More creationist craziness in Alabama; good news elsewhere

February 17, 2012 • 6:16 am

Via the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), we have good news and bad news on the creation/evolution front.

First the good news:

1.  The House Education Committee of the state of New Hampshire has dismissed two ridiculous bills. They never stood a chance of passing, but show that the crazies are at work even in supposedly liberal New England. According to the Concord Monitor:

The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Hopper of Weare, told teachers to present all scientific theories as works-in-progress that students should challenge. The second, introduced by Rep. Jerry Bergevin of Manchester, required teachers to present evolutionary scientists’ political and religious affiliations along with their scientific theories.

Thoughtcrime!  You can read more about the bill at the NCSE’s website.

2.  A bill passed by the Indiana Senate last year, which made it legal to teach creationism in science classes, was tabled by the other branch of the legislature, the Indiana House. According to the Indy Star:

A bill passed last month by the Indiana Senate that would have allowed schools to teach religious stories of creation along with the theory of evolution when discussing the origins of life in science class is dead.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, moved the bill to the rules committee, a procedural step that all but assures it will not make it to a vote this year.

Bosma said he made the move to avoid the possibility of a costly lawsuit for the state, given the likelihood of a court challenge from evolution advocates.

“I felt, given the fact that we have a U.S. Supreme Court case that appears to me to be directly on point, that this is a fight that really should not be fought at this point,” he said.

You can read the bill here. The relevant part is this:

Sec. 18. The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.

That was a loser from the outset; teaching creationism was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

The bad news comes from Alabama, one of the most creationist states in the country (and, of course, one of the most religious), where a religious instruction bill, with apparent creationist intent, has been introduced in the House of Representatives. House Bill 133 (download at link) stipulates that public school students (in America, “public schools” are civic schools run by state governments) can receive credit for religious instruction, so long as that instruction doesn’t take part on school grounds, that the state doesn’t pay for transportation to class, that the school doesn’t sponsor it, and the school doesn’t require it. Such off-site religious instruction is legal in the U.S.

What is probably not legal is that the students would receive class credit for this religious instruction. That’s likely to be an illegal incursion of religion into the public schools—a violation of the First Amendment mandating separation of church and state. Further, part of the bill’s design—or at least how the faithful plan to use it—is to teach creationism as an alternative theory of evolution.  (The NCSE notes that “The sponsor of the bill, Blaine Galliher [R-District 30], is on record as saying that the point of the bill is to balance the presentation of evolution in the public schools.”) And if that is shown in court to be part of the bill’s intent, it’s also illegal. Galliher messed up badly with that statement, which will come back to haunt him if a legal challenge is ever mounted.

The NCSE also reports that at least one legal expert on church-state matters, Douglas Laycock of the Univesity of Virginia (founded, of course, by church/state separationist Thomas Jefferson), pronounces the bill unconstitutional on its face:

Laycock argued, “the state should not be granting credit for instruction in religion, either from a believing perspective or from a non-believing perspective. The only state credit for religion courses should be objective study of what each of the great religions does or teaches.” It would be problematic for schools to offer credit for released time religious instruction, he explained: “We don’t want the government telling churches how to provide the religious instruction. … There’d be an entanglement problem with the school trying to regulate these courses, trying to tell the churches what kind of religion course they can offer.”

You may recall that Alabama, to its eternal shame, is the only state in the U.S. that requires an evolution disclaimer to be affixed to public-school biology textbooks in the form of a sticker.  Here it is (I cringe to even reproduce this thing), courtesy of Al Stefanelli:

If you can’t read it, here’s Al’s transcript:

“The word “theory” has many meanings.  Theories are defined as systematically organized knowledge, abstract reasoning, a speculative idea or plan, or a systematic statement of principles.  Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world.  They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.

Many scientific theories have been developed over time.  The value of scientific work is not only the development of theories but also what is learned from the development process.  The Alabama Course of Study: Science, includes many theories and studies of scientists work.  The work of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, to name a few, has provided a basis of our knowledge of the world today.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory that is included in this textbook.  It is controversial because it states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things.  Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed. Because of it’s importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories.  They should learn to make distinctions between the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.

