Be Careful, Evolution is Behind You

There are places across the world where it is not safe to teach evolution or even to acknowledge it as a well-substantiated scientific theory. ISIS has recently banned the teaching of evolution in schools. This is not particularly surprising, as evolution is just one of many courses that they have annexed and tossed on an expanding and glowing-white knowledge pyre, including art, music, history and literature. If Iraqi schools had in fact taught evolution in their schools prior to ISIS, we could add this to a disturbingly large list of ways in which they are smothering the freedoms of those they rule over. Unfortunately, ISIS is not the soul progenitor of bad ideas.

While evolution is included in the high-school curricula of most Muslim countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey, a 2007 study (Hameed, 2008) published in Science revealed that only 8% of Egyptians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians and 22% of Turks agree that Darwin’s theory is probably or most certainly true. Similarly, a more recent 2014 Pew study found that in Pakistan only 30% of Muslims think humans have evolved, while this number rises slightly for Malaysian Muslims where 37% believe in evolution. According to the same study, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Turkey, the majority believes that humans and other living things have remained in their present form since the beginning of time (67%, 62%, 55% and 55%, respectively). Only four of the 22 Muslim countries surveyed, have more than 60% of the population believe that humans evolved. These are startling statistics, as there are few, if any, scientific theories that are supported by more evidence across multiple scientific domains.

These parts of the Muslim world are not the only populations afflicted with a blindness this opaque to evidence based thought. The U.S. has as deplorable a record as some of the countries mentioned above, in terms of its denial of evolution. According to a 2014 Gallup survey, only half of the American population believes that humans evolved; and of this half, most believe that God has guided the evolutionary process. Clearly, the fiercest obstacle to evolution education is religion. After all, a creator cannot create what naturally and blindly evolves.

So where does Canada fit into this conversation? We are a nation of diluted religious belief, as compared to the U.S. and most Muslim nations, and we posses a relatively strong record for scientific achievement and excellence. But while we may not compete with other countries in the arena of religious enthusiasm, we do indeed practice our own, less sophisticated version of this game.

We tend to think that in Canada we have moved beyond the turbulence generated by the slick yet sticky church and state issues that have galvanized debate in the U.S. Our doctors who perform abortions do not fear for their safety and our biology teachers do not struggle to keep the most fundamental pieces of science in their textbooks. This is comforting, but are we settling for better when we should be expecting something more? Has our proximity to the U.S. lowered the bar of expectation for Canadians when it comes to church and state?

Religion and politics in Canada often intersect. Just this year, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that it is unconstitutional for prayer to be recited at municipal council meetings. While this outcome is clearly a win for secularism and equality, any relief is eclipsed by the confusion over why this is an issue that requires the attention of the Supreme Court in the year 2015. And this is just one example; take a moment to google such things as ‘abortion and Canadian politics’ or ‘nativity scene and Canadian politics’ or ‘sex education and Canadian politics’ and you’ll quickly realize that if it is not religiously motivated politicians ruling with a cross in one hand and a clenched fist in the other, it’s groups of citizens attempting to motivate public policy with blindingly obvious religious intention.

Perhaps the most significant religious influence that to this point has largely acted below the radar is the way in which evolution is taught in Canadian schools. The Ontario teaching curriculum for high school students requires that evolution be taught but not as it relates to us, humans. So, students in Ontario learn about how lower animals, plants and fungi evolve but when it comes to themselves, their relatives, their friends and ancestors, they are left filling in the blanks themselves.

When I was a child, no more than 10 years old, I remember lying on my back in the moonlight of my backyard in suburban Ottawa lost in the buckshot of stars that filled my field of view. It’s cliché to say that this was profoundly numinous, but it was. How could I not wonder what was out there, where we came from, and what it all meant? The possibilities were chilling and open, and an answer the most cherished reward imaginable. As I grew older, my desire to learn the answers to these questions also grew, and the questions broadened in scope. While the daylight on my high school years grew thin, it was the topic of evolution that occupied my thoughts. In my final year of high school, in the thick of the science stream, which included advanced classes in biology, chemistry and physics, I found myself generally feeling content and inspired but also somewhat dismayed and wanting more.

