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Tennessee follows Louisiana into the evolutionary depths…

August 2, 2012

Darwin - Origin1. Leakey’s Evolutionary Optimism

Sometime in the next 15-30 years, he claims, “skeptism over human evolution will soon be history”. “He” is Richard Leakey, son of the two great – if eclectic – human fossil hunters and human evolutionary theorists, Louis and Mary Leakey. Richard Leakey is no slouch himself when it comes to finding major human fossil finds. A 1.6 million year old nearly complete skeleton of a 9 to 12 year complete skeleton called `Turkana Boy’, discovered in 1984 by a Kenyan member of his team, Kamoya Kimeu, is only one of the many breath-taking hominid discoveries the Leakey team has unearthed. There are many others.

Still given the sorry state of the public discussion over Human Evolution these days, it’s hard to believe that Leakey’s optimistic hypothesis will strike a chord here in the United States where the discussions – be they political, cultural or religious – have been drifting right for the past three decades at least.

Leakey is optimistic that the veracity of human evolution will eventually overcome  Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalist hostility, that the facts will win out against  `The Word’. He bases his optimism upon the dramatic increase in the fossil evidence for human evolution that has accumulated over the past 70 years, since the end of World War II. The number and variety of pre-human and early human fossil finds has exploded to such a degree that today the `data base’ is both extensive – actually going back some seven million years – and convincing. Add to the picture the increasing sophistication of dating methods, DNA analyses and the scientific basis for a transition from some kind of prehistoric 8-12 million year old ape-like creatures to modern humanity comes more clearly into focus.

Although I’ve moved on to other things, for some thirty years I taught courses in Human Evolution and while, no, I’ve never been on a dig,  for some time, I  have appreciated that dramatic and extraordinary journey – with all its twists and turns – that has resulted in modern humanity. While generally familiar with the paths of hominid evolution going back to the early australopithecines, my special interest concern the period from about 70,000 to 20,000 years ago when our biological and intellectual evolutions converge with the birth of what can be called modern human culture. A creative explosion (the term used as a title to a John Pfeiffer book on the subject) that included a technological revolution, the beginnings of  art, music, sculpture, a deepening knowledge of geography, food sources combine with a revolution in human social behavior. Exciting stuff, that helps explain how and why humans are the way we are, and what we have the potential to become.

The lessons that I have drawn from it include – the overwhelming importance of learned behavior over instinct (I do not believe we have any, or hardly any), the extraordinary flexibility of humanity – technical, subsistence, scientific, religious – ,  the power of culture and the breathtaking facility with which human beings have learned to adapt to their environment. There are other powerful lessons that one can learn from studying human evolution, among them is the fact that so many religious organizations have long ago made their peace both with Darwin’s more general theory of natural selection and the specific case of human evolution.

Many of the pioneers in human evolution were avowed Christians; Catholic priests, strange as it might seem, made a major contribution. Most of the more main line Protestant sects made their peace with the theory more than a century ago; until recently it was only a narrow band of Christian fundamentalists – and it seems Republican presidential aspirants – that stood firm, in the face of a growing body of evidence they never bothered to seriously consider, in opposing Darwin’s ideas.

But `them thar’s fighting words’ to the citizens of the great (?) state of Tennessee.

1982 photo of downtown Denver, taken from the Auraria Higher Education Complex where Metro State College is located...

1982 photo of downtown Denver, taken from the Auraria Higher Education Complex where Metro State College is located…

2. Teaching Human Evolution at Red Rocks Community College and Metropolitan State College over a 30 year period…

Today the right-wing Christian Republican hysteria over the teaching of human evolution has reached new depths. The issue figured large in the recent contest for the Republican Party presidential nomination. The number of downright stupid and ignorant statements made by virtually all the candidates, each vying to outdo each other on a subject they know less about than even U.S. foreign policy was impressive. I grudgingly admit, that while Mitch Romney made an ass of himself in Great Britain and worse in Israel on his recent foreign policy debut, that he was one of the few candidate that did not bite into the creationist apple during the primaries. That said, he has been rather quiet on the subject of late.

