The Teaching of Evolution Banned in Turkey, While Conservatives Work Hard to Erode the Role of Science in U.S. Schools

In both countries, religious extremists are expanding schools that privilege religion over science.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/mathagraphics

At a time when hate crimes against Muslims are at an all-time high in the United States, it’s hard to believe religious extremists in the U.S. could have much in common with religious extremists in Turkey, where the population is over 90% Muslim. But they certainly share at least one thing in common: a desire to undermine the teaching of science in schools. They are even targeting the same subject, evolution, as part of their radical sectarian agenda. And if they succeed, both the United States and Turkey will face equally devastating economic consequences.

Despite sharing the same overall goal of eroding the educational system, extremists in each country have recently demonstrated a preference for different tactics. In Turkey, the approach has been quite blunt, as the government literally banned the teaching of evolution altogether. Why? Because, according to education minister Alpaslan Durmas, evolution is simply "too complicated for students." Instead, students will be taught that humans were created roughly 10,000 years ago by God in accordance with the story of Adam and Eve. Durmas declined to explain how the mechanics of an unexplained deity creating the first man out of clay and a woman from his rib is simple.

The effort to discredit evolution is just one aspect of the battle over national identity engulfing Turkey, including eroding the division between church and state that was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Injecting religious dogma into schools is a central part of the agenda of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The New York Times reports that in the past five years, Erdogan has infused the country’s curriculum with references to Islam, as well as increasing the number of religious schools. Both are reflective of “Erdogan’s desire to raise a ‘pious generation’ of young Turks.”

Being pious, in this case, seems to require ignorance of one of the foundational theories of the life sciences. And if the real motive behind banning the teaching of evolution wasn’t blatant enough, Turkey’s education minister recently told a conference in Ankara that “the curriculum is being simplified in a bid to education children in line with ‘local and national values.’” The new values-based curriculum, which the government began phasing in this school year, has already begun phasing out the teaching of evolution.

Not everyone is pleased with Erdogan’s plan to increase piety at the cost of a education rooted in scientific fact. Feray Aytekin Aydogan, who leads a union of secular teachers, lamented that, “The last crumbs of secular scientific education have been removed.” Turkish scholar Alaatin Dincer noted that, “The Turkish education system is very weak concerning the fundamental sciences,” and questioned whether, in light of this ban, Turkey could even be considered a “scientifically enlightened country that can produce the scientists of the future.” Finally, Mehmet Balik, who chairs Turkey’s main teachers’ union, Egitim Sen, criticized both the ban and a policy that requires schools to have a prayer room, saying, “These actions ‘destroy the principle of secularism and the scientific principles of education.’”

But perhaps Ali Alpar, an astrophysicist and president of Turkey’s Science Academy, best explains the stakes of this fight. He argues that this isn’t just about evolution. “Evolution is a test case. It is about rationality, about whether the curriculum should be built on whatever the government chooses to be the proper values.”

While Alpar is concerned about the situation in Turkey, the United States has its own astrophysicist worried about the state of education. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has repeatedly warned that the U.S. is “turning away from science, and that turning away from science leads societies to decline.” Speaking in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 2017, he went on to say, “The consequence…is that you breed a generation of people who do not know what science is nor how and why it works…You have mortgaged the future financial security of your nation.”

With its famously decentralized education system, the U.S. doesn’t face the same threat of political leaders simply imposing a values-based curriculum that trades science for religion. At the state level, however, attempts to ban the teaching of evolution are alive and well. Kansas only rescinded its ban in 2001. In Florida, meanwhile, a new law allows parents and local residents to challenge textbooks that contain material they find objectionable. The conservative group behind the legislation says that it is intended to make sure that scientific theories are presented in a “balanced way.”

As taxpayer-funded school voucher programs expand, a growing number of students are attending private religious schools that teach alternative “theories” to evolution, including creationism or so-called intelligent design. There are currently 26 school voucher programs operating in 15 states, a number that is only expected to expand.

In Florida, the state now sends nearly $1 billion to largely unregulated religious schools, many of which use a curriculum provided by Accelerated Christian Education. In 2014, Dana Hunter investigated what ACE teaches for Scientific American. He found science books with review questions like, “Christ’s shed blood is the __________ of our salvation,” and, “God designed the hydrologic __________ to prevent the __________ from overflowing.” Students work on these “science” lessons while enclosed within barren walls that prevent them from even seeing their classmates. ACE also teaches that the nuclear fusion within the sun is a "myth" invented by scientists to discredit the Bible’s teachings. Until recently, ACE even taught students that the Loch Ness monster was real.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, private schools that teach extremist and outright false ideas such as those listed above are rarely held accountable, despite the fact that studies in Florida have shown “declines in math or reading skills.” The full impact of ACE’s curriculum isn’t even fully understood. A recent dissertation titled “Systems of Indoctrination: Accelerated Christian Education in England,” by Jonathan Theodore Scaramanga—who attended a school that used the ACE curriculum—examines “ways in which ACE is likely to instill close-mindedness in its students through the use of forced compliance, conformity pressures, and extrinsic rewards” and how the majority of students “experienced inadequate education, sexism, homophobia, excessive punishment, and discrimination against those considered ‘ungodly.’” But this is one of the few examples of such research.

Of course, no amount of evidence about how narrow sectarian indoctrination harms students is going to change the minds of those who see scientific education as a threat to religion. The fight over evolution in Turkey is part of a struggle to determine what kind of society Turkey is or should be, while in the United States there is a long history of resistance to science being taught. But while extremists in both countries may like to pretend there is a debate about evolution, there is no debate that the results of these policies are ultimately self-destructive.

And if the United States follows Turkey in prioritize religion over science in the schools, a future of economic insecurity fueled by an uneducated, unprepared citizenry will be one more thing the countries have in common.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story contained a reference to ResponsiveEd, a public charter school operator. The article referred to a ResponsiveEd biology curriculum that stressed creationism. That curriculum has since been overhauled. The original story also quoted ResponsiveEd's founder Donald Howard as though he was a current spokesperson. He departed from the organization 15 years ago and has since passed away.  

Matthew James Seidel is a teacher and writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. His writing on literature has appeared on The Millions. He reviews books on history, philosophy and science on his blog, Working Title Books. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewJSeidel.
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