Sunday, March 06, 2011

On the teaching of evolution across the world

by Salman Hameed

Scientific American has an excellent article on how evolution is taught across the world: Evolution Abroad - Creationism Evolves in Science Classrooms around the Globe. Okay - so it doesn't cover the entire world, but it does talk about Europe, UK and the Muslim world. This is a timely topic, as we are just dealing with the controversy surrounding Usama Hasan - London Imam who is facing a strong reaction from his mosque after he defended the compatibility of evolution and Islam. In fact, he seem to have retracted some of his statements. Also see earlier posts here: Muslim Inquisition Today: The plight of Usama Hasan and Nuance needed regarding the issue of evolution and London Imam - Usama Hasan.

It may come as a surprise to many that evolution is included in the biology textbooks of most Muslim countries. Yes, teachers often present a creationist account as well - but that is not always the case. But the textbook styles vary from country to country. I know that Turkey has some trace elements of creationism in the textbooks, Iran has straight-up evolution, and Pakistan has evolution alongside Quranic verses that seem to support the fundamental idea of the change of species. I'm most familiar with the Pakistani case - and I know that they do a decent job presenting the basic evidence for biological evolution and natural selection. However, there is no mention of human evolution and the chapters following evolution are either go in the direction of ecology or biotechnology - but at no place it says that human evolution did not take place. There are couple of recent papers on this topic and I will highlight them in the coming weeks.

In the mean time here is the section of Scientific American article that talks about the teaching of evolution in the Muslim world. I don't have to add any comments as I'm already quoted in this part of the article. But please do read the full article:
Like any major faith, Islamic beliefs are incredibly varied across sects, regions and among individuals, and there is no single leader or doctrine to pronounce the official view on evolution. "The diversity that you find in Muslim thought around evolution is just as broad as you would expect to find in the West," says Jason Wiles, an assistant professor of biology at Syracuse University in New York State who has been studying attitudes and knowledge of Muslim students and teachers.
In many Muslim-majority countries Islam goes beyond providing a cultural force, shaping many of the foundational aspects of governance and societal decision-making. "We have to appreciate the central role that religion plays in Muslim societies," says Salman Hameed, an assistant professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, who has been researching the acceptance of evolution among Muslims.
In 2006 the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) in Trieste, Italy, which represents national science organizations across the globe, issued a statement on the teaching of evolution. The statement, which several Muslim-majority countries, including Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, signed, urged "decision-makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science," asserting that there are "evidence-based facts about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet."
But, as Hameed points out, the IAP statement "doesn't necessarily translate into anything because it's not a policy statement."
Nevertheless, evolution is included in the textbooks of most high school students in the Islamic world (with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, where the national curriculum includes explicit statements rejecting evolution in favor of a creationist worldview). In classrooms and class materials it is often presented within a religious framework. In Pakistan—where the stated national curriculum goal for high school biology classes is "to enable the students to appreciate that Allah is Creator and Sustainer of the universe," according to a 2007 study—a textbook chapter on evolution from the Punjab district opens with a verse from the Koran. But, Wiles points out, the religious text is then "summarized and interpreted to support the idea of evolution" before moving into a more scientific presentation of the theory.
Wiles suggests that providing this religious touchstone might be productive in the cultural context, "giving students permission to learn about evolution and still be good Muslims." But that does not mean that a more clear separation of scientific reasoning and religious beliefs should not be attempted, he notes. "Just communicating in terms of the demarcation between science and nonscience is something that we need to come to an understanding about."
Compared with many fundamentalist Christians, Muslims with strong religious beliefs might be more likely to embrace at least organismal evolution because the Koran lacks a rigid time frame for the creation story. Christian "young Earth" creationists rule out evolution as a matter of course because, as Hameed points out, "if you start with the premise that the Earth is 6,000 or 10,000 years old, it would be logical to reject evolution." But for Muslims, "those kinds of problems don't exist," he says.
Thus, students often receive instruction about—and are more willing to accept—plant and animal evolution. But problems arise when humans are discussed. As humans are presumed to be uniquely moral beings, a direct connection to the animal world can be problematic. And preliminary research by Hameed and his colleagues has shown that even among Pakistani-educated physicians living in the U.S., microbial evolution is more broadly accepted than human evolution.
But evolutionary theory can be—and in some places already has been—turned into a cultural marker. Even couching the subject in terms of Darwinism can be detrimental, especially in places such as Pakistan, where Darwin is associated with former colonizers. Evolution is also sometimes tied to atheism, which is particularly anathema to devout Muslims, Wiles says. Hameed suggests that one reason Islamic immigrants in the E.U., for example, have such high rates of creationist beliefs is because evolution has been associated with a more general Western identity from which many are seeking to distinguish themselves. And although ID is often disparaged by creationists in the Muslim world as not giving enough credit to the creator, some of the movement's materials are used to argue against the teaching—and validity–of evolution.
Many Muslim-majority countries adapt textbook materials from the U.K. or E.U. This move strips away the cultural relevance of examples, Hameed says. He suggests that rather than highlighting the infamous example of the British peppered moths, more local examples such as fossils from particular countries, be used instead.
Another way to advocate for including evolution in public education, Hameed says, is to highlight practical applications of having a well-trained citizenry that can compete globally for jobs in medicine, biotechnology and bioinformation.
The spread of mass education in many Muslim-majority countries starting in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the rise in exposure to outside sources of information through television and the Internet have made evolutionary biology and theory harder to ignore. Whether it is adopted as part of a purely scientific subject or co-opted as a politico-cultural instrument remains to be seen.
"Thought regarding evolution is developing right now," Hameed says. "It's unclear as to which way it's going to go."
Read the full article here.


