Tennessee Joins the Anti-Evolution Parade and Ignores the Experts

03/23/2012 09:10 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Those damn experts are at it again! Once again they seem compelled to express their opinion on a topic in which they have advanced degrees. It's difficult to understand why they feel such a compulsion to speak out on a subject their research has defined. But they're making themselves heard and, because of the nature of politics in Republican-controlled states, no one in power seems to care.

The issue is a simple one. Legislators in Tennessee have apparently decided that it is critical for them to reexamine what should have been settled by the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN in 1925. They're following down the path blazed by similar-minded legislators in Louisiana and moving relentlessly into the past by moving forward with an anti-evolution, pro-creationism bill modeled on the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) of 2008.

As I recently explained, there are two striking aspects of LSEA. First, it advances a political rather than a scientific perspective. Second, it has been widely and clearly opposed by scientists, educators and religious leaders. Such unanimity was apparently enough for Tennessee legislators; they looked at LSEA and didn't see anything not to love! Why give any credence to the experts?

Like LSEA, the proposed Tennessee legislation encourages public school science teachers to present the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory. All familiar with the political evolution/creation controversy know that language of this sort is code for encouraging teachers to present creationist material.

As I said above, the experts have come out in force -- and they're all adamantly opposed to passage. Let's start at the individual level.

Tennessee is home to eight members of the National Academy of Sciences -- and all eight of them have signed a powerful statement in opposition. The following two sentences from their statement speak for themselves:

As scientists whose research involves and is based upon evolution, we affirm -- along with the nation's leading scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences -- that evolution is a central, unifying and accepted area of science. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming; there is no scientific evidence for its supposed rivals ("creation science" and "intelligent design") and there is no scientific evidence against it.

One of the eight National Academy members from Tennessee is Stanley Cohen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986. He was honored for his work on nerve growth factor which he expanded after moving to Tennessee to include cellular growth factors more broadly. His work has greatly influenced our understanding of cancer and helped colleagues design anti-cancer drugs. Why would anyone in the Tennessee legislature care about such trivial expertise of this sort?

There's also plenty of institutional expertise that has been levied against the Tennessee legislation. The American Institute of Biological Sciences has weighed in in opposition just as strongly. They stated unequivocally that the legislation is "bad for science, science education, and the future economic health of well being of Tennessee." Recognizing that the proposed bill also folded global warming into its anti-intellectual net, AIBS went on to say,

It is important to note that there is no scientific controversy about the legitimacy of evolution or global climate change. These scientific concepts have repeatedly been tested and grown stronger with each evaluation. Any controversy around these concepts is political, not scientific. Indeed, evolution is a core principle that helps to explain biology and informs the development of biology-based products and services, including pharmaceuticals, food and biotechnology.

To offset the oft-expressed, but totally bizarre, belief that expert scientists are biased and are simply promoting their own narrow self-interests by articulating their position, two major national teacher organizations have also weighed in. The positions taken by both the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) and the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) are absolutely unambiguous. Consider what NAGT had to say:

the scientific theory of evolution should be taught to students of all grade levels as a unifying concept without distraction of non-scientific or anti-scientific influence....[T]he content of science consists of peer-reviewed, tested and confirmed results, not debates based on political or religious convictions. We are convinced that rigorous science education in Tennessee is badly served by SB 893 or HB 368, and we urge Tennessee's representatives, state senators and governor to reject this legislation.

The NESTA statement is equally powerful:

evolution is central to biology and to the earth sciences and that it is an essential component of science classes...While scientific research continues to illuminate how evolution and climate change influence the world around us, there is no scientific debate about whether they do so, and these bills are wrong to suggest otherwise....HB 368 and SB 893 would damage the scientific preparation of Tennessee's students, harm Tennessee's national reputation, and weaken its efforts to participate in the 21st century economy.

One of the things that's so important to note is that it's not just biologists who are worried about anti-evolution bills of this sort. (How crazy it is to have to write a sentence like the last one! Many of our elected officials think that biologists are simply another special interest when they articulate the core principles of their discipline. And, as with any special interest, they can be ignored if there are more votes, or more dollars, coming from other sources, even if the consequences might destroy a state's education system.) The basic premises of evolution impact the sciences broadly, both because evolution is so central to a meaningful understanding of science and because the attacks on evolution at their core demonstrate willful ignorance of what the scientific method is all about. These anti-evolution bills undercut any hope that we might produce a scientifically literate citizenry, one which is comprised of people who are capable of placing ideas on the continuum from science through non-science to nonsense.