Evolution Theory Prevails In Most Western Curricula

By Michelle Galley — January 28, 2004 6 min read

Since even before John Scopes’ famous “monkey trial” in 1925, the acceptance of evolution in American schoolhouses has been uneasy. Elsewhere, however, Charles Darwin’s famous theory is taught with the same certainty as Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity.

Focus On: World Learning

Evolution “is no more controversial than gravity,” said Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit group that strongly supports the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Creationism is not taboo in classroom discussions in other Western countries. But generally the topic is fodder for religion classes. If teachers do discuss the idea in science class that God created all life on Earth, they stress that evolution is the theory almost universally accepted by scientists for explaining how humans came into being.

In many parts of the world, evolution is “treated as something that is an important part of science,” Ms. Scott said.

Efforts to teach about creationism in U.S. schools and include it in textbooks as an alternative to the theory of evolution have brought protests from constitutional-watchdog groups, which cite the principle of separation of church and state, and from the scientific community.

Public school teachers in the United States may mention creationism, but are not supposed to teach the religious theory as science. In many other countries, however, teachers are given free rein to discuss the religious theory because church and state boundaries are not as clearly drawn, said Ken Ham, a former biology teacher in Australia. He now leads the Florence, Ky.-based Answers in Genesis, a pro-creationism organization.

“People are much more militant here” in their opposition to creationism, Mr. Ham said.

No Intrusion

Even though teachers in other countries are allowed to talk openly about creationism, most choose not to validate religious explanations of life’s origins.

Science lessons in England, France, Northern Ireland, and Ireland are based on national curricula that include lessons on evolution and leave little room, if any, for alternative theories. Each country has its own definition of evolution, and its own requirements for how the topic is taught.

The Irish government’s education department spells out what science teachers need to teach and what is covered on exams that every graduating student must pass. The republic’s national syllabus defines evolution as a theory that “tries to trace or link common origins for many of today’s highly specialized organisms.” Within that context, students learn about natural selection, study fossils, and compare embryos from different species, including human beings.

“Creationism is generally regarded as the misguided and slightly backward view of life of fundamentalist Christians, and if you asked someone where you might find such a fundamentalist, you would probably be directed toward the Southern states of America,” Orna Coakley, a biology teacher at Regina Mundi College, a high school in Cork, and the secretary of the Cork branch of the Irish Science Teachers Association, wrote in an e-mail.

Throughout their education, students in Ireland must take religion classes that touch on creationism, but the subject is not broached on national exams.

In Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, all students between the ages of 4 and 16 are required to take religious studies, but the national curriculum does not mention creationism specifically.

“That is not to say that it is not taught about at all—schools may approach it in their own way, depending on ethos—but it is not set out as a core area to be covered,” said Richard Shilliday, the communications manager for the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessment, an arm of the country’s Department of Education.

Dealing With Creationism

Evolution is taught when Northern Ireland students are 14 to 16. In biology, the topic appears under the heading of “Genetics,” for which students should be able to “understand how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction.” In physics, the topic of creationism may arise because students might be asked to describe the big-bang theory of how the universe was formed, Mr. Shilliday said.

“Note that in both instances, these subjects are presented as theories, not as the definitive way the Earth was created and developed,” he emphasized.

Evolution is also part of the national curriculum in England, but schools outside the government-run system are allowed to teach creationism, as are those in the United States. In fact, creationism is taught alongside Darwin at one of England’s top-performing high schools: Emmanuel College in Gateshead, an independent school that receives some funding from the government.

That revelation last year led to widespread news coverage and complaints. Still, Emmanuel College is the exception, not the rule, in England.

Across the English Channel, French students are taught that evolution led to the creation of man, and that the modern human belongs to the animal family, according to the national curriculum.

“Biology curricula in French schools have not yet been intruded by religious institutions,” said Guillaume Lecointre, a professor of biology education at the Muséum National Histoire Naturelle, in Paris. “What we hear from the United States is considered absurd by most teachers,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Church in France supports the teaching of evolution in the country’s schools. “Evolution is a scientific theory; creation is a meaning,” said Père Gustave Martelet, a Jesuit priest and a professor of theology at Centre Sèvres, a university for Jesuits in Paris.

‘Good Science’

Unlike many other Western countries, Australia’s education system allows room for lessons about creationism. Each of its eight states and territories has its own education department and curriculum standardsalong with a public, non-denominational school system, a public Catholic school system, and independent schools. They are free to teach evolution, creationism, or a combination of the two.

Science teachers generally introduce both explanations as possibilities and let students decide which model they believe, according to Deborah Crossing, the president of the 5,000-member Australian Science Teachers Association.

“To me, that is good science,” she said. “It’s not the role of the science teacher to tell them, ‘This is what happened.’ ”

Catholic schools and secular schools are both part of the public school system in Canada, and both teach evolution. Each province has slightly different requirements for what students learn.

In Alberta, students are taught about the work Charles Darwin performed, and they study population genetics, which looks at the changes in different groups of species over time.

By teaching science “as a way of knowing,” teachers may spend a lesson discussing creationism. “We give credence to the fact that there is creation science out there,” said Colleen Yoshida, the biology director for the Alberta Teachers Association Science Council. Evidence disproving creationism is also presented, she added.

Parents and other community members do not protest the way creationism and evolution are taught in Canada, according to Ms. Yoshida. “It’s a different kind of culture,” she said. Unlike the U.S. system, she remarked, “our education system doesn’t get questioned as much.”

Assistant Librarian Claire Guimbert contributed to this story.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Evolution Theory Prevails In Most Western Curricula


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