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