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The theory of evolution occupies a central place in modern biology, but a very different place in the public sphere. It is vilified by politically and religiously conservative organizations, and is widely misinterpreted by the public. Here we describe some subtle (or not-so-subtle!) changes that have been shaping evolution instruction in Turkish secondary school education.
In Turkey, where the structure and content of primary and secondary education is developed and regulated by the National Education Ministry (NEM), coverage of evolution in curricula is influenced strongly by national political trends.1 In early years of the Turkish Republic (up to about 1945), evolution was introduced in history textbooks as a well established scientific truth in the context of history of humanity. Later, as populist religious rhetoric in the political scene became stronger, evolution was relegated to science and biology curricula and at the same time instruction became unsystematic and superficial; textbooks’ treatment of evolution became ambiguous and less assertive. After the 1980 military coup, NEM’s stand against teaching evolution culminated in the inclusion in biology textbooks of creationism as an alternative theory for origin of life on earth. Since 2001, evolution’s textbook presence has further diminished.1,2 Currently, only those students who choose a science-oriented track have any exposure to evolution, and this is in the second term of the 12th (final) year, when they spend most of their time not at the school but preparing elsewhere for the central university entrance exam. It is interesting to note that religion instruction, introduced in the 1980s and expanded in the later years, is now compulsory for all students between 5th and 12th grades.
In the 1983 edition of a standard high school textbook, evolution merits its own chapter. In the 2011 edition, by contrast, evolution is part of a chapter called “The beginning of life and evolution” in which creationism is also discussed. Another interesting difference between the two books relates to the meaning of “scientific theory”; the recent version treats the concept as an open-ended, indefinite opinion rather than a fact, reducing it to an unclear hypothesis. It is not only high school education that is affected. There are no universities in Turkey offering undergraduate or graduate degrees in evolutionary biology or in related fields, and even courses in the area are hard to come by.
A recent study of 75 students training to be biology teachers illustrates evolution’s problems in Turkey: 44% considered the idea to be speculative and 68% thought that it was not based on scientific evidence. When probed deeper it became clear that those who had inadequate or inconsistent conceptions about the nature of science were likely to reject evolution.3 Another survey, of 1098 freshman and senior undergraduate students enrolled in biology, biology education and elementary science education programs in 11 public universities in Turkey, yielded similar results. 20.7% rejected and 27.8% accepted the theory of evolution, with 51.4% being undecided, presumably because of their lack of exposure to these ideas.2
There is plenty more to ensure that the picture is truly bleak: the circulation of glossy anti-evolution books in the country and abroad (e.g., Atlas of Creation4), the organization of anti-evolutionary symposia (under the auspices of the Turkish Higher Educational Council),5 and the banning of student-organized discussion panels on evolution in some universities.6 Finally, on a personal note, during 2009-2010 we participated in “Power of Thinking: Teacher Training Support Program for a Youth that Questions and Queries”, a collaboration between the NGO “Education Reform Initiative” and NEM.7 We prepared material on evolution and genetics. The NEM group asked us to remove this section because evolution was not proven and it conflicted with genetics. When we refused this request, produced counter arguments, and met with the officials, it became clear that none of the members of the NEM group accepted the theory of evolution. These people, all science graduates, are responsible for the content of secondary school text books. Only after agreeing to take out a figure alluding to human evolution, were we able to retain the section in the teaching material. We conclude that official anti-evolutionary influences dominate the Turkish secondary education system.
The only positive aspect of this anti-evolutionary atmosphere in Turkey is the development of efforts to counter its influence. Some academics, including, just to name a few, A. Kence and A. Birand of Middle East Technical University, N. Dalfes and A. Erzan of Istanbul Technical University and E. D. Ozsoy of Hacettepe University, are vociferous proponents of evolution at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Among voluntary organizations that promote evolution are the award-winning “Evrimcaliskanlari” (Hard-workers for evolution), who are translating the University of California, Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” website into Turkish8 and also organize conferences/workshops.9 “Universite Konseyleri Dernegi” (Association of University Councils) have been organizing evolution-themed symposia since 2006.10 However, even with these voluntary efforts, it is difficult to refrain from pessimism about Turkey’s scientific future: Turkey is raising a generation of biologists/scientists whose grasp of scientific thinking is flawed and whose ability to participate in modern biology is correspondingly compromised.
The authors are at the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences of Sabancı University in Istanbul. They would like to thank M. Somel, Z. Durmuş and N. Somel for providing material for this article and A. Berry for critical reading of the text.
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