Evolution by natural selection isn't a matter of debate, at least among the scientific community. But policymakers and advocates in state legislatures and school districts across the country aren't so convinced, and they're advancing anti-evolution policies.
Since 1920, proponents of creationism, a literal interpretation of the biblical account of the origin of the universe and all life within it, have sought to tune out evolution in science classrooms in public schools.
A new study by Australian National University researcher Nick Matzke shows how the tactics of anti-evolution advocates evolved even in the wake of repeated decisions by U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled against their cause.
Faces of Our Ancestors: Photos
In 1968, in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court first ruled that teaching creationism in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment because it endorsed a religious viewpoint. Two decades later, in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard, the court determined that creationism could not be taught as an alternative to evolution, as required by a law passed in Louisiana.
Again in 2005, the justices decided in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that public schools couldn't require a curriculum that taught intelligent design, a rebranded version of creationism, as a competing scientific theory with evolution.
The study, published in the journal Science, shows how creationists have entered a new phase in their advocacy efforts by pushing through policies and laws on the district and state level that encourage teachers to promote anti-evolutionism. Matzke refers to these efforts as "stealth creationism," because they hide their religious motivations by "strategic vagueness" in an attempt to pass legal muster.
Video: How Did Land Animals Evolve?
Matzke conducted a phylogenetic analysis, a technique used in the study of evolution, to flesh out and diagram the relationships among different anti-evolution policies beginning in 2004, a year before the Kitzmiller verdict, through the present.
This analysis revealed how text was copied and modified, otherwise known as "descent with modification," in 65 separate bills to shift tactics away from a stance of promoting "academic freedom," i.e. teaching intelligent design, and toward "science education acts."
These acts encourage but don't require teachers to provide a critical perspective in their instruction of not only evolution but also other scientific topics like climate change.
Evolution Controversies: A History in Photos
Although supporters of these efforts try to avoid the creationist label because of past court decisions, "at least 63 of 65 anti-evolution bills considered here can be tied directly to creationism through statements in the legislation or by sponsors," Matzke writes.
Policymakers and advocacy groups aren't lacking for support when it comes to how the American public falls on the scientific validity of evolution by natural selection. A Gallup poll released last year showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that God created the universe in its present form around 10,000 years ago. Half of Americans endorse evolution, and among those, just under two-thirds believe that a divine hand guided the process.
The poll also found that those who backed evolution also reported being more familiar with the theory. Similarly, those who were less educated on evolution were also less likely to believe in it.