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Monkey off their backs

National | In Tennessee, the secular view of origins has evolved into fact

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

Photographic visages of Tennessee high-school biology teacher Wesley Roberts and his Tennessee predecessor from the 1920s, John Scopes, are remarkably similar: prominent Roman noses; U-shaped, receding hairlines; eyes registering near-religious fervor. Moreover, both men have shared another similarity: a belief that evolution, not God, determined their facial fate.

Last week the Tennessee Senate rejected a bill that sought to require modern Tennessee teachers like Mr. Roberts to teach evolution as theory, rather than as unchallenged fact, which is currently the case in many classrooms. But this is where the likenesses between Tennessee's historic Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 and last week's evolution debate in the volunteer state end.

Beneath a flurry of media antagonism, Tennessee Sen. Tommy Burks insisted last week that his evolution-as-theory bill was reasonable in its request. "This is a very simple bill," he said. "All it does is what it says it does ... [require] that teachers teach evolution as theory" and not fact. Seventy years ago, such a bill would have been a slam-dunk cinch.

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In five hours of debate on the Senate floor, Mr. Burks conjured the ghost of Mr. Bryan as he asserted that "newer and younger teachers are being overzealous and teaching evolution as fact," even subjecting some children of his constituents to ridicule for believing otherwise.

Yet while the legendary Mr. Bryan some 70 years ago enjoyed local and national support as he argued for preserving a biblical worldview, last week Sen. Burks could find little help defending his case, even among fellow believers.

When opponents of the bill accused him of merely advancing the agenda of the religious right, Sen. Burks appealed to members of his own Democrat party, some of them Christians, for aid in his defense, but to no avail. The monkey, it seems, had all their tongues. Most followed the lead of Senate Speaker John Wilder, who clearly wanted it both ways when he said he "can't vote for this bill but I don't want people to think that I don't know God" when he merely doesn't know science.

Pro-family groups, who praise Sen. Burks for the effort, were unable to muster visible support quickly enough, according to Jeff Whitesides of the Tennessee Family Council. The bill was presented with no forewarning; by the time his group knew about it, the votes were already being cast in the Senate.

The bill was defeated, 20-13. After the vote, a disappointed Sen. Burks refused to be interviewed about the bill.

Mr. Burks's critics insisted the bill would have forced major changes in the state's science textbooks at a cost of about $2 million. But that was a political maneuver; in Tennessee, if the provisions of a bill will cost taxpayers more than $100,000, it is automatically sent to the House Ways and Means Committee, and opponents of this bill, had it passed the Senate, could likely have quashed it there. The textbooks currently in use do teach that the origins of life are explained "by scientific theories," in keeping with the state education agency's guidelines.

Those who have been involved in the evolution debate say they're not surprised that Sen. Burks received little support, even among Christians. "The majority of evangelicals are not committed to creationism," said Henry Morris, who heads the Institute for Creation Research in California. "They don't know that creation science is a legitimate field of science, that it can hold its own against evolution."

Fearful evangelicals all too often back down, he said, without giving creationism a chance to rise above the primordial goo and stand on its own two legs.

Kurt Wise is a Harvard-trained professor, evangelical Christian, and six-day creationist who teaches science at Bryan College, in Dayton, Tenn., named after the famed defender of creationism at the Scopes Trial. Mr. Wise opposed the Burks bill because he believes that the key problem is not law but academic culture. He says creationism has lost ground in academic settings more because it has retreated from the intellectual and scientific debate than because of the dictates of law. "We've done a poor job so far of putting creationism up against evolution. We haven't really tried."

Sen. Burks has said he could try again with a similar-but modified-bill next year, if he feels he could get enough support in the Senate. That's a lot of votes away from maybe.

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