"Dear South Korea, thank you for making us look less stupid. Sincerely, the United States of America."
So goes one newspaper reader's comment on the news that creationism is successfully invading South Korean education policy. Long thought of as an American problem among developed countries, the South Korean government recently surprised everyone by allowing school textbook publishers to leave out examples that demonstrate Darwin's theory of evolution at work.
Following a creationist campaign by one of South Korea's many vociferous Christian groups - some of whom recently tried to ban Lady Gaga from the country - Korea's education ministry unexpectedly gave the OK for the deletion. What is even more remarkable is that such removals were only "suggestions" from the government, but seven science textbook publishers forged ahead with the changes anyway. As a consequence, references to the theory of evolution, such as the avian ancestor archaeopteryx and "the changes of horse over time", have disappeared from textbooks.
More surprisingly still for a country that is viewed by some in the West as a sine qua non when it comes to excellence in science education, the Society for Textbook Revise, which wants so-called "intelligent design" taught at schools, counts professors of biology and high school science teachers among its ranks. They are not alone. According to Nature magazine, a survey of trainee teachers in the country found that 40 per cent of biology teachers agreed with the statement that "much of the scientific community doubts if evolution occurs", and half disagreed that "modern humans are the product of evolutionary processes".
Meanwhile, the South Korean public is approaching levels of American denial over the accepted facts of evolution. In a recent poll, one-third of respondents said they did not believe in evolution.
About a third of South Koreans are Christians and many of them follow more fundamentalist sects. Such groups also established the first true schools and universities in the country. Consequently, some argue, the elites and academia are strongly tainted with the anti-scientific views. The country's president, Lee Myung-bak, is himself a devout Presbyterian.
"Are conservatives, who successfully distorted what happened in 20th-century Korea in history textbooks, duplicating their success in (the) scientific area, too?" asks The Korea Times in an editorial. "Almost certainly," answer the few academics in the country who actually teach evolution. They call for more public debate.
Alas, as recent hysteria over imported US beef indicates, arguing using scientific facts often amounts to very little in South Korea. Scientists battled to be heard over irrational protests about "killer" imports, but failed. Mob ignorance had to be countered with anti-protest laws instead.
It is clear sometimes that evidence, reason and accepted fact have little impact. In terms of evolution, that trend is set to grow in schools.