Last summer the British Humanist Association co-ordinated a letter from scientists and educators to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, urging him to specifically include the teaching of evolution in the primary schools curriculum. The Department of Education's reply indicated that this would be too prescriptive. However it went on to discuss creationism and intelligent design (ID), saying that, because they are not scientific, they do not form part of the national curriculum and should not be taught in science class.
The BHA was concerned that this reply did not go far enough. And so it was with particular concern that Andrew Copson, its chief executive, received the news recently that Everyday Champions Church – an evangelical Christian church with creationist views – had applied to set up a free school.
Mr Copson told me: "We fear that schools that are able to opt out of the national curriculum, such as the new free schools, will be able teach a range of untruths, such as creationism, even in science class. And because the Government has refused to say that it will ensure evolution is taught at primary level, these schools won't even have to teach evolution at all. It really is a scandal that in a time of austerity, taxpayers' money will be wasted on funding free schools which provide such confused scientific teaching."
Dr Michael Behe is the biologist whose theory of Irreducible Complexity forms the supposed scientific basis of ID. I asked him about the consensus in many quarters that it is not scientific. While genially admitting that I had "hit a nerve", he defended its credentials as a science. "Science is just using physical evidence and reasoning to come to a conclusion about nature," he says. "The definition of science is supposed to help us investigate nature and if it of itself becomes a barrier, it won't serve a useful purpose."
The BHA intends to lobby the Government to include a requirement specifically to teach evolution in the English and Welsh primary curriculum from September 2012. Dr Behe believes that this is "a silly idea" because, he says, primary children are too young to grasp difficult concepts of evolution.
However Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the Institute of Education, London, supports the BHA's stance. "Any topic needs to be taught to the appropriate level," he says. "No one will try to teach the precise details of natural selection and inheritance at primary level. You build on what people already know, such as about dinosaurs. For instance, you tell them that the scientific consensus is that the world is extremely old and that has given time for species to evolve."
Dr Behe, though, makes a more serious allegation about any future requirement to teach evolution in primary classes: "It shows that certain people have an agenda to get children to think like them, to indoctrinate them on their side. And to prejudice young minds to one side before they're capable of understanding is the opposite of education."
Philip Bell, the chief executive of Creation Ministries International (UK/Europe), makes the same point. He goes on to say that when we consider the facts on which science is based, we do so from a worldview point. If we approach, say, the fossil record or DNA from the viewpoint that God created the world in the way literally set out in the Bible with a global flood centuries later, the science stands up.
Even so, he sees evolution as a vital topic, which is relevant to politics, medicine and the economy. He has no qualms about teaching it so long as it is done "warts and all".
This reflects what Pastor Morgan of Everyday Champions Church states that his proposed free school would do. He says that creationism will not be taught in science class, and that evolution will be taught but only as a theory. He explains: "We believe children should have a broad knowledge of all theories in order that they can make informed choices."
Evolutionists agree that Darwinism is a theory, but only in the scientific sense of that word: meaning that it provides a powerful, useful and predictive explanation of a whole range of supporting scientific facts. In that sense, "theory" means much more than in the non-scientific context when the word is often used to mean little more than a hunch.
Besides, evolution is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community. In the words of the USA National Academy of Sciences: "It is no longer possible to sustain scientifically the view that living things we see today did not evolve from earlier forms or that the human species was not produced by the same evolutionary mechanisms that apply to the rest of the living world."
And so, although ID and creationism may not be taught as part of the science curriculum, the question arises as to whether they should be taught at all. According to Professor Reiss: "Secondary school RE teachers are often particularly good at dealing with students when issues can be addressed from a range of very different worldviews including those of ID proponents." Even so, he acknowledges that "at school level, the depth of knowledge you need to examine the standard claims made by proponents of ID is generally that of the first year of sixth-form biology or beyond".
Dr Behe believes that although the scientific community is presently allergic to ID, this will change after a generation or two. "As scientists retire," he says, "the ones who are very antagonistic to ID will be replaced by those other scientists who have grown up hearing and wondering about it. And so I think that the atmosphere will change."
His prediction illustrates why the education of children has become a battleground between ideologies, and why applications to set up free schools by organisations such as Everyday Champions Church will continue to remain in the spotlight.
Andrew Williams is a barrister
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