Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Evolution Education Research Centre

Evolution Education Research Centre
by Brian Alters, Anila Asghar and Jason R Wiles

To those who follow headline stories about science education in North America, it comes as no surprise that evolution in the public school science classrooms seems to be problematic for tens of millions of people. Whatever the antievolution flavor, be it scientific creationism, intelligent design creationism, or just plain evolution bashing, evolution education has significantly-positioned and well-funded detractors. According to a recent poll by the National Science Teachers Association, approximately one-third of USA teachers have felt some form of pressure to diminish the teaching of evolution. Combine that with poor scientific literacy about the science of evolution in the general public, and evolution education is in need of significant help. And it is not just the USA that is having evolution problems; Canada also has its share.

Consequently, research on the teaching and learning of evolution is very important. For example, the editor of the most widely circulated life or biological science education journal in North America has aptly stated that evolution education is the biggest failure of science education. Virtually all national polls indicate that large percentages, some up to 50%, of the North American general public disagree with the idea of evolution — often meaning that they think the scientists, textbooks and teachers are all wrong. The editors of science education journals consider the subject of evolution education to be woefully under-researched and Stephen Jay Gould, while president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), wrote that it is “one of the most important issues of our age.”

To help in this endeavor, the Evolution Education Research Centre (EERC) was created with a mission to advance the teaching and learning of evolution through research. It opened its doors at McGill University in 2001 with four McGill professors and four Harvard professors who have expertise in anthropology, biological evolution, educational psychology, geology, molecular biology, paleontology, philosophy of science/education and science education. In addition, the Centre currently has two full-time managers: a postdoctoral fellow from Harvard University, and a PhD student in evolution education, both working on various Centre projects. The Centre’s activities receive very modest support from the federal government, McGill University and private donations.

The Centre has numerous projects planned and in progress. Two significant research studies are currently underway; one study is examining the extent to which various Canadian curricula cover evolution, and another study is exploring how evolution is understood by Muslim university faculty, high school biology teachers and high school students and their families.

in Canadian Curricula

Ultimately teachers in the classrooms determine what is actually presented to students.

In a statement delivered by its fellows to each provincial minister of education in Canada, the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada stated their position that creationism “has nothing to do with science or the scientific method” and that it “does not belong in any discussion of scientific principles or theories, and therefore should have no place in a science curriculum.” The Academy went on to inform the ministers that our understanding of evolution is the product of the research of many thousands of scientists spanning over a century of exploration, observation and experimentation and that “it [evolution] remains the only explanation for the diversity of life on this planet that is acceptable to the scientific community.” Canada’s Royal Academy is not the only professional society to hold this view. Numerous leading scientific societies in North America have drafted similar position statements, and all major scientific educational organizations’ official statements that address the issue of evolution education endorse evolution as being fundamental to biology courses.

Given its centrality to a clear understanding of the biological sciences, it is imperative that students learn about evolution as a foundation and framework to support all other instruction in the life sciences. We at the EERC are interested in how, and to what extent, this is being done in Canada.

All provinces and territories in Canada, and forty-nine states in the United States, have published some form of pre-college science standards, frameworks, curriculum guides or programs. The primary objective of this study is to evaluate the treatment of evolution in the Canadian documents, with a secondary aim of comparing the resultant evaluation with that of an evaluation of the USA documents. The overarching questions guiding this study are:

The provincial materials are being examined using ratings based on a set of criteria employed in previously published evaluations by Lawrence S Lerner of the treatment of evolution in the USA. This is done for consistency purposes for the subsequent Canada/USA comparisons. Main criteria include:

In the final version, letter grades (A, B, C, D, and F) will be assigned to provinces and territories based on the treatment of evolution in their guidelines. These grades will be based on scores in the following categories:

Use of ‘the e-word’.

Avoidance of the word ‘evolution’ is common. Documents may use terms or phrases (i.e., ‘change over time’) that are meant to avoid conflict/confrontation. This, however, is not appropriate in science classrooms as there is no scientific conflict regarding the occurrence of evolution, and given its fundamental nature, evolution should not be ‘downplayed,’ but emphasized.

Treatment of Biological Evolution.

This score will be derived from the extent to which biological evolution, whether or not it is mentioned by name, is covered in the curriculum documents. Full marks are awarded to curricula prescribing detailed treatment, introduction to evolution beginning in early grades, and evolutionary concepts permeating the historical sciences.

