Study tracks the evolution of pro-creationism laws in the U.S.

Dec 22, 2015

Photo Credit: National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis

By  Karen Kaplan

The forces opposed to teaching evolution in U.S. public schools just got a new reason to resent the bedrock scientific theory: A researcher has used the principles of evolutionary biology to show that laws ostensibly aimed at improving science education are firmly rooted in efforts to make classrooms safe for creationism.

The analysis of dozens of bills introduced in state legislatures around the country reveals how a single innovation from a small Louisiana parish (population 156,325) was incorporated into 32 subsequent bills through a process the study describes as “descent with modification.” Two of those 32 bills became law and now “negatively affect science education” for students throughout Louisiana (population 4.7 million) and Tennessee (population 6.5 million).

“The creationist origins of modern antievolution strategies are clear,” according to the study by Nicholas Matzke, who recently became a research fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.

Matzke is no stranger to the battles over teaching evolution in public schools. He spent three years at the National Center for Science Education, where he aided the parents of public school students from Dover, Pa., who filed a federal lawsuit to remove intelligent design from their school district’s curriculum. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, was decided in favor of the parents in 2005, with the court ruling that attempts to insert Biblically inspired creationist theories into public school classrooms were unconstitutional.

Matzke went on to earn his doctorate in integrative biology at UC Berkeley and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tenn. As a computational biogeographer, he studies how plant and animal species got to the places where they live today and where they might wind up in the future — and he uses a lot of complicated computer programs to help him.

He took a similar approach to map the family tree of 65 anti-evolution bills that have been introduced in 16 U.S. states since the Kitzmiller decision. Those bills do not to mention creationism or intelligent design by name, but they generally give teachers legal cover to present a “critical analysis” of evolution.

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