IntroductionProfessor John Bryant comments on the furore following a talk at the Festival of Science.
"Teachers should tackle creationism says science education expert" proclaimed the headline in The Guardian. Other newspapers ran similar stories, all based on a talk given at the British Association Festival of Science by Revd Professor Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the London Institute of Education and, until very recently, Director of Education at the Royal Society. Responses to these newspaper reports were not long in coming. Many of the responses were very hostile, calling for Professor Reiss to be removed from his education post at the Royal Society. One particularly militant atheist, who can always be relied on for a comment, said that having an ordained clergyman as Director of Education at the Royal Society was like a Monty Python sketch (but failed to acknowledge that Professor Reiss has a Cambridge PhD in Zoology and is a strong proponent of evolution). A few days later it was announced that Professor Reiss had agreed to resign from his Royal Society post.
Before thinking in more detail about this episode, it is essential to have a correct understanding of the background. The term creationism is shorthand for a belief that over a period of a few days, God created living things essentially in the forms in which we see them today, although there may be some acceptance of micro-evolution. (For a fuller discussion see my essay on the Genetics Society website.) In the minds of some commentators, creationism is inexorably linked with religious belief but those commentators are wrong. Within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the majority accept evolutionary theory. However, amongst the adherents of these three religions there is a significant minority of creationists and further, in Christianity and in Islam, that minority is becoming increasingly active and vocal in proclaiming their position.
Almost inevitably then, biology teachers in schools will encounter pupils who hold creationist views. Indeed, I know from my frequent contact with school teachers and from my visits to schools that such pupils will often express creationist views in discussion in the classroom (it happens in university classes too, but that's another story). How should a teacher deal with this? The QCA guidelines (which Michael Reiss helped to draft) are clear. One should allow school pupils to raise questions about creationism - the pupils should not simply be 'squashed' - and use the opportunity to think further about evidence and the status of scientific theory. This is not 'teaching creationism' and it does not give creationism the same status as evolution. Further, the QCA guidelines are also reflected in the Royal Society's own position on this topic.
So we return to the furore generated by Professor Reiss's talk at the British Association. I was privileged to see the full text of the talk before he gave it and I can confirm that he did not say 'teach creationism'. Anyone who read the full text or who listened to the whole talk could not have interpreted his words this way. Indeed, The Guardian article actually got it largely right; despite the misleading headline, and apart from the first sentence, which read "Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education."
"He said that creationism was a world-view that runs counter to the scientific world-view and that teachers needed to able to deal with this when they meet it: ' ... there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have – hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching – and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion ... good teaching means respecting students' views. I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it." So, for presenting a viewpoint that is line both with QCA guidelines and Royal Society policy, Professor Reiss has been forced to resign from his Royal Society post. Now that is like a sketch from Monty Python.
Professor John Bryant is Professor Emeritus of Cell and Molecular Biology and Research Associate of EGENIS at the University of Exeter.