The teaching of evolution has been under attack by creationists in many parts of the world. In the United States the idea of intelligent design has been pushed by creationists in school boards and local legislatures and led to the familiar court case of Kitzmiller versus Dover Area School District and the now overturned 1999 decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to change their science education standards to remove any mention of “biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the universe”. In Kentucky, the Department of Education replaced the word “evolution” with “change over time” in state school standards. In Louisiana, the 2008 passing of the bill named the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act” allows teachers to teach the controversy regarding evolution rather than evolution as a scientific theory. The Tennessee state legislature has similarly passed a bill (HB 368/SB 893) protecting “teachers who explore the ‘scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses’ of evolution and climate change”.
However, despite controversies, and much political resistance to evolution education in some parts of the US, the teaching of evolution is by now an integrated part of most science teaching in the US. In fact, the new national US science curriculum, the Generation Science Standards, teaches evolution as a fundamental principle of life sciences, and is expected, despite some political resistance, eventually to be adopted by all states. The state of Tennessee was involved in the development of this curriculum and Kentucky has already opted to adopt the curriculum.
The teaching of evolution has been much less controversial in most other parts of the world. There is not much of a creationist movement in Central and South America and the teaching of evolution in these and countries has largely been uncontroversial. The same is true for most other predominantly catholic countries, particular after the 1996 declaration of Pope John Paul II that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis”. In Asian counties such as India, China and Japan, the teaching of evolution has been largely uncontroversial, with the possible exception of the teaching of certain Darwinian ideas during the Cultural Revolution in China. In Europe, evolution has for long been an integrated part of all science curricula, and despite occasional controversies in a few countries, remains so. Evolution is taught as an integrated part of the science curriculum in almost all countries in the world. However, there is one area of the world where the evolution teaching remains highly controversial and is banned in several countries: the Middle East and North Africa.
The most egregious example is perhaps Saudi Arabia, which in effect has a complete ban against the teaching of evolution. Evolution is not mentioned in K-12 education, except in the more advanced biology course in 12th grade, where in textbooks it is introduced as a fallacious and blasphemous theory, using the following introduction to the topic: “Nevertheless in the West appeared what is called ‘the theory of evolution’’ which was derived by the Englishman Charles Darwin, who denied Allah’s creation of humanity, saying that all living things and humans are from a single origin. We do not need to pursue such a theory because we have in the Book of Allah the final say regarding the origin of life, that all living things are Allah’s creation (1)”. One might wonder how it is possible to provide more advanced biology education while altogether avoiding the topic of evolution. However, even concepts such as adaptation can find alternative definitions that agree with creationism. For example, the standard Saudi Arabian secondary 10th grade obligatory text on biology explains adaptation as follows: “There exist structural, functional and behavioral characteristics in organisms that help them to survive in their environment. Allah, glory to him, created for organisms those characteristics and structures that enable them to live in their different environments (2)”.
While Saudi Arabia represents an extreme in terms of evolution teaching, another extreme in the opposite is provided, perhaps surprisingly, by Iran. In Iran, evolution is an important part of the K-12 biology curriculum. The standard Iranian text book in biology at the high-school level has been analyzed by Elise Burton who writes: “The evolution chapter, divided into three sections, provides a comprehensive introduction to the development of evolutionary theory, with the first section devoted primarily to Darwin and his influences and culminating in the formulation of the new synthesis; the second section to evidence of evolution, including paleontology, molecular and structural homology, and embryology, with discussion of evolutionary rates and punctuated equilibrium; and the third section to examples of natural selection, such as peppered moths and the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant on Darwin’s finches (3)”. The high-school curriculum in evolution in Iran appears to be at par with the education in most countries in Europe, the Americas, and East Asia.