At the centre of this discomfort was the frustration of not knowing now what I didn’t know then. The memory of my ten-year-old self was fresh in my mind, as were the questions that plagued the childish pre-sleep thoughts of a younger me. In many ways this child was a stranger to me. In a Camusian sense, I could imagine myself not crying at his funeral. However, what continued to bind me to this younger version of myself was the elusive answer to a most profound question – where did we come from? The tragedy here is that my use of “elusive” is not meant as hyperbole. Admittedly I was not an ambitious seventeen year old, or even a resourceful one, but eventually I did manage to locate a number of books at the local library to help me interpret the basic principles of evolutionary theory and how they are applied to the descent of man and woman. But without a teacher to cash out these ideas and challenge me to think beyond the book, I largely remained unarmed in any discussions on this topic.

The secondary school system can’t be everything to everybody, but shouldn’t it be obliged to share, if not teach, the answers to the most fundamental questions of our species’ approximately 200 thousand year existence – where do humans come from? A question that the most brilliant, creative and innovative minds, over millennia, have spent lifetimes contemplating not only to come up short but not even having the satisfaction of leaving the tee box. It is chilling to think that our children are not being provided this information 156 years after it was discovered by quite possibly the most celebrated and well known scientist of all time. And it is disturbing that we, the tax payer, sit back and dismiss this with a blind eye, holding weakly to the justification that “at least they’re teaching evolution in schools”. Of course, teaching the evolution of other species is important and can be just as interesting at times, but it’s as if the answers about our own species are being dangled in front of our children’s eyes, just out of view, as a taunt by sadistic bureaucrats. Actually, the sad truth is that there are no sadists behind the scenes; sad in the sense that this scenario could be more easily understood than its alternatives. I might be wrong in my claim that our proximity to the U.S. has lowered the bar of expectation when it comes to the teaching of evolution, but I am confident in my assertion that there are very few who care.

It is important to understand the motives behind the Province of Ontario’s omission of human evolution in their curriculum. A colleague of mine set out in search of a rationale for this decision and was shocked at the response he received. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Education he inquired why human evolution was not a mandatory element of the Ontario secondary school curriculum. A portion of the response provided by the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch was as follows:

“Ensuring that curriculum is inclusive in nature, addresses the education needs of all students, and reflects the diversity of the Ontario population is very important to our government. The Equity and Inclusive Education section (Section 1.4) in Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12, Policy and Program Requirements for example describes a number of principles relating to values which should permeate the school and curriculum. The Statement on Equity and Inclusive Education describes the importance of staff and students demonstrating respect for diversity in school and the wider society. It is expected that teachers will plan units of study, develop a variety of teaching approaches, and select appropriate resources to address the curriculum expectations, taking into account the needs and abilities of the students in their classes. As well, learning activities should be designed to reflect diverse points of views and experiences.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin in identifying the problems with this response. There is reference to a number of weighty terms, such as diversity, equity, inclusiveness, values, and respect. But what is the point? Unless my inference abilities require serious calibration, the message in this response is that the reason that human evolution is not included in the Ontario curriculum is that it could be taken offensively by certain students, presumably those whose religious beliefs conflict with the scientific evidence. This is a dangerous admission by the Province. Not only does this promote an intimate entanglement of church and state, it creates a slippery slope whose surface is greased from the get-go. I wonder if the province would apply this same logic when considering whether they should include teaching the merits of western medicines when these interventions are incompatible with cultural or religious beliefs or practices. Here I point to the case of poor Makayla Sault, the 11-year old girl who refused chemotherapy for a very treatable form of leukemia at her own peril. The type of thinking invoked by the province in their decision to omit the teaching of human evolution is deplorable because it has sided with fiction over fact. If the role of the state is not to provide its citizens with factual information, I cannot fathom what it might be.

If you are left feeling distraught from this look at evolution at the provincial level, the recent federal record just might leave you kissing the floor. From 2008 to 2013, an ostensible evolution denier held the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology in Prime Minister Harper’s government. If you were not familiar with this storyline, you’d probably assume that Minister Gary Goodyear’s views on evolution were closeted during this time period. This is not the case. The story broke in March 2009, just five months into his five-year tenure as Minister of State for Science and Technology, following an interview with the Globe and Mail. When asked about his views on evolution, Mr. Goodyear replied, “I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” Denying evolution the qualification of being a well-established scientific theory says something about an individual; claiming that evolution is “about” religion adds a whole new dimension to what might be going on in that person’s head.

