Although Turkey is a member of NATO and is one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East, its government is becoming increasingly conservative and, since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as President in 2014, increasingly Islamicized. By law it’s a secular state, but with 95% of the population Muslim and President Erdoğan seemingly devoted to bringing back religious values, secularism is under siege. One object of religiously-inspired government animus is evolution.
This came clear to me when the late Aykut Kence, perhaps the most famous evolutionist in Turkey, invited me to give a talk at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara on Darwin Day in 2008. Never have I seen a more enthusiastic group of students, professors, and the public (the lecture I gave against creationism had 1200 attendees!). They loved evolution, and one reason is because every student who loved evolution was pretty much drawn to this school, for evolution wasn’t widely taught. METU is also one of the best and most selective schools in Turkey. I was inspired, but little did I know that evolution was soon going to be squeezed by the government.
In an eLife article (click on screenshot below), anthropologist
The infamous Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) published his Atlas of Creation, a series of glossy and expensive-to-produce books that were sent to nearly every biologist in America. Then in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the government banned an issue of the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik devoted to Darwin:
For me, the breaking point came in 2009. To mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik decided to dedicate its front cover and several articles to the famous naturalist. The government banned the issue: the cover was changed, the articles were removed, and the editor-in-chief (one of Turkey’s leading archaeologists) was fired. I still remember my outrage when I heard the news. Bilim ve Teknik is run by TÜBİTAK, a state agency that grants scientific funding. For a long time, it was the only science magazine widely accessible in Turkey. Many people in my generation, myself included, first encountered science through its pages. Massive demonstrations were held across the country in solidarity with the editor. My friends and I visited every professor in our department, encouraging them to join the protest outside of our university. Thousands of young people eagerly attended events that encouraged the defence of the theory of evolution. It was so exciting to see.
That in turn led to organized “protests,” including translating Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” website into Turkish, and a series of conferences named after Aykut Kence, who died in 2014. (Tthey continue, and I’ve been invited to participate.)
My own breaking point, at least in fighting the incipient Turkish theocracy, came in 2017, when the government entirely banned the teaching of evolution in secondary schools. A I wrote at the time:
There is no doubt why this is happening: it’s part of the increasing Islamicization of Turkey by the theocratic strongman Erdoğan, who is increasingly demolishing the secular government set up by Kemal Atatürk in favor of Muslim habits and strictures. Besides arresting 50,000 perceived opponents, arrogating more power for himself, imposing more restrictions in alcohol, and reintroducing religious (i.e., Islamic) education in schools, Erdoğan’s now attacking science education.
Since the Qur’an states that humans were created like this:
And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay
Then We place him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging
Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and we made [from] the lump bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah, the best of creators.
. . . and because many Muslims believe the Qur’an should be read literally, teaching evolution can be seen as anti-Islam, and few Muslim-majority countries teach it in secondary schools. (I once had a Turkish cab driver lecture to me about evolution and how the Qur’an says that humans were created, though he didn’t know I was an evolutionary biologist.)
And so a Turkish student can go all the way through high school and not learn a word about evolution—the central organizing theory of biological diversity. It is banned, and since the alternative is Islamic creationism, that’s the default option. Fortunately, the ban doesn’t apply to public universities—the Turkish government is smart enough to know how that would look.
As we dream of a better country, we continue to resist. Following meetings at the ministerial level, board members of the Society have managed to get some basic evolutionary concepts reinstated to the curriculum. Volunteers have been organising the Aykut Kence Evolution Conference for over 16 years now, passing it on from one generation of students to the next. It attracts over a thousand attendees every year; when they invited me as speaker, I was amazed by the ambitions of those in attendance. Together with my peers, I still join and organise online and on-site events to promote scientific thinking and enlightenment to students and the public – for example, an online series on human evolution has already received several thousand views and is still getting attention. We also do not limit ourselves to evolutionary biology anymore. As in other parts of the world, anti-vaccine movements rose in Turkey during the pandemic, aided by the recent decline in basic science education. Communicating scientific thinking is more important now than ever.
As a scientist, I believe I have a responsibility towards the people whose taxes funded my education and now fund my research. I am indebted to those who have guided me in the dark as a young student, and to those who cherish the dream of becoming a scientist in Turkey one day. I cannot say that our careers as evolutionary researchers have all been easy, but they may not have been as difficult as one could think. My journey has taught me that when oppressed people stop being alone, they also stop being afraid. To those who need hope and believe in the idea of change, you are not on your own. Our stories will also be your story.