Creation/Evolution Journal

Reactions to Creationism in Iowa

The following correction was subsequently made to this article in issue 3 (volume 2.1):

The Editors further regret an erroneous biographical note attached to Stanley L. Weinberg's article, "Reactions to Creationism in Iowa," in Issue II. Mr. Weinberg does not have a doctorate. Although he has taught in several colleges, his thirty years' teaching experience was mainly in the high schools. The errors occurred in the editorial office. Mr. Weinberg did not write or review the biographical note.

Phil Osmon

Special creationists have been very active here in Iowa in the past few years. Bills calling for equal time in the public schools for creation and evolution were introduced in the Iowa legislature in 1977, 1979, and 1980 (none of which passed). And during this time there's been intense discussion throughout the state on the creation-evolution issue. The controversy here represents a major creationist effort, and has produced a major reaction by evolutionists.1,2 These events in Iowa also seem to have had a substantial impact throughout the United States. One lesson learned is that evolutionists acting on the state and local level can successfully counter the grassroots campaigning of special creationists. Local involvement by evolutionists would be even more effective if there were more communication between individuals and groups around the country.

The Iowa Creation Bills

It is hard to determine why the creationists chose Iowa--a stable, prosperous, heartland state--as a key target. Politics here are temperate and demagoguery doesn't go down well with Iowans. Perhaps one feature that made Iowa attractive to the creationists is the unique nature of the campus at Iowa State University (ISU) which is academically a first-rate university with outstanding schools of agriculture, home economics, and veterinary medicine. And on campus David Boylan, Dean of Engineering, is a leading creationist. Also there is a 400-member Bible Study Association composed of active and ardent creationist students.

But whatever the cause, in February 1977 a creationist bill was introduced in the lower house of the legislature. It read:

If a public school district offers courses which teach pupils about the origin of humankind and which include scientific theories relating to the origin, instruction shall include consideration of the creation theory as supported by modern science.3

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The bill attracted very little attention or support and it died in committee. Whereupon the creationists undertook a two-year publicity and lobbying campaign in preparation for their next effort.

There were floods of letters-to-the-editor in the newspapers and call-ins to radio talk shows. Meetings were held throughout the state. Duane Gish came to Iowa several times to speak. Legislators and legislative candidates were lobbied and were asked to pledge support for a new creationist bill.

There were some responses from evolutionists to these activities, though in lesser volume. The Des Moines Register, which covers the state, reported it was receiving many more letters supporting creationism than evolution. But the paper printed approximately equal numbers of comments on both sides. The letters pretty well covered ell aspects of the controversy. Editorially the Register supported evolution and opposed equal time.4 Several legislators complained they were swamped with appeals from creationists but were hearing almost nothing from evolutionists. The pro-evolutionists in some degree responded to this by stepping up their lobbying efforts. Pro-evolutionists also organized or participated in various meetings, conferences, and debates. As an example, the writer spoke at the three state universities.

Public bodies began to react to the dispute. In May 1977 a local school district asked the Iowa Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to consult with scientists to determine if the evidence for creationism was credible and if it should be taught in schools to exemplify good scientific investigation. A legislator asked DPI to study the status of creationism in the public schools of other states. Responding to these inquiries, DPI commissioned a study by its science consultant, Jack A. Gerlovich. Questionnaires were sent to all state departments of education. Forty-five states responded. It was found that few states have guidelines for dealing with the controversy. The methods used generally involve either neutrality, or selection or screening of teaching materials by a state committee. Six states, either by legislation or by departmental regulation, require some form of recognition of creationism.

DPI also sent inquiries to two dozen scientific, educational, civic, and creationist societies; to church organizations; and to most Iowa colleges. Interviews or correspondence were conducted with several hundred scientists and other concerned individuals. Relevant legal literature was researched. Finally a position paper was prepared which supported evolution as a valid scientific theory.5 (It has been reprinted in several journals and about a thousand persons in various states and foreign countries have asked for copies.) The paper did not mandate the teaching either of evolution or of creationism, however. The decision to teach both concepts, either, or neither was left in the hands of local boards. Some respondents were not happy with this last, open-option position. It was necessitated, however, by a basic Iowa educational policy, unrelated to the creation-evolution issue, that calls for local autonomy in curricular matters.

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DPI writes no curricula in any field. Nevertheless, creationists were dissatisfied with the DPI position paper.

