogenetic tree of 65 bills and policies seeking to subvert or question the teaching of science.

An evolutionary tree of legislation promoting anti-science in the classroom, colored by topics targetted. Credit: Matzke, Science

The work draws on the latest phylogenetic techniques, which allow biologists to distinguish between species that descended from each other and those that share a common ancestor. Matzke argued in a statement: “Creationism is getting stealthier in the wake of legal defeats, but techniques from the study of evolution reveal how creationist legislation evolves.”

There are strong analogies between the way these memes appear and what happens in nature, Matzke argues. New wording deemed likely to survive court challenge is like a mutation that allows a parasite to evade its host's immune system; both have plenty of descendants.

Just as lethal diseases often evolve to be less virulent, allowing the host to live long enough to pass them on, Matzke told IFLScience that new versions of legislation were appearing that are considered less likely to prompt legal challenges.

Although the primary focus of these bills is against evolution, many also promote the questioning of climate change and human cloning. In the paper, Matzke wrote, “The inclusion of global warming in the SEAs indicates that societal debate over evolution education has the potential to leak into other societal debates where high-quality science education is inconvenient to certain established interests.”

Matzke noted to IFLScience that the references to cloning are a confusing addition, since they relate to the ethics of application, rather than a challenge to scientific evidence. “As far as I know, the science of human cloning is not in dispute,” Matzke said. He thinks that adding additional items disguises the fundamentally religious nature of the opposition to evolution, while also allowing right-wing politicians to undermine things they hate, like quality climate science.

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