Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.
The Rev Michael Reiss, a biologist and its director of education, said it was self-defeating to dismiss as wrong or misguided the 10 per cent of pupils who believed in the literal account of God creating the Universe and all living things as related in the Bible or Koran. It would be better, he said, to treat creationism as a world view.
His comments put him at odds with fellow scientists as well as the Government. Former Fellows of the Royal Society include Charles Darwin, who first proposed the theory of evolution.
National curriculum guidelines state that creationism has no place in science lessons. The Government says that if it is raised by students, teachers should discuss how creationism differs from evolution, say that it is not scientific theory and that further discussion should be saved for religious classes.
Professor Reiss, a biologist, was speaking at the British Association’s Festival of Science in Liverpool. Other scientists were vociferous in their response, saying that creationism should remain entirely within the sphere of religious education.
Professor Lewis Wolpert, of University College Medical School, said: “Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes. It is based on religious beliefs and any discussion should be in religious studies.”
Dr John Fry, a physicist at the University of Liverpool, said: “Science lessons are not the appropriate place to discuss creationism, which is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence. Creationism doesn’t challenge science: it denies it!”
However, Professor John Bryant, a biologist at the University of Exeter, agreed that creationism should be discussed as an alternative position of the origins of man and earth.
“If the class is mature enough and time permits, one might have a discussion on the alternative viewpoints,” he said. “However, I think we should not present creationism as having the same status as evolution.”
The Royal Society’s support for the presence of creationism within the classroom points to a remarkable turn-around. Last year the society issued an open letter stating that creationism had no place in schools and that pupils should understand that science supported the theory of evolution.
A spokesman for the organisation, which counts 21 Nobel Prize winners among its Fellows, confirmed yesterday that Professor Reiss’s views did represent that of its president, Lord Rees of Ludlow, and the society.
He said: “Teachers need to be in a position to be able to discuss science theories and explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism isn’t.”
The Rev Tim Hastie-Smith, the new chairman of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents 250 leading independent schools, said that creationism was taught in science classes at his school, Dean Close in Cheltenham, as a theory that some people believe in, not as a fact.“If we get creationist books sent to us then we give them to the science department to be discussed. We want children to be aware of it.”
Teachers would try to be sensitive if a pupil believed in creationism.
Professor Reiss, a Church of England clergyman, said: “Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson.”
Many children who go to school believing in creationism come from Muslim or fundamental Christian families, he said. While making clear to them that it is widely rejected by scientists, teachers should ensure they avoid denigrating creationist beliefs.
The Universe and living organisms originated from acts of divine creation. This belief embraces the Biblical account and rejects theories in which natural processes are central, such as evolution. Some creationists have accepted geological findings and other methods of dating the Earth, insisting that such accounts do not necessarily contradict Biblical teachings
Different kinds of living organisms have developed and diversified from earlier forms. Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution holds that this development took place by natural selection of varieties of organism better adapted to the environment and more likely to produce descendants
Certain features of the Universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process such as natural selection. Proponents insist that it is not based on the Bible, claiming that its roots include the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, who, they say, articulated early versions of the theory
Sources: New Oxford Dictionary of English, Times Database