British Scientists Square Off Over Evolution Teaching

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - A group of about 30 scientists has written to the British Department of Education, arguing that scientific study into the origins of man should not be limited to Darwin's theory of evolution.

The group -- including eminent scientists in biology, physics, geology and chemistry - is calling for active debate in the country's schools.

The scientists were motivated by recent reports that a top British school, the Emmanuel City Technology College, was teaching creationism in biology classes.

But several scientists and academics favoring Darwin's theory wrote letters of complaint to the education department and argued evolution should be the only hypothesis about man's origins taught in schools.

The pro-evolution scientists demanded that the school be re-inspected by education officials, despite glowing reviews after its last regular examination.

In response, the chief inspector of schools has asked Emmanuel for clarification of the school's science teaching policy.

The argument then caught the attention of leading politicians. Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the non-denominational Christian school, hailing its results and saying reports that it was promoting creationism were "somewhat exaggerated."

'How to think'

Andrew McIntosh, a professor at the University of Leeds and a spokesman for the group advocating free debate, said human origins should be left as an open question.

"We should not try to teach people what to think, but rather we should teach students how to think," he said by phone from the university. "Rigorous examination of a number of theories of origin needs to be allowed. It would be quite inappropriate to put just one theory over."

McIntosh said Darwin's theory has trouble explaining "molecule-to-man evolution" and that the ultimate origin of life is still a mystery to science.

"To immediately discount the possibility of design is unscientific," he said. "It is not right to exclude alternatives right from the word 'go'. What one should do as a scientist is leave those options open."

"Let there be an open debate in the schools and universities of England," he said.

The National Curriculum - a set of rules setting out what should be taught in all British schools - stipulates that Darwinian evolution should be taught as the dominant scientific theory. But the curriculum also requires that students are shown "how scientific controversies can result from different ways of interpreting empirical data."

"We find it most inappropriate that some well-meaning scientists have given the impression that there can only be one scientific view concerning origins," the letter reads. "By doing so they are going way beyond the limits of empirical science which has to recognise, at the very least, severe limitations concerning origins."

McIntosh said Department of Education officials have acknowledged the letter but have not yet formally responded to the scientists.

E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.