A birthday present for Darwin

Some great news regarding the teaching of evolution in Primary Schools, especially relevant in the year of Darwin’s 200th anniversary. Hopefully this move should aid school pupils against the ignorant ‘teaching’ of intelligent design. You can read more in my article on the Guardian site or below.

It’s a great birthday present for Darwin in his 200th anniversary year. For the first time, evolution will be on the national curriculum for primary schools when the new version is published later this year. It was initially excluded from the draft curriculum when it was published for public consultation but sometimes, if not always, it seems government will listen to scientists and experts, many of whom were signatories to an open letter (pdf) to Ed Balls organised by the British Humanist Association in July which called for evolution to be included.

Those who care about public reason are routinely shocked by opinion polls and surveys showing high levels of credence given to the idea of intelligent design. The most recent poll purported to demonstrate that a majority of Britons think that it should be taught alongside evolution inschools.

To solve this problem, we have to know what causes it and there are two reasons why you might prefer the idea of intelligent design to that of evolution. You may do so because your prior ideological convictions, mostly to do with religious belief, simply don’t allow you to accept the evidence that is presented to you. Or you may do so because you genuinely do not know of the evidence for evolution, have never had it explained to you, or because you just don’t understand it. In a society as decreasingly religious as England, it is impossible to believe that most of the people who do not accept evolution are motivated by ideology rather than ignorance. This means that the best way to solve the problem is through better education and that is what makes the inclusion of evolution in the science curriculum as early as possible so important.

It’s true that evolution can seem a difficult concept and that most resources on evolution are targeted towards pupils at secondary schools. But the wealth of new works published in this celebratory year for very young children, from What Mr Darwin Saw to Evolution Revolution or even older works like How Whales Walked into the Sea orMammals Who Morph demonstrate that it is a subject easily made enjoyable and comprehensible by young children. This is a good thing, because as evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences, providing children with an understanding of it at the earliest possible age will surely help lay the foundations for a surer scientific understanding later on.

We must certainly hope so, because even if ignorance rather than religious ideology is the principal cause of the low levels of acceptance of evolution in our country, there are still other factors working against a better public understanding of evolution – especially amongst the young. These factors are legion but at least two are very relevant to the case for introducing evolution to young children especially. The first is the profundity of the natural cognitive biases – such as our human propensity to look for design and purpose – that hinder the acceptance of evolution; obviously these are best countered as early as possible in a child’s education. The second is the fact, so brilliantly elucidated by science educator James Williams that young children are bombarded with creationist messages in much of popular culture, which are insidious and confusing.

The new primary curriculum, together with the 2007 government guidance that prohibits the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science lessons, should put English schools in the forefront of education about evolution. Coming in the month which marks the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, and at a point when good science education is a matter of urgency, it could not be more timely.

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