Ontario school officials respond—or rather, fail to respond—to queries about why they don’t require teaching human evolution

August 28, 2015 • 9:00 am

A short while ago I reported, based on a post  on DarwinQuixote site, that while the province of Ontario requires teaching of evolution in secondary-school biology classes, there’s no requirement for teaching human evolution. A colleague of the DarwinQuixote author wrote to Ontario’s Ministry of Education asking about this omission, and got the following reply:

“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.”

This implies strongly that the omission of human evolution comes from a misguided “respect for diversity”—that is, some religious people will feel disrespected if their faith is contravened by the biology curriculum.

Several readers and I then wrote to the ministry of education (see my letter here), emphasizing the importance of teaching human evolution in the required evolution unit, and asking why this wasn’t done. I have not yet received a reply—perhaps because I’m not Canadian—but reader Diana MacPherson did. Here’s the evasive response she got, for what it’s worth (I’ve put one sentence in bold):

Dear Diana MacPherson:

Thank you for your email dated August 13, 2015, inquiring about human evolution in the Ontario curriculum. I am pleased to respond.

The theory of evolution is a fundamental one in science. It is, therefore, a strand or broad area of the curriculum in the Biology, Grade 11, University Preparation course in the curriculum policy document for Grades 11 and 12 Science, implemented in September 2009. The learning related to evolution in the course includes big ideas about:

  • the process of biological change over time based on the relationships between species and their environments,
  • the theory of evolution as a scientific explanation based on a large accumulation of evidence, and
  • technology that enables humans to manipulate the development of species that has economic and environmental implications.

The learning related to evolution is intended to explain key structural and functional changes in organisms, including humans, as they have evolved over time.

By the end of the course, students will:

  • analyse the economic and environmental advantages and disadvantages of an artificial selection technology, and evaluate the impact of environmental changes on natural selection and endangered species,
  • investigate evolutionary processes, and analyse scientific evidence that supports the theory of evolution, and
  • demonstrate an understanding of the theory of evolution, the evidence that supports it, and some of the mechanisms by which it occurs.

For more information on the Ontario science curriculum, please visit

www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/2009science11_12.pdf.

You may be interested to know that the university preparation courses are validated and accredited by university professors to ensure that they are current and responsive to key elements of the discipline.

Again, thank you for writing. I hope you have found this information helpful.

Sincerely,
Original signed by
Karen Gill
Director
Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch

If you look at that pdf file, which lays out the requirements for the evolution unit in Grade 11 (pp. 52-53 in this document) you won’t see a single mention of human evolution. The sentence I’ve put in bold above is simply misleading, for the evolution of humans (as opposed to how we’ve used evolution to improve “technology”) simply isn’t in the curriculum. Diana did the same search and didn’t find anything about human evolution, either.  She also flagged the “technology” aspect of evolution on p. 46:

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 7.03.29 AM

Diana noted this:
P.46 is pretty much what [Gill] quoted in her note to me. The part that I thought was ideological is sort of: they have some goals they want to achieve and map all their science instruction back to those goals, one of which is to show how science relates to technology (I suspect this is a reflection of our Federal government’s idea of science needing to be practical). It is odd that Ontario is doing this, though, since they are Liberal and Canada right now is Tory. Maybe I’m oversensitive because of the Tory muzzling of science.
and then added this:
The big red flag to me is this bit under p. 39’s “Anti-discrimination Education and Science” because, although noble, I think it explains the whole issue:

“In many instances, variations in culture and location (whether rural, urban, or suburban) can be found in a single classroom. Students living in apartment buildings will have different access to plants and animals than students living in a rural setting or on a First Nation reserve. There may be cultural sensitivities for some students in areas such as the use of biological specimens. For example, a number of religions have prohibitions regarding pigs. Although it is impossible to anticipate every contingency, teachers should be open to adjusting their instruction, if feasible, when concerns are brought to their attention.”

This, which echoes the response given to DarwinQuixote‘s colleague, once again implies that “cultural sensitivity” is the reason why human evolution isn’t taught. Just as dissecting pigs (or, perhaps, learning about them) may offend Jews or Muslims, so learning that our own species evolved may offend the “sensitivity” of religious creationists.

