This is a meticulous account of the 90-year debate over the teaching of evolution in Florida’s public schools, and it is full of high drama and raw emotion. It is populated by dozens upon dozens of passionate culture warriors on both sides of the divisive issue. But unless you are a dedicated student of this strand of intellectual history, or a longtime resident of Florida’s Gulf Coast counties around Tampa, you are unlikely to have heard of a single one of them.
Consider the Reverend Clarence Winslow. In 1971, Winslow was a 64-year-old retired minister from the First Church of the Nazarene in Clearwater when he launched a protracted and largely unsuccessful campaign to banish Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution from public school classrooms. From then on, he was one of the leading creationist activists in the state, preaching that the schools’ abandonment of the Bible amounted to official atheism, undermining traditional Christian values and harming Florida’s children.
Or consider Raymond Shelton, the superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County from 1967 to 1989. Shelton staunchly defended the constitutional separation of church and state, an unpopular view among his conservative and devout neighbors. He believed that the teaching of faith-based theories of human origins violated this legal principle, and he tried his best to take a stand against preaching supernatural beliefs in the schools. He also tried, mostly in vain, to enlighten Floridians about the scientific method and natural laws.
There is a reason why Winslow and Shelton—and the dozens of other important figures in this drama—are not household names. These church leaders and educators fought (and still fight) their battles in obscurity, volunteering their evenings in school board meetings in dreary auditoriums, waiting for their 20 minutes at the microphone, tirelessly arguing and preaching their beliefs. Brandon Haught has pored over volumes of minutes of these often-tedious meetings, spanning decades, documenting the strategies of this cast of unknowns.
The creationists have been, by far, the more dogged troops: aggressive, relentless, strategic. They really had to be, since they were fighting an uphill battle against the foundational principles of science and the encroachment of the modern world. Haught (who volunteers for the anti-creationist Florida Citizens for Science) is as even-handed as he can be in telling his story, but there is no way around the creationists’ hypocrisy and weak arguments. The examples are legion, but I will focus on two main points.
The Florida debate dates back to 1915, when William Jennings Bryan took up residence in the state. The politician would later be famous for his arguments in Tennessee’s Scopes trial, but he began honing his anti-Darwin rhetoric in Bible classes and public lectures. From the start, creationists focused on the word “theory.” Once they accepted that actually preaching the Bible in the schools was illegal, they switched their strategy to an attack on evolution, arguing that it was unproven—“just a theory.” They wanted evolution to be taught (if at all) as “theory, not fact.” Even Raymond Shelton conceded that Darwinian evolution should be taught only as theory.
But this wording, and the strategy it represents, reveal a misunderstanding of scientific theory, either intentional or unintentional. Scientists do not use the word theory in the everyday sense of the word to mean an unproven or speculative idea. To the contrary, a formal scientific theory is (according to the National Academy of Sciences) a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is “supported by a vast body of evidence.” In other words, a theory—including the theory of evolution—is more proven than unproven. The NAS compares evolutionary theory to heliocentric theory (the idea that the Earth orbits the sun) or cell theory (the idea that living things are made of cells). These ideas are not guesses, and they are not going to be upended.
This is a crucial idea in this enduring debate, and it is not well understood, even by educated citizens. Which leads directly to a second point of misunderstanding: Throughout Haught’s account of the Florida debate, creationists have argued for a “two-model” approach to the teaching of human origins. That is, they have tried to slip their version of Christianity—not Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or any other of the world’s many religions—into the classroom by maintaining that evolution is merely one explanation for where we came from. The other, on at least equal footing, is the biblical creation story—Genesis, Adam and Eve, and so forth—which should therefore get equal time.