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This article is from the In-Depth Report New Challenges for Evolution Education

Evolution Abroad: Creationism Evolves in Science Classrooms around the Globe

Education experts suggest that in some cultural contexts one way to encourage acceptance of evolution is by not shunning religious beliefs
teaching creationism in the classroom worldwide



ISTOCKPHOTO/BARTCO

As the familiar battles over evolution education continue to play out in U.S. state legislatures and school boards, other countries are facing very different dynamics. Much of the world lives outside of any law that requires separation of church and state, making creationism trickier to disentangle from public school curricula.

Many countries have only recently started taking a systematic look at how the topic of evolutionary theory and biology is addressed in classrooms. Early research suggests that not only does anti-evolution instruction make its way into science classes worldwide—from the European Union to Southeast Asia—but in many regions, it also seems to be on the rise.

In some parts of the world, such as countries in northeastern Asia, evolution has had a relatively solid toehold in curricula for decades. But even in the U.K. the rise of publicly funded free schools allow alternatives to state-approved science curricula. And in some Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan, many teachers tell students to disregard the evolution unit entirely because the theory is incorrect.

Allowing creationism into schools in the U.S. or beyond, many argue, does not just undermine educational integrity but also threatens to "hamper the advancement of science and technology as students take their places as leaders of future generations," as the Geological Society of Australia asserted in its 2008 statement on science education. Member states of the E.U. have cited the need to effectively tackle medical problems rooted in the process of evolution—such as AIDS treatment and antibiotic resistance—as real-world reasons to bolster its instruction in biology classrooms.

"We've got to have teachers who understand the nature of science—what makes science a science and what makes theories so strong and robust," says James Williams, a science education instructor at the University of Sussex in England.

When evolution is challenged as "just a theory," he notes, even well-informed teachers and curriculum designers sometimes neglect to counter that theories (such as the theory of gravity or electromagnetic theory) are not hypotheses in want of further evidence, but rather the sturdiest truths and descriptions of how the material world works that science has to offer. In many places, though, the rise of more fundamentalist belief systems—and the politicization of those beliefs—is jeopardizing progress toward stronger science instruction. The landscape of evolution instruction around the globe is a varied and rapidly changing one, impacting students from Canada to China. Here is a look at where the issue stands in the U.K. and E.U., and in some countries with majority Islamic populations.

A late introduction to Darwin in the U.K.
Even as the home country of Charles Darwin, the U.K. leaves formal evolution education until ages 14 to 16, which, Williams says, is "very late to start thinking about it." And when evolution is introduced in biology classes, it is kept as a relatively separate topic. "To me that's odd—it's like trying to teach chemistry but not putting atoms at the center," he notes.

Introducing the concepts of evolutionary theory at an earlier age and keeping them more central to the curriculum could help to solidify the topic in students' minds and minimize the opportunity for misconceptions to arise, he notes. "When somebody has a misconception in science, if it's embedded, it's incredibly difficult to change."

Williams says that he has noticed a slow increase in the quantity of creationist teaching in the U.K., but it is still mostly at parochial schools and newer "free schools" (which are similar to U.S. charter schools in that they are government-funded but free from many of the regulatory strictures applied to public schools). But that does not mean that the issue does not come up in the public school classroom. In one survey around 40 percent of teachers reported being challenged by students about evolution, suggesting that there needs to be solid training for U.K. teachers whose general "understanding of evolution is very, very poor," Williams says.

Some U.K. pro–intelligent design (ID) groups are also pushing to include "alternatives" to evolution in the country's national curriculum. One group, known as Truth in Science, calls for allowing such ideas to be presented in science classrooms—an angle reminiscent of "academic freedom" bills that have been introduced in several U.S. states. A 2006 overhaul of the U.K. national curriculum shifted the focus of science instruction to highlight "how science works" instead of a more "just the facts" approach. Although the update has been positive in some respects, it also creates more room for purportedly science-based groups that back ID to try to introduce alternative viewpoints of life's origin—in the name of critical thinking and classroom analysis. A healthy classroom debate about alternative energy sources or even the mechanisms of evolution, Williams suggests, is a great use of the newer approach to teaching science. But framing a biology classroom discussion about whether evolution occurs should not be allowed, he says.