Until I learn otherwise, then—and the Ministry of Education hasn’t seen fit to answer my letter—I’m going to assume that Ontario doesn’t require the teaching of human evolution because it’s giving a sop to creationists. Of course some enlightened teachers will go ahead and teach about our own species in the evolution unit anyway, but the point is that that isn’t required.  Bowing to “cultural sensitivity”, the government of Ontario says it’s ok to prevent children from learning what is probably the most important thing about their own species.

58 thoughts on “Ontario school officials respond—or rather, fail to respond—to queries about why they don’t require teaching human evolution

  1. That’s just plain sad. But when you think of it, the policy makers did not get to their high station by holding to a strong sense of intellectual integrity.

  2. “This implies strongly that the omission of human evolution comes from a misguided “respect for diversity””

    Whoever wrote that reply cannot write. This is often a side effect of trying to hide something.

  3. Using phrases like “cultural diversity” and “respect for diversity” in discussions about anything involving science or scientific issues always raise giant red flags for me. More often than not, I find that these phrases are really used to accomplish something else, namely, a method to avoid having one’s own misapprehensions and delusions questioned or challenged.

    1. Yes. It sounds a lot like the demand of Creationists to “teach the controversy.” Doing that, of course, would imply that there is a controversy and give credence to their so-called theory.

  4. I think that response is best described in this quote from Homer Simpson:

    “Weaseling our of things is imprtant to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals… except the weasel.”

  5. Do they respect the views of flat-earthers, or those who believe that the earth is at the centre of the universe? Do they respect the views of those who think education officials in Ontario are overly sensitive idiots?

  6. Ontario denies children the truth about our origins because they don’t want to make them and their parents feel uncomfortable. This undermines education on a very fundamental level. Socrates often said he had nothing to teach, he only made people think. The deep point is ofcourse that one can’t possibly say to have learned anything if one has never had a change of mind or perspective.

    And ofcourse kudos to professor Coyne, Diana and all the others who wrote to the ministry of education!

  7. Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    If all this is correct, then as far as I am concerned, Ontario’s cynically Orwellian/Lysenkoist censoriousness of science makes it an utter laughing stock for people of integrity. I would like to see every single educator who is behind the propagation of young Earth Creationist agitprop and all such backward, obscurantist, paternalistic acts of intellectual vandalism, in every single country in the world, held up to the fitting opprobrium and ridicule for the senseless, highminded havoc they are wreaking. Young Earth Creationism is as form of intellectual terrorism, and whenever it is endorsed or pandered too, either by True Believers or Fellow Travellers, it inevitably throws the wellbeing of blameless children under the rapacious school bus wheels of neocorporatist ideological expediency. Indoctrinating children with YEC ideology is a form of child abuse, and pandering to YEC propaganda is not much better than child abuse. If you are a YEC, just keep your bigoted, backward nonsense to yourself. I mean, ha! Just face it, the world is better off without your superior knowledge 😉

  8. Whilst I realise this is a Canada related post, the fact is that the whole of North America is awash with anti-evolution psychosis. As far as I can tell all the Republican presidential hopefuls either deny evolution or, at absolute best, imply that those who are creationists should be respected. This is bullshit. By all means I respect the right of others to hold any opinion they want, as long as it does not harm others, but I don’t have to respect the opinion itself.

    There are only three categories of individual who do not accept the reality of evolution, including human (incidentally I must put in a recommendation to visit the superb Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos in Northern Spain, for anyone happening to be in the area):

    Ignorant, stupid or delusional. And as long as those on the world stage of presidential politics play the denial game it’s hard to see how there can be much change in popular opinion; however ridiculous.

    1. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Canada is awash in anti-evolution psychosis and I don’t know about Mexico (also part of NA). The PDF does outline a pretty good science curriculum, including a lot of stuff on evolution. Their omission of human evolution is irksome but I think it reflects the misguided notion of getting along with all cultures/religions rather than an anti-evolution slant.

      1. This is exactly right, Diana.

        I, too, went carefully through the curriculum and could not find any reference to human evolution. This omission can’t help but create a sense of separateness between what the students learn about evolution (and its mechanisms) and their own connection to the world being products of this process through their direct ancestry.

