Ontario schools require teaching evolution—except human evolution

August 13, 2015 • 9:15 am

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.


60 thoughts on “Ontario schools require teaching evolution—except human evolution

  1. I live in Ontario. I wonder what would happen to a biology teacher if they unilaterally decide to give students information that is beyond the base level dictated by “the curriculum” – presumably that already happens in other classes. The question boils down to this – is the teaching of human evolution actually forbidden? (We can certainly see that it is not encouraged!)

    1. I don’t think it’s forbidden but I anticipate the following scenario under the conditions that religious kids object:

      1) Teacher teaches human evolution
      2) Student objects & complains to parents
      3) Parents complain to school
      4) Cool fears further escalation & the fear of appearing as hostile to other cultures and perspectives.
      5) School tells teacher to not teach human evolution, thinking this is a compromise because evolution is still taught.

        1. 7) Atheists get ulcers worrying about it.

          8) The Four Horsepersons of the Atheist apocalypse glom onto the school board/headmaster/principle/whatever and start to bombard him/her/them/it with outraged emails and impending lawsuits, to ensure that s/he/it/them also gets an ulcer.
          9) The neighbouring school decides that one outraged pair of parents is easier to deal with than the bile of the Internet.
          I almost sound optimistic. There mus be something wrong.

    2. No it is not forbidden. During my short tenure as a high school biology teacher I taught human evolution during the evolution unit in Ontario in the public school system. I suspect that the human evolution is not required as per the curriculum to pacify elements of the publicly funded catholic school system..

      1. I teach in a Catholic high school in Ontario. Currently I teach 9, 10 and 11 science and used to also teach grade 11 biology where the evolution unit is found. I have never been challenged by a parent, colleague or principal about teaching the evolution unit, or about referring to evolution in the biology strands of grade 9 and 10. Students however, often have serious reservations that I give science answers to.

        We also have done a little “cut the chromosomes out, flip and rearrange” activity to show the comparison of humans to the other great apes, and the smoking gun evidence for the evolution of humans from pre chimp-like ancestors and how we diverged from them. Kids think this is cool.

        Most principals I have encountered would not have the know-how to even begin to criticize a biology teacher, and so they have never even tried; neither do I think have they desired to.

        1. We also have done a little “cut the chromosomes out, flip and rearrange” activity to show the comparison of humans to the other great apes, and the smoking gun evidence for the evolution of humans from pre chimp-like ancestors and how we diverged from them. Kids think this is cool.

          Kids aren’t the only ones. This is brilliant! Have a virtual round of applause.

  2. I once asked a friend of the pentecostal church what she thought about evolution. She said she believed animal evolved but she “wasn’t sure” about human evolution.

    1. It sounds like schools can “opt out” so I expect a range of approaches.

      When I was in HS 40 years ago in Ontario I was briefly taught human evolution (despite the principal being very religious). The whole creationist push came later. When it started appearing it was roundly mocked, and opposed vigorously. Sad to see it making such inroads in Ontario now. Under, I note, a Liberal government.

      1. Politicians want to get re-elected, so they’re wary of alienating any portion the electorate, no matter how wrong those particular voters are. And politcians get the reputation of being a unifier, rising above the militant atheist and the militant believer and giving room to both. Especially the politically correct liberal politician seems to be keen on acquiring this reputation. And truth and education be damned. Children can’t vote anyway.

        1. Sadly, they once risked alienating voters by supporting this kind of nonsense. I remember some real anger in town halls long ago at the prospect of creeping creationism.

          1. That’s good. It’s very important to show politicians that the electorate doesn’t like pseudo-intellectual garbage like creationism. Politicians will support the teaching of evolution if they’re convinced that creationism is political suicide.

    1. It’s not too bad to set up the syllogism, and let every Socrates fill in the last line for himself.

    2. I would argue that it is necessarily a bad thing. Prof CC’s letter says:
      “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. ”

      You need science for that information. Stopping the lessons short of human evolution and letting students “[fill] in the blanks themselves” seems like a terrible idea. As if all the science of evolution after the appearance of humans is something students can guess at themselves.

      1. I think filling in the blanks themselves is a bad thing too. That, after all, is how we got religion in the first place – people not knowing the answer and filling the gap with a supernatural one.

        I understand politicians not wanting to offend, and a good one is one that gets people to cooperate for the good of the electorate. However, should the truth be a victim of that? Surely part of being a good leader is being principled (I can hear the scoffs at my naivety as far away as NZ), and the truth shouldn’t be a matter of compromise.

  3. “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.”