Most other countries in the Middle East and North Africa fall somewhere between these extremes, and often evolution and creationist theories are taught side-by-side. Turkey, arguably the most highly educated and secularized Muslim country in the Middle East, has been immersed in a constant struggle between scientists and creationists, which to some degree reflects a greater culture war in the country. In Turkey, creationism is now a semi-official position of the government and is taught side-by-side with evolution in the standard High School text books. Turkish creationism will be familiar to many western scientists, including myself, who received Harun Yahua’s book, Atlas of Creation, free in the mail. While Turkey remained officially fiercely secular since the establishment of the republic in 1923, a new policy of “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” in the 1980s drove science education towards creationism. The Minister of Education, Vehbi Dinçerler, established a relationship with the US-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR), seeking help in modifying Turkish science education (3). This led to the production of biology textbooks that were openly critical of evolutionary theory and which often mimicked the arguments against evolution produced by American creationists. Decisions in the late 1990s reversed this, and Turkey today adopts a policy of neutrality between evolution and creationism in the science curriculum. The teaching of evolution is often not prioritized in Turkish universities: many biology programs (<40%), most science education programs, and nearly all molecular biology programs lack undergraduate courses on evolution.
Ambiguous school curricula, lack of appropriate education of teachers, and systematic creationist propaganda by religious networks, have resulted in a widespread rejection of evolution in Middle Eastern and North African societies. Multiple studies conducted in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia within the last ten years have consistently found that a large proportion (from 25% to 75%) of students and teachers in these countries reject evolution; some explain this on religious grounds, but others claim that “evolution is scientifically disproven” (4-7). Even among those who do accept evolution, severe misconceptions about the mechanisms of evolution can be found.
The majority of Middle Eastern and North African scientists are, like scientists in the rest of the world, firmly convinced about the principles of evolution. However, they are often isolated and lack scientific networks. Examples of researchers that do great work on teaching evolution, often in isolation, include Rana Dajani at the Department of Molecular Biology at Hashemite University in Jordan and my good friend and former postdoc Mehmet Somel from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Mehmet is a stellar new young researcher who is building up a very strong research group in evolutionary biology in Ankara, in the middle of increased direct and indirect pressure on the universities from Davutoğlu and Erdoğan’s Islamist government. There are serious worries that the government in Turkey is engaged in a process of reducing intellectual freedom at Turkish universities.
Sadly, researchers in evolutionary biology in the Middle East are often poorly integrated into international networks and lack support from the international community. These researchers are often engaged in a cultural war that expand beyond just teaching of evolution, but involve a fundamental clash between secular and fundamentalist religious ideas. Arguably, the future of the Middle East, and to some degree therefore the rest of the world, is tightly linked to this struggle. We are all too familiar with the violent images from the Middle East in the news media, typically involving sectarian conflicts between different religious groups, or between secular and religious groups. Revolutions in Syria and Libya against local dictators were hijacked by jihadist forces leading to prolonged civil wars that now greatly affect, not only the Middle East, but the entire world. The consequences of these conflicts, including increased flow of refugees and terrorism, dominates the political discourse in much of the western world. In the West we have a strong tradition for intervening in the Middle East militarily, often with arguably counter-productive results. Our strongest allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are some of the most regressive countries in the region in which suppressive Salafist religious ideology is used to maintain extreme economic and political privilege for a small elite. We have chosen not to support moderate secular forces, but instead to build economically convenient alliances with presumably stable rulers of oil rich countries. And to maintain our perceived strategic and economic interests we have not hesitated to act militarily. But progressive and secular movements in the Middle East have been left high and dry, locally accused of promoting a Western agenda, but without support from the West.