        Nothing engages students more than learning stuff that is personally applicable, enlightening, and explanatory and so this intentional omission denies students this understanding… an understanding spoken of so eloquently by all the Canadian astronauts about seeing the world from the International Space Station SS and being deeply moved by understanding as if for the first time that it is one fragile yet common inheritance to every living thing, a home to all, and so all of its inhabitants interconnected by this fact of common ancestry. We are related by blood to the living world and all of its inhabitants.

        Understanding human evolution in this way is the fundamental connection needed to understand why and how we are product of and not separate from the natural world we so often take for granted (as so many diverse religious beliefs would have us assume is established for our dominion).

          1. I completely agree. I can’t think of a single issue in science I’d rather know about than human evolution, not that I can understand much. But I do try.

  9. For me, the ultimate power of evolution is evidenced in our species. What the evolutionary algorithm can achieve! Leaving that out is like building a house and leaving off the roof.

    Those responses were the typical responses you’d get from a seasoned politician: measured and weak. It is easy to see this is motivated by the supposed need to not rock the religious boat.

  10. I think the best that can be said of this research into the Canadian system is that they do teach something and tactfully try to run past the parts that scare them.

    Better than in the U.S. where they mostly teach nothing and in many places simply call evolution a damn lie.

  11. Logarithms, trigonometric functions and calculus (along with French, German and some parts of history) made me VERY uncomfortable in school, but were MY sensitivities ever taken into consideration? NOOOO!

    1. I agree with Larry that the curriculum is very good when it comes to evolution but I did see some red flags (especially in the weird way they map science back to goals) and the bit about sensitivities as I don’t think that needs to be said – aren’t all teachers made aware of sensitivities? Why is it necessary to bring it up in a science curriculum? And, I think it would be good to explicitly call out human evolution and have that replace some of the weirder goals they listed – i.e.: to show how humans have evolved along with other animals.

      1. That’s the red flag for me. Why do “sensitivities” need to be mentioned?

        I wonder what would happen if a dispute arose with a parent complaining about a teacher teaching human evolution. Could the teacher say they were just following the curriculum? There is nothing there that says it can’t be taught, and I’m sure many do. It’s the rare situation (not common like the US) where there’s a complaint that an issue might arise as the teacher’s position may be unsupported by the documentation.

        1. The word “sensitivities” needs to be mentioned because the other way to say it (i.e. “respect for tax paying voter parents who commit child abuse by teaching bat-shit crazy bronze age deluded myths to their kids”) sounds just a little bit harsh for us in mild mannered Canada.

        2. It also bothers me that the letter didn’t address my questions regarding the omission of human evolution. I would have bought something like, “we didn’t feel it was necessary to explicitly mention humans as they evolved like any other animal.”

          The letter instead just danced around my direct questions and that makes me suspect that there is more to the omission of human evolution in the curriculum.

          1. I think that’s a conspiracy theory, Diana.

            It’s just an overworked public servant trying to smooth things over.

            It appears from the relevant comments here (and on Larry Moran’s site) that human evolution IS taught in almost all cases. It just isn’t officially demanded by the syllabus.

            I honestly doubt whether stirring the pot is necessary or going to improve anything, and it could well backfire.

            (The only blatant untruth I can see in the letter is “I am pleased to respond”. More likely, “Oh shit, as if I didn’t have enough to bother about”. But that’s common to almost all official responses, including the occasional ones I had to write).

            cr

            1. How is it “stirring the pot” to ask a government official to clarify the curriculum and specifically answer my question? When an official avoids an answer, it isn’t unreasonable to question why that is.

              And how could asking questions make it worse – just to get me back for being so impertinent, they will throw out the science curriculum and make everyone watch 19 Kids and Counting instead?

              1. As I said in the previous thread – what are you hoping to achieve? At the moment, human evolution is (reputedly) almost universally taught anyway. The curriculum implies it without explicitly requiring it.

                So, what do you want? Specifically add ‘human evolution’ as a curriculum requirement? I’d say that might actually galvanise opposition. Most likely (IMO) if it was changed, it would end up with an escape clause e.g. “Human evolution should be taught, except where local community values are infringed” or “provided students or parents do not object” or some such. So then, the creatards, having been put on notice as it were, may feel obliged by their faith to make a formal objection, thereby nixing human evolution in their local school.