Treatment of Human Evolution.

Many curriculum documents, while they may treat evolution in some way, make no reference to the role evolution has played in the natural history of humans. Some curricula may imply that such biological concepts apply to humans, but full marks are awarded for at least some direct mention of human evolution.

Geological and Cosmological Evolution.

These categories refer to treatment of the history of the earth and the universe. Items evaluated in this section include coverage of plate tectonics and continental drift as well as the ‘Big Bang’ theory and stellar evolution.

Connections among the historical sciences.

Curricula will be assessed based on the extent to which they exhibit the interplay among the life, earth and space sciences.


Marks will be deducted from scores of curricula found to contain pseudoscientific or creationist jargon, disclaimers regarding evolution, etc.

Preliminary results indicate a wide variation between the various provinces and territories and give an indication of extremely wide-ranging treatments of the fundamental science of evolution in North America. Initial assessment suggests that the majority of Canadian provinces and territories treat evolution on par with the mid-range of American states. All of the Canadian curricula have some strong points with regard to evolutionary science, but all show deficiencies as well. While some provinces are certainly doing better than others, none treat evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance.

Not only are these results preliminary, with analyses not yet completed, but also these curriculum documents from the ministries of education are only guidelines. It is expected that schools will follow the guidelines to some extent, but local education boards, school administrators, academic departments, and ultimately teachers in the classrooms determine what is actually presented to students. Even where curriculum guidelines may be weak in their treatment of evolution, knowledgeable and responsible teachers may well be doing a very effective job of including evolution in their classes. It is also almost certainly the case that even where the official curriculum is exemplary in its treatment of evolution, there are students who are not receiving instruction in evolutionary science. We at the EERC recognize this and are also interested in discovering how the Canadian curricula are implemented at the classroom level.

in Islamic Cultures

Very little is known about the ways in which Muslim scholars and general public respond to evolutionary science.

Almost all evolution education work has concentrated on Christianity, the most common religion in North America. We at EERC, along with other researchers, now wish to examine Islam, the fifth-largest religion in the world, and its interactions with evolution. The timing is more important than ever given that the current global trends toward extremism, violence and intolerance demand a greater understanding of Islamic civilization in the West. It is important that educators and researchers from various civilizations engage in a dialogue to learn how Muslims perceive education, religion and science in relation to modern developments.

Canada has a growing population of Muslim immigrants from various Islamic societies all over the globe. These immigrants are contributing to the cultural diversity of Canada. Their children are enrolled in Canadian educational institutions. Very little appears to be known about the ways in which they respond to the nature of modern evolutionary sciences and education.

With a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the EERC will shed light on Canadian Muslim students’ understanding of modern science, biological evolution in particular, and its implications for their Islamic belief system and science education. We hope that the findings of this study will increase Canadian educators’, teachers’ and curriculum developers’ understanding of the attitudes, perceptions and beliefs of Muslim students in relation to Islam and evolution, and the ways in which their religious beliefs may influence their scientific understanding.

We will examine how this Islam/evolution tension plays out in science education in Canada and numerous Islamic societies. In what ways are university and high school teachers addressing this issue in their teaching? How does it influence the scientific understanding of Muslim students? What messages and values are they receiving from their families? Researchers will conduct the study in diverse Islamic societies including Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Additionally, the study will also explore the views of Muslim immigrant families and high school students in Canada. In Québec, Islam is the fastest-growing religion, and has more than doubled its numbers in the past decade. It is important to examine the prevalent attitudes and belief systems of Muslim immigrants in relation to religion, science, and culture.

Although the Islamic world has essentially adopted modern science education, very little is known about the ways in which Muslim scholars and general public respond to evolutionary science. This exploratory study seeks to examine the ways in which evolution is understood by Muslim university faculty, high school biology teachers, and high school students and their families. What happens when evolution is perceived to conflict with their Islamic faith?

