The Biology Teacher Next Door: Susan Epperson at Evolution 2004

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to hear Susan Epperson of Epperson v. Arkansas. Her case struck down anti-evolution laws around the country as unconstitutional. She was invited to speak at the Evolution Conference 2004 in Fort Collins, CO. The title of her talk was “‘There is a striking resemblance between you and a monkey’: The Epperson vs. Arkansas evolution ruling, Supreme Court, 1968”. Epperson, although a daughter of Arkansas, now lives and teaches in Colorado because her husband is in the Air Force and he teaches at the Air Force Academy. She currently teaches introductory chemistry at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Susan Epperson is the daughter of Dr. Thomas L. Smith who was a biology professor at the College of the Ozarks, a Presbyterian college, and a student of Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia. Epperson was raised in a devoutly Presbyterian family, and evolution was never a problem for her faith. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of the Ozarks in biology and a master’s in zoology from the University of Illinois.

Early in the presentation Epperson discussed her faith because she felt it was an important part of her involvement in the case. She displayed Eugenie Scott’s Creation-Evolution continuum and discussed all the parts to it. She described herself as a theistic evolutionist and discussed parts of Steven J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria. She said that since she has moved to Colorado she has taught various courses at two colleges and that, wherever a student brings up creationism, she discusses how it lacks evidence.

After discussing her background and the background of the anti-evolution movement, she discussed the background of the case. In the mid 1960s, Forrest Rozzell was the executive secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, and he wanted to find someone to challenge the anti-evolution law so that it might be struck down. A teacher offered to be arrested for teaching it flamboyantly, but Eugene Warren, the AEA lawyer, declined the offer. He wanted to avoid a repeat of the Scopes disaster and focus on the constitutionality of the ban because courtrooms are not the place to judge the accuracy of science. AEA decided instead to find a teacher who would ask for a declaratory judgment on the law. They hoped that it could be handled in judge’s chambers instead of in a courtroom with a media frenzy. Through family connections Epperson was put forward as a candidate. According to Epperson, she was chosen to be the plaintiff because she was an all-Arkansas girl. She was not some Yankee, communist troublemaker with long hair and tattoos carpet-bagging her way through Arkansas. She was the biology teacher next door.

Epperson was wary about being the figurehead of the case. She discussed it with Warren who said that they were going to try to avoid a trial and keep it in chambers. Warren prepared a brief and she was convinced by it to continue with the case. The day before they filed the lawsuit she talked about it with her principal, and he said that he supported her. She was surprised by the amount of media attention she received the day after the suit was filed. She explained to her inquisitive students what is was all about. She explained that she was for evolution, was not anti-Christian, that evolution was the central theory of biology, that the law was antiquated, and that if they had anymore questions she would talk to them after class.

She began to receive hate mail. Because her picture was in the paper she got a lot of nasty remarks about her appearance. Many idiots felt fit to compare her to a monkey. (Of course, that was the point of the lawsuit, humans do look like monkeys. Even people writing hate mail can do comparative morphology.) The creation research society even sent a letter that “evolution was on the way out.” (Where have we heard that before?) Based on these angry letters, her pastor, who was a large man, volunteered to be her bodyguard, but she declined.

Although the AEA wanted a hearing in chambers, the Arkansas attorney general wanted a large public spectacle and promised the media a three week long trial. Epperson was called to testify, despite her previous reluctance to do so. According to her, the attorney general really didn’t know what he was talking about. When asked about “infinite protozoa,” all Epperson could say was that she thought they were finite. The attorney general also asked about “Nitzke’s” theory of evolution, but Epperson could only reply that she had never heard about it. The next day one Arkansas paper wondered if the attorney general was thinking of Green Bay Packer Ray Nitzke. The attorney general kept trying to challenge Epperson’s beliefs, but her lawyer, Warren, kept objecting to the questions ,and the judge kept sustaining the objections. Warren was successful in doing what he promised, keeping the trial about the constitutionality of the law and not about evolution. At the end of the day the attorney general had to end his case since he had nothing left; the three week trial only lasted one day.

Judge Reed ruled in her favor, but it was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court which reversed the lower ruling, but apparently didn’t address any part of it. The AEA appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Court accepted to hear it. It was later found out that Justice Abe Fortas was the main force behind hearing it. Fortas grew up as a Jewish kid in Memphis and was a staunch supporter of separation because of the Christian indoctrination that went on in Memphis public schools. Because she was living near DC at the time, Epperson got to attend the SCOTUS hearing and enjoyed watching the arguments as an anonymous audience member. SCOTUS reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court with at 9-0 ruling. (At this point of her talk, Epperson, displayed a slide that showed the ruling as a scoreboard: Evolution 9, Creationism 0.)

However, Epperson remarked that the decision didn’t change much. Evolution still wasn’t being taught in many Arkansas schools because of community pressure. Around the country, it is still like that today. In response to the Epperson v Arkansas verdict, creationists changed their methods and began to push for “scientific creationism” in schools. With Mclean v. Arkansas Board of Education, Arkansas once again visited the issue of biology education, this time the constitutionality of laws that required “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism. The creationists lost terribly in the US district court, and Epperson remarked in her talk that they lost so badly that they decided not to appeal to the US Supreme Court. However, a case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard, did make it to the Supreme Court where they struck down Louisiana’s “balanced treatment” act. Epperson said that she sees Edwards and Epperson as a one-two punch against creationism.

Nevertheless, she remarked that those battles were easy. The current treat facing biology teachers are the attempts by creationists to influence science standards and textbook adoption processes. This is a much harder fight, because instead of fighting a single state law, activists now have to contend with many “grass roots” operations. She compared it to Hercules fighting the Hydra; cut off one head and three come back in its place. She produced a letter written to her father by George Gaylord Simpson in which he predicted what we are facing today. Epperson then discussed the wedge strategy and the attractiveness of “intelligent design” to religious people. However, she pointed out that we need to inform people that ID is based on faith and not science because many people who would be theistic evolutionists are being seduced by its slick appearance. She then ended her talk by thanking the people in the trenches.

After Epperson finished talking, the floor was opened for questions. The first person asked about her address being in one of the newspaper articles she showed us. She said that she had never noticed that. The second asked about non-overlapping magisteria, and she tried to explain it. The third person asked about the Newdow case and church and state separation, which was a bad question. She said that she wished that they hadn’t decided it on a technicality. The fourth person asked how she reconciled science and Genesis. She said that Genesis was not about science, but about God. The fifth question was about how many students she encounters that are creationists. She said that only one or two a year. She then remarked that there are groups that try to organize students to challenge their biology teachers. She said that she explains to creationists that evolution scientific and creationism is not. The sixth person asked if she knew where evolution was currently being challenged. She said that she did not, but that it was important to convey to people that evolution was not a threat to their faith. The seventh person asked if she saw any success with promoting evolution. She remarked that she really did not. She then remarked about how we need proactive evolutionary biologists. The eighth person asked if it will ever end, and she replied that it probably never will. The last person asked whether she though that we were teaching evolution properly. Epperson replied that she thinks that we need more method based science.