    Of all the damage done by religion, this is one of the most egregious, to me. The understanding of where we, as the only “wise” species on the planet, came from. This is an extraordinary discovery which surpasses any of the dreamed up, comic book miracles, and spiritual fabrications of religion. It’s truly disappointing.

    1. Let us offer up some apt cautionary lyrics from The Beatles “I’ve Got a Feeling” for Mr. Goodyear’s consideration.

      First, from John’s half of the song:

      Everybody had a Goodyear
      Everybody had a hard time
      Everybody had a wet dream
      Everybody saw the sunshine

      Everybody had a Goodyear
      Everybody let their hair down
      Everybody pulled their socks up
      Everybody put the foot down

      Next, from Paul’s half of the song:

      All these years I’ve been wandering around,
      Wondering how come nobody told me
      All that I was looking for was somebody
      Who looked like you.

  4. Can they teach that, e.g., Homo erectus or Neanderthal arose by evolution? That would certainly raise some questions.

  5. This is an outcome of the liberal sense of fairness. I don’t think it was because of any politician’s religious views. Basically, Canadians are taught that we must be tolerant, respectful of other beliefs and cultures and accommodate those other beliefs and cultures as much as possible. Usually this works pretty well, however what happens with people who are unfamiliar with science and how it works, they think that everything is up for discussion, debate and belief. They don’t realize that there are things in science that are true, things that are false and things we aren’t sure about enough to say either way. So, if someone doesn’t like the idea of human evolution, they feel they should respect that opinion, especially if that opinion is a religious or cultural one.

    It’s the same misguided notions that support radical Islam instead of liberal Islam and gives a platform to anti-vaccination groups and climate change deniers.

    1. One more point, surely not original to me, but I haven’t seen it mentioned yet. When they go on and on about “cultural diversity” and “not offending anyone,” don’t they realize that they are ignoring the cultural background of, and greatly offending, a very large group of students, namely those who would like to learn science and not have religion crammed down their throats?

      See this Doonesbury cartoon as illustrating my point.

      1. I think they do and they think they are solving the issue with a “compromise”. Evolution gets taught and the others aren’t offended with pesky human evolution. It’s not the right way to solve the issue but it’s why they do it.

  6. I’ve sent my emails off to both addresses. I’m sure I’ll get back “blah blah blah diversity, blah blah blah boilerplate”.

    I took Jerry’s version and changed it around a bit to head off some of that diversity & inclusiveness crap that I expect to get. Here are some additions in my letter that fall throughout:

    I understand that this decision may reflect a Canadian desire to include everyone and treat everyone fairly, however in so doing you tacitly accept the false notion that humans are not connected to other animals and have arisen via different, special mechanisms.

    … for in science there are things that are true, things that are false and things that are as of yet unknown; there is no room for beliefs, assertions or opinions.

    1. Good additions. I like your previous comment too. We’ve got much the same culture here, which is mostly good, but every now and then means a similar situation to this one arises.

      USians should know they don’t usually arise because of a particular politician in our type of government. All this stuff is decided by parliamentary committees who receive advice from professionals and input from interested groups.

    2. So true. Language that teachers use is sometimes at fault here too – albeit unintentionally. Teachers may sometimes say “humans and animals”; instead of humans and other animals with stress on the word “other”.
      If you do this even in grade 9 where you would expect that students know humans ARE animals already, you get some great teaching going.

      Of course many grade 9 students will argue incredulously that grass is not a plant, because for them a “plant” is a flower or tropical ornamental in a pot on their counter or table at home.

      They do not recognize the 5 (6) kingdom classification system yet. So you have to say to them “Well are you a plant?, a fungus like a mushroom, a bacterium or just what then?” to get them thinking.

  7. I think it is simply confusing to not lump up human origins with the rest of life. What else can you replace evolution with? Poof! And it was good? Not following evolution to the logical conclusion that it also created homo sapiens is extremely dishonest and leaves a big hole in the overall understanding of the processes and power of evolution.

  8. That’s weird, because as an Ontario high school student in the early 1980s (and at a Catholic school) I remember a whole unit of one course on the latest findings of hominid evolution.

  9. The full quote from Alexander Pope is

    “Presume not God to scan
    the proper study of man is man”

    Pope was opposed to all attempts to understand man from the point of view of theology (and was a deist.)

    It is ironically paraphrased and placed into the mouth of an anti-evolutionist ape in “Planet of the Apes” (who is Minister of Science in a fundamentalist-like culture) saying “The proper study of ape is ape” but he is saying you cannot understand apes by studying other species like humans. The real-world equivalent would be an anti-evolutionist saying you learn nothing about people from studying monkeys.