There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life.  With the explosion of new scientific knowledge in biochemical and molecular biology and exciting new fossil discoveries, Alabama students may be among those who use their understanding and skills to contribute to knowledge and to answer many unanswered questions.  Instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

It’s a constant battle in Alabama to stem the tsunami of creationism that threatens to inundate public-school science education. But while I’m bemoaning that, let me give plaudits to my biology colleagues at the University of Alabama who have to do damage control afflicted on their students in their earlier education.  Faculty from several departments have banded together to create an Evolution Working Group, which, among other things hosts a seminar series on evolution; I gave a lecture for it in 2009.  And the same group has created an evolutionary studies minor that offers interdisciplinary courses in philosophy, geology, anthropology, and biology.

The one fly in the ointment is that the University of Alabama’s (Tuscaloosa) Department of Biology doesn’t require evolution for biology majors.  We do at Chicago (as do most good universities) and, given the central position of evolution in all biology, that’s simply sensible policy.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all biology departments, if they want to be considered enlightened, should require evolution for their majors.  It should not be merely an option. Alabama—get on the stick here!

h/t: Newman

37 thoughts on “More creationist craziness in Alabama; good news elsewhere

  1. I think you are saying that the University of Alabama does not have a real Biology department. What they have should be renamed the Department of Kind-of-like-biology.

    1. What about the graduate school? I can´t imagine that they don’t require evolution for life scientists?

      1. I imagine most advisors require their grad students to take evolution. Mine sure did. Like many institutions, specific coursework requirements are left up to the student and his/her committee.

    2. UA has a solid biology department with great faculty. The current course requirements for undergrad biology majors includes either evolution OR biochemistry, but a strong case has been made to make evolution a required course for all biology majors.

  2. Jerry, I think that the sticker that you show here is actually from Cobb County, Georgia. The plaintiffs (the parents) luckily prevailed in court and the stickers are not displayed on science books in Cobb County, GA.

    1. You’re absolutely right and I should have known, because I’ve been in Cobb County! My excuse is that it was labelled on a website as the Alabama textbook sticker. I’ve replaced it with (what I hope is) the real one.


  3. Coincidentally, we are in the midst of a faculty search in my department, and one of our candidates is currently an associate professor (molecular biologist/genetecist) at UAB Huntsville. While driving to dinner yesterday, they were intimating that the religious fervor there was one of the things they were trying to escape. And we’re in North Carolina, so it must be pretty bad.

  4. I’m a Texan. That’s my personal theory anyway, based on observation of road signs. You might imagine that I’m not surprised by any of this. I went to a business banquet in Alabama one time a few years ago. I thought I’d accidentally gone to an inbred Billy Graham crusade. It was scary and it takes a lot to scare a Texan regarding religious fervor.

    1. I”m with you on that one. I’m a Texan, now, but I grew up in “The Capitol of the South”, where TJ first wrote secular government into law. I spent a year in northern LA, about 1 years ago, and can see the Bible Belt is getting longer (reaching so deeply into Texas), thicker, heavier, and tighter with its strangle hold.
      And, I’m Jewish. (Okay, a Jewish Atheist, now.) “Driving Miss Daisy” showed me what I’d not consciously recognized, growing up, though it flitted around the back of my brain. Jews will forever be considered come-here’s in the south, like illegal aliens: tolerated if they’re useful and properly subservient.
      I doubt atheists will be treated even that well — relatively speaking, of course. Atheists must be seen as the enemy from within.

  5. Hopefully the entanglement argument will get through some skulls.

    If it doesn’t on a theoretical level, then maybe it would on a practical level: I suggest the SBOE respond to this potential legislation by outlining the curriculum of such courses, inluding what the teacher/priests can and can’t say. That should raise some alarm bells.

    1. The Alabama SBOE has been very secretive in the past regarding science curricula- particularly regarding inquiries into the identities and qualifications of the people on the committee to rewrite the curriculum (a few years ago). We could always be surprised, I suppose, but I highly doubt the BOE will be of any help in the current situation…

      1. Funny while they are hiding the identities of members, the now failed NH bill would ask for political and religious affiliation of book authors. I wonder how that would work… would there be a political/religious score along with the book’s barcode? Little red or blue stickers on the jacket?

        Imagine where that would go. While probably most evolutionists are probably relatively non-religous, I’m sure they’re not all committed lefties (I’m a free market libertarian myself).

        Maybe history books need to be ideologically identified also. Literature. This could be fun.

