Creationism should be included in science lessons to reduce the confusion among the rising numbers of schoolchildren who have been brought up to reject the principles of evolution, one of the country's leading scientists said yesterday.
Citing evidence that more than one in 10 children in British state schools now believes in creationism, Professor Michael Reiss, the director of education at the Royal Society, called for such beliefs to be discussed and debated in class by science teachers, but not taught as a subject.
The professor, who is also an ordained Church of England clergyman, said the move would help pupils understand that such literal beliefs in religious scripture are not supported by scientific evidence.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the body responsible for the national curriculum, has ruled that discussion of creationism should be omitted from the science curriculum because creationism is "not a scientific theory".
But at the British Association's science festival at Liverpool University, Professor Reiss said it was necessary for this to change. "I'm trying to make it less likely that students will ignore science, that they will detach from it, because it makes them feel that they cannot continue with science because it conflicts with their beliefs... But I feel if a science teacher feels comfortable with it then it could reduce confusion."
Surveys show that more than 10 per cent of children believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old rather than the four billion years or so accepted by science. An even greater proportion of schoolchildren does not believe that humans and all other species of life on earth evolved from common ancestors as a result of Darwinian natural selection, he said.
While not as high as in America, more children are brought up in evangelical Christian and in Muslim households than in the past. "We have an increasing number of children in schools from Muslim backgrounds and a very high proportion of Muslim families have creationist beliefs," Professor Reiss said.
"Secondly, while Christianity as a religion is becoming less important in British society, within Christianity there is quite a high proportion of families that do hold fundamentalist beliefs, and that often means they are creationists."
Professor Reiss, who works for the University of London's Institute of Education, said he favoured a gradual approach to tackling the problem. "A better way forward is to say, look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms have evolved."
His comments were criticised by other academics and teachers' unions. Martin Johnson, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Our feeling is that our members would need some convincing that creationism should be taught in science lessons – unless it is just as a theory whose validity can be debated."
Professor Lewis Wolpert, of University College London, said: "Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes.
"There is no evidence for a creator, and creationism explains nothing. It is based on religious beliefs and any discussion should be in religious studies."
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