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Sci Tech    H2'ed 4/18/12

The Monkey Wars: Tennessee's New Monkey Bill Attacks "Controversial Science"

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On April 10, 2012, Governor Bill Haslam allowed Tennessee's House Bill   368,* the New Monkey Bill, to become law without his signature. Leaving aside the Governor's contemptibly week-kneed political stance, HB 368 has once again propelled the state of Tennessee into the limelight as the arch nemesis of modern science. Tennessee originally laid claim to that dubious distinction by passing the Butler Act, or the Old Monkey Bill, in 1925.

The Butler Act was a Tennessee law that prohibited teachers from challenging the biblical account of human origins. Subsequently, John Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was charged on May 5, 1925 with violating the Butler Act. The charges filed against Scopes led to one of the most highly-publicized courtroom dramas of the 20th century, the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes , or more popularly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The Scopes Trial pitted religious dogma against science, and, as such, brought widespread theological apprehensions about scientific advancements to the forefront of the national consciousness. Americans have been only too happy to embrace the modern conveniences--cars, planes, medicine, phones, computers, etc.--that science has made possible. However, many of those same Americans have often expressed outrage over the challenges that secular science poses for their religious beliefs. Indeed, the most reprehensible scientific attack on religion was lodged by none other than that 19th century English reprobate, Charles Darwin.

Arguably, Darwin's (1859) theory of evolution was far less revolutionary than Albert Einstein's "relativisation" of the cosmos in 1905, but you would be hard pressed to arrive at such a conclusion based upon the public's reaction. After 1905, Einstein was loved and revered all over the world, whereas, ever since 1859, Darwin has been denounced and reviled. Perhaps because Einstein's egg-headed warping of the cosmos was more abstract, common folk have never felt as threatened by the Einsteinian revolution as they have been by the Darwinian.

Darwin's theory hits close to home. Worse, it implies an undeniable demotion for humankind. Whereas the Bible states that humans were fashioned by an omniscient creator in that exalted being's own image, Darwin asserts that humans emerged out of the same muck and mire as every other living creature.

Since Darwin's theory endeavors to explain the origins and evolution of life, it cannot help but run afoul of competing creation stories--whether scientific or theological. People who are fond of imagining that an almighty god sculpted humanity in his own sacred image generally do not appreciate Darwin's contention that "lower animals," like apes and monkeys, are practically humankind's kissing cousins.

Thus, the Butler Act.

Interestingly, the Scopes Trial ended in a conviction: John Scopes was found guilty of having illegally taught Darwinism to his students. However, instead of being sentenced, Scopes' conviction was quickly overturned due to a technicality. As a result, the Scopes Trial failed to produce a clear victory for supporters of either creationism or evolution. Instead, the controversies that swirl around the collision of evolutionary science and theology, i.e., The Monkey Wars, have raged on unabated. 

The latest iteration of The Monkey Wars comes in the form of Tennessee House Bill   368. The New Monkey Bill employs language that has been tempered through dint of the culture wars to cultivate the impression that Tennesseans are intent upon serving the better interests of science. For example:

(a)(1) The general assembly finds that"(a)n important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens

What right-minded scientist could possibly object to that? However, the anti-science objectives of the New Monkey Bill sneak into the picture in the very next passage:

(a)(2-3) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and"(s)ome teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

As outlined above, Darwinian evolution has been controversial from the very moment that Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Consequently, throughout its long history, anyone who has ever assumed the responsibility of teaching evolution has had to contemplate the possibility that their lessons might provoke the ire of anti-evolutionists. In an effort to anticipate the outrage that teachers might encounter when presenting controversial scientific subject matter in their classrooms, Tennessee House Bill   368 proposes a comprehensive battle plan:

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Intriguingly, the list of officials whom the New Monkey Bill charges with the responsibility of managing the disruptive effects of controversial science notably excludes scientists. And therein lies the rub. Scientists have objected to the New Monkey Bill because it empowers non-scientists with the exclusive right to pass judgment on scientific knowledge toward which they bear a subjective--not scientific!--animus.

Given that the New Monkey Bill explicitly excludes scientists, it is, therefore, by definition an anti-scientific law. As a result, the New Monkey Bill is certain to exacerbate longstanding anti-scientific sentiments, and, in any state where such a law exists, science education is certain to suffer.

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