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Thursday, March 21, 2002

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Fundamentals of good education


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the most vocal of European leaders in his attacks on fundamentalism, but it seems that only Islamic forms of fundamentalism are worthy targets. Christian fundamentalism -- which teaches that the world is only a few thousand years old and was made in seven days and that Eve was fashioned from a rib of Adam (himself formed from some mud in a puddle) -- is apparently a position that merits respect, according to Blair.

A state school in Gateshead in northeast England is teaching creationism instead of evolution, The Guardian newspaper reported on March 9, and a Liberal Democrat member of parliament last week asked whether Blair was worried.

"I think it would be very unfortunate if concerns over that were seen to remove the very, very strong incentive to make sure we get as diverse a school system as we properly can," Blair said. "In the end, it is a more diverse school system that will deliver better results for our children, and if you look at the actual results of the school, I think you will find they are very good indeed."

While Blair's answer means that he is unlikely to sanction carpet bombing of the school, it did spark a flurry of indignation -- even shock -- that the same debate that clogs school board meetings in Kansas and Ohio could occur in Britain. Surely not, puffed professors, intellectuals and concerned parents, not in the land that produced Darwin and Wallace?

Diversity is, of course, laudable, but what sort of "diversity" is Blair defending? Creationism denies that Earth is billions of years old, suggests that we are the center of a universe created just for us and that white men occupy the peak of a creation pyramid -- all points that are demonstrably false. Is this a sensible thing to teach? No. Creationism, even if its believers don't think so, cuts off an entire avenue of potential learning for children -- and replaces it with a dead end.

But Nigel McQuoid, the headmaster of Emmanuel College (which was launched by the previous Conservative government), maintains that both evolution and creationism are "faith positions." The school's head of science, Steven Layfield, teaches children how to "counter the false doctrines" of evolution.

The position is remarkable, given that evolution by natural selection is one of the most strongly supported of all scientific laws and accepted by most mainstream religions. Deny evolution and you might as well deny gravity. Even the pope has admitted, in 1996's "Statement on Evolution," that evolution is "more than just a theory."

Emmanuel College has been attacked from all sides, but perhaps the most interesting criticism comes in a statement by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt. Rev. Richard Harries.

"Historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution," said Harries. "It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years later, after so much evidence has been accumulated, a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us?"

"Some people" apparently do, but until last week everyone thought that most of them lived in the United States.

Evolution is not a "faith position." While evolution may move people as deeply as does religious faith, to equate the two is simply wrong. Science is about investigation, logic, inquiry, experimentation and evidence. Creationism runs counter to all these things and is the enemy of rationality.

It also gives religion a bad name, said the bishop. "This attempt to see the Book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth stops people taking the Bible seriously. Biblical literalism brings not only the Bible but Christianity itself into disrepute."

Some would argue that Christianity has already brought itself into disrepute, but whatever you think of mainstream religions, fundamentalism doesn't do them any favors.

The controversy in Britain comes as the results of a survey are published in today's Nature, concluding, with happy timing, that at least as much attention should be devoted to science education as to the communication of science through the media.

"Science education, more and more neglected here in Europe, should be given at least the same attention that is given to the public communication of science -- an area of increasing debate and public investment in Europe," said Massimiano Bucchi of the University of Trento, one of the Nature authors, in an e-mail interview.

"More substantial efforts in the field of science education . . . might in the long run help us to have citizens with greater awareness," added Bucchi. "Such citizens could well be exposed to a variety of messages -- including creationism -- and would be capable of putting them into perspective, instead of needing to be continuously protected from messages considered dangerous."

Let's hope that this is the sort of diverse education that Tony Blair was speaking of. A solid science education that fosters independence and that prefers discovery and truth to story-telling and falsehoods.

E-mail Rowan Hooper at rowan@japantimes.co.jp


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