The Sputnik Scare

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. The United States was shocked: the Communists had beaten the world's foremost democracy into space. How had this happened? As part of the soul-searching that took place after the Soviet triumph, the United States decided that the scientific establishment—including public school science instruction—was seriously in need of an overhaul. The newly established National Science Foundation (NSF) beefed up funding for basic scientific research and instituted directorates for education that would fund research to improve science education.

One goal was to improve the content and pedagogy of high school textbooks. it was an ambitious effort: scientists and master teachers were assembled to prepare textbooks in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. When university-level scientists began working with the NSF-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), they were shocked to discover the poor quality of extant textbooks. Evolution, the foundation of biology, was absent from almost all of them. They decided that in addition to improving the pedagogical approach to learning ("to get away from the 'parade-of-the-plant-and-animal-kingdoms' approach, to stress concepts and experimental science, and to encourage the personal involvement of students in their learning" [Moore 2002: 165]), the new BSCS books would treat evolution as it was treated in college-level texts: as an indispensable component of the biological sciences that students must understand to understand biology fully. In 1963, the first three BSCS textbooks were released, and all of them included evolution as a prominent theme (Grobman 1998).

The new BSCS approach brought about a revolution in textbooks. Partly because these new textbooks carried the stamp of approval of the NSF, but also because they were so much more interesting and up-to-date than extant books, school boards and textbook selection committees were eager to adopt them. Once the BSCS books began selling, commercial publishers began to try to produce books in the same mold (Skoog 1978: 24). As one of the BSCS writers described it, "Subsequent events showed that nearly every objecting school board ended up adopting the books—evolution, sex, and all. Word was spreading the BSCS biology was the 'new thing,' and there were community pressures on school boards to be up to date, even if a little wicked, rather than behind the times and fully virtuous. Once this situation was understood, nearly every newly published biology book included an explicit discussion of evolution" (Moore 1976: 192-193).

After the decline of evolution in textbooks and science curricula after the Scopes trial, antievolutionists had not been very active; they had not needed to be. But the resurgence in the 1960s of evolution in textbooks generated new resistance to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Although since the 1700s some supporters of a literal interpretation of the Bible had argued that scientific evidence existed to support their views, such arguments had diminished considerably after Darwin's Origin of Species. Now, in the mid-twentieth century, such views were being revived, partly in response to the increasing presence of evolution in textbooks and in curricula. Much as the Scopes trial in 1925 had been a response to the post-Darwinian appearance of evolution in the curriculum, so did the return of evolution to the curriculum in the 1960s spark a reaction from religious conservatives (Numbers 1992). But the Scopes-era reaction to evolution was almost entirely centered on religious objections: evolution should not be taught to children, they argued, because it was unbiblical and would lead children away from faith. By the mid-twentieth century, however, science was a far more powerful cultural force than it had been earlier, and antievolutionists sought to exploit its authority (Larson 2003).

If students were going to be taught evolution, antievolutionists argued, students also should be exposed to a biblical view. The frank advocacy of a religious view such as creationism in the public schools would of course be unconstitutional, but creationists reasoned that if creationism could be presented as an alternative scientific view—creation science—then it would deserve a place in the science curriculm. No one was more important in shaping this approach than the late Henry M. Morris.

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