                At present, it seems, most religious parents aren’t particularly bothered, they’re content to let Caesar do Caesar’s stuff (to mangle a reference) and quietly ignore it. This is quite different from having to implicitly give approval.

                So I think, if it works reasonably well at present, poking it with a stick is unlikely to improve matters.

                And if you *don’t* want to change something, what is it you do want?

                cr

          2. From personal experience with the MOE as an Ontario teacher, email correspondence will not get you very far. After first emailing me to request that I telephone them, which I declined, I had an email exchange about a simple labour law question. The question I had was not answered after numerous back-and-forths. The exchange ended when they told me that if I needed more information I should contact a lawyer, even though they had not answered the question.

            I think they are reticent to put anything in writing. I believe this is why they seemed to prefer telephone conversations over email. But I wanted my answer in writing. I think that is what is happening here.

    2. Re daveyc

      Yeah, I really think that Prof. Coyne should listen to Prof. Moran who, after all, is a Canadian who lives in Toronto and has had children who went through the school system there.

  12. I have looked through this document and my reading of it does not support the claims of Coyne and MacPherson, especially as regards the response from the ministry being misleading.
    I have some questions.

    The document states “Evolution is the process of biological change over time based on the relationships
    between species and their environments.”
    The natural reading of this statement is that it applies to all species.
    Humans are a species, so to me is a stretch to describe the bolded statement in the leter to MacPherson as misleading.
    How is it misleading, if species means all species?

    One learning objective is “C1.2 evaluate the possible impact of an environmental
    change on natural selection and on
    the vulnerability of species (e.g., adaptation to
    environmental changes can affect reproductive
    success of an organism)”
    Why should we read the words “organism” there to exclude humans?

    One learning objective is “explain key structural and functional changes
    in organisms as they have evolved over time (e.g.,
    the evolution of eukaryotes from prokaryotes,
    of plants from unicellular organisms)”
    Aren’t humans eukaryotes?

    One learning objective is “analyse, on the basis of research, and report
    on the contributions of various scientists to
    modern theories of evolution (e.g., Charles Lyell,
    Thomas Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Charles
    Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge) ”
    Would Darwin, Gould, or Eldredge be listed if the goal was to suppress or avoid discussion of human evolution?

    In short, I think you need to read the document tendentiously to conclude that the bolded statement is misleading,
    or that the curriculum excludes humans from evolution by natural selection.

    1. But the letter didn’t say any of those things. No where were my direct questions addressed. This is where I become suspicious. Why not say, “we didn’t feel it necessary to separate humans from other animals though teachers are free to teach human evolution should they wish.”

      I would have totally bough that. Now, it could be this person is just a terrible communicator, but how could I tell the difference?

      1. You can’t tell the difference. It is a style of writing that is trained into a person who has been conditioned to not provide information in writing IMO. The “training” does not have to be explicit– just implicit in the quick learning curve of not starting fires, and putting them out as quickly as possible. That is part of their job description methinks.

        1. I doubt that’s even in their job description either (any more than ‘human evolution’ is specifically in the curriculum).

          It’s just what anyone dealing with the public will automatically and instinctively learn. Their encounter with the first few people with an axe to grind will teach them that.

          You answer as diplomatically as possible, aware that you are representing the department and your boss may end up being asked to back up what you said. So if possible, answer in generalities, aware that anything you say may be relayed to the Internet and used against you.

          cr

  13. Bureaucrats on both sides of our border speak in a common tongue. When I hear one say something like “values which should permeate the school,” I wonder if he’s referring to some new type of fire-retardant — and whether it will prove any safer than asbestos

  14. This is actually a relatively complicated topic.

    Ontario has TWO publicly funded school boards in each language (French and English), for a total of four school boards. The first set is the two “regular” public boards. The second set is, if you can believe it, two publicly funded Catholic school boards. This goes back to the founding of Canada, when the largely Catholic French speaking Canadians were guaranteed their own schools beside the largely Protestant English speaking Canadians. As time went on, the Protestant schools became secularized, while the Catholic schools did not.

