South Africa’s educational confusion over evolution (11.11.2009)

Posted on October 2, 2010


There are a myriad contradictions in South Africa.  And none more so than the constant complaints about the paucity of science graduates in a region hailed as the cradle of humankind.  For this is also the region — and the country — where the unscientific creation myth still holds sway in most schools.

A curriculum that largely promotes blind faith within a society that also demands critical analysis and scientific rigor is doomed to create confusion.  Never mind the language issue if the message — in whichever of the country’s 11 official languages — is a blatant contradiction between faith in proclaimed absolute truths and the the need to question everything.

This is the contradiction too many of us live with today in a region most of the world — applying a scientific assessment based on the theory of the evolution of species — regards as the origin of homo sapiens.  The “Cradle of Humankind” at Sterkfontein, outside Johannesburg  and “digs” such as at the West Coast fossil park, north of Cape Town, provide a wealth of evidence about the origins of the planet and all that exists on it.

But it is evidence that is largely ignored or even contradicted within much of the schooling environment.  Shortly after his appointment as minister of education in 1994, Sibusiso Bengu was asked why he was not insisting that the theory of evolution be taught in all South African schools at all levels and he reportedly replied:  “I don’t want a revolution about evolution.”

In a country where the literal interpretation of Bibilical creation has been deeply implanted across all colours and classes, he was probably correct to be concerned about a backlash against any general introduction of evolutionary theory.  But it ensured that the line between dogma and rational thinking remained blurred.

The result was that teachers were left, especially at the primary school level, to carry on, if they wished, to preach that the stories contained in the book of Genesis in the Bible are the literal truth.  This despite the fact that most mainstream theologians accept the evidence presented by science about the age of the earth and the evolution of species.  However, when they do so, they add a theistic slant about the beginning of the beginning.

The Vatican, many Christian and Jewish groups, liberal Islamic and Hindu scholars all accept the evidence of the billions of years of history of our universe;  of the progress of evolution of species.  They merely maintain that these are the workings of divine laws;  laws stemming from an unknowable deity, from God.  This is a belief and, as such, requires no evidence;  but to science it remains an open question for which answers may or may not one day exist.

However, many lay members and some clergy of the various religions — in South Africa, more than 80 per cent of the population professes some form of Christian belief — do not accept the more nuanced approach of theistic evolution adopted by their leaders;  some hold fast to the literal, Biblical, text, others take on the idea of design, claiming that an intelligent force must lie behind the development of features such as the human eye.  But the design claims too, do not stand up to scientific scrutiny:  the human eye or the eyes of insects or fish or whatever all provide clear evidence of adaptation through millions of years of evolution and of the process of natural selection.

The explosion of knowledge about ourselves and all living things that accompanied the development of genetics has also underlined as never before, the evolutionary relationship of  living things.  There are, of course, arguments about precisely how or even exactly when various species parted company with a common ancestor.  But these. and other, similar, debates, are about the precise mechanics of the evolutionary process, they do not deny the process itself.

Such debates are also inevitable, because science, unlike dogma, does not lay claim to possessing the absolute truth.  All scientific truths are open to constant critical analysis:  they remain true within the bounds of our existing knowledge and are constantly refined and developed as our knowledge expands. That is how we, as a species, have progressed, sometimes against tremendous, often religion-based, resistance from those who benefit from maintaining ignorance.

Perhaps the best-known cases historically are those of Copernicus and Galileo who dared —correctly — to challenge the orthodoxy of the time that the earth was the centre of the universe.  Some 500 years have passed since then and it has been several hundred years since the first debates about evolution emerged, culminating in the production of Darwin’s Origin of Species, exactly 150 years ago this year (2009).

Since then, a wealth of geological, paleontological and, especially, genetic information has  underlined the veracity of the theory — not belief — of evolution.  Yet today, in the United States, surveys reveal that only 40 per cent of the population thinks that evolutionary theory is valid;  another 40 per cent opt for one or other form of creationism while 20 per cent admit that they do not know whether “human beings as we know them developed from earlier species of animals”.

Many among the creationist group are supporters of the “Creation Museum”, a multi-million dollar animated extravaganza in Petersburg, Kentucky that features human children playing alongside dinosaurs.  And, as late as 2005, the creationist lobby in the US attempted — using an “intelligent design” argument — to reintroduce creationism into the secular school system.

Surveys locally indicate that South Africa may have an even greater level of creationist belief;  that a considerable degree of ignorance exists about the evidence that continues to mount to validate evolution.  What seems certain is that a significant minority — if not a clear majority — of South Africans still cling to creation myths of one kind or other and that these continue to be promoted in many schools.  This is an indictment of the South African education system and a worrying sign for the future.

Posted in: Archive - 2009