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Way back in 2006 Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill characterized the Missouri Senate as a “vast wasteland of Neanderthals.” I think a few Republicans legislators might have thought that McCaskill was praising their conservative chops, and that’s why members of both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly have been going all out to prove her right ever since. Take, for example, Rep. Rick Brattin’s (R-55) most recent attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution in our schools. He’s authored a bill, HB1472, to ensure the primacy of parental beliefs, specifically fundamentalist Christian belief about origins, over proven science. HB1472 would mandate that schools notify parents if evolutionary theory is taught, giving them the option of taking their children out of the classes. Since public school districts in Missouri can decide whether or not to teach evolution, this new bill would serve to undermine those districts that offer such instruction.*

Fighting the scourge of evolution seems to be Brattin’s main hobby; he’s been tilting at that particular windmill for some time, although his legislative efforts have mercifully been allowed to die quietly. His past bills differ from the latest, though, since the earlier ones attempted to mandate  teaching creationism or intelligent design. To give you an idea of the level of hilarity that Brattin is capable of producing, take a look his 2013 foray into the development of unscientific mandates for the teaching of science, The Missouri Standard Science Act. Dana Liebelson’s  Mother Jones write-up summarized a few – and only a few – of the howlers it contains:

HB 291, the “Missouri Standard Science Act,” redefines a few things you thought you already knew about science. For example, a “hypothesis” is redefined as something that reflects a “minority of scientific opinion and is “philosophically unpopular.” A scientific theory is “an inferred explanation…whose components are data, logic and faith-based philosophy.” And “destiny” is not something that $5 fortune tellers believe in; Instead, it’s “the events and processes that define the future of the universe, galaxies, stars, our solar system, earth, plant life, animal life, and the human race.”

Before we can say anything more about this legislation, it’s necessary to be very clear that evolution, whether or not religious fundamentalists like it (and most don’t), is settled science. As Real Clear Science notes in its discussion of settled science that is widely misunderstood, “the mountains of DNA sequence data generated over the past several decades serve as ‘slam dunk’ evidence. The fossil record, which is impressive but far from complete, isn’t even necessary anymore. DNA can tell the story of evolution all by itself.” (If you’ve heard stories about scientists who doubt the fundamental precepts of evolution, you might find that this well-sourced blog post by David H. Bailey puts them into perspective.) The theory of evolution is central to understanding modern biology, which means that if you want your children to be scientifically literate – or just plain literate – they need to know what it is and how it works. To suppress the teaching of evolution not only shortchanges the children themselves, but the future communities they will live in and serve.

Consequently, legislation like Brattin’s has the potential to, as the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Glenn Branch, has noted, “eviscerate the teaching of biology in Missouri.” It also does so in a particularly objectionable way that depends on extending the concept of religious freedom past reasonable bounds. It’s as if I demanded that my child be exempted from learning geometry because I personally don’t believe in Euclid’s precepts.  

Brattin, who believes that the way evolution is taught is not “objective,” nevertheless describes his motivation in religious rather than objective terms, describing the teaching of evolution as “an absolute infringement on people’s beliefs … . What’s being taught is just as much faith and, you know, just as much pulled out of the air as, say, any religion.” While someone ought to give Rep. Brattin a primer that defines faith along with a few science terms (not to mention simple words like “objective”), it might also help reconcile him to the 21st century if he were to learn that evolution is not a problem for many religious folks who, unlike Brattin, understand that religion and science operate in different spheres. For such individuals, religion functions as a matter of faith and belief, while science consists of verifiable facts and, as Tom Krattenmaker put it in a USA Today column that excited a storm of angry comment from religious conservatives,  requires “no leaps of faith or life-altering commitments.”

As mind-bendingly stupid as this bill is, the sad fact is that in the unlikely event that Brattin finally gets some traction for his pet issue, it probably won’t make much difference one way or another for lots of Missourians. A segment on Kansas City’s KCTV news report on Brattin’s bill offered the following comments from students and parents from Brattin’s district:

But two teens from the Cass County town of Adrian said they don’t learn anything about evolution at their high school. When asked what they thought about teaching evolution, the one 16-year-old answered, “What’s that?” The other explained to the other, “It’s whether God is real or not.”

They said they think it would be good for students to learn about it.

The mothers of those two girls supported the bill, along with a number of others in the lawmaker’s home area.

“I definitely think parents should be notified if evolution is taught because I believe in creation,” said Drexel resident Tina Decavale.

Brandon Eastwood, of Harrisonville, echoed that support, and went a step further.

“Evolution is not taught in the Bible so it shouldn’t be taught in the class,” he said. “Even if I had to spend some time in jail I wouldn’t subject my kids to that nonsense.”

There but for the grace of enlightened school boards is the future for Missouri’s children. It is likely that the deficits will be made up in college – for those who go on to higher education – but those who don’t are condemned to ignorance. Don’t you think it’s time for some visionary state Representative, someone who is actually concerned about the state of education in Missouri as well as the future of young Missourians, to propose a standard that would mandate the teaching of established science, including the theory of evolution, in our schools? Where’s the anti-Brattin in Missouri? Too scared to come out of hiding and do something about the cycle of ignorance that produces sincere, passionate and thoroughly misguided politicians like Rick Brattin?

N.B. Here is a list of sources and materials on the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design in schools compiled by the National Science Teachers Association. This site also has some interesting background.

* Sentence slightly edited for clarity.