The theory of evolution in Greek schools

Late last year, a US court in Pennsylvania ruled against the teaching of «intelligent design» (that life evolved with the help of some higher force) along with Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools. A group of parents had taken the school board in the town of Dover to court after the board demanded that biology classes not teach evolution as fact. The court decided that the theory of intelligent design was tantamount to religious education and therefore violated the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools. Kathimerini asked biology teacher Loukia Prinou to talk about the way the Greek education system has dealt with the theory of evolution, if at all. «The theory of evolution is recognized as the most important in modern biology, a theory that has changed the way every problem in biology is dealt with. It explains the similarities between organisms and the amazing diversity of life. The phrase written in 1973 by the great scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky – «Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution» – is now accepted as a maxim. «Without that light, it becomes a pile of sundry facts, some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole,» wrote Dobzhansky. What happened in Greek schools when the decisive part played by the theory of evolution in biology and in the teaching of biology was recognized around the world, and more importantly, what is happening now? Both views In a survey (by Prinou, Halkia and Skordoulis, 2004) by Athens University’s Education Department on the way the theory of evolution is presented in the syllabus and in Greek school textbooks, the following observations were made: When biology was taught as a separate subject, the biology textbook published in 1969 (in use until 1976) presented both scientific and religious views. In the introduction and at the end of the chapter on evolution, the writer refers to the need to accept the existence of a supreme Creative Being and God the Creator «who oversees the complex phenomena of Evolution.» In biology textbooks issued after 1976, it was the scientific view of evolution that was presented. However, we should draw attention to the fact that in the textbook «General Biology» (by Krimbas and Kalopisi) a paragraph was edited out after 1979 «without the agreement or knowledge of the authors.» The paragraph in question referred to the origin of man, specifically the views of the «most important paleontologist of our times,» G.G. Simpson, according to a letter to the press by one of the authors, Professor K. Krimbas, in 1985. Between 1984 and 1985, the textbook «History of the Human Species» by historian Lefteris Stavrianos raised a storm of protests about what it said about the origin of the human race. The protests took the form of letters to and articles in the press, memoranda from the Holy Synod (calling for the book to be withdrawn), sermons from the pulpit, protests by family and Church organizations stating that they could not accept that humans were «descended from the apes,» although the book made no such claim. In a letter to the Holy Synod, the then education minister wrote: «With regard to Darwin’s theory of the origin of man, we note that the senior high school’s first-year textbook makes a brief mention of it, as was done previously (under the New Democracy government) in the anthropology textbook for junior high and the biology textbook for senior high school, without any protest from the Permanent Holy Synod or from any other quarter. Moreover, the writer makes a distinction between humans and ‘humanoids’ but if there is any lack of clarity on this point, as we have already written to the Panhellenic Theologists’ Union, that may be clarified in a future edition of the book.» (Nikas, 1991, p.15) Today, anyone outside the education system, even teachers of subjects other than biology, might take it for granted that the theory of evolution is taught in Greek schools. Not covered In fact, in the junior high school curriculum, the theory of evolution comprises the final chapter in the third-year biology textbook. That means that it is sometimes not covered, depending on the amount of time teachers have at their disposal. In senior high, since 1999, the theory is included in only one (again the last) chapter of the third-year biology textbook for the general curriculum. However, for reasons that have never been explained, every year the chapter is excluded from the syllabus. So children graduate from high school without having been taught the theory of evolution. Some claim that it has already been taught in junior high – if there has in fact been sufficient time to cover the entire biology book. Even if that is the case, it has also been claimed that one single stab at the theory of evolution in just one school year is not enough to provide most pupils with the proper understanding of it. Since May 2003, when the 2nd Panhellenic Conference on the Contribution of History and Philosophy of the Natural Sciences to the Teaching of Natural Sciences was held by Athens University’s teaching college, teachers have been raising the issue of teaching the theory of evolution in Greek schools today. Debate continues We continue to debate the issue, for if the theory is not taught, pupils will not reach the advanced understanding of biology necessary in a modern society. Those who try to marginalize the subject or to remove it from the biology syllabus perhaps do not realize that it is the most powerful modern tool biologists have to resolve problems. Although one might question some aspects of it, the great majority of people accept the beneficial effects of evolutionary thought when they use the theory of natural selection to interpret problems in daily life, for example, the important public health issue of the resistance of microbes to antibiotics, or of insects to pesticides (Scharmann 2005). Perhaps they do not know that knowledge of the theory of evolution influences the way someone negotiates socio-scientific issues such as cloning and genetic therapy (Sadler 2005). Whoever is responsible for cutting short the time spent teaching this theory in schools perhaps does not realize that this is as if someone removed Newton’s theory from physics or the perodic table from chemistry. It is as if Greek students were not being taught that the Earth revolves around the sun. This article was first published in the February 5 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.