Genesis v evolution: how should we approach it in the classroom?

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Government guidelines and the QCA are clear: creationism should not be taught in science lessons, but there is scope as part of RE. Adi Bloom reports

In the beginning, there was religion. And God said, let there be light, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light science, and the darkness He called creationism.

But this divide begat confusion, for it was unclear whether science and creationism could co-exist, or whether, like night and day, the one must necessarily cancel out the other.

The reductionist view is that creationism and science are utterly incompatible. On the one side are the creationists: people who maintain that all life was created within six days, approximately 6,000 years ago. At the other extreme are scientists: diehard atheists for whom physics and biology explain the existence of the world.

However, between the two sets of clear-cut beliefs, there is a murky twilight. And this is where the confusion lies.

David Wilkinson is an evangelical Christian minister. This should put him firmly in the creationism camp. But he is also a theoretical astrophysicist, with a PhD in the chemical evolution of galaxies.

"I'm not a creationist," he said.

"There are certain things about the universe - that the universe is intelligible to us through mathematics, or that the laws of physics are so beautiful - that raise philosophical and theological questions.

"Creationism says that Genesis is supposed to be read as a scientific textbook. But it's primarily a theological text, explaining that God exists.

"If science has a gap in it, the temptation is to use God to fill that gap. But I see God working through the science of the Big Bang and the science of evolutionary biology, rather than through the gaps."

Similarly, the Church of England is keen to draw a distinction between what the religious might choose to believe and what should be taught in science lessons.

A spokeswoman for the Church suggested that a separate subject, such as the history of science, might cover all pre-scientific views: that the Sun orbits the Earth, that the Earth is flat, and that the universe was created in six days.

"The way in which people find meaning varies," she said. "Science education enables them to understand how the scientific approach works. Science and religion are trying to answer the same questions, but they do different jobs."

Many are unclear whether the controversy over teaching creationism evolved over time, or was created intact. That there is controversy, however, is undoubted.

Government guidelines are unequivocal. "Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the national curriculum for science," the guidelines state. "But there is scope for pupils to discuss creationism as part of religious education."

In 2007, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority also said that creationism should not be taught in any science lessons. Instead, it suggests that teachers use as a resource A Devil's Chaplain, by the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, who has described RE as "child abuse".

But this is not a view shared by everyone. This autumn, Professor Michael Reiss was forced to resign as director of education at the Royal Society, after he suggested that banning discussion of religious creation stories from the classroom could alienate religious pupils from the subject.

And last week, a survey of more than 1,200 teachers found that 31.1 per cent would like to see creationism or intelligent design taught alongside Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection (see panel, left).

Though there is neither fossil record nor religious text to account for the origins of this debate, most believe they lie across the Atlantic.

The Rev Dr Wilkinson said: "Most Christians in history did not take a literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. Creationism has grown out of the particular cultural context of the United States, where science education and politics have entwined themselves. Some of that has been shipped to other parts of the world."

Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, agrees. "The fundamentalist Christian views have been coming through largely from the USA," he said.

Indeed, it is in the US that attempts to couch creationist beliefs in scientific language first arose. The best-known version of this creationist science is intelligent design theory: the assertion that evolutionary processes were guided by an intelligent power.

Michael Behe, professor of bioscience at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, was one of the first advocates of intelligent design - a theory that his own university has denounced as pseudoscience.

"Suppose you found a factory on Mars that made little flying saucers, but no Martians left behind," he said. "Would you think that had popped into existence by natural processes? No, of course not. The evidence is the intelligent arrangement of parts.

"A cell is an ultra-sophisticated, nano-sized factory. It contains elegant machines that humans are incapable of building.

"We know intelligent agencies can build sophisticated machinery, but there is no compelling evidence that evolution or random mutation could account for the sophistication of the cell."

The British group Truth in Science advocates teaching Professor Behe's intelligent design theory in science classes. Scientific truth, they say, is not determined by consensus, and many advances in science were made by those who questioned accepted truths.

The purpose of education, they add, is to expose pupils to differences of opinion and allow them to consider each argument on its merits. "Students need to adopt a critical, questioning frame of mind," they say.

And Truth in Science has been making incursions into classrooms.

In 2006, Stephen Layfield, head of science at Emmanuel College in Gateshead, which is funded by the Christian car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, was revealed to be one of the directors of Truth in Science.

He was forced to resign from the group, and the Emmanuel Schools Foundation denied that his personal views reflected the school's teaching policy.

Nonetheless, Truth in Science has received around 300 requests for their classroom resources, many from teachers.

Transatlantic religious beliefs have also been bolstered by local support from other faith groups.

In 2007, the Science and Religion in Schools Project, co-ordinated by a committee including the Bishop of Oxford and the Chief Rabbi, invited primary and secondary school teachers to make links between science and religious education.

And Professor Bell points out that creationist beliefs are a key tenet of religious faith for many Muslim pupils.

"You cannot simply go roughshod over people's beliefs," he said. "That's about respect for the individual and their rights.

"The question is how do you handle it?

"Science is about looking at evidence and testing a theory or hypothesis against that evidence. Going beyond that, you move into how people interpret the world around them."

Theoretical scientists, Professor Bell points out, can pronounce their beliefs into a vacuum; teachers have to deal with the realities of the classroom. And this is where Professor Reiss stepped in: he was a classroom pragmatist, rather than a panderer to the religious.

"If you want pupils to learn and engage with learning, you can't say, `That's a load of rubbish'," Professor Bell said.

"That's probably a luxury people who are not involved in science education have.

"Students are going to ask questions about creationism, and you deal with them as they come up. But you can't teach it because there's no evidence for it.

"Within a science lesson, you should be sticking to the science."

Letters, page 36


Nearly a third of teachers believe that creationism should be given the same status in the classroom as evolution.

A survey of more than 1,200 teachers, carried out by Teachers TV, found that 31.1 per cent would like to see creationism or intelligent design taught alongside Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection. This view is shared by 18 per cent of science teachers.

And nine out of 10 teachers felt they should be allowed to discuss creationism during science lessons if pupils raised the issue. In fact, 30 per cent already tackle these beliefs during science lessons.

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, was alarmed by these findings. "Teachers seem to think it's OK to introduce creationism into science lessons, as though it's true or real or equivalent to science," he said. "But it isn't equivalent. It's mythology."

Because of a production error, this story failed to appear on page 5 of The TES last week.

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