Creationist 'lies' under attack

6th May 2005 at 01:00
One of Britain's best-known scientists has accused a school at the centre of the controversy over the teaching of creationism of lying to its pupils.

Genetics professor Steve Jones said it was "simply false" of Emmanuel college in Gateshead to tell children there was an active debate in science over Darwin's basic ideas.

Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Liverpool university, said that such a claim could confuse and undermine Emmanuel pupils who wanted take biology at university.

The comments come after The TES obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, details of the city technology college's position on the teaching of evolution.

In 2002, Emmanuel was at the centre of a controversy after it hosted a conference on creationism. Civil servants wrote to the school to ask it to set out its position on the teaching of creationism in science and other subjects.

Its response, dated March 14, 2002, has not previously been made public.

In it, Nigel McQuoid, the then principal, wrote that Emmanuel taught evolution in science in accordance with the national curriculum. He guaranteed to follow it both in its letter and in its spirit.

To back up his argument, he said the curriculum required the subject to be taught "in the context of scientific controversies based on differing viewpoints of empirical evidence". Mr McQuoid wrote that, while there was consensus that Darwin was right about how selection brought about changes within species, there was a heated debate about the origins of life itself.

By definition scientific theories about the beginnings of life were not observable, he said, and the conditions that existed at the beginning of time could not be recreated. "It is in this context that some scientists are beginning to propound that some elements of Darwin's theories and other Origin theories are seriously flawed."

This statement was accepted by the Government. In April 2002, Estelle Morris, then education secretary, wrote to Mr McQuoid and said she hoped his statement would "settle the matter".

However, Professor Jones, of University college London, who wrote a bestselling book updating Darwin's Origin of Species, described the statement as a "masterpiece of doublespeak". He said: "To tell students there is an active debate within biology about the subject of evolution is simply false.

"The national curriculum says schools should promote the moral and spiritual development of their pupils. If you are promoting their spiritual development, you should not tell them lies."

Jonathan Winch, principal of Emmanuel College, said that of 47 students who did A-levels biology, physics and chemistry last year, all had passed, two thirds at A or B grades. In the past three years, 54 students had begun science or medicine degree courses.

He said: "Our students are well aware that alternative positions on the origins of life exist but they also understand that Darwinian evolution is the prevailing paradigm," he said.

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