The concept that all living organisms develop continuously through a series of metamorphoses that progress from lower and simpler to higher and more complex forms, based on a process of adaptation to their external environment. Although the concept dates back to ancient Greece, Charles Darwin offered the first successful explanation in his celebrated work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. Darwin’s theory caused consternation among American Christians, who believed that God had created all living things in their present forms.
Although Darwinism worked its way into the science curriculum of most schools and colleges, a surge of fundamentalist Christian fervor after World War I led to proposals in various state legislatures that the teaching of evolution be banned in public schools and colleges. After bitter, protracted debate, the efforts failed in Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas. In 1923, however, Oklahoma passed a law prohibiting the use in public schools of any books that discussed Darwin’s theory of evolution. Florida passed a joint resolution declaring it improper and subversive for any public institution to teach atheism, agnosticism, Darwinism or any other theory that links man in blood relationship to any other form of life. Two years later, Tennessee passed the Butler Law banning the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The Tennessee law was challenged by a high school science teacher in the famed SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL and, after the Tennessee supreme court found in favor of the state, Arkansas passed a similar law. After World War II, however, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of rulings banning the teaching of “creation science” on the grounds that it was a religious doctrine and, therefore, a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment mandating separation of church and state. It ruled that any ban on teaching evolution represented an infringement on First Amendment rights of free speech.
Many states with large Christian fundamentalist populations, however, have continued introducing laws that skirt outright bans on teaching of evolution but nevertheless encourage skepticism about evolution by teaching so-called creation science. State education boards call the approach “balanced” instruction about the origins of mankind. Although it reversed its decision in 2001, the Kansas Board of Education went a step further by ordering schools to delete all mention of evolution in public school science curricula in 1999. Kentucky followed suit by ordering schools to delete the word “evolution” in favor of the phrase “change over time,” and Oklahoma officials ordered all science textbooks to carry a disclaimer about the certainty of evolution. In addition to officially mandated changes in the curriculum, a growing number of teachers committed to “the inerrant word of God” have organized so-called creation clubs in several hundred public schools across the nation. The creationist thrust, however, is not without stiff opposition. The National Science Teachers Association, with more than 50,000 memberteachers, and the National Center for Science Education, continually sponsor programs to prepare teachers to lead their communities in defending evolution theory as essential to proper science education. New Mexico’s Board of Education responded to these efforts late in 1999 by barring creationism from the public school science curriculum and overwhelmingly endorsing the teaching of evolution theory. Public ridicule forced the boards of education in Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and other states to do the same, but the emergence of a repackaged form of creationism called intelligent design again placed the teaching of evolution in jeopardy in many areas. The Kansas Board of Education mandated introduction of intelligent design in the state’s public school science curriculum in 2005. Theorizing that an as-yet-unidentified guiding force directed the development of all living organisms, including humans, advocates of intelligent design claim that living organisms are too complex to have evolved from common ancestors through natural selection and random mutation. Underlying the argument for intelligent design is the concept of “irreducible complexity,” which holds that the interdependent parts of most organisms make it impossible for them to have existed in any other earlier, more primitive form. Unlike creationism, the theory of intelligent design carefully avoids all references to religious beliefs, which, by injunction of the United States Supreme Court, public schools are prohibited from teaching or disseminating. Nonetheless, a Federal District Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ruled in December 2005 that intelligent design was as much a religious viewpoint as creationism and that public schools injecting it into the science curriculum were in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Early in 2006, the Ohio Board of Education responded by reversing a previous order that tenth grade biology classes include a critical analysis of evolution. Later in 2006, Kansas voters ousted the conservative majority on the state Board of Education and installed a new, moderate board that pledged to restore a traditional science curriculum that does away with all mention of intelligent design and restores straightforward teaching of evolution. (See also Aguilar v. Felton; church-state conflicts; Epperson v. Arkansas; Everson v. Board of Education; MCCOLLUM V. BOARD OF EDUCATION.)