        Did they really even think about before proposing it?

  6. I think there’s a misprint on that sticker — the “not” should be an “and”… 

    The last sentence is perfectly valid for any science book!


    1. Notice how any politician mentioning the banks and housing crisis always refer to people on the verge of losing their homes? That’s because those not able to hold on this long, including those whose homes were illegally and/or inappropriately taken, are disposable and no longer part of the calculation. (I’m one.)

  7. Huh, when I did Zoology at Oxford University 25 years ago, evolution (the study of evolution, not the actual process!) was an option rather than part of the core course. Maybe it is now, though and I tend to agree it should be.

  8. …the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science

    I sure would love to watch a legal battle about the definition of what constitutes a bona fide scientific theory, and what can, by legal standards, be construed as science.
    If “creation science” can ever gain legal recognition as real science, anything and everything can, and will. I’d love to see the agony of the Supreme Court over this, knowing that if they grant science status to creationism, they will jettison all scientific, educational and, by extension, intellectual standards. Would they be ready to scuttle modern America in order to please the constituencies of their patrons?

  9. “The bad news comes from Alabama, one of the most creationist states in the country (and, of course, one of the most religious)”

    Ah, but Ken Miller assures us that’s just coincidental.

  10. The second, introduced by Rep. Jerry Bergevin of Manchester, required teachers to present evolutionary scientists’ political and religious affiliations along with their scientific theories.

    Talk about an idea that would soon backfire. I’d love to be in on the discussions that would arise when schoolchildren would start asking what Marxism is after being informed that Haldane and Gould were both Marxists. All the careful scrubbing of leftists from U.S. History and Poli Sci classes would come rebounding back on them.

  11. One more bit of good news: The brave teen Jessica Ahlquist (who has been threatened with death, rape, etc by the good Christians of Rhode Island over this case) won her battle to remove a school prayer banner in Cranston, RI. She had won the first round in court, and last night after a rowdy meeting, the school decided not to appeal.

    1. Which goes to show that the Cranston School Board has at least a residue of common sense. Their cause was a hopeless waste of money.

    2. The Cranston school Board may have thrown in the towel, but you probably still can’t get a local florist to deliver flowers to her. Maybe they can be sent from Massachusetts or Connecticut unless there is an embargo at the border.

  12. I wonder if Tuscaloosa teaches Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy – it is difficult to imagine the subject being taught without evolution since so many similar characteristics of animals remarked upon by people even before Darwin are quite stark.

    1. They do. Vertebrate Zoology is an upper-level undergraduate course, also not required for majors. I took the class several years ago; there IS a heavy evolution component, obviously. But again, the course is not required.

    2. Also taught is Vertebrate Functional Morphology, but I think it’s the Vert.Zoo. course that is heavy on comparative anatomy, if I recall correctly.

  13. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all biology departments, if they want to be considered enlightened, should require evolution for their majors. It should not be merely an option. Alabama—get on the stick here!

    That’s considered “going far?” How sad is that?

    IMO, not only every bio major but every uni student should have some exposure to evolution before they graduate. Isn’t it Chicago that is (was?) famous for (at one time, anyway–I’m anything but au courant) revamping its curriculum to produce graduates sufficiently exposed to all disciplines considered requisite for a basic intellectual grounding?

    And tho evolution courses per se are fantastic–I know, I took two, one at Oregon State, one at Cornell–surely most bio courses can and should be organized around the pre-eminence of evolutionary theory. After all, “nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.”

    IMO faculties should structure their courses around the concept of “what do we consider most essential for students to retain throughout their lives?,” and teach accordingly. I’d be willing to bet that a significant proportion of college graduates who are religious fundamentalists took something like “Intro to Bio” to satisfy one of their science elective requirements.

    There’s your chance, faculties!


    1. “… faculties should structure their courses…”

      In which case I’m thinking primarily of courses intended for non-majors; being optimistic that, for majors, evolution goes without saying…

  14. Screechy Monkey wrote: “Ah, but Ken Miller assures us that’s just coincidental.”

    No, I don’t and I never have. On the contrary, I’ve argued repeatedly against an interpretation of faith that requires the rejection of evolution. What that means, even if Jerry Coyne doesn’t quite get it, is that I have criticized such misguided faith-based interpretations over and over again.

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