And the country is not out of the reach of U.S. based pro-ID organizations, including the Discovery Institute. Copies of Explore Evolution (which offers "the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism"), authored in part by Discovery Institute members, were sent to many U.K. school librarians—bypassing science teachers altogether.

Although the country boasts a relatively robust national science curriculum now, until 1988 the U.K. had national requirements to teach only one subject in its state-sponsored schools: religious studies. And that subject remains in the publicly funded schools.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Williams says, it might be the persistence of religion classes that has kept more of the creationist push out of science classrooms in the U.K. compared with the U.S. "I think that this lack of separation of church and state meant that parents who do hold Christian values are very happy that schools are going to be teaching from the religious standpoint."

The religion classes offer a more comprehensive cultural introduction to various theologies around the world than strict Anglican instruction, but, Williams says, that does not mean they have kept out of the creation game entirely. "In science class we would never look at the evidence against the existence of God, but it seems to be perfectly acceptable to challenge the scientific standpoint in the religion class," he says.

All things (un)equal in the E.U.
In the E.U. the Council of Europe's legislative branch, the Parliamentary Assembly, has taken a fairly strong stance on keeping evolution in the classroom. In 2007 its members issued a report in which it called on member states "to promote scientific knowledge and the teaching of evolution and to oppose firmly any attempts at teaching creationism as a scientific discipline."

The report authors reject ID's employment of scientific diction as being "pathetically inadequate," and contend that the rise of "an 'all things are equal' attitude may seem appealing and tolerant but is actually disastrous." Like the "academic freedom" bills in the U.S., these arguments are gaining force in the E.U., notes Dittmar Graf of Technical University Dortmund in Germany who has been studying this issue.

Graf explains, however, that such strong perspectives are not necessarily representative of member states' attitudes. ("The members of the European Council are politicians," he notes, "and they tend to be a little harsh.") Likewise, European schools do not universally adhere to the council's precepts. Although creationism and ID are not on official member-state curriculum standards, these approaches occasionally appear in classrooms. "Legal processes are not an option in most European countries because we don't have something like your First Amendment," Graf says. And, as in the U.K., many European countries maintain religious education in public schools. And religiously affiliated schools often incorporate intelligent design and creationism.

Like Williams in the U.K., Graf suggests starting evolution education earlier in the E.U., introducing human evolution in elementary school and principles of natural selection by the ages of 10 to 12 years. And beyond boosting understanding of evolution by teaching it directly, he says, strengthening acceptance of science in general is a must. "In our own research we found strong [correlations] between 'acceptance of science' and 'acceptance of evolution,' so if you are able to improve the latter you get the former for free—and vice versa," Graf says.

In the E.U. organizations pushing an anti-evolution agenda include the German group Wort und Wissen ("Word and Knowledge"). Graf also notes that the Jehovah's Witnesses have been active in trying to introduce creationist materials into schools, as have some Islamic organizations. In 2007 many schools in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland received copies of Atlas of Creation, written by the Turkish Islamic preacher Adnan Oktar (who goes by the name Harun Yahya) and "is very influential in the Muslim parts of the European societies," Graf says. The majority of Muslims in Germany believe in intelligent design and/or creationism, Graf notes. And as Islamic populations in Western countries increase, more scholars are taking an interest in the status of evolution education in Muslim-majority countries.

Adapting attitudes in Muslim countries
Like any major faith, Islamic beliefs are incredibly varied across sects, regions and among individuals, and there is no single leader or doctrine to pronounce the official view on evolution. "The diversity that you find in Muslim thought around evolution is just as broad as you would expect to find in the West," says Jason Wiles, an assistant professor of biology at Syracuse University in New York State who has been studying attitudes and knowledge of Muslim students and teachers.