Debates regarding evolution are in the Middle East embedded in this environment. They are part of a larger cultural (and often physical) war between modernist secular ideas, and fundamentalist religious ideas. And once again, there have been no effort from the rest of the world to lend support to individuals in the Middle East who are promoting teaching and research in evolutionary biology. Perhaps once we could try to promote development in the Middle East by providing infrastructure and support for forward thinking intellectual leaders, instead of just treating the Middle East as a place where we have to act militarily when the bombs start going off in Paris, London or New York, or when our perceived strategic and economic interests are threatened. As researchers in evolutionary biology we can contribute to this. Obviously, supporting evolutionary biologists in the Middle East is not going to eliminate the threat from Daesh or convert Syria into a stable and peaceful democracy tomorrow, but it can be one little step towards a modern political development in the region. After all, good science education is one of the most powerful weapons against religious fundamentalism. As Western evolutionary biologists, we have the opportunity to help put that weapon into the hands of local educators and scientists. For that reason, I had, together with collaborators from the Middle East, proposed to the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) to support an initiative to start a network of evolutionary biologists in the Middle East, and requested funding for an initial conference and for local meetings for promoting evolution education to college level educators. SMBE is ideally suited for this because it is an international society and because it is quite rich primarily due to the revenues generated by the society journals MBE and GBE. Now there are many reasons I could see why one might not want to support such a proposal. For example, the proposal might be too vague, the Society might want to see a competition between many proposals, or there might be a shortage of funds. However, the proposal was rejected, not for any of these reasons, but because the Society simply does not want to support activities in the Middle East. This is the reply I received:
“SMBE council discussed your proposal on Evolution in the Middle East and North Africa. The council appreciates the importance of bringing modern molecular evolutionary research and education to this part of the world, but has widespread concerns about the political stability and safety in the region. For this reason, your proposal was not approved.
However, the council recognizes the value of having occasional meetings in regions/countries where SMBE annual meetings do not typically go (e.g., Africa, South America, India, and China), and has decided to create a new category of meetings called regional comprehensive meetings that will be held in such countries/regions. The call for proposals of regional comprehensive meetings will go out later this year, and you are welcome to submit proposals at that time”.
Notice that the rejection includes a statement that the Society wishes to support occasional meetings in “…Africa, South America, India, and China…” – a list of regions that explicitly does not include the Middle East. The reason given is that the society has “…has widespread concerns about the political stability and safety in the region”. So we choose not to support our evolutionary biology colleagues in the Middle East because of safety concerns? If I am to take this literally, I can only interpret it as an extreme form of cowardice. But perhaps it is really not fear but other concerns that really underlie this decision. I will refrain from second-guessing the council’s decision.
However, this leaves us now without funds for our efforts to support evolution research and education in the Middle East. If you have any suggestions for how to move forward with this initiative or would like to get involved, then please send me an email. We are not giving up – the stakes are too high. We should not leave our colleagues in the Middle East who daily struggle to promote teaching of evolution without support. We have a historic opportunity here, for one times sake, to do what is right, rather than what is convenient.
- Sulaiman bin Muhammad al-Habib et al. al-Ahyā’ lil-ṣaff al-thālath al-thānawī: al-faṣl al-darāsī al-awwal [Biology for Secondary Grade Three: First Semester]. Riyadh. Translation by Elise Burton.
- Fahd bin Nasir al-Aqiyyal et al. al-Ahyā’ lil-ṣaff al-awwal al-thānawī [Biology for Secondary Grade One] Riyadh. Translation by Elise Burton.
- Elise Burton. 2010. Science, Religion and the State: Teaching Evolution in the Middle East. Honor’s Thesis, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley.
- Saïda Aroua, Maryline Coquide, Salem Abbes. 2009. Overcoming the Effect of the Socio-cultural Context: Impact of Teaching Evolution in Tunisia. Evo Edu Outreach 2:474–478
- Saouma BouJaoude, et al. 2011. Muslim Egyptian and Lebanese Students’ Conceptions of Biological Evolution. Sci & Educ 20:895–915
- Pelin Yalcinoglu. 2009. Impacts of Anti-Evolutionist Movements on Educational Policies and Practices in USA and Turkey. Elementary Education Online 8(1), 254-267
- Gülsüm Akyol, Ceren Tekkaya, Semra Sungur. 2010. The contribution of understandings of evolutionary theory and nature of science to pre-service science teachers’ acceptance of evolutionary theory. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 9: 1889–1893