A Canadian reader sent me an item from his/her website, Darwinquixote. The post is called “Be careful, evolution is behind you.” The topic is the teaching of evolution in Ontario: apparently provincial standards mandate that while evolution be taught in public secondary schools, they don’t require the teaching of human evolution.
Human exceptionalism when it comes to evolution is not new, of course. Tennesee’s Butler Act, under which John Scopes was prosecuted in the famous 1925 “Monkey Trial,” forbade the teaching not of evolution, but of human evolution alone. (Scopes was of course convicted, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality.) And I understand that while evolution is taught even in some Middle Eastern countries, like Iran (but not Saudi Arabia), teaching human evolution is verboten, for the Qu’ran states explicitly that Allah created humans ex nihilo.
Human exceptionalism of this sort is, of course, derived from religious dogma. It’s okay for everything else to have evolved, but not God’s Special Species.
Now I’m not sure whether this is the reason behind Ontario’s strange curriculum, but Darwinquixote describes the provincial policy and later recounts the efforts of a colleague to get some clarification.
Religion and politics in Canada often intersect. . . Perhaps the most significant religious influence that to this point has largely acted below the radar is the way in which evolution is taught in Canadian schools. The Ontario teaching curriculum for high school students requires that evolution be taught but not as it relates to us, humans. So, students in Ontario learn about how lower animals, plants and fungi evolve but when it comes to themselves, their relatives, their friends and ancestors, they are left filling in the blanks themselves.
. . . The secondary school system can’t be everything to everybody, but shouldn’t it be obliged to share, if not teach, the answers to the most fundamental questions of our species’ approximately 200 thousand year existence – where do humans come from?
The answer, of course, is a vigorous “YES!”, for what good is teaching evolution if it doesn’t include the statement that we, too, came about by the same materialistic process that gave rise to eagles, mushrooms, and beetles? For that gives us our kinship with all living things, as well as an awareness of our similarity to our closest living relatives, the apes. It also motivates an evolutionary search for the roots of human morphology, physiology, and behavior (evolutionary psychology). The notion that Homo sapiens evolved is pivotal in understanding our own species, even if you disagree with Alexander Pope that “the proper study of Mankind is Man.”
And, of course, the evidence for human evolution is multifarious and incontrovertible, including the fossil record and genetic data such as the chromosome fusion (chromosome #2, to be precise) that occurred in our lineage since it diverged from that of modern apes. WEIT recounts other evidence: vestigial organs and genes, bizarre twists of embryological development that can be explained only by evolution, and so on.
So why isn’t this taught in Ontario? I can see only one reason—religious sentiments. That answer is supported by the website’s writer, whose colleague politely interrogated a government official:
It is important to understand the motives behind the Province of Ontario’s omission of human evolution in their curriculum. A colleague of mine set out in search of a rationale for this decision and was shocked at the response he received. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Education he inquired why human evolution was not a mandatory element of the Ontario secondary school curriculum. A portion of the response provided by the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch was as follows:
“Ensuring that curriculum is inclusive in nature, addresses the education needs of all students, and reflects the diversity of the Ontario population is very important to our government. The Equity and Inclusive Education section (Section 1.4) in Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12, Policy and Program Requirements for example describes a number of principles relating to values which should permeate the school and curriculum. The Statement on Equity and Inclusive Education describes the importance of staff and students demonstrating respect for diversity in school and the wider society. It is expected that teachers will plan units of study, develop a variety of teaching approaches, and select appropriate resources to address the curriculum expectations, taking into account the needs and abilities of the students in their classes. As well, learning activities should be designed to reflect diverse points of views and experiences.”
Now one could take that simply as boilerplate—a form response to all letters about the curriculum—but I don’t think so. The key words, as Darwinquixote notes, are “inclusive” and “diversity”. My best guess is that the omission of human evolution from the Ontario curriculum reflects the stated “respect for diversity in school and the wider society.” That is, of course, a euphemism for saying: “We don’t teach human evolution because it will offend some people.” And of course those are religious people.
My response is this: “That’s too bad. You should teach human evolution because it’s true, and because it opens a huge and light-giving window on human origins, characteristics, and behavior. You should teach human evolution because it’s misleading to imply that we somehow got here by a process different from that of other species.”
It may not be irrelevant (an unwarranted double negative, I know) that Canada’s Federal Minister for Science and Technology between 2008 and 2013, Gary Goodyear, was apparently deeply religious, and his views on evolution are, at the least, questionable.
If you want to complain to someone about this policy, here are the email addresses from the Ontario Ministry of Education’s “contact us” page:
If you want a boilerplate email, here’s one I suggest. I’ve sent this already to both addresses.
Dear Ministry of Education:
It’s come to my understanding that Ontario’s secondary schools require the teaching of evolution, but not the teaching of human evolution. I also understand that this policy reflects the province’s “respect for diversity in school and the wider society”. (That phrase is from an earlier response to a complaint similar to this.)
Human evolution happens not only to be true, and is documented with multifarious evidence from fossils, morphology, genetics, and embryology, but its teaching opens up a huge and wonderful window on our behavior and origins. It shows us our kinship with all other species, and clarifies many things about our species (the evolutionary roots of our behavior, as well as weird aspects of development and appearance) that do not make sense under any other hypothesis. What is the point of teaching evolution if humans are implicitly granted an exception by omitting them from the curriculum?
It’s possible that this omission is the result of catering to those religious people who are offended by the notion that humans evolved. I don’t think, however, that it’s good educational policy to omit an important and enlightening truth because of such fears. I would urge you to include human evolution in the required Ontario secondary-school curriculum, and, if you’re not so inclined, to explain to me this curious omission.
Should you wish to see the massive evidence for human evolution, here are two good websites:
It seems to me a gross dereliction of the province’s educational responsibility to omit this exciting aspect of evolution from the curriculum.
Thank you for your attention.