One Hundred Years of Anti-Evolution Legislation Are More Than Enough

In a famous 1958 address commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s essays on evolution by natural selection, the distinguished geneticist Hermann J. Muller lamented the neglect of evolution in American education. 

“It ill befits our great people,” he observed, “to turn our backs on it, to pretend that it is unimportant or uncertain, to adopt euphemistic expressions to hide and soften its impact, to teach it only as one alternative theory, to leave it for advanced courses where the multitudes cannot encounter it, or, if it is dealt with at all in a school or a high school biology course, to present it as unobtrusively and near the end of the course as possible.” 

Muller’s address was entitled “One Hundred Years without Darwinism Are Enough.” Now is a good opportunity to add that one hundred years of anti-evolution education legislation are enough.

That’s because 2022 marks a centenary which, although obscure, is worth celebrating: the defeat of Kentucky’s House Bill 191. Introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly on January 23, 1922, the bill would have prohibited “the teaching in public schools and other public institutions of learning, Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism or evolution as it pertains to the origin of man.” 

Offending instructors would have faced the prospect of a fine of between $50 and $5000—between $825 and $82,500 in today’s money—and/or confinement in the county jail for between ten days and a year, while institutions that willfully allowed the teaching of the offending doctrines would have lost their charters and been subject to a fine of up to $5000. The bill languished in committee until March 5, 1922, when, after a day of intense debate in the House, it was finally defeated on a narrow vote of 42 to 41. 

House Bill 191 was the very first in a series of bills over the next century that variously sought to ban the teaching of evolution; balance the teaching of evolution with supposed alternatives such as “biblical creationism,” “creation science,” and “intelligent design”; and blunt the teaching of evolution by mischaracterizing it as scientifically controversial. The majority of these bills attempted, like House Bill 191, to impose requirements on teachers—and they sometimes similarly provided for punishments. 

Oklahoma’s recently introduced Senate Bill 1470 would allow parents to sue schools that allow teachers to present “positions in opposition to closely held religious beliefs” of their students; offending teachers could be held personally liable for at least $10,000 per incident. Although evolution is not explicitly mentioned in the bill, its sponsor supported previous anti-evolution education legislation in Oklahoma. 

But laws that require teachers to miseducate their students about evolution have not fared well in the courts, including the Supreme Court, which in 1987 ruled that a 1981 Louisiana law requiring equal time for “creation science” alongside evolution violated the First Amendment. Unsurprisingly, the handful of anti-evolution education laws that remain on the books took a different approach, allowing (rather than requiring) teachers to miseducate their students. 

Kentucky’s 1976 law is the most blatant, licensing teachers to present “the theory of creation as presented in the Bible.” Mississippi’s, Louisiana’s, and Tennessee’s laws are circumspect in comparison, not mentioning any supposed alternatives to evolution. Tennessee’s law omits the e-word altogether, although its target was sufficiently clear that it won the nickname “the monkey bill” when it was under consideration in the legislature.

Misguided legislators continue to propose such laws today. Arkansas’s House Bill 1701, introduced less than a year ago, would have allowed teachers in the state’s public and open-enrollment charter schools to “teach creationism as a theory of how the earth came to exist.” The bill’s description of creationism wouldn’t be accepted even by creationists, and Arkansas’s previous flirtation with creationism, a 1981 law requiring “creation science” to be taught in the state’s public schools alongside evolution, was thwarted by a federal district court in McLean v. Arkansas in 1982. 

Nevertheless, House Bill 1701 easily passed the House Education Committee and then the House of Representatives. It was only because a legislator regarded as sympathetic to creationism was absent from the Senate Education Committee’s meeting that the bill was ultimately defeated there on a vote of 3 to 3.

Fortunately, it’s rare these days for anti-evolution education bills to come so close to passing. That’s in part thanks to the dedicated advocacy of the supporters of evolution education, such as the National Association of Biology Teachers, which recognizes that “Evolution is a necessary part of teaching biology in an effective, detailed, and scientifically and pedagogically authentic manner and should be a major theme throughout the life science curriculum.” 

But it’s also because there’s little appetite for legislative micromanagement of the public school science classroom. Only 11 percent of Americans would grant state legislatures (and governors) a great deal of influence in deciding how teachers in the public schools teach about human evolution, according to a recent national poll from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, as opposed to 36 percent who would do so for science teachers.

Yet owing to a persistent though dwindling minority of the American public that rejects evolution, science teachers are often subjected to explicit or implicit demands to downplay evolution in their classrooms: in a nationally representative survey of public high school biology teachers conducted in 2019, more than one in six reported experiencing such pressure. 

But the bulk of them persevere. In the same survey, about 67 percent of these teachers reported emphasizing the broad scientific consensus on evolution while not giving any credence to creationism—encouragingly, up from 51 percent in 2007. 

When it comes to evolution education, the very last thing American science teachers need from their state legislatures is interference motivated by fundamentalist antipathy to evolution. One hundred years of anti-evolution education legislation are, if anything, more than enough.