In an ill advised, and utterly peculiar, attempt at damage control, Mr. Goodyear clarified his view in a subsequent interview with CTV News by indicating that “we are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.” As the sound of crickets fade out, we are left wondering what on earth is going on here. If this event were any less scandalous we could have taken great pleasure in dressing it up in glittery garb before pokeing it with a stick while onlookers whistled and jeered. Unfortunately this was not a spectacle; it deserved our attention, it deserved our harshest criticism and it deserved our voices as a well-informed public. It received none of these things.

It is not clear what Mr. Goodyear really thinks about evolution. While it is apparent that he does not really know what evolution is, it is conceivable that his aversion to the original question was more politically motivated than religiously motivated. After all, Mr. Goodyear’s riding is located in the middle of Christian Ontario. My two cents is that Mr. Goodyear was caught off guard on a topic he new little about, other than its long standing tensions with his religion and the religion of the majority of his constituents. A scenario that is almost equally disconcerting to one in which he denies the evidence.

I knew Mr. Goodyear around the time that the evolution debacle went down.  He was one of the kindest, gentlest and most principled people I have ever met. He had much going for him as a politician, but in the context he found himself placed, his Achilles’ heal was his scientific illiteracy. While this was evident from March of 2009, it followed him closely throughout his tenure and I expect played a role in his demotion to a smaller portfolio in the summer of 2013. Interestingly, his predecessor seemed equally illiterate in the language of science.

Now, I would be remiss if I failed to bring this back to the start of the circle, although it would be a challenge to avoid being struck by this unfortunate irony without any facilitation. Mr. Goodyear attended high school in the same federal riding that he represents today. While it is always easiest to attack the individual for their faults, it is often more meaningful to examine the root causes that have led to the individual’s belief or behavior. In this vein, we are left wondering to what extent the Province of Ontario should be held accountable in the unusual encounter between Mr. Goodyear and evolutionary theory. Should we not expect that students of Ontario schools grow up to show deference to religious doctrine on ideologically contentious issues, such as evolution, when the Province itself defers to this same principle when developing its secondary school curriculum?

I would be naïve to think that had Mr. Goodyear been taught about human evolution in school, his beliefs would have been altered by 180 degrees. I know as well as anyone that the development of the mind is not so easily molded. However, what is likely is that Mr. Goodyear would have been better positioned to understand the question he was asked and to know that his fragile attempt at retribution was in fact a hammer thrusting into the final nail in this particular coffin. Sadly, this metaphoric coffin exists in the minds of a minuscule proportion of the population; and therefore any culpability at the hands of the Province is lost to the wind. Here is the real tragedy of this story.

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7 thoughts on “Be Careful, Evolution is Behind You

  1. I do not understand your post here. I am a high school teacher in Ontario. I teach biology at the Grades 11 and 12 levels, and once in a while Earth Sciences (Grade 12). Evolution is most certainly taught, being a required unit in Grade 11, and underpins the Earth History section of the Earth Science course. Several years ago evolution was a unit in the Grade 12 biology course, until it got shifted down a grade. But essentialy the level does not matter. The concepts required are clearly laid out in the government documents, and if a teacher wishes to use human evolution specifically to cover those concepts he or she is perfectly free to. At least one of the textbooks that is recommended for the course is full of human evolution.

    Perhaps you do not understand how the curriculum documents work. They mandate the major topics and concepts that must be covered. They do not mandate the specific examples or activities or lessons that any given teacher will use.
    If you did not learn anything about human evolution in your classroom blame your teacher, not the curriculum.

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  2. Hi Deb. I appreciate your comment. Thanks for sharing. In no way did I expect to give the impression that 1) evolution (general) is not taught in Ontario high schools; or 2) teaching human evolution is forbidden in Ontario high schools. I hoped that I was clear about this. But I’m glad you raised this because maybe it will be useful to readers if I provide further clarification.

