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Muslim students weigh in on evolution

April 3, 2009 By Hannah HH Hoag This article courtesy of Nature News.

In Indonesia and Pakistan, questions about how science and faith can be reconciled.

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In the first large study of its kind, a survey of 3,800 high-school students in Indonesia and Pakistan has found that teachers are delivering conflicting messages about evolution.

The Can$250,000 Islam and Evolution research project is the first large study of students, teachers and scientists in countries with significant Muslim populations to examine their understanding and acceptance of evolution. Some results from the three-year project were presented at a symposium at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, this week.

"We now have empirical data for how Muslim students, teachers and scientists think about the subject," says Brian Alters, the study's lead investigator and director of the Evolution Education Research Center, a joint project between McGill and Harvard universities. "It was pretty much a black hole prior to this."

The survey polled 2,500 students enrolled in public high schools in Pakistan and 1,300 high-school students in public and Islamic schools in Indonesia. It found that students had a good understanding of evolution. "The majority of students thought evolution was based on solid evidence and that it was a well accepted scientific concept," says Anila Asghar, a science education researcher at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who was involved in the study. For example, 85% of students agreed with the statement that millions of fossils show that life has existed for billions of years and changed over time.

But when students were asked if "the first humans on planet Earth were created by God, not gradually, but in their present form", 80% of Pakistani students and 49% of Indonesian students surveyed agreed.

Teaching the teachers

When the students were asked if the holy book of their religion was in conflict with science regarding explanations of human origins, 64% of Pakistani students and 36% of Indonesian students agreed. The country differences may stem, in part, from the textbooks used, says Asghar. Some Indonesian teachers, for instance, used materials produced by Turkish creationist Harun Yahya, but these were not used in Pakistan. Conversely, many Pakistani textbooks included Koranic verses that were interpreted to show that scientific ideas of evolution and the Koran were not in conflict.

Still, interviews with high-school teachers showed that most teachers had a vague understanding of evolution, did not accept it and tended to include religious explanations in their teaching.

"We can address these issues in teacher education programmes," says team member Jason Wiles, who studies science education at Syracuse University in New York. "If they don't understand evolution and they have a contradictory view, then they are going to oppose it, not teach it and tell their students that it is wrong....This is the next generation of Muslim scientists, teachers and community leaders."

On the other hand, says Asghar, Muslim scientists surveyed did not see any conflict between Islam and evolution, although some said they faced opposition from colleagues from other sciences or departments. Of 12 Pakistani biologists interviewed, one rejected evolution. In June 2006, both the Pakistani and Indonesian academies of sciences — and many other countries with Muslim majorities — signed a statement urging parents and teachers to educate children about the origins and evolution of life on Earth.

The data could also be useful to biology professors in North America who teach an increasingly diverse student population, says Wiles.

"It means that people like myself in the ivory tower have to reach out and engage people," adds Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary developmental biologist at McGill University, who was not involved in the study. "I'm concerned about every detail of evolution and trying to discover its deeper meaning … and much of the world doesn't believe it or want to believe in it."

"You can't understand modern medicine or biotechnology without having evolution as the organizing principle," says Joshua Rosenau, a project director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. "The lack of understanding of evolution will hold some countries back. I worry that it will hold the United States back, too."

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