Creationism and Monkey Business in Tennessee

I'm no kin to the monkey, no no no
The monkey's no kin to me, yeah yeah yeah
I don't know much about his ancestors
But mine didn't swing from a tree.

That's the first verse of a famous creationist ditty, "I'm No Kin to the Monkey," written by Dave Hendricks. You can hear a famous 1972 performance of it by two sisters, Robin and Crystal Bernard, singing at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, on YouTube, where it's called "The Monkey Song." And you might be excused for thinking that you might have detected it echoing through the Tennessee General Assembly recently. Eighty-seven years after the notorious Scopes trial, the Tennessee legislature recently passed a bill encouraging teachers to present the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that arouse "debate and disputation" such as "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning," and the governor allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Scopes was convicted in 1925 of violating a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of human evolution in the state's public schools, and that law remained on the books until 1967, when the Tennessee legislature repealed it, anticipating the Supreme Court's 1968 ruling that such laws are unconstitutional. But creationist tactics have evolved. After it was no longer possible to ban the teaching of evolution, creationists tried to have creationism -- whether in the form of "creation science" or "intelligent design" -- taught alongside evolution. With a Supreme Court ruling in 1987 against the teaching of creation science and a federal court ruling in 2005 against the teaching of intelligent design, the strategy is increasingly recognized as a failure. And so the subtler approach of the new Tennessee law.

Despite the lofty rhetoric about critical thinking and scientific inquiry surrounding the bill, it was clear what the purpose of its supporters was. After all, the bill was pushed by the state affiliate of the fundamentalist Focus on the Family, and a columnist for Scientific American reported that its main sponsor in the Tennessee House of Representatives "could not explain why a Christian organization would be pushing legislation that supposedly has nothing to do with inserting religion into science class." A less evasive state representative explained his support for the bill on the floor of the House by mangling a passage from Francis Bacon and misattributing it to Albert Einstein: "A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity."

In passing the bill, the legislature ignored the opposition of the scientific community, including Stanley Cohen, Tennessee's only Nobel laureate in science, and of the educational community, including the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, representing the supposed beneficiaries of its provisions. Having taken indefensible stands on the science and the pedagogy, is it any surprise, then, that the legislature also took a questionable stand on the theology, by assuming that accepting Christianity requires rejecting evolution? Certainly there are people who think so; that, after all, is what creationism is all about. But that's a distinctively religious view, and in a modern, pluralistic, secular nation, where separation of church and state is a fundamental principle, it's not a view that legislators should be using their offices to promote.

Moreover, Christianity is anything but unanimous in rejecting evolution: there are plenty of Christians -- clergy, scientists and laypeople -- who accept evolution as compatible with, even as enriching, their faith. More than 13,000 members of the clergy have endorsed a statement calling on policymakers to "preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge." Entire denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, have expressed their support for the uncompromised teaching of evolution. So Tennessee's new law is motivated not just by religious concerns but by narrowly sectarian concerns: precisely what the framers of the Constitution were so careful to discourage.

It isn't as though people of faith in Tennessee aren't aware of the problems with their state's new antiscience bill and with creationism in general. State senator Andy Berke, opposing the Senate version of the bill, spotted the problem straightaway, commenting, "I'm a person of faith. If my children ask, 'How does that mesh with my faith?' I don't want their teacher answering that question." Lenn Goodman, a distinguished philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, recently wrote a book insisting on the scientific validity of evolution while offering, "Where evolution asks how we came to be, Genesis probes what it is to be human." As Tennessee braces for what may be a new Scopes trial, it is important for people of faith who support the integrity of science education to stand up and be counted.

If I may end with a parody of the verse with which I began:

This monkey law just has to go,
Because it just isn't true,
It's such a disgrace to Tennessee,
A disgrace to the human race too.