This week marks a rather depressing anniversary: It’s been 100 years since the first anti-evolution bill was proposed by a state legislature… and defeated. While that ought to be cause for celebration, it’s a reminder that we’re still fighting those same fights today.
Kentucky’s 1922 anti-evolution bill
As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education writes in an article for Religion Dispatches, the first attempt to shield students from learning about evolution came about in Kentucky. (The infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee came a few years later.)
On January 23, 1922, Kentucky State Rep. George W. Ellis introduced House Bill 191, which would “prohibit the teaching in public schools and other public institutions of learning, Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism or evolution as it pertains to the origin of man” (sic). As if anything outside of Creationism was heretical.
Any teacher convicted of teaching evolution would be fined up to $5,000 ($82,500 today) and be sentenced for up to a year in jail. Institutions that allowed the teaching of evolution could have their charters revoked and receive the same fine.
The virtually identical Senate Bill 136, introduced two days later, was the first to be debated. It was soon amended to prohibit “the teaching of anything that will weaken or undermine the religious faith” of students. That bill died in the Rules Committee by a vote of 19-17.
The House bill came to a vote on March 9, and Ellis urged his colleagues to support it because “he had sent his son to the University of Kentucky and… returned with his faith destroyed and argued religion against his father and mother.” But it didn’t work. The House bill was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 42-41.
That anti-evolution push was only the beginning
As we know all too well, similar bills just kept coming in other states after that, as Branch explains:
House Bill 191 was the very first in a series of bills over the next century that variously sought to ban the teaching of evolution; balance the teaching of evolution with supposed alternatives such as “biblical creationism,” “creation science,” and “intelligent design”; and blunt the teaching of evolution by mischaracterizing it as scientifically controversial. The majority of these bills attempted, like House Bill 191, to impose requirements on teachers—and they sometimes similarly provided for punishments.
Bills meant to undermine the teaching of science in order to promote religious mythology have never stopped, no matter how often the most egregious ones have been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court.
When one version gets stopped, a derivative bill reappears somewhere else. In 2016, Nicholas J. Matzke of Australian National University published an article in the journal Science in which he documented the evolution of anti-evolution bills, leading to this it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-damn-depressing chart:
In recent years, things have only gotten worse. Just last month, Oklahoma State Senator Rob Standridge proposed a bill that would punish any public school teacher who promoted any position “in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students.” That’s just anti-evolution legislation by another name.
While similar bills rarely get passed—thank goodness—they’re only proposed because a sizable percentage of conservative voters believe their religious faith should override scientific realities. And even when there isn’t legislation pressuring teachers to downplay evolution, other kinds of pressures still exist:
Yet owing to a persistent though dwindling minority of the American public that rejects evolution, science teachers are often subjected to explicit or implicit demands to downplay evolution in their classrooms: in a nationally representative survey of public high school biology teachers conducted in 2019, more than one in six reported experiencing such pressure.
This has been going on for a century. Anti-science propaganda remains as virulent as ever. But keep in mind that the 1922 Kentucky bill was defeated long before our knowledge of DNA solidified any lingering doubts about evolution. In many ways, then, it was much harder to fight anti-evolution propaganda 100 years ago. If Kentucky lawmakers defeated the bill back then, there’s hope that other lawmakers in red states can do the same today.
But the biggest blow to faith-based superstition continues to frustrate religious conservatives today. They’re so afraid of children learning about evolution that they want to punish teachers who do it well, promote Creationism alongside it, or sow confusion in children who attend public schools. Anything to prevent them from learning about their origins.