Teaching evolution

Even as the world prepares to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin — one of humankind’s intellectual giants — on February 12 and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus On the Origin of Species in November 2009, faith-based opposition to the theory of evolution continues to find strong resonance in the western world. Stranger still, it is in the United States, which has many of the world’s finest institutions for biomedical research, which is home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates, and which has a vibrant biotechnology industry, that such opposition to evolution appears to be strongest. Modern scientific discoveries, such as the elucidation of the structure of DNA, the cracking of the genetic code, and the ability to sequence genes and whole genomes, have served to vindicate Darwin’s view that all life on Earth has a common origin. Life forms have evolved by a process of natural selection acting to spread beneficial genetic variations in a population and weeding out harmful ones.

But the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence in favour of evolution has not diminished the opposition to it from those who espouse a biblical interpretation of creation. Schools have long been a favourite battleground. The infamous ‘Scopes Trial’ that took place in Tennessee in 1925 was, after all, a prosecution brought against a schoolteacher who taught evolution when the law in the state forbade it. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court proscribed all teaching of creationism in the public school system as unconstitutional. In recent years, attempts to cast doubt on evolution and reintroduce the teaching of creationism in schools have taken the form of movements in favour of ‘intelligent design.’ The proponents of this pseudo-scientific and religion-based creed argue that biological systems are so complex that ‘intelligent design’ must have gone into their making. Three years ago, a federal judge in the state of Pennsylvania struck down an attempt to teach intelligent design, saying that it was nothing but “the progeny of creationism.” Unfortunately, disbelief in the tenets of evolution is not confined to the U.S. A recent poll found that over a quarter of science teachers in state schools in Britain thought that creationism should be taught along with evolution. A few months back, Michael Reiss, a biologist and an ordained priest, was forced to resign from his position as the Royal Society’s education director after his remarks on evolution were widely misconstrued in media reports. According to an editorial in the journal Nature, Professor Reiss only said that if the issue of creationism was raised in class, teachers should explain why creationism is not science and evolution is. He has a point. It is the scientific method — the way science sets about systematically gathering evidence and finding answers — that needs to be emphasised in classrooms across the world, not science as a litany of facts, laws, and theories.

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