    My understanding is that there is evidence/knowledge that is required to be taught by Ontario teachers (e.g., the carbon cycle, the krebscycle, planetary motion…I’m guessing at these but please correct me if I’m wrong). Of course I agree that these topics should be required, but I would suggest that it’s even more important that human evolution be a required topic because only 51% of Ontarians believe that humans evolved. It is likely that a significant number of teachers fall into the 49% category, and therefore leaving this topic to the discretion of the teacher becomes problematic.

    Now, you suggest that I should blame my teacher rather than the province. I don’t agree, for the reason outlined above (thankfully I was fortunate enough to have found a life raft outside of the system…and please don’t get me wrong here, this is one of only very few problems I have with our education system. I think the province has done a wonderful job in general and specifically with the new sex ed curriculum). But what I’m concerned about is my kids’ education. Here is where it’s important to pressure the province, so that I can be sure they will be taught this particular piece of knowledge.

    If you don’t mind me asking, which board are you with?

    Thanks again for your comments.

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  3. I’m with a large GTA board. Not that the board is relevant because the expectations and requirements are the same for al boards in Ontario. Even for the Catholic boards. Yes there are facts and knowledge to be taught, and one of them is the facts of evolution: what it is and how it works on everything. Evolution is the required unit. Not *human* evolution, or dinosaur evolution, or the evolution of plants, or finches — those are but examples that can be used, and of course many widely differing examples need to be used. Keep in mind that in Ontario facts and knowledge is only one of *four* categories of learning students are required to be taught, and arguably not the most important.

    As a teacher I cannot agree with privileging the evolution of one particular species over the evolution of any other — if the concepts and key ideas and expectations are covered as required, then students will understand how humans evolved — or dinosaurs — or plants — or finches — or the cichlids of Lake Malawi. And of course in most schools any student who wishes to investigate and research human evolution further (for a culminating unit activity or project) should certainly be encouraged to do so.

    A bit more information just so you know my context: I did undergraduate and graduate work in human evolution — that was my graduate school focus. I am perfectly happy to teach it and probably more qualified to do so than most teachers. And I do — but I do not privilege it. I talk about human evolution the same way I talk about fish and birds: as a given fact. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who have objected, or complained or been uncomfortable. But I would *much* rather have students fully grasp evolution in general — and the fact that *all* life evolves — than focus on the evolution of one particular species and possibly lose the opportunity to discuss fascinating topics like African cichlid radiations or the phylogeny of the Cetartiodactyls, or genetic drift.

    When your kids get to Grade 11 and hit the Evolution unit, encourage them to do a project on human evolution. If the unit is taught properly at all they will understand the main concepts, and be able to apply what they have learned about evolution to their research. But if students walk out of the class able to name a bunch of hominids and their relationship to us, but have no idea how antibiotic resistance came about, or why it is inevitable, or why there are 4 of 5 main strains of HIV instead of only one and why it is important to know this — then they haven’t really learned much about evolution.

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  4. Deb, I think you might have misunderstood me. I’m not suggesting that only human evolution be taught; I’m suggesting it should be a requirement, within a broader lesson. I would privilege human evolution in the sense that it is the only species whose evolution I would require, but I would also expect that examples from other species be taught as well in the same way (as you do in practice). In fact, the way you have described how you teach this topic (general evolution) is precisely how I would like it taught to my children. If all teachers taught evolution like you do, I would have no concerns. But is this the case?

    As someone who has also completed a graduate degree in science, I see the value and beauty in studying the evolution of all life. But it’s those students who will not register in science courses in university that I’m most concerned about. For many of them, high school will be their last stop in this particular avenue of learning. The opportunity to understand how our species has come to be could slip through their fingers. I will point again to the statistic that 49% of Ontarians don’t believe that humans evolved. You have suggested that it’s an easy leap to make from bacteria or plants to human evolution. I hope that’s true, but I’m not sure. The statistics don’t seem to affirm this.

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  5. Living in Alberta, we have a similar situation – of both sides that are stated above. My question is, why is evolution left to a small portion of Bio Gr.11? Due to the nature of the Theory of Evolution, it can be taught right from the beginning of schooling, in the early childhood years. Children are fascinated with science – in Alberta it’s the dinosaurs that children know best. Why not incorporate small bite sized portions of evolutionary knowledge early? I personally own a collection of children’s evolution books, plus an 18 foot evolutionary timeline “book” that is one of my students’ favourite things to peruse.

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