Evolution falls on hard times in Turkey

November 17, 2022 • 12:15 pm

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 N. Ezgi Altınışık, at Hacettepe University (also a very good university in Ankara) recounts the increasing marginalization of evolution in Turkey.

It began in the Seventies when conservatives in the government tried to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. They lost—for a time. Then, slowly, creationism crept into government and schools. 

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.

Altınışık ends on a note of hope, but the best hope for evolution in Turkey is to get rid of Erdoğan and his government, which isn’t a likely prospect. In the meantime, we in the West will continue to visit and help the local scientists fight the good fight. 

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.

11 thoughts on “Evolution falls on hard times in Turkey

  1. Stasis and a killing off of young minds to truth is a all to real truth of the Islam doctrine. Altınışık provides as said, some island of hope for them. The best of luck which is the best bet at the moment, to him and supporters.

  2. A real shame that Ataturk’s secular founding vision of Turkey (Türkiye, as we’re supposed to call it now I think) has been eroded by Erdoğan.

  3. Sad indeed. When I was a paleontology professor, I had a Turkish student. She was very interested in evolution and was also interested in getting more about evolution into the Turkish popular literature. So, she asked me to write an article—for a popular audience—about the history of life. This was around 1990. So, I wrote the article in English. It was translated into Turkish, and then published in a Turkish magazine. If I remember correctly it covered the broad sweep of life’s history from the Precambrian to the present. I have a reprint of the article somewhere. It was so cool to have an article in Turkish! I hope that things improve, but the trend toward religiosity doesn’t bode well for the teaching of evolution in Turkey.

    1. Thank you so much, Norman! Is it possible to share a scanned version of your article? I would be very happy to read.

  4. Does anyone have a sense of how free people in Turkiye feel about commenting on things like this to their friends outside the country/ I had a guest post-doc from there for awhile who I occasionally correspond with, but I’m always afraid of getting into sensitive topics. Is there a worry that emails are seen by censors or anything like that?

    1. Hey! This is not the case actually. Of course, nobody reads emails. Yes, there is oppressive environment here, but we continue to speak loudly inside/outside of Turkey and write openly as I did in eLife piece. I am working for a state university. I don’t think something bad will happen but if so, I know many people at home and abroad will help me. Unnecessary fear hurts the fight rather than help.

      1. OK, good, thanks for your reply! Good to hear. I didn’t want to ask her for fear of maybe causing problems. And then there’s also the aspect of complaining about something that Turkey/iye’s doing, when there’s lots that that fingers can point to in the US. She was at least pleased to learn, years ago, that I had heard of Kemal Ataturk and liked him.

  5. Lifeforms are malleable. Evolution has made it so. To make an easy point, mankind has taken advantage of this basic fact for thousands of years by domesticating, selective breeding, etc. Evolution is around us every second of the day. Just like thermodynamics and damned entropy! Not to mention gravity and the physical norms of life. It is only the poison of religion that keeps evolution stuck in some sort of limbo where it’s not really real like gravity or entropy. And religion caused this travesty. As Dawkins so aptly acknowledged and expounded upon: evolution is the greatest show on earth. Sometimes I ponder that the unacceptance of evolution by the majority of humans is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern age. Climate change is a human phenotype at this point, and accepting evolution on a global scale and acting upon its lessons might have slowed our destruction of the planet years ago…just an optimistic musing, I know.

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