Leader: Intelligent debate about evolution

June 23, 2006

To many academics, including even two lectures on creationism in a zoology degree course will seem ridiculous - akin to a flat-earth module in a geography course, only more dangerous. For Leeds University to consider such an innovation - if only to debunk a challenge to evolution - shows how far creationism and intelligent design have come as popular movements. One, two or three decades ago, when far less was known about evolution, no UK university would have discussed it.

What has changed is not related to the weight of evidence: there may be arguments over the detailed process of evolution, but there is almost no debate in the scientific community about the basic premise. Fossil evidence becomes stronger every year. The rise of alternative theories has more to do with the attractions (particularly, in the US) of fundamentalism. The increasingly secular UK is unlikely to see a movement on such a scale, but already there are stirrings in the student community.

Leeds is doing its students a service by arming them with information to engage the followers of creationism in debate. The university will be accused of conferring respectability on scientifically discredited ideas by allowing them onto the curriculum, but movements this powerful do not simply wither away because they are ignored. On the contrary, they often thrive on claims that they are unfairly excluded by the vested interests of the establishment. Steve Fuller is right to argue that universities must avoid seeming dogmatic if they are not to play into the hands of the fundamentalists.

Different considerations apply in schools, especially where younger pupils are being taught. There has been understandable concern about the Vardy Foundation's academies, for example, where science teachers have been outspoken creationists. The spectre of the US, where the school curriculum has been the subject of several bitter courtroom battles, has so far not been enough for the Government to be more selective about its educational sponsors. The Royal Society and 66 other national scientific organisations called this week for evolution to be given preference over "theories not testable by science". The statement stresses young people's right to accurate scientific information on the the origins and evolution of life on Earth. The Leeds course will add to that knowledge, rather than giving them cause for doubt. It is a risky strategy and one that may well be misinterpreted, but the university should be congratulated for treating its students as adults and not sweeping an uncomfortable debate under the carpet.

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