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How creationist legislation has evolved, in one chart

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Creationism has evolved. Since the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s, state legislatures and the courts have been fighting over teaching evolution and creationism in the classroom. Secular interests have won the biggest cases, which has forced creationists to adapt.

In the latest issue of Science, Nicholas Matzke — a former staffer at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting evolution education — traces the evolution of creationist legislation since the 2005 ban on teaching intelligent design.

Matzke is a phylogeneticist, which means he uses DNA and fossil data to graph how different species are related on an evolutionary tree. Then a computer program draws the most likely evolutionary scenario.

He ran 65 proposed state and local policies skeptical of evolution through such a program and created the following chart:


Creationist bills have evolved to include climate change

"[The analysis] lets you say not only do these bills share some kind of family resemblance, but these legislatures probably copied their bill from this specific bill," Matzke tells me. "Early on, Alabama bills were the source. After that, Louisiana and Tennessee — places where these policies passed — it’s pretty clear that they inspired further policies."

Matzke's analysis shows the biggest leap creationist legislation took is when a policy proposed in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, in 2006, broadened the language to encompass other contentious scientific topics like human cloning and global warming.

"The tactic appears to be an attempt to circumvent earlier legal decisions suggesting that targeting evolution alone is [on the face] evidence of religious motivation and, thus, unconstitutional, perhaps also motivated by the dislike of climate change research by economic and religious conservatives," Matzke writes in Science.

After the Ouachita proposal, similar language popped up in a dozen other proposals.

After a federal court banned teaching intelligent design in 2005, policies promoting "academic freedom" began to circulate. "These don’t mention creationism," Matzke says. "These don’t mention intelligent design."

In 2008, Louisiana passed a bill that advocated for "open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." In 2012, Tennessee passed a similar resolution. By encouraging "academic freedom," these bills presumably give teachers who want to discredit evolution or students who won't hear any of it some protection.

"You can make a more specific analogy to diseases," he says. "We know that microbes evolve. They evolve to get around the immune system. They evolve to become sneakier. Animals evolving camouflage to avoid predators and stuff like that. We’re really seeing that happen with these creationist bills. The more obvious forms of these bills got shot down." But sneakier bills — ones couched in terms of "academic freedom" — can still get passed.

These shifting creationist tactics go way back

  • In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas the Supreme Court declared bans on teaching evolution to be unconstitutional.

After: Creation-education proponents invented "creation science," an attempt to reconcile Bible stories with science. The Creation Museum in Kentucky founded in 2007 put these theories on wild display.

  • In 1987, the Supreme Court declared that teaching creation science was unconstitutional in Edwards v. Aguillard.

After: Creationists proposed "intelligent design theory," an intentionally vague idea that suggests some phenomena in nature are too complex to have been developed without an "intelligent designer."

And since then, creationists proposals have evolved yet again.

"Courts provide the selection pressure," Matzke says. "The ones that can avoid that selection pressure survive and produce the next generation of bills. It’s a pretty basic thing. If something is killing off one strategy, then policies that take a different strategy will propagate."