The UK education system needs to evolve

Mark Roper argues that an understanding of evolution is vital to modern society, and that schools must adapt to reflect this.

The skull of homo erectus Source:flickr

Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” as Theodosius Dobzhansky once said. And it still rings as true as ever. Without an understanding of evolution, observations and experiments on organisms could never be satisfied with reason. We would be blind towards explanations of why organisms are what they are and behave the way they do. The intricate delicacy of a mammal’s circulatory system; the cooperation of eusocial insects; the artistic, profound nature of a peacock’s tail would all remain merely phenomena without purpose.

Evolution provides reason and explanation behind these phenomena and to all adaptation across the natural world. So why is it that this principle, upon which the rest of biology is built, is so deeply neglected by the UK education system? I have had to wait until the second year of my undergraduate degree course to thoroughly delve deeper into Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The teaching of evolution in schools does not fairly represent its keystone importance in biology.

Let us consider an example. In the OCR GCSE Biology B course, 48 topics are covered yet evolution is only explicitly taught in two of them. The vast majority of the topics are taught with a disregard to evolutionary thