Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Evolution Education In The U.S. And India

Biologist Ursula Goodenough is cautiously upbeat about high school biology portions in the U.S. She has been reviewing them and finds that evolution finds a mention in most of the standards. Human evolution however is included in the standards of just one state - Florida.

Now while this may be seen as an improvement, a survey of how well evolution is actually taught in high school doesn't sound too upbeat.

Some time back a number of science news outlets wrote about the results of a survey by two political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer on the state of high school evolution education in the U.S.

Their survey showed what was always known, that the majority of teachers don't take teaching evolution seriously. This may be because they are not trained enough to tackle the subject matter or are intimidated by creationist students and parents or are creationists themselves and refuse to teach evolution.

In India, high school biology classes lack the drama unfolding today in the U.S. Evolution is simply a non-issue here. The biology syllabus is set by a central national level school board. Unlike the U.S. there is no scope for local school boards populated by religious fundamentalists to influence science standards. There is no demand for textbooks to be plastered with stickers urging students to consider "alternative" theories and there are no threats issued to biology teachers.

I've flipped through the chapters on evolution of the CBSE board for 10th and 12th. They cover a lot of the basics and include a unit on human evolution too.  One might quibble about a few things here and there, but a dedicated teacher with an interest in evolution will find a lot to build upon and make the subject interesting for students. I can't comment on the quality of teaching of evolution. Likely it varies depending on the skill and training of individual teachers.

What is lacking though is controversy!

Although biology syllabus is set at a national level, there is always scope for parents to register complaints to local schools about what is being taught in class. Most parents in India too are deeply religious. We too have our share of religious fundamentalists.  But fights over teaching of evolution are unheard of in urban India.

I think one reason is the diminished role science plays during the high school phase. In India, applied and technical careers are preferred over a career as a scientist. Hardly anyone talks about becoming an evolutionary biologist. Hardly anyone looks at the science syllabus as an inspiration for becoming a scientist. So, that the theory of evolution is important or alternatively is a controversial subject rarely becomes a topic of discussion between parents, teachers and children.

The other reason I think is our obsession with preparation for examinations. Despite more choice in careers and separate entrance exams for various technical degrees, standards 10th and 12th are still seen as exams that will set the future course of your life, an important stepping stone to lucrative career paths.  Most parents don't want to get into fights with school authorities in the fear that any disagreements might adversely affect their child's performance in school.

They look at the syllabus not for its educational merit or in case of evolution in fear over what it might be doing to the moral values of their children, but how easily it can be mastered to score the highest possible marks. Even for religious fundamentalists, the practical matter of their child's performance in exams trumps any personal conflicts with evolution they might be harboring.

More generally, evolution is a non issue here because no one thinks of evolution as any different from other topics. It is simply just another module to be mugged up for the all important exam.


  1. A survey shows 75% of Americans do not believe in evolution. Infact at one time there were stickers being put in high school textbooks which mentioned that Darwin's theory may have gaps. Moreover intelligent design has made things more controversial. Many think believing The Origin of Species is going againts the Book of Genesis which I think is absolutely wrong.I think, the problem arises when you try to mix up science and religion. They are best left alone.

  2. thanks for visiting UB..yes the creationist movement is strong in the U.S and in a political position to influence science standards.. in India for now at least fundamentalists have little influence on science standards and syllabus..

  3. well written!! i'm an ardent follower of evolutionary biology & was looking for a reason to the lack of issues regarding the teaching of evolution in India considering that we have too many super-religious people with blind faith in creationism. I think I've found some good reasons through your 'good' piece.

  4. I am an Indian. I find ur observation about India interesting and I fully agree with u on this

  5. nice and true, its because in india nothing matters if you secure good marks. I'm atheist my parents are devoted but they praise me because i'v been a A-grader! but i couldn't tell my parents that i do not want to sit in exams of IAS/PCS! they know i'm atheist but not that i'm not interested in gov. job!!

  6. The reason India does not have a problem with Science or Darwin's evolution is because majority of India is Hindu & Dharmic. Not Abrahamic. Indian Muslims & Christians reject evolution & science.