      1. You are quite right.

        I was mentally reversing the quote from “Planet of the Apes” in which the learned doctor simply says “The proper study of ape [not apekind] is ape”. As JAC had it correct up above, I am especially chagrined.

        A Google search reveals that my wrong version wrongly attributed to Pope (not just to humanist philosophy) occurs in the books “The Biological Basis of Cancer” by Robert McKinnell and “The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is…” by Walker Percy.

        Oddly the wrong version appears in TWO sets of online study notes to Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” but an examination of the original (it’s the first Sherlock Holmes story ever) shows that Watson/Conan Doyle quoted it correctly.

        I won’t make that mistake again.

  10. Despite the supposed (wrongly, but…) “ok” of the Catholic church with evolution, I suspect that the fact that the C. school boards exist is a big part of this. Apparently they are now basically “I don’t want a secular education” boards as they have been open to having Muslims and other Christians (Marionites, for example) apparently. They have also had schools ignore *court orders* to allow so-called “Gay-Straight Alliance” clubs and other nastiness.

    There’s an organization which is working to try to get Ontario to ignore the Canadian constitution on this, like Quebec and Newfoundland have done, though – One School System for Ontario. Also, apparently it is required by law for a child to be able to opt out of the religious instruction in the Catholic schools. Fortuntately, since after all they are of course as much tax-supported as the so-called public schools (yes, your Ontario tax dollars support *both*). I have been told that this has not been uniformly successful even though various Ontario secular groups like CFI and Atheists Ontario (?) have apparently yelled about it.

  11. Email sent! I live in Ontario and went through the education system fairly recently (I’m only 20). It never really occurred to me that we didn’t learn about human evolution at the time, but now that I think of it, it’s true! Very disheartening.

  12. I live in Ontario. With grave misgivings, I enrolled my son in a French Catholic primary school a few years ago. I wanted him to learn French, and not through immersion in an English school. The French public school had a frankly poor reputation.

    Overall we’ve been very happy with the school, and the religious angle has been far more muted than I expected. This past year, though, I was at a parents-teacher meeting (my son was in grade 4), and one of the three grade 4 teachers brightly announced that they were going to specialize a bit and each teacher would teach all grade 4 pupils their area of expertise and interest. She was proud to announce that her own passion was … (math? science? I asked myself) religion! Ugh! I said to myself.

    My son sometimes tells me the ludicrous things that Mme Carole teaches in religion class. This puts me in a delicate position. I don’t want to say that I think Mme Carole is a nincompoop (even though I do). I just tell him that some people believe in God and some people don’t. I add that I don’t and give my reasons. So far he’s been content with that, even though the implication is obviously that I feel his religion teacher is teaching him things that are false. Fortunately, Mme Carole was not his “home room” teacher. He had a very bright and personable young woman who had a biology degree. I was often tempted to ask her what she thought about this religion crap, I mean business, but always decided I’d better not.

    The WEIT post mentions only public schools in Ontario. I often wonder (and worry)whether Catholic schools (they have their own separate board) are required to teach evolution at all, as it contradicts their beliefs.

    1. My understanding is that the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution, but when humans show up a soul is magically added to each person – how nice.
      Apparently they teach evolution in the Catholic schools in Ontario, but probably only the minimum required.

      1. Without the existence of souls, the religious business model of redemption through Jesus Christ falls apart.

        1. Not to mention that DNA studies show no, “Adam and Eve” origin: thus, no “original sin” and no need for Christ’s, “blood-atonement”- the Catholic Church’s confronting of THAT would be akin to a vampire having holy water thrown on it!

  13. I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but this is really a non-issue that really deserves only mild consternation. I went through the public school curriculum in various Ontario schools and I was taught evolution, including hominid evolution. In fact, since kindergarten up to my eventual high school graduation, I went from saying the “lord’s prayer” to not even being allowed to say “Merry Christmas” (yes, I celebrate the fat man in the suit). So, the trend is, thankfully, toward secularization. I think that this is just a bit of capitulation toward the catholic school system that has a constitutionally entrenched right to bend the curriculum to something Catholics may prefer. With that being said, I know several non-Catholics and Catholics who went to Catholic school and can recall being taught hominid evolution. Overall, I think this is one of those laws/rules/guidelines that are on the books but no one seems to really follow.

  14. If I can cite one good thing my religious upbringing taught me, it was to value truth. Of course, as a child I didn’t always realize the Catholics meant Truth with a capital ‘t.’ I guess I missed part of the message somewhere.