    Quebec and Newfoundland also had similar systems. Both provinces decided to get rid of publicly funded Catholic schools, and Ontario could too, but either the politicians in power agree with the status quo or are afraid of upsetting voters. See http://www.oneschoolsystem.org/ for more information.

    Ontario’s public education system and policies are poisoned by this Catholic influence.

    When I was a teenager, my suburban community of 15 000 near Ottawa did not have a local high school. The closest public high school was about 20 mins away by car/bus in a small rural farming community. So the English Catholic board built a Catholic high school. Students who weren’t Catholic flocked to this school because they could walk to it. There they were forced to sit through mandatory religious classes and go to Catholic religious services. Today, only about 15 years later, this community has grown to 30 000 – 35 000, and it still doesn’t have a “regular” public high school.

    I went to Teacher’s College in Ottawa. I am certified to teach Phys. Ed., Science, and Biology at the high school level. I have horror stories about reading Catholic sex-ed curriculum documents, my professors, and my peers, some of whom became certified to teach Biology at the high school level despite outright telling me that they “didn’t believe in evolution”.

    Based on my experiences, I will probably never teach in a public school, and may never teach anywhere ever.

    1. I forget to mention. 5 years ago my step-daughter was in a *Catholic* school. She was taught humans evolved.

      The division is not a clear as it used to be. There is some element of choice in what school you attend and the catholic schools cannot reject non-catholic students. Many of her classmates were non-Catholic. Religion classes were not mandatory, but I think they used to be.

      Most people have wanted to get rid of the catholic system for a long time, which obviously should happen. I am not hopeful about getting it eliminated anytime soon. Actually it has had some benefits, in providing a little bit of choice and competition, but has led also to demands for yet more sectarian schools. A few years ago the provincial Tory party made funding for muslim schools part of their platform (and were defeated).

      1. In the US, the Catholic parochial schools generally use the Miller and Levine textbook and teach evolution. All too many of the public schools do not.

      2. They aren’t supposed to be able to discriminate, but they still do. Almost all of the newest schools built in Ontario in the last 20 years are Catholic schools, and they are all built in booming suburbs. Student flock to them and then they run out of space. When they run out of space, guess which students might not get in?

        Religion classes aren’t mandatory, but students, parents, teachers, and principals rarely realize that students must be allowed to opt out if they ask (info on that here: http://www.myexemption.com/).

        And don’t even get me started on the teacher hiring process for Catholic boards. Clearly discriminatory.

        I currently live in BC. BC has implemented the John Tory plan, because BC funds private schools of all religions. Which is also the wrong way to go.

        I completely disagree that having multiple redundant and discriminatory public school boards has been beneficial in any way. If the Catholic high school in the community that I grew up in was simply a “regular” public high school, the savings on busing and fuel alone would be worth it. And that’s without saying anything about the inherent contradiction between Catholic teachings and education.

    2. “When I was a teenager, my suburban community of 15 000 near Ottawa did not have a local high school.”

      Having been born and raised in Ottawa would be interested to know which suburb, if you can say.

  15. Perhaps it’s my bias, but “Human activities affect the diversity of living things in ecosystems.” sounds like they are implying that the “living things” they are referring to are somehow distinct from humans.

  16. Not to mention the pseudoscience in the snc 4m course. There are no resources available to ontario science teachers for the course except for booklets that are made available to those taking the on line course. In the medical Tech unit, there Is jnfo on native remedies as well as chinese remedies. And, if i remember correctly, a comment about optimal health being a combination of traditional medicine with native or chinese medicine!! I have a copy of this and will try and post it.

  17. Sadly, it appears to be a better curriculum than many U.S. public schools, especially in the South, where not only is evolution not taught, but biblical creationism is taught.

    1. I think it is an excellent curriculum but I just don’t like the weasel room left. I could be paranoid but the Catholic influence always gets me worried.

  18. It’s a well known fact that Ontario has always been under the control of religious freaks. It wasn’t so long ago that if a man and woman entered an establishment that served alcohol, the law, mandated that the man could enter through the front door, but the woman had to enter by a side door. Not to glamorize drinking; however, to this day the beer stores and liquor outlets in Ontario don’t open on Sundays until 12:00 noon. Thanks Ontario for protecting us from the devil.

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