In late 2017, the ministry of national education announced that evolution was too complex a subject for Turkish high school children.
“Our students don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend the debate about evolution,” the New York Times quoted education ministry chairman Alpaslan Durmuş as saying in 2017, shortly after the topic was removed from the curricula of both public and private schools across Turkey.
The government claimed that the theory of evolution was better taught in tertiary education.
“The topics concerning the beginning of life and evolution… will be explored in universities because they are above the level of high school students,” former education minister İsmet Yılmaz said when he presented the new curriculum in July 2018. This introduced phrases such as “the balance in nature and the perfect order” to replace terms like “natural selection”.
But educationalists dismissed such arguments, warning that the government’s moves were motivated by wanting to propagate religious and conservative beliefs. Creative and critical thinking amongst children would be affected as a consequence.
“Evolution can be taught even in primary school,” said Çağrı Mert Bakırcı, an expert on artificial intelligence and theoretical evolution. “In every science class related to living creatures, it is essential to explain the history of evolution and relations among species.”
Adnan Gümüş, a professor from the faculty of education at Çukurova University in the south-eastern city of Adana, also said that censoring children’s studies in this way would have a knock-on effect.
“Undermining natural sciences in education will not only harm the children who are deprived of the basic knowledge in this field, it will harm the whole of Turkish society,” he said.
Noting that children were naturally curious, he added that one of the most common questions in biology classes was about the origin of life on Earth, especially humans.
“It is very difficult to teach children about animals and plants without mentioning the theory of evolution. Primary and high school children wonder how species have come to life and suppressing their natural curiosity by avoiding the answer can be very damaging for their intellectual development,” he concluded.
Gümüş also emphasized that the removal of evolution from the curriculum would have an impact on students that would go far beyond just the teaching of biology.
“It is very difficult for teachers to explain what natural and social sciences are, and how societies change and evolve, without teaching children evolution, mutation, genetics, the origin of living things, the origin of humans and the history of civilization,” he said.
Critics argue that the main reason for removing evolution from the curriculum was that the theory contradicted religious teachings.
Lawmaker Burhanettin Uysal, the deputy chairman of parliament’s education commission, appeared to confirm this when he told Turkish television in September 2017 that “we Muslims believe that Allah has created everything. Evolution theory, as its name suggests, is just a theory.”
“Some say that all living things came from a single cell that evolved in time, and that different creatures gradually developed. But that is in conflict with our faith in the might of Allah, whose powers we cannot question,” Uysal concluded.
A science teacher at a state school in Istanbul, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had no doubt that the government had removed evolution from the curriculum so that children wouldn’t ask too many questions about the origin of humans, or doubt what the religion teaches them – that God created all creatures on Earth.
“This theory contradicts religious teachings because it states that human beings are not sacred creatures. By removing the concept of evolution from the curriculum, the conservative government is trying to impose the creationist argument as the sole truth,” he said.
Recalling his time teaching children in both junior and high school, he continued, “When the concept of evolution was still being taught, students asked questions such as, ‘Did we evolve from monkeys? Is a human being an animal?’ and some of them were confused by the apparent contradiction between religion and science. But realizing that such contradictions exist is also part of the learning process. The more questions you have, the more you are trying to find the right answer.”
Bakırcı agreed that this altered curriculum would hamper children’s wider learning process.
“You can teach biology without the theory of evolution, physics without the theory of relativity, and chemistry without the kinetic theory of gases. But what happens then? Without explaining the basics of biology, the students will learn facts by heart, without truly understanding them,” Bakırcı said.
Nonetheless, he believes that evolution will eventually return to Turkey’s high school curriculum, although not without a fight. “The theory of evolution is supported by a scientific research spanning over more than 150 years. It cannot be annulled by a simple decree or a government’s decision,” Bakırcı continued. “It is sad that in the 21st century we still have to defend science. But we must, and I’m sure the theory of evolution will prevail.”