Although the contemporary Islamic societies follow modern science concepts, there is a dearth of literature in Western academia about how evolution is understood and taught at different levels in Islamic countries. This research project responds to this call. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought in the Islamic world generating a polemical discourse around evolution. The controversy is grounded in multiple interpretations of the Quranic view of creation vis-à-vis the scientific view of evolution. At one pole are those who refute evolution because their interpretation of the Quranic verses related to creation disconfirms evolution through common descent. They view the transformation of species as impossible in light of their Islamic faith. Some refute evolutionary theory on the grounds that it transfers the power of creation from transcendent Divinity to a historical process of natural selection based on randomness (chance-based processes). Others, such as Harun Yahya, contend that “the theory of evolution is a philosophy and a conception of the world that produces false hypotheses, assumptions and imaginary scenarios in order to explain the existence and origin of life in terms of mere coincidences.” He further argues that Darwinian philosophy of the survival of the fittest is at the heart of fascism and contemporary terrorism.

The opposing camp has developed various ways to harmonize their Islam faith with the scientific view of evolution. A number of scholars have reconciled evolution with their Islamic faith, drawing support from the Quran. However, different scholars have resolved the contradictions between the scientific theory and their Islamic faith about creation in divergent ways. While some believe Allah created all life forms and humans through the process of evolution as envisaged in a manner consistent with scientific data others, such as Noah Ha Mim Keller, contend that evolution is a useful ‘theory,’ but the random process of natural selection is contradictory to Islamic faith. He argues that only Allah is the creator of life and consciousness. His advice to Muslim parents is that it is their moral obligation “to monitor their children’s Islamic beliefs and to explain to them the divine revelation of Islam, together with the difficulties of the theory of evolution, that will enable the children to make sense of it from an Islamic perspective and understand which aspects of the theory are rejected by Islamic theism and which are accepted.”

The EERC will examine how this tension plays out in science education in Islamic societies. In what ways are these beliefs influencing the minds of teachers, students and general public in Islamic cultures?

The Islamic societies selected for this study have diverse cultures and histories. Malaysian culture is multiethnic with Muslims, Chinese and Indian communities co-existing. Muslims constitute about 60% of the population. Other main religions include Buddhism and Hinduism. It would be interesting to explore the perceptions of Malaysian Muslims about evolution and creation in a highly diverse society. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic; Muslims constitute around 95% of the population. The country came into being in 1947 after the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Religion was the most significant basis of partition, as Muslims wanted to create a separate homeland where they could shape their lives in accordance with Islam. The national curriculum follows Western science education. Students also receive Islamic education in schools. Iran and Saudi Arabia are Islamic states, but follow different interpretations of Islamic law. Although Turkey is a secular country, it has a substantial majority of Muslims. Moreover, the antievolution movement in Turkey has been associated with Islamic political resistance against secularism. The EERC will examine patterns of similarities and differences in the conceptions of participants from these countries vis-à-vis the evolution debate.

The team for the study consists of researchers at McGill, York and Harvard universities, and the resources of the EERC. Various modes of data analyses would allow an in-depth exploration of participants’ perceptions within and across countries. Patterns of similarities and differences will be examined within and across various groups of participants. The prevalent ideas of evolution and evolution education in the Islamic societies will then be compared and contrasted with already existing data on how North America thinks about evolution, evolution education and Christianity.

The current political tensions between some western and Muslim nations demand a greater understanding of Islamic civilization in the west. The escalation of violence, intolerance and terrorism in various parts of the world has led to increasing misunderstandings between the Islamic and western civilizations. This situation makes it incumbent upon educators and researchers to explore the prevailing attitudes, beliefs and value systems in Islamic societies to foster an understanding of the diversity of Islamic thought in the west. This study will illuminate how Muslims perceive science, particularly evolution, in relation to Islam. Furthermore, it will facilitate a dialogue among academics, scholars and educators belonging to diverse nationalities, religious backgrounds and cultures.

In addition to the Islamic study, the Canadian curricula survey and other studies, the EERC has provided speakers for various venues, advice for teaching evolution and dealing with problems that may arise concerning the various creationisms. EERC also provides personnel for teaching courses about evolution/creationism and education, and it provides PhD and Postdoctoral training. If further funding were available, we would like to expand our research endeavors as well as our service components. Our one overriding goal is to increase understanding of the science most misunderstood by students — evolution.

Brian Alters is Sir William Dawson Scholar at McGill University, and Director of EERC.

Anila Asghar is Co-Manager of EERC and a postdoctoral fellow (EdD, Harvard) focusing on evolution education at McGill University

Jason Wiles is Co-Manager of EERC and a PhD student focusing on evolution education at McGill University.

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