In many Muslim-majority countries Islam goes beyond providing a cultural force, shaping many of the foundational aspects of governance and societal decision-making. "We have to appreciate the central role that religion plays in Muslim societies," says Salman Hameed, an assistant professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, who has been researching the acceptance of evolution among Muslims.

In 2006 the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) in Trieste, Italy, which represents national science organizations across the globe, issued a statement on the teaching of evolution. The statement, which several Muslim-majority countries, including Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, signed, urged "decision-makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science," asserting that there are "evidence-based facts about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet."

But, as Hameed points out, the IAP statement "doesn't necessarily translate into anything because it's not a policy statement."

Nevertheless, evolution is included in the textbooks of most high school students in the Islamic world (with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, where the national curriculum includes explicit statements rejecting evolution in favor of a creationist worldview). In classrooms and class materials it is often presented within a religious framework. In Pakistan—where the stated national curriculum goal for high school biology classes is "to enable the students to appreciate that Allah is Creator and Sustainer of the universe," according to a 2007 study—a textbook chapter on evolution from the Punjab district opens with a verse from the Koran. But, Wiles points out, the religious text is then "summarized and interpreted to support the idea of evolution" before moving into a more scientific presentation of the theory.

Wiles suggests that providing this religious touchstone might be productive in the cultural context, "giving students permission to learn about evolution and still be good Muslims." But that does not mean that a more clear separation of scientific reasoning and religious beliefs should not be attempted, he notes. "Just communicating in terms of the demarcation between science and nonscience is something that we need to come to an understanding about."

Compared with many fundamentalist Christians, Muslims with strong religious beliefs might be more likely to embrace at least organismal evolution because the Koran lacks a rigid time frame for the creation story. Christian "young Earth" creationists rule out evolution as a matter of course because, as Hameed points out, "if you start with the premise that the Earth is 6,000 or 10,000 years old, it would be logical to reject evolution." But for Muslims, "those kinds of problems don't exist," he says.

Thus, students often receive instruction about—and are more willing to accept—plant and animal evolution. But problems arise when humans are discussed. As humans are presumed to be uniquely moral beings, a direct connection to the animal world can be problematic. And preliminary research by Hameed and his colleagues has shown that even among Pakistani-educated physicians living in the U.S., microbial evolution is more broadly accepted than human evolution.

But evolutionary theory can be—and in some places already has been—turned into a cultural marker. Even couching the subject in terms of Darwinism can be detrimental, especially in places such as Pakistan, where Darwin is associated with former colonizers. Evolution is also sometimes tied to atheism, which is particularly anathema to devout Muslims, Wiles says. Hameed suggests that one reason Islamic immigrants in the E.U., for example, have such high rates of creationist beliefs is because evolution has been associated with a more general Western identity from which many are seeking to distinguish themselves. And although ID is often disparaged by creationists in the Muslim world as not giving enough credit to the creator, some of the movement's materials are used to argue against the teaching—and validity–of evolution.

Many Muslim-majority countries adapt textbook materials from the U.K. or E.U. This move strips away the cultural relevance of examples, Hameed says. He suggests that rather than highlighting the infamous example of the British peppered moths, more local examples such as fossils from particular countries, be used instead.

Another way to advocate for including evolution in public education, Hameed says, is to highlight practical applications of having a well-trained citizenry that can compete globally for jobs in medicine, biotechnology and bioinformation.

The spread of mass education in many Muslim-majority countries starting in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the rise in exposure to outside sources of information through television and the Internet have made evolutionary biology and theory harder to ignore. Whether it is adopted as part of a purely scientific subject or co-opted as a politico-cultural instrument remains to be seen.

"Thought regarding evolution is developing right now," Hameed says. "It's unclear as to which way it's going to go."

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