In February, 1979, a second creationist bill, essentially similar to the earlier one, was introduced in the state Senate. The bill evoked renewed concern and response. Governor Robert D. Ray, who is popular in the state, came out against it. The Board of Directors of the Iowa Academy of Science adopted the following resolution:

As scientists we object to Senate Bill #458 which proposes to equate "scientific creationism" and evolution as scientific theories. We object primarily because "creationism" is not science but religious metaphor clothed as scientific fact. There is an overwhelming acceptance by knowledgeable scientists of all disciplines that evolution is consistent with the weight of demonstrable evidence. We feel that Iowa students deserve an education consistent with views of legitimate scientists and the "creationist" views have no proper place in the science classroom. We fully respect the religious views of all persons but we object to attempts to require any religious teachings as science.8

The academy statement was distributed to members of the Senate on the day of a public hearing on the bill before the Senate Education Committee. At the hearing in the main Senate chamber, attendance by both Senators and the public was good. There was extensive coverage by the press and the electronic media. Creationist students from ISU held demonstrations in the balcony and outside the chamber, but the demonstrations and the hearing itself were orderly. Speakers supporting evolution included professors of science and other disciplines from all Iowa universities; high school teachers; clergymen; organizational representatives; and this writer. Creationist speakers included Dean Boylan and a bacteriology professor from ISU; a Des Moines high school teacher; several students; and creationist Richard Bliss, imported from San Diego.9

Following the hearing, the equal-time bill was referred to the Finance Committee because it entailed an expenditure. The committee in turn deferred the bill to the 1980 legislative session. Several factors probably contributed to the bill's failure to progress. These factors were the required expense, the substantial discussions in the newspapers and elsewhere. The Register's editorial position, Governor Ray's stand, DPI's principled but even-handed position paper, the intercession of the Academy of Science, and the steadfastness of a group of senators committed against the bill. Especially important was the involvement of a large number of evolutionary scientists, both in generating pro-evolution publicity and in speaking at the Senate hearing and other meetings.

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With the bill in limbo, activity continued on both sides. During the summer of 1979, an Interim Study Committee of the legislature was directed to review the controversy and make recommendations to the full legislature. Luther Sunderland, an engineer with General Electric in New York, testified on behalf of the creationists. Sunderland also testified before a committee of the New York State Education Department. Before both groups Sunderland quoted two leading paleontologists, Colin Patterson of the British Museum and Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, in support of creationism. Later, both scientists indignantly charged that Sunderland had misinterpreted interviews that they had given him.10

The interim Committee decided not to recommend a new creationist bill to the legislature. Instead, the 1979 bill was revived in a new version:

Whenever the origin of mankind or the origin of the earth is alluded to or taught in the educational program of the public school corporations of this state, the concept of creation as supported by scientific evidence may be included.11

There were two significant changes in this third creationist initiative: (1) The bill would have applied to all public educational institutions, not just to the lower schools. (2) The bill was permissive, not mandatory. Thus it would have been without force, since Iowa law and educational policy already permitted school districts to teach creationism if they wished. I discuss below the probable reason why creationists wanted this meaningless law on the books. In the 1980 legislative session this permissive bill was defeated in a close but decisive vote. Yet nobody in Iowa will be surprised to see a creationist bill appear in a new incarnation in the 1981 session.

The National Impact

What has been the national impact of this three-year development in a placid cornbelt state? First, events in Iowa have been widely publicized in newspapers and magazines across the country.12 Second, the Iowa controversy has served as the epitome of similar creation-evolution disputes during the past two years in fifteen other states. In none of these states have the creationists succeeded in getting a bill through the legislature.

Educational authorities in half a dozen of these states have sought advice from the Iowa DPI in dealing with their own creationist problems. Individuals in these states have similarly been in touch with individuals in Iowa. In each case Iowa's strategic and tactical example was followed. Even in those states that have had no contact with Iowa, the pattern of response has been the same--reliance on ad hoc groups led by local scientists, with no involvement by national organizations.

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Looking at the events in Iowa and elsewhere in the nation, one can reasonably make two predictions: (1) Legislative initiatives by the creationists can be expected in various states. (2) Organized responses to these initiatives, by local scientists and their allies, have an excellent chance of success.

Yet despite the intense legislative action, favorable laws are not that significant in determining the success of the creationist movement. Nor are court decisions, or the creationist bigwigs who fan out from San Diego on countrywide speaking tours (though these experienced and well-briefed speakers do recruit many supporters and supply them with propaganda materials). What really counts are the zealous groups of local lobbyists. They use simple techniques familiar to all lobbyists. They circulate literature, write letters, buttonhole key people, and go to meetings and make their voices heard.

And they are effective at the grassroots level, where it matters. For example, in one of Iowa's fifteen Educational Areas, none of the twenty-six school districts here teaches evolution with any thoroughness. And in another state, Georgia, few school systems teach anything at all about evolution. One Georgia superintendent said that in his county they spend "part of one period of one day" on it.13 These situations are replicated across the country. Teachers who wish to teach evolution are often deterred, either by overt or veiled threats of job loss, or by quiet community pressure--"you really don't want to come on too strong on this questionable topic of evolution." In sum, perhaps half the high schools in the country teach evolution in some respectable measure; the other half touch the subject barely or not at all. To be sure, a far smaller number of schools formally teach creationism.

