Turkey recently decided to exclude teaching evolution in school science classes at all levels. Unveiling the new curriculum, the chair of the board of education Alpaslan Durmus said that such controversial topics are too complicated and controversial for Turkish children; they are better off learning them at university.
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Under the rule of the Islamist rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), there has been an attempt to build a nationalist society in which Islamic piety is central. Evolution is considered a dangerous challenge, one that cannot be reconciled with the belief in God.
In 2006, a glossy "Atlas of Creation" found its way into many Turkish schools, claiming to disprove evolution by natural selection. It audaciously pointed to the fossil record to explain that creation is the handiwork of God. Evolution, the book further claimed, was responsible for un-Islamic and destructive doctrines such as Nazism and communism.
A couple of years later, the website of famed evolutionary biologists, most notably Richard Dawkins, were blocked after Adnan Oktar, a fierce advocate of Islamic creationism, also known by his pen name Harun Yahya, the same gentleman who wrote the "Atlas of Creation", claimed that Dawkins and others insulted him.
In 2009, TUBITAK, the Turkish body that finances the sciences, censored a magazine article about the life and work of Charles Darwin. The magazine’s editor Cigdem Atakuman was removed from her position as punishment. Later in 2013, TUBITAK stopped selling books about evolution through its catalogue list made available for educators.
Unable to totally suppress evolution, some tried to discredit it through good old-fashioned anti-Semitism. In 2012, a series of primary school books were released in a district of Istanbul which claimed that Charles Darwin was a Jew with a big nose and enjoyed the company of monkeys. Similarly, back in February 2016 Turkish columnist Seyfi Sahin claimed that Darwin had got it all mixed up. Citing the Koran, he argued that evolution was indeed true, but works in reverse because chimpanzees and gorillas are in fact mutated Jews who had been punished for their past perversions.
Such anti-Semitic views are part and parcel of the Turkish Islamist worldview from which Erdogan and the AKP emerged. In this case used to bring home the message that evolution is un-Islamic.
Last week’s announcement to cease teaching evolution is therefore no surprise. Ahead of April’s constitutional referendum to give President Erdogan more power, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus commented that “Scientifically, the theory of evolution is already an archaic and disproven theory. There is no such rule that this theory must be taught.” Indeed, there had already been reports detailing the new curriculum. More time to Turkish and Muslim scientists, less time to the country’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It was not as if evolution was being taught well in Turkey in the first place. In contrast to the earlier 1983 school curriculum, the 2011 version about to be replaced taught evolution alongside creationism. Evolution was relegated to being an open question more akin to an unproved hypothesis. In some cases, even biology teachers demonstrated an unsound understanding of the scientific theory. Indeed, according to a 2011 Ipsos survey of 24 countries, only 19 per cent of Turks believe in evolution while 60 per cent hold creationist views, putting Turkey in the same bracket as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
The Turkish education system, as well as many critics of evolution, fails to appreciate the difference between the meaning of the word theory as understood in everyday speech and its meaning among the scientific community. In everyday speech, a theory is synonymous to an idea or a supposition. However, for the scientific community, a theory, in this case Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, is an explanation of the highest of standings because it has undergone rigorous testing through observation and experimentation.
Not all in Turkey are happy about the changes to the curriculum. Academics from Turkey’s leading universities earlier warned that Turkey would join the ranks of Saudi Arabia as the only other country that excludes teaching evolution.
Turkey’s decision sheds light on Erdogan’s frequent vows to raise a devout and pious generation. Under the AKP there has been an expansion in the number of religious Imam Hatip schools in the public sector, but since 2012 their remit expanded to encompass not just high schools, but middle schools as well. This has made it increasingly difficult to find a school outside of the private sector that is not an Imam Hatip. And even if one is found, all public schools are obliged to offer classes on the Koran and the life of Mohammed as electives.
But such policies come at a cost. Turkish schools have consistently performed poorly in international rankings of math, reading and science compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Turkey also faces an ever growing brain-drain as many educated Turks choose to leave the country, with an "unprecedented" surge by Turkish academics seeking placements abroad.
The decision to ban teaching evolution is no doubt inspired by Erdogan and the AKP’s vision of Turkey in which Islam plays a central role and where a good Turk is a pious Turk. From their perspective, there is no greater challenge to this quest than evolution.
Simon A. Waldman is visiting fellow at King’s College London and the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents. Twitter: @simonwaldman1