Nearly twenty years past, here in Denver watching our daughters play volleyball, a friend from Tennessee asked how it was that I could possibly believe “all that evolutionary nonsense.” It was something of an epiphany that there existed people who would make evolution a political issue  and see human evolution as some kind of mortal danger to the “American way of life” – almost as dangerous as racial intermarriage, gay rights or Marxism. We did discuss the matter, me doing my best to to lay out the accumulated fossil evidence, how radioactive dating methods work, etc. He did his best not to listen and on that score, did a fine job.

At the time, I was teaching courses in Physical Anthropology at Metropolitan State College of Denver that regularly included units on Primate Behavior and Evolution, and Human Evolution. My classroom rules, put together after a few minor incidents with more fervent creationists, in class to challenge Darwin directly through the teachings of Rob Prince, could be called simple and direct:

Rule 1. No, students couldn’t bring their unregistered (as students) Protestant ministers to class to sit there, smirk and hand out bibles after the lecture. (Happened once)

Rule 2. No, there would be no debates with their pastors over Evolution and creationism in the classroom. (reuqested a dozen times, including calls from the ministers themselves)

Rule 3. No, I had no interest, none at all, in debating such types in Christian fundamentalist church outside of class on the question of Human evolution although I had no qualms about doing so on abortion rights.

Rule 4. (the most important one)…and No, I didn’t give a damn (said of course much more politely) whether they, the students believed in evolution, however, they had better know the material for the exams . If not, they would flunk. Period.

Looking back on Prince’s Rules for the Teaching of Human Evolution, I am struck by my own sense of tolerance and flexibility which has only increased with time.

There were a few incidents, students who threatened to `go to the dean’. Several did. In my usual charitable fashion, I told one of them, that yes, he could go to the dean; then he could go to the university president, the governor of Colorado, and after that go… well I think you understand.

Neanderthal...probably brighter than most of the members of the Tennessee State Legilsature...

Neanderthal…probably brighter than most of the members of the Tennessee State Legilsature…

3. The Tennessee Contribution to Scientific Illiteracy…

In April, the great state of Tennessee joined another vanguard of cultural tolerance, the great state of Louisiana, in enacting a bill into law, House Bill 368, Senate Bill 893, which, under the cynical guise of academic freedom, that “invites” teachers wishing to, to interject creationism into science classrooms. Besides creationism, the law zeroes in on three other non-controversies:  the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning.  As a recent letter from Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, put it: “the wording is taken directly with the misguided Louisiana Science Education Act, enacted in 2008, over the protests of the state’s scientific and educational communities.” That act was signed into law by Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal.

This same Tennessee law forbids administrators from interfering with any science educator teaching creationism (or opposing Global Warming).  The law argues that this is a good way for students to “develop critical thinking skills.” It also has a cutsy provision that the law `shall not be construed as to promote any religious or not-religious doctrine, etc.” Might be, but as a Huffington Post editorial by Steve Newton on the law neatly puts it: “…the clear purpose and effect here is to promote a religious agenda in public schools.”

As one creationism’s more ardent supporters  put it to a class full of students, “Who should  you believe more (concerning Evolution), science or God?” Duly impressed that they had just heard something quite profound, a class of high school science students clapped, nodded their heads in enthusiastic agreement and almost in unison, stated `God, …of course.”

The vote on the said bill is a good indication of  forward looking posture of the Tennessee state legislature. and also a reflection of the state’s past.

Tennessee was the sight of the famous `Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925 – something of a public relations coup  for the small town of Dayton, Tennessee in which civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow supported Scopes, up against Populist political leader and Christian fundamentalist, William Jennings Bryan who stood for `Christian America’. There is evidence that the case was fabricated by the Dayton City Council as a way to bring tourists, which it did temporarily. It involved a staged lecture on evolution by high school biology teacher,  John Scopes, who was then found guilty of having violated what was referred to as `The Butler Act”, which made it illegal to each Evolution in any Tennessee state funded school.

Actually the Bulter Act went further. It prohibits the teaching of any theory that denies to story of divine creation of man or that suggests that humanity emerged from some `lower order’ of animal life. The Butler Law remained on the books until 1967, insuring that the state would be one of the nation’s innovators in returning the high school science curriculum to its pre-Renaissance 14th century standards. Another suggestion of the state’s leap back historically is a law forbidding atheists to hold public office. Not only was the Butler Act upheld by the decision of the Scopes Trial which found the defendant guilty. It was more than a simple p. r. stunt turned into a fine movie (Inherit The Wind) starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. In the trial’s aftermath, alot of other states followed suit passing legislation similar to the Butler Act. In Tennessee evolution was taken out of the curriculum for the next twenty years. It was only after the 1957 Soviet launching of Sputnik which triggered a renewed space and weapons race that more serious Science education was proposed.

One step forward, two steps back?

But whatever `progress’ Tennessee made in modernizing its high school science curriculum, with the passage of HB 368 into law,  Tennesssee conservatives can take heart that God and religion – or at least the Southern Baptist version of both, are about to return to the Volunteer State’s classrooms., and it will do so with a good deal of political support.

The bill passed with bipartisan support (hmmm – no difference between Dems and Republicans on this one? What a surprise! How can that be!),  70 for passage, 23 against in the House and by a similar margin in the Tennessee Senate. The state’s governor,  Bill Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor would not sign the bill, but at the same time, he refused to veto it, knowing by so doing, the bill would pass into law (but that later, when he reaches for yet higher office where support for such a bill might be embarrassing, he will have preserved from himself the wiggle room necessary to promote his political career).

Actually, the truth be known, Evolution is not particularly controversial and the bill would not have passed with the usual financial and political clout of the usual suspects. It might be controversial in right wing Christian fundamentalist circles but it is not at all in scientific or academic circles. A considerable coalition of organizations worked against passage of the bill. They might have science, history , simple human decency – and who knows, even God on their on their side, – but didn’t have the big bucks and political muscle necessary to defeat the bill. Among those working against HB 368 were the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Education Association, ten members of the National Academy of Sciences, including Tennessee’s only Nobel Prize laureate in science, the Tennessee Association of Biology Teachers, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the ACLU  and 3500 Tennessee-ans who singed a petition sent to Governor Haslam opposiing the measure.

January, 1996 - Domino Sugar Refinery, New Orleans...

January, 1996 – Domino Sugar Refinery, New Orleans…

4. Meanwhile, out on the west coast… 

Tennessee doesn’t border on California.  But when it comes to the Christian fundamentalist views on evolution, the two states are intellectually and ideologically joined at the hip. The witch-hunt atmosphere of La Sierra University – not to be confused with Louisiana State University – found a comfortable home in California.

Earlier in 2012, the Board of Trustees of the Seventh Day Adventist’ La Sierra University, better known as LSU,  conducted a McCarthyite like survey among the institution’s biology teachers “in an attempt to uncover evidence that the biology faculty failed to teach creationism and `intelligent design’ – as called for in church doctrine. It was alleged that the Biology faculty – obviously political subversives every one – was instead teaching Darwinian evolution, and if that wasn’t bad enough, some even arguing for its validity. A Biology prof, one year away from tenure, who proposed a compromise solution to the evolution controversy there (that the Biology Dept be able to teach the theory of Evolution as it is understood by science today but that countervailing theories of creation be permitted) was fired.  Pretty serious stuff.

The Board of Trustees, that usual assortment of developers, bankers, religious fanatics and other high rolling shysters, was upset to learn the results of the survey on this important threat to the university’s value system. The results showed that this was an intellectual rebellion that never happened: the LSU faculty, true to institution’s values, that the faculty “consistently promote students’ faith in creation and other church doctrines, as well as presenting scientific understanding clearly and in the proper context.

If you think the Board of Trustees was satisfied with this result – think again. It was a dilemma that the survey did not conclude what the Board hoped to find. No problem. Following a great political (and unfortunately academic) tradition of skewing the data to get the desired results, the board revised the survey in such a way to meet their gutter-low academic standards. But how else proceed with an academic purge unless their is a pretext. It doesn’t have to be an intellectually accurate or strong pretext, just one that will do for the moment, an excuse to clean house of “evolution heresy.”

Well, at least LSU has a good basketball team.

It was a close call though and you’ll never know which of those Biology teachers have pictures of Darwin hidden at home in their closets.

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