Turkish schools teach evolution one last time

Published September 18, 2017
ANKARA: Schoolchildren and their teachers hold the Turkish flag outside the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.—AP
ANKARA: Schoolchildren and their teachers hold the Turkish flag outside the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.—AP

ISTANBUL: Students in Turkey return to school on Monday (today) where they will be taught evolution for the last time in their biology classes. Next fall, evolution and Charles Darwin will be scrapped from their textbooks.

Turkey has announced an overhaul of more than 170 topics in the country’s school curriculum, including removing all direct references to evolution from high school biology classes.

The upcoming changes have caused uproar, with critics calling them a reshaping of education along the conservative, Islam-oriented government’s line. Opposition parties and unions have organised protests against the changes, demanding that Turkey provide a scientific, secular education for its students.

Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said the new “value-based” programme had simplified topics in “harmonisation with students’ development”. He said evolutionary biology, which his ministry deemed was too advanced for high school, would still be taught in universities.

Evolution has been taught in 12th-grade biology classes in a chapter called “The Beginning of Life and Evolution.” The unit will be replaced by “Living Beings and the Environment” in September 2018 where evolutionary mechanisms like adaptation, mutation and natural and artificial selection will be taught without a mention of evolution or Darwin.

Yilmaz said students would learn the nature of being, including “evolution and other ontological opinions” in 11th-grade philosophy.

Other contentious changes include teaching about jihad in religion classes and a lessened emphasis on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is revered by Turkey’s secularists.

Students will also learn about the groups that Turkey is fighting: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the militant Islamic State group and the network of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey’s education system is already reeling from the trauma of the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt and the new scholastic programme highlights that government victory as “a legendary, heroic story”.

More than 33,000 of the nation’s teachers about four per cent have been purged in a government crackdown after the coup, nearly 5,600 academics have been dismissed and some 880 schools shuttered for alleged links to terror groups.

Mehmet Somel, the head of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey, says Turkish students will be unable to understand even basic science if their studies make no direct reference to evolution. “We won’t be able to produce good doctors, good scientists, when students graduate from high school with this level of ignorance,” Somel said.

Studying evolution allows future doctors to see the causal link between, for example, resistant strains of microbes and excessive antibiotic use, he said.

Cagri Mert Bakirci, a biologist who founded an online learning project called the “Tree of Evolution”, calls the ministry’s claim that evolution is too difficult for Turkish students an “insult” to them and their teachers. His volunteer project reaches nearly eight million people each week over Facebook with videos and articles. “I can explain evolution in 10 seconds,” he said.

The two biologists say evolution was never adequately taught in Turkish public schools in the first place. But Somel says the mention of evolution in past programmes at least meant that teachers could introduce the topic.

Somel believes that self-censorship may be at work rather than a top-down decision to toss out evolution entirely. “There is serious fear in universities and in the ministry of education that one may be pushed out, and evolution has become one of those scary themes,” he said.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017

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