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Where’s Darwin?

Nearly half of Canadians believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed. Is there a missing link in our education system?

By Drew Halfnight

In the 1920s, when Christian fundamentalists in the United States came out swinging in round one of a century-long fight over evolution, Canadians looked on, rapt, from ringside seats. Today, the fight continues. In the past decade, a sophisticated and well-funded attack on science curricula induced school boards in at least eight U.S. states to roll back the teaching of evolutionary biology. Still, Canadians see themselves as spectators to someone else’s battle.

But contrary to popular assumption, Americans are not the only people who harbour questions, fears and confusion about the origins of life on Earth. A 2007 poll found 51 percent of Ontarians accept human evolution, while almost half of Canadians believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed. “There is a large segment of the population that is confused,” concluded Craig Worden, vice-president of public affairs for Angus Reid. Then, earlier this year, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto couldn’t persuade a single one of its most reliable corporate backers to fund an exhibit on Charles Darwin. A ROM spokesperson said the sponsors deemed evolution “too hot to handle.”

Though it may not have the profile or scope here that it has in the U.S., the tension between a Bible-based understanding of the origins of life and the science of evolution evidently does not stop at the border. That positions are not as clearly (or stridently) articulated in Canada as they are in the U.S. may only reflect our national distaste for confrontation.

Returning from Dover, Penn., in December 2005, Brian Alters must have felt vindicated. As an expert witness in a widely publicized court case, Alters, a professor of evolution education at McGill University, helped persuade a judge that intelligent design (ID) — the idea that the complexity of certain natural phenomena is proof of a supernatural designer — was not a scientific theory, but “a religious view, a mere relabelling of creationism,” and that it had no place in Dover’s science classrooms. It was a landmark decision that characterized ID as a pseudo-science intended to bypass a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the teaching of the biblical creation story in science classes.

Little did Alters know he would return to McGill’s Evolution Education Research Centre to find himself embroiled in a similar dispute. This time, the opposition was not a school board but a federal agency, the second-biggest grant-making institution in Canada, which declined funding for the evolution centre’s proposed study aimed at discovering what inroads ID had made in Canadian schools.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council said the review committee couldn’t find “adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct.”

The problem, of course, is that evolution is a scientific
theory, while ID theory is not. Evolutionary biology is based on mountains of observable evidence, while ID cannot be tested at all. In short, ID has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with belief.

“It was extremely surprising,” recalls Jason Wiles, manager of McGill’s evolution centre. The research council “put evolution and ID on the same footing, then said, ‘Our position is to have no position.’”

Instead of revoking the statement or acknowledging the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that ID is refried creationism, senior members of the research council continued to cast doubt on evolution in newspaper articles, defending their decision in the name of “challenging doctrine” and “critical inquiry,” also implying that evolution is a theory in crisis, a claim commonly made by proponents of ID in the U.S.

It was a wake-up call for Canada’s science community, which expressed alarm that evolution was being “concealed, denied or confused with theories” not testable by science. “Imagine that a proposal to study the detrimental effects of intelligent design on people’s scientific literacy is rejected,” Alters later told Humanist Perspectives magazine, “because the adjudication committee members have been so detrimentally affected they can’t tell science from religion.”

If a reviewing panel composed of top academics could make such claims about evolution and ID, what understanding does the Canadian public have about the subject?

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” wrote the late Ukrainian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who found evidence for evolution by studying the genetic varietals of fruit flies. To most scientists, Darwinian evolution is the unifying principle of biology, as solid and significant as Newtonian gravity or Copernican heliocentrism. But you wouldn’t guess it from its place in Canada’s school system.

In all but one provincial science curriculum, evolution is relegated to a single unit in a Grade 11 or 12 elective course taken by a sliver of each graduating class. It would not be a stretch to say the majority of Canadian high school students graduate without ever encountering Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Only Quebec, which rolled out a new curriculum in 2004, includes evolution among key concepts in elementary school science classes and mandates a full unit of evolution in a compulsory Grade 7-8 science class.

Science teachers across Canada have expressed regret about the near-absence of evolution from their curricula, but politicians have been reluctant to address the issue. Patricia MacNeill, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Education, says much of the onus is on teachers and boards to introduce the topic themselves. “It doesn’t mean the topic wouldn’t come up in earlier science classes,” MacNeill says.

Canada’s provincial governments take a similar approach to private religious schools, which are allowed to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution in science class. The curriculum at faith schools is designed on a stakeholder model, where sensitive issues such as sex education and evolution are dealt with according to the wishes and expectations of parents. As such, there is little assurance that the more than 63,000 students in Canada’s Christian schools are taught about evolution, but considerable assurance that they’re getting a taste of creationism.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some evangelical private schools in Quebec teach creationism as a “better theory,” as the Ottawa Citizen reported in October 2006, or that the public school board in Abbotsford, B.C., taught “creation science” alongside evolution for over a decade.

Aside from being all but snubbed in the Canadian curriculum, evolution runs into other problems in the classroom. Leesa Blake, vice-president of the Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario, says those who teach evolution feel “threatened” by parents or students to teach an alternative, or ill-equipped to handle the topic.

“A lot of the people who are teaching biology don’t actually have the training” to teach evolution, Blake says. High school science teachers must teach everything from exercise science to quantum mechanics, so that the complexities of evolution might be lost on many.

In 2000, Jim Fenwick, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, told the Victoria Times-Colonist that students arrive in his classroom knowing “basically zero” about evolution. That should be about as alarming as an English prof saying that first-year literature students have never encountered Shakespeare.

But apparently it isn’t. Though Canadians have never pitted evolution against creationism in a court of law, we are squeamish about advancing evolution as part of the national education agenda. We look south of the border and want no part of the extremism that a confrontation over evolution inevitably generates.

“The whole discussion has been so tremendously skewed by a whole lot of raving idiots,” says Rev. Paul Fayter, a United Church minister and professor of science and religion at York University in Toronto, who advocates thinking “non-dogmatically” about origins. He’s as comfortable with a copy of the Bible as he is with Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

So is Denis Lamoureux, a devout evangelical Christian and confirmed evolutionist who teaches science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. “So how are we going to teach biology?” he asks. “Teach the science as metaphysically free as possible. In other words, keep God out of it, keep the atheistic world view out of it.”

These are voices of reason that say we should welcome the question, “How did we get here?” The science of evolution is the best tool we have to probe for answers. The more we teach evolution, the more we understand it, and the more we know about our place in the natural order. The question, “Why did we get here?” is no less valid. But the answers lie in our souls and sacred writings, not in our biology texts.

If we value our children and their education, we will respect the integrity of each line of inquiry but keep a respectful distance between them. 

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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