    But there was a time in my life not all that long ago where I believed the evidence fell on the side of Catholicism and I was happy to read the counterarguments. The problem was, when I finally got around to really studying the opposing arguments, they weren’t what I was told. It was clear which side was prevaricating. It still amazes me that people who declare they want to know the truth put up such defenses. Really? Everything else evolved right up to the point that 98% of the genetic code is identical to ours but then God shut down the process and made us nearly identical to apes? Give me a break. This brand of intelligent design may very well be more ludicrous that Creationist arguments, for at least they are consistent in saying God created everything ex nihilo.

    1. I’m waiting for them to realize that this post sparked all the letter writing. Muahahahaha!!!! The world is watching!

  15. Those two links for evidence of human evolution, specially the first one by Martin Nickels, are just phenomenal.

    What’s wrong with people? How can anybody be willing to fight against the beauty of these arguments?

    Thank you once again for posting this.

  16. I wonder also what things are like curriculumwise in my native Quebec. When I was in grade 8, the required “general history” course had a module on what *could* have been human evolution. However, I don’t remember that ever being explicitly stated – despite having to learn one version of the timeline of astralopithicines, etc. It was sort of “and long ago there was this. and then they died out and there was that. And eventually there was us, homo sapiens.”

  17. I teach biology in Ontario. I teach evolution. I certainly talk about humnan evolution, and the evolution of lots of other organisms. I use whatever examples I think are necessary, and that students *want* to learn about, for students to understand the concepts. The *concepts* and *key ideas* are mandated to be taught. The way it is taught and the examples used to teach it are entirely up to the teacher.

    Before I became a teacher I gained experience by volunteering in a biology class in a Cathlic High School in Ontario. I taught a lesson on — you guessed it — evolution. Human evolution (and other organisms — again the idea was for students to understand concepts).

    It is not forbidden or discouraged or ignored. Human evolution is simply one possible example that can be used. I imagine some teachers use it and some may not.

    To be blunt, your correspondent appears to know not of which they speak.

  18. It will apparently astonish many of the commenter here, and our blog host, but Canada is actually a separate country from the USA and does not do all the same things in the same way as is done in the USA. What I see here is a lot of people assuming the dynamics of evolution teaching in schools in Canada is just like ours.

    1. I think you’re confusing the people on this site with others. Although there are cultural and political nuances that you are unaware of if you live outside of Canada, the majority of regular commenters are smart enough to recognize this. Our host in particular understands a lot more about Canada than most Americans.

      1. If that were so he wouldn’t have written the post he did, and the commenters would not have reacted as they did either.

  19. Seems to me that stirring this up is highly likely to be counter-productive. At the moment the situation seems to be about 95% of the ideal. Evolution is taught, human evolution is not prescribed (who wants to buy a fight?) but in practice is frequently taught, with very little push-back.

    If we push the legislators into a corner, what will happen? Well, one possibility is they’ll say “You’re right, human evolution shall be required”. I rate the chances of that very small.

    More likely they’ll stick to their line of ‘inclusiveness’, at bests with no change, worse would be an amendment to regulations that says “Human evolution may be taught subject to the agreement of all parents” or “where it does not conflict with the beliefs of a significant sector of the population”.

    Also, religious parents who seem to be, at the moment, fairly complacent about what the biology teacher teaches (“Well Johnny, that’s Miss Jones’s beliefs, but we know the truth”); but I would think a government curriculum directive implying that their beliefs are WRONG would galvanise them into action. And biology teachers would then be far more likely, not less, to encounter trouble with human evolution.

    tl;dr version: if it’s currently working fairly well, who thinks poking it with a stick is going to improve it?


  20. Hi Professor Coyne I noticed this with much interest being a resident of Ontario. However you got a fact wrong. Gary Goodyear was until 2013 the FEDERAL minister for Science and Technology, that post encompasses the entire country and not just Ontario. By the way I am about halfway through Faith Vs Fact and enjoying it immensely. cheersdave

    Date: Thu, 13 Aug 2015 14:15:58 +0000 To: davemacquarrie@hotmail.com

  21. The issue here has been touched upon by several commenters, but let me lay it out explicitly here.

    The problem is historical. When the school system was originally laid out, the large population of Roman Catholics resulted in the formation of parallel school boards, now both fully tax-funded. In some parts of the province, there is also a French school board as well. This means three sets of schools, three fleets of school buses, and an enormous waste of money.

    I am sure that in the formation of the curriculum, if there were to be one standard for all three school boards, there would have to be certain concessions made, and the non-requirement to teach human evolution would have been necessary to satisfy the RC school board.

    So the idea was not to prevent the offense of religiously sensitive students, (or parents), but to bend, slightly, to the demands of the RC church, in the establishment of a public school system.

  22. Any response to the likes of someone who actually lives and teaches evolution in Canada, say Larry Moran?

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