Tennessee Legislature touches controversy with proposed Monkey Bill
A bill that would provide teachers protection while discussing “strengths and weaknesses” to controversial scientific theories such as evolution recently passed in the Tennessee Legislature.
House Bill 368/Senate Bill 893, known by critics as the ‘Monkey Bill’ is sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican representative from District 11 in Hamilton County. The bill is currently in the hands of Gov. Bill Haslam after passing the Senate with a 24-8 vote and the House 73-23 last month.
“As the bill has been amended to make it clear that a classroom is guided by the curriculum framework established by the Board of Education, I think members have become much more comfortable with it and realized this is not creating a controversy between science and religion as some would advocate,” Watson said in an interview with WMOT. “This is simply saying that one of the most important things with can do for our students is create critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate their thoughts. And when teachers are engaged by students regarding theories, strengths or weakness of theories, teachers should understand how they should respond in a way that keeps the classroom within the guidelines of the curriculum the states established.”
The curriculum standards according to the Tennessee Department of Education for standard Biology I courses include evolution, but it is labeled as Biodiversity and Change. The guiding question for that topic is written as, “How does natural selection explain how organisms have changed over time?”
“We’re teaching what’s in those standards with very little time to spare, and we’re trying to prepare the students for the test,” said Kelly Chastin, Biology teacher and IB coordinator at Oakland High School.
Chastain is referring to the End-of-Course test that is given to all Biology I classes every year. She also mentioned there is very little tested on the subject of evolution.
A portion of Section 1 of the bill, which is what Watson is referring to and what many scientists and teachers are concerned about reads: (1) An 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; (2) 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 (3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.
The curriculum standards for Biology I also include guidelines for teachers to use during course topics. They are listed as course level expectations, checks for understanding, and state performance indicators.
“The bill seems to define ‘scientific controversy’ as any scientific position that causes controversy outside that field on scientific inquiry,” said Rami Shapiro, a religious studies professor, rabbi, and award-winning author. “There is no legitimate scientific controversy over biological evolution, for example. The controversy is in the minds of those who don’t like the idea of natural selection. This is not a scientific controversy, but a social controversy over the findings of science. While this is a great subject for a sociology or religion class, it has no place in the science classroom.”
Tennessee’s evolving past
Sen. Watson comes from an area that has a past dealing with the controversy of evolution in education.
North of Hamilton Co. sits Rhea Co., home to the town of Dayton, Tenn. where the Scopes Trial was held in 1925.
John Scopes was a 24-year-old biology teacher and football coach at Rhea County Central High School when he was arrested on May 7, 1925, for violating Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute known as the Butler Act.
The Butler Act prohibited public high school teachers from denying the biblical account of the origins of man. Those in violation of the act— teaching about the evolution of mankind— were charged with a misdemeanor, but teaching evolution of plant and animal life were acceptable.
The courts denied the testimonies of scientific experts, ruling that the trial was not on the theory of evolution, but rather Scopes’ violation of Tennessee’s statute.
The highly publicized trial lasted 12 days, and put the small town of Dayton on the map. Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act and was ordered to pay a $100 fine.
The Butler Act remained a part of state legislature until 1967 when a bill to repeal the act passed both houses and was then signed into law by Gov. Buford Ellington.
An evolving future?
Since the Scopes Trial and the repeal of the Butler Act, evolution has found its way back into the textbooks in most public high school biology classes and in the state science standards.
“I think a good way to start any topic discussion on evolution when you live in Tennessee, that basically science and religion can absolutely co-exist in yourself,” Chastain said. “But you don’t need to try and mix them in this classroom because it’s two completely different subjects.”
Chastain is an MTSU alumnus who received her undergraduate degree from the university in 2001.
“For Biology I, as far as state standards, we do not get into any of the things people consider controversial. It’s very microevolution based,” Chastain said. “In IB we get the opportunity to look at some of the discussion on origins, which absolutely raise a lot of questions. And no self-respecting educator or scientist would get up there and say they have all the answers because they just don’t, but it is a discussion that is based on searching for the answers through testing hypothesis.”
American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Association of Bioscience Teachers and the National Earth Science Teachers Association are all against HB 368.
Scientists and science teachers across the state have raised their concerns about what would happen if this bill were to be signed into law.
On March 26, keynote speaker for MTSU Scholar’s Week and director for the National Center for Science Education Eugenie Scott, commented that this bill and others like it “provide a backdoor way for creationism to be taught.”
According to a 2010 survey by The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, 51 percent of Tennesseans said they are affiliated with Evangelical Protestant traditions, 18 percent have Mainline Protestant traditions, 12 percent are unaffiliated, 8 percent are Historically Black Protestant, and 7 percent are Catholic.
“I was never taught evolution in school,” said April Crabtree, a sophomore from Cookeville majoring in Chemistry. “I knew about but never had it in class until college. I come from a very religious town.”
Teachers like Chastain think that students are being presented evolution in the most basic ways and basic terms without the label of ‘evolution.’
“I think you can look at not just where we are, but the United States compared to the rest of the world. This is not an issue in the rest of the world,” Chastain added. “In the United States it’s an issue in select areas of the country. It’s eye-opening to look at other countries and see how they view evolution and how we view it.”
“We’re not a country that is of one religion, and so this is the problem that I have with this bill and I think it’s very craftily written,” said Kim Sadler, MTSU Biology professor. “First off, it’s not science so it doesn’t belong in a science classroom but if these conversations want to be opened up in a philosophy or maybe even a segue way to an English class or a debate class I think go for it. But, the problem is that there are so many religious factions in America and what this bill will do in Tennessee, and in other states that have approved this type of bill, it will give legal rights to all these other groups to step in and give their creation account and I think that’s wrong to take away from the actual science education. This shouldn’t be in a science class, boom, end of story.”
Section 1 Part E of Sen. Watson’s bill reads: This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.
“I’m not threatened by the questions, but again I’m extremely bothered that, we’ll call it what it is, religion is going to be brought into the science classroom,” Chastain said.
Gov. Haslam, a devout conservative Christian, has said in the past that he has “no problem with evolution being taught in public schools and saw no push for creationism to be taught.” He is working with the Board of Education as to whether the bill should be signed into law or vetoed.
“If this bill becomes law, and I suspect it will, and science teachers are forced to teach every story of creation no matter how far removed from scientific evidence and the scientific method, I for one will be only too happy to help them understand the creation theories of the world’s religions,” Shapiro said. “And would be quite ready to work with the state of Tennessee and MTSU to create a curriculum for science teachers so that they can do justice the various creation theories of the world’s religions.”