Attitudes towards teaching evolution in Turkey
by Zehra Sayers and Zuhal Özcan
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. 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.