In 1925, a high school science teacher named John Scopes was arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime of teaching evolution to his class in a public school in the state of Tennessee. Under a law known as The Butler Act, Tennessee had put an outright ban on the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Scopes Trial, as it became known, lasted just eight days, at the end of which the jury reached their verdict in less than ten minutes. But that week produced one of the most memorable, landmark legal cases in U.S. history, made the American Civil Liberties Union a household name, and forever changed how the American public viewed science education.
The Butler Act remained intact for almost another fifty years after Scopes, only to be repealed in 1967 after being challenged by another young science teacher: Gary L. Scott, who had been fired for teaching evolution at a high school in Jacksboro, Tennessee. Having challenged the constitutionality of the law and succeeded, once the repeal in Tennessee was signed, other states that had similar legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools followed suit. But there was never really any reprieve: even today, almost a century after the Scopes trial, the fight to teach evolution in public schools is far from being over.
While it’s no longer illegal for America’s public school science teachers to teach evolution, in the decades that have elapsed since Scopes, religious groups have endeavored to enforce the teaching of “alternatives” alongside evolution. These include biblical creationism, scientific creationism, and intelligent design — all of which, to varying extents, teach that life on Earth did not arise solely through evolution.
There are also those who have lobbied for teachers to have the ability to teach evolution in a way that presents it as being scientifically controversial: this gross misrepresentation of established scientific data and hard evidence has alarmed some science educators even more than the outright rejection of the concept. While laws that enforce the teaching of evolution “alternatives” have not successfully passed, since 2004 three states have passed legislation permitting teachers to teach evolution in a way that frames it as being scientifically controversial.
While it may be controversial socially, evolution is not a controversial topic within the science community: a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 98 percent of scientists believe in evolution. Among the general public, one third of Americans reject evolution outright. Even more, over half of those who reject it say they don’t think scientists agree on evolution, and even among the general public — regardless of personal views on evolution — nearly 30 percent perceive a level of disagreement among scientists on the topic.
These beliefs persist despite the statistics that indicate scientists do agree on evolution. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), while it recognizes the long history of controversy, does not condone the teaching of concurrent “alternatives” with the teaching of evolution, nor do they condone the misrepresentative teaching of evolution as being scientifically dubious. Still, a report from 2007 indicated that 1 in 8 public high school biology teachers presented creationism as being scientifically credible, and 6 in 10 were teaching evolution in a way that misrepresented its scientific soundness.
The misrepresentation of any scientific concept, evolution included, does not adequately prepare students for post-secondary education, careers in STEM fields, or their lives in a world that’s being constantly innovated through scientific and technological advancements. In the NSTA’s view, “twisting and abusing core pedagogical principles, such as critical thinking and scientific inquiry, is another strategy designed to open science classroom doors to non-science.”
Since the debate began, the “non-science” referred to here has been religion — specifically the teachings of the Bible. In the U.S., the majority of the pushback against evolution being taught in public schools has been driven by major Evangelical Protestant, Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormon churches. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not reject evolution, and according to Pew Research, 31 percent of Catholics believe in evolution.
The power of the pushback which began nearly one hundred years ago is still being felt by public school educators: in 2007, 1 in 5 U.S. high school science teachers reported experiencing community backlash for teaching evolution. Having examined the statistics, it may be that scientists have to do more than convince the American public to accept evolution; they must communicate to them that they believe in it themselves.