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The Evolution of Science

part 1, 2, 3, 4

The start of the monthly school board meeting in Blount County, Tennessee begins with a prayer. "Lord we come before you tonight and giving you thanks for all your blessings."

Eugenie Scott is afraid what's happened in Blount County will happen elsewhere around the country, too.

The prayer continues, "Lord, we know that you have set these people in these positions."

A rural community just outside Knoxville, Blount County has the Smokey Mountains at one end and an Alcoa aluminum plant on the other, with dairy farms and tobacco fields in between. It's a county of some 200 churches. One resident called it "the buckle of the Bible belt."

Vandy Kemp, former principal of Heritage High School in Blount County, Tennessee.
photo by Mary Beth Kirchner

"I've watched prayer come back into school events, prayer at school board meetings. And I just think there's been a drift in that direction," says Vandy Kemp, the former principal of Heritage High School, one of two large rural high schools in Blount County. She's lived in east Tennessee for the last 30 years, and came to Heritage High in 2000, where she lasted for four years.

Kemp began to worry early in her tenure when the school board refused to purchase new biology textbooks with content pertaining to evolution.

"Board members spoke up, stood out and said, 'I am opposed to the theory of evolution, and I do not want it taught in classrooms in Blount County.' It was very blatant," says Kemp. "I remember staring at the floor and thinking, 'I don't believe we're having this conversation.' I was so out of touch with the religious political views of that board, that this stunned even me. And, I remember thinking, 'I'm in the wrong place, I don't fit in here. This conversation shouldn't even be happening.'"

Kemp stayed for two more years before moving on to another job as dean at a local liberal arts college. And as she feared, the school board continued to take an even more conservative, fundamentalist turn after she left.

In January of 2005, the Blount County School Board unanimously passed a resolution to include a "variety of scientific theories about origins." The vote happened quickly and without a word of opposition.

"God was smiling when he made this part of the world," says Don McNelly, the school board member who wrote the language for the new resolution on evolution. He's a retired professor of education. "The area in science dealing with Darwin's theory is very ingrained, and it is quite sacrosanct to many of them within the field. More and more evidence is making it clear areas within Darwin's theory that are being challenged. Some errors were made and these need to be discussed."

Biology teachers were due to implement the new policy during this school year, but the new principal of Heritage High wouldn't talk to us, saying that was a kettle of fish she didn't want to stir up.

But the parents in Blount County seem to agree with the board.

"The kids should have both sides," says one parent. "They have both sides in everything, elections, they have both sides in everything else. So why not in this?"

"As long as they teach my kids that God created man, we did not evolve from no apes, I don't care," says another. "If they start teaching them that, I'll home school them." A man adds, "But I don't think it should be required to study human evolution if it interferes with a personal belief. It's like sex ed, you don't have to take that. It's personal preference. Same thing. Same concept."


Continue to part 2