Perhaps it was the strength of creationism in many local Iowa school districts that prompted the creationists to accept a bill that had no legal effect. The bill could still be useful propaganda. But the Iowa Academy of Science is now also moving into the school districts. The Academy is setting up a panel of scientists who will be available to advise schools in dealing with creation-evolution and other controversial subjects in science.14

What Evolutionists Can Do

The success of creationism is due partly to the creationists' own admirably efficient efforts, and partly to the fact that more often than not they meet no effective opposition. For whatever reason--inertia, political naivet�, reluctance to get involved, or underestimation of creationism's potential--evolutionary scientists have in the past remained overwhelmingly passive in the face of creationist initiatives. Whenever creationists appear before a legislative committee, a local school board, or a curriculum or textbook adoption committee, if two or three evolutionary scientists also appeared, the creationists would not carry the day as they now so often do.

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The events of the last two or three years, in Iowa and elsewhere, suggest that the scientific community is changing; scientists are becoming more willing to be involved. How are their activities to be focused? In 1978 I suggested a two-component strategy for the defense of evolution; one component was education, the other was political activity.15

Respecting the education component: In times when the creation-evolution controversy has been acute, various prestigious scientific bodies--AAAS, the National Academy of Science, and others--have issued pro-evolution statements. These are largely a waste; and the more prestigious are the names attached to a statement, the less effective it is likely to be. Local communities react negatively to being told by distinguished but remote figures how they should think and act. Local individuals--scientists and other public figures--are far more likely to be listened to. Spokesmen for the Iowa Academy of Sciences are welcome in Iowa schools. I wonder if a Nobel laureate from Washington, speaking on an Iowa problem, would be equally welcome. This does not mean that Iowans are especially provincial; they simply reflect a universal trait.

Being "listened to" implies a program of public education. There is widespread ignorance about what the theory of evolution actually says, and about the evidence that supports it. Local scientists can remedy this situation through a persistent, low-key program of writing letters and articles in the papers, appearing on talk shows, addressing local groups, submitting to interviews, and the like. I emphasize the term persistent; education doesn't take place in a day.

The 1978 article helped persuade the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) to set up a Committee on Evolution Education under the chairmanship of William V. Mayer. The Committee primarily plans a program of publication, which I am confident will be carried out in excellent fashion.16 It is both unfortunate and inevitable that Mayer's Committee does not plan to address the fundamental question: Who will use its materials, and how will they be used? But any political involvement would jeopardize NABT's tax-exempt status.

Respecting the political activity component: Individuals and ad hoc groups, who are not tax-exempt, would not be under the same constraints as NABT. They will have to be meticulous, however, to conform to state laws covering lobbying, political action, and fund-raising. Evolutionists can carry out the same activities that creationists are. These activities can best be pursued on a local or, at the most, a state-wide basis; not as part of a uniform national campaign. It is a truism, known to and used by every working politician, that American politics is essentially precinct politics. A national or state-wide campaign is basically a summation of a lot of precinct campaigns. As one of many examples, Jimmy Carter started on his road to the presidency by touring Iowa for a year and a half, recruiting workers and supporters in every precinct in the state. The creationists are well aware of this working principle and use it to good effect. Why don't pro-evolutionists use it to the same extent?

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In several states, state-wide pro-evolution groups have already formed. Wayne A. Moyer, Executive Director of NABT, suggested an evocative name for these groups--"Committees of Correspondence." 17 I suggest a term for the leader of each such group--"Liaison' --to indicate the informal, voluntary, nondirective nature of the Committee and its Liaison. The emphasis must be on activity by concerned individuals, not on organization per se. Scientists should form the nucleus of each Committee; they have the credibility and expertise to be effective.

I already have the names of a large number of scientists who are interested in becoming involved in such efforts. If other scientists will send their names, affiliations, and addresses to me in care of this journal, I will send them the names of concerned scientists in their states. Organization of a state-wide Committee of Correspondence will then be up to the group. I am proposing to help autonomous groups to organize themselves, not to organize another national society. If each Committee will also send me the name and address of its Liaison, I will put these persons in touch with each other.

There are several existing or projected media through which communication among the states can take place. Creation/Evolution will publish short items dealing with pro-evolution activities, creationist activities, tactics that have proven successful, important forthcoming legislative and educational meetings where evolutionists should be represented, and the like. NABT is planning a newsletter which will publish the same kinds of material. Items can also be submitted to Science Education News, published by the AAAS Office of Education.

On the basis of the past few years' experience in Iowa and elsewhere and despite the involvement of creationism in the current presidential campaign, prospects seem reasonable that a pro-evolution program of the kind proposed here can give creationism a substantial and permanent setback.

By Stanley L. Weinberg
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.