Should creationism be taught in British classrooms?

Why schools and universities should encourage debate on evolution -- and how this could benefit scie

To some people's incredulity and others' satisfaction, creationism's influence is growing across the globe. Definitions of creationism vary, but roughly 10-15 per cent of people in the UK believe that the earth came into existence exactly as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Quran, and that the most that evolution has done is to change species into other, closely related species.

The more recent theory of intelligent design agrees with creationism, but makes no reference to the scriptures. Instead, it argues that there are many features of the natural world - such as the mammalian eye - that are too intricate to have evolved from non-living matter, as the theory of evolution asserts. Such features are simply said to be "irreducibly complex".

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of biologists consider evolution to be central to the biological sciences, providing a conceptual framework that unifies every disparate aspect of the life sciences into a single, coherent discipline. Most scientists also believe that the universe is about 13-14 billion years old.

The well-known schism between a number of religious world-views - particularly Judaeo-Christian views based on Genesis and mainstream Islamic readings of the Quran - and scientific explanations derived from the theory of evolution is exacerbated by the way people are asked in surveys about their views on the origins of human life. There is a tendency to polarise religion and science: questions focus on the notion that either God created everything, or God had nothing to do with it. The choices erroneously imply that scientific evolution is necessarily atheistic, linking acceptance of evolution with the explicit exclusion of any religious premise.

In fact, people have personal beliefs about religion and science that cover a wide range of possibilities. This has important implications for how biology teachers should present evolution in schools. As John Hedley Brooke, the first holder of the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford University, has long pointed out, there is no such thing as a fixed relationship between science and religion. The interface between them has shifted over time, as has the meaning of each term.

Most of the literature on creationism (and intelligent design) and evolutionary theory puts them in stark opposition. Evolution is consistently presented in creationist books and articles as illogical, contradicted by scientific evidence such as the fossil record (which they claim does not provide evidence for transitional forms), and as the product of non-scientific reasoning. The early history of life, they say, would require life to arise from inorganic matter - a form of spontaneous generation largely rejected by science in the 19th century. Creationists also accuse evolutionary theory of being the product of those who ridicule the word of God, and a cause of a range of social evils (from eugenics, Marxism, Nazism and racism to juvenile delinquency).

Creationism has received similarly short shrift from evolutionists. In a study published in 1983, the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher concluded that the flat-earth theory, the chemistry of the four elements and medieval astrology were all as valid as creationism (not at all, that is).

Life lessons

Evolutionary biologists attack creationism - especially "scientific creationism" - on the grounds that it isn't a science at all, because its ultimate authority is scriptural and theological, rather than the evidence obtained from the natural world.

After many years of teaching evolution to school and university students, I have come to the view that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception, but as a world-view. A world-view is an entire way of understanding reality: each of us probably has only one.

However, we can have many conceptions and misconceptions. The implications of this for education is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the basic scientific position. Over the course of a few school lessons or a run of university lectures, it is unlikely that a teacher will be able to replace a creationist world-view with a scientific one.

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons to 14- to 16-year-olds? The first thing to note is that there is scope for young people to discuss beliefs about human origins in other subjects, notably religious education. In England, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) have published a non-statutory national framework for religious education and a teaching unit that asks: "How can we answer questions about creation and origins?" The unit focuses on creation and the origins of the universe and human life, as well as the relationships between religion and science. As you might expect, the unit is open-ended and is all about getting young people to learn about different views and develop their own thinking. But what should we do in science?

In summer 2007, after months of behind-the-scenes meetings, the DCSF guidance on creationism and intelligent design received ministerial approval and was published. As one of those who helped put the guidance together, I was relieved when it was welcomed. Even the discussions on the RichardDawkins.net forum were positive, while the Freethinker, an atheist journal, described it as "a breath of fresh air" and "a model of clarity and reason".

The guidance points out that the use of the word "theory" in science (as in "the theory of evolution") can be misleading, as it is different from the everyday meaning - that is, of being little more than an idea. In science, the word indicates that there is substantial supporting evidence, underpinned by principles and explanations accepted by the international scientific community. The guidance makes clear that creationism and intelligent design do not constitute scientific theories.

It also illuminates that there is a real difference between teaching something and teaching about something. In other words, one can teach about creationism without advocating it, just as one can teach in a history lesson about totalitarianism without advocating it.

This is a key point. Many scientists, and some science teachers, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them. That something lacks scientific support, however, doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson.

I remember being excited, when I was taught physics at school, that we could discuss almost anything, provided we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument. I recall one of our A-level chemistry teachers scoffing at a fellow student, who reported that she had sat (outside the lesson) with a spoon in front of her while Uri Geller maintained he could bend viewers' spoons. I was all for her approach. After all, I reasoned, surely the first thing was to establish if the spoon bent (it didn't for her), and if it did, to start working out how.

Free expression

When teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have in order to shape and provoke a genuine discussion. The word "genuine" doesn't mean that creationism and intelligent design deserve equal time with evolution. They don't. However, in certain classes, depending on the teacher's comfort with talking about such issues, his or her ability to deal with them, and the make-up of the student body, it can and should be appropriate to address them.

Having said that, I don't pretend to think that this kind of teaching is easy. Some students become very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said. But I believe in taking seriously the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. Although it is unlikely that this will help them resolve any conflict they experience between science and their beliefs, good teaching can help students to manage it - and to learn more science.

My hope is simply to enable students to understand the scientific perspective with respect to our origins, but not necessarily to accept it. We can help students to find their science lessons interesting and intellectually challenging without their being a threat. Effective teaching in this area can help students not only learn about the theory of evolution, but also better appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.

 

Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His PhD was on evolutionary biology, and he is a priest in the Church of England

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD

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An English tragedy: how Boris, Dave and Brexit were formed by Eton college

It's said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Was Britain's relationship with Europe wrecked there?

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side ­college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and ­perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to
win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the ­excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson
in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

I had a chance to reassess the ambivalence I feel about Eton, and to reflect on the role that this ancient and eccentric place has played in our national crisis, when I attended a reunion at my old school just three days after the dark night of 23 June.

This was not a reunion of old boys but a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eton English department, an institution for which I feel affection and profound gratitude. As a boy, I was inspired not only to read voraciously and widely – the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Dickens, William Faulkner; the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, T S Eliot, Charles Causley, Louis MacNeice, Henry Vaughan; Shakespeare at his most intense – but also to analyse, think and feel simultaneously. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Dickens’s Hard Times opened my eyes to conditions as far from my comfortable Home Counties upbringing as you could imagine, to the realities of racial segregation and working-class ­deprivation; opened my heart, too, I hope.
I was being challenged to reflect on my privilege, even be discomfited by it – not just blindly perpetuate it.

For those reasons, I was honoured to be invited back to teach, initially for just a year, in the department that had given me so much mind-and-soul nourishment. I was not the most confident or organised of teachers, but pupils I bumped into years later said they had enjoyed and gained something from classes in which discipline was not always the tightest. A debate I set up to discuss the miners’ strike turned into a riot. Above all, I enjoyed directing motivated and talented boys in productions of Journey’s End and Death of a Salesman which moved audiences.

***

Inspiration, warmth and a streak of anarchy are, perhaps, not the qualities you associate with Eton. But they were present in the English department, which started as a sort of anti-establishment challenge to the hegemony of classics. Angus Graham-Campbell, my laconic head of department, summed up the department’s signature virtues as scholarship, exuberance and irreverence.

The English department was not exactly typical of Eton as a whole. It was, I suppose, the haven for sensitive and artistic souls, for subversives and mavericks. Eton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Eton, above all, was intensely male, intensely hierarchical and intensely competitive. Like Boris, I was a King’s Scholar; successors of the original 70 poor scholars, we lived apart from other Etonians in ancient quarters close to the 15th-century chapel, wore gowns and competed more for academic honours than for social kudos. Like Boris, I won the Newcastle Scholarship in classics and divinity, a strange 19th-century leftover that involved composing verses in Greek iambics, reading the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek and answering a paper on the doctrine of the Atonement – all in the term before A-levels.

I was proud of my academic achievements. But having had a chance to reflect on the Etonian male culture of competition from the outside, and then seeing it from a different angle when I went back to teach there, I began to doubt how healthy it was. I realised that coming top of the form and winning prizes had mattered far too much to me. It had even affected my choice of A-levels; I was good at classics and felt fairly confident of being the biggest fish in that smallish pond, rather than swimming in the broader waters of history and modern languages. Surely what mattered was finding yourself, your passion and your vocation?

I was artistically minded and Eton provided wonderful opportunities in drama (the groundwork was being laid for the flowering of acting talent we have seen recently) and music; but “creative writing” and painting, encouraged up to the age of 14, were suddenly put away as childish things when you reached adolescence (this, mind you, is not unique to Eton). From the age of 15, I never even considered choosing to go to music, art or drama school rather than taking the well-worn path to an Oxbridge scholarship. Achieving that seemed to be the pinnacle of Etonian success, and the only thing my worldly housemaster ever cared about.

Certainly no one talked much about happiness or emotional health. Eton’s pastoral care seemed close to non-existent. I kept my unhappiness to myself, with unhelpful consequences. For four of my contemporaries in college, who committed suicide in their late teens or twenties, the consequen­ces were more dire.

This may be sounding too much like a personal lament, or a reprise of Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence in Enemies of Promise. I found my way eventually to what I wanted to be and do (it involved a lot of psychotherapy and a wonderfully liberating year in Barcelona). But I think my criticisms of Eton have a bearing on our national tragedy.

The atmosphere at the Eton English department celebration a few weeks ago did not lack the appropriate exuberance and irreverence, and the setting in the provost’s garden, surrounded with sculptures by Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, was exquisitely beautiful. Yet I could not help sensing the unquiet ghosts of Dave and Boris stalking the corridors behind us. I imagined them locked in an immature male rivalry that has ended up inflicting incalculable damage on a nation. Now Dave has decided to quit the political stage, leaving rather little in the way of legacy behind him.

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a ­poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

Harry Eyres is the author of “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet”, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation