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Home » Creationism legislation–Tennessee, or The Return of the Monkey Bill

Creationism legislation–Tennessee, or The Return of the Monkey Bill

Last updated on August 24th, 2019 at 11:38 am

An anti-evolution group in Tennessee

In 1925, in the state of Tennessee, the most famous legal proceeding in the battle between evolution and anti-evolution occurred.  In what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, a high school science teacher, John Scopes, was accused by the State of Tennessee for violating the Butler Act,a Tennessee law that required school teachers to not “deny” the  Biblical account of the origin of man.  The trial grabbed the attention of the whole country, and two of the greatest attorneys of that era, William Jennings Bryan (a three time Democratic candidate for President of the US) prosecuted the case, and Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.  Even though the trial is often considered a science vs. religion battle, in fact, it centered around a “modernist” view, that evolution was consistent with the bible and religion, against a “fundamentalist” view, that the bible is the “word of god”, which would exclude evolution.

After eight days of trial, the jury found Scopes guilty, and he was ordered to pay a $100 fine (which in today’s money would be over $1300).  Scopes appealed the decision on four separate issues:  that it violated his right to free speech, that it violated Tennessee’s constitution which prohibited the establishment of religion, that prohibiting evolution was too broad, and, finally, that the State had passed a law that science should be “cherished.”  I love that language:  science should be cherished.  The Tennessee Supreme Court rejected all four arguments, but still reversed the conviction on a technicality, that Scopes was no longer an employee of the state.  

After the case, there were over 40 anti-evolution bills were introduced in state legislatures throughout the US, but almost all failed to get passed or were vetoed by the sitting governors.  Only Mississippi and Arkansas passed anti-evolution legislation, though both were eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court.

Fast forward 85 years later, and Tennessee is back at it again, apparently failing to understand what had happened in 1925.  This week the Republicans in the Tennessee Senate pushed an anti-evolution bill, Senate Bill 893,  out of the Education Committee for consideration by the full Senate.  The bill claims that the teaching of scientific topics, “including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning may cause debate and disputation.” 

Knoxville News Sentinel in Knoxville, TN reported that one Republican Senator, Frank Niceley, quoted Albert Einstein by stating:

A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.

Albert Einstein’s non verbal opinion of the Tennessee Senate

Of course, Einstein was a secular Jew and agnostic, so without too much investigation, I’m going to presume he said nothing like that.  And yes I was correct, Einstein didn’t say it, but Francis Bacon, a Renaissance era English philosopher, did.  Always remember to never trust a politician about actually getting a quote right.  And of course, never trust a Republican politician who’s trying to make some nebulous point about science.

According to the National Center for Science Education, the state’s newspapers have been solidly opposed to this legislation:

Opposition to the monkey bills was unflaggingly expressed by the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 18, 2011), the Nashville Tennesseanthe American Association for the Advancement of Sciencethe Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, whose executive director Hedy Weinberg argued in a column for the Tennessean (March 11, 2011), “this legislation is not aimed at developing students’ critical thinking skills. Rather, it seeks to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding the origin of life as pseudo-science.”

So if an ignorant Tennessee legislator can misquote Einstein, let me actually quote Clarence Darrow’s (an avowed agnostic) summation at the Scopes Monkey Trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers… Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers; tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots (note: original meaning, a bunch of sticks) to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

via “Monkey bill” returns in Tennessee | NCSE.

Michael Simpson

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