Ali said...

I first thought I am not arguing again. But this changed when I read the article. :)

I have issues (mostly) with one particular para in the article. Every sentence of it seems to me such a false sentence.

"Even couching the subject in terms of Darwinism can be detrimental, especially in places such as Pakistan, where Darwin is associated with former colonizers."
If this is true, all theories and inventions by the colonizers will be rejected. But this is not the case.

"Evolution is also sometimes tied to atheism, which is particularly anathema to devout Muslims, Wiles says."
I thought anything associated with atheism will be anathema to all believers. So what's he saying?

"Hameed suggests that one reason Islamic immigrants in the E.U., for example, have such high rates of creationist beliefs is because evolution has been associated with a more general Western identity from which many are seeking to distinguish themselves."

Don't tell me Salman, that you honestly believe this. This, to me, is such a fake explanation that hides the real cause.

"And although ID is often disparaged by creationists in the Muslim world as not giving enough credit to the creator, some of the movement's materials are used to argue against the teaching—and validity–of evolution."
ID is NOT often disparaged by the Muslims. How did the author get this idea?

Why do i feel that the author, Salman and anyone else mentioned is not addressing the real cuse but going around it.
Non acceptance of DARWINIAN evolution in the Muslim world (and anywhere else too) is because it does not have sufficient evidence. Plain and simple.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

My two cents:

How does evolution oppose divinity or advocate atheism? It is just the way you look at things, an objective approach adulterated by subjective outlook of school of theology or priesthood of atheism. Evolution, a complicated process and beauty of life molds itself through a complicated process for its progression in an ever changing world both in time and space. Answers lie only for questions you ask. Think about it.

Whether there is a creator or no creator, evolution is not the right battleground to contest. If we set a criteria about a creator that we should be able to see the shape and colour of, measure its temperature, check its density, note its surface texture, and take a sample for chemical and spectroscopic analysis, then yes, there is no creator...just like there is no Juju at the bottom of sea. But it entirely depends upon what criteria we set. Like for example, we can never 'prove' that a said fossil of a fern was ever a living thing. This is what we believe based on our common sense. We have set criteria that we follow like we follow our senses. This is how selectively objective and subjective science is.

A dough is slapped into shape on dry flour, then tomato sauce (I prefer BBQ sauce though) is spread on it, then grated mozarella cheese is sprinkled on it, then different toppings ranging from papperoni, onions, chicken, beef, green pepper, diced tomato, olives, depending upon 'natural selection' is placed on it. The pizza then goes into an oven for 10-12 minutes and then sliced into 6, 8, or 10 slices depending upon 'natural selection' again, and goes in the box for delivery.
Isn't that a complete and correct 'scientific' description of pizza making? Whether we describe the role of the person making the pizza or not, it doesn't matter now. The description is very helpful and complete in basic terms. But what would be so non-scientific and illogical here is that if someone says that all the ingredients came together and turned themselves together into a pizza without any intervention, all by an accident. Leave the ingredients in correct proportion in a kitchen for 100 billion years and it won't make a pizza...someone HAS to make it. This is the new dogma and the new order for a blind faith from the church of atheism.

So my dear, evolution does not contend divinity, but it does smash the idea of atheism into utmost humiliation and degradation.

Anonymous said...

In Malaysia, we were never taught evolution or anything about natural selection in school. It was never in the syllabus, never mentioned - not even in a negative light. I doubt that it's being taught now. Will have to check to be sure...

Everything I learned about evolution came from Ken Ham and his creationist pals, unfortunately. It wasn't till after I got my bachelor's degree, and started reading a bit of Richard Dawkins and Kenneth Miller, that my 'conversion/education' on evolution began.

Unlike Ali above, I think one of the main reasons Darwinian evolution is not accepted (by Muslim or Christian) is not that there isn't enough evidence, but rather that there is a misunderstanding of what the theory is about.

Hana said...

This is definitely a topic that needs to be discussed more openly within Muslim communities.

I studied an MSc in Evolutionary Anthropology, and reverted to Islam a year later (that wasn't a causal relationship, but I certainly didn't feel that my acceptance of Evolution prevented me from accepting Islam).

The analogy used by Dr Akbar Hussein is spot on. I often use a similar one 'we couldn't expect to put all the parts of a car in a box, shake it up, and get a complete car'. Athiests have to have a 'belief' that there was no-one to put the pizza together, or put the car together, just as believers in God have to have a belief in something we can't physically touch. You can't prove for or against the existence of the pizza-maker absolutely (though, I would argue that the miracle of the Quran does provide Muslims with pretty certain proof, but that's a different matter).

Anyway, as a Muslim, I feel that there is a fear of discussing Evolution, because of its associations with atheism. This is probably thanks to people like Dawkins who use the Evolution arguement to slam believers. I have personally found it difficult to open any discussion about Evolution with Muslim friends, because of this.

I believe that things evolve, and that this evolution is organised by God. We can certainly look at a creature, perfectly adapted to its environment, and say 'subhanAllah', this didn't happen by chance.

However, whilst studying a Paleoanthropology module for my MSc, I do know that even devout advocates of Evolution cannot agree on human evolution. Darwin himself admitted that there are gaps in the theory that he himself could not bridge.

I do believe we are similar to the higher primates.....but then so too, the way our veins branch out into capilaries looks remarkably like the way rivers run into estuaries, and trees trunks branch out into branches and twigs. I know, it's probably a silly comparison, but this is the miracle of the creation, the reflections of that creation which we can recognise in so many different aspects of life.

It is definitely time for Muslims to open discussion about this. After all, Islam teaches that we should be scientific thinkers, and indeed the Quran contains intricate details of scientific miracles, such as the formation of a feotus. But we can only open this conversation if we first stamp out the connection with atheism, and therefore the stigma.

Islam's compatibility with Science was the main attraction for me...Islam and Science are NOT mutually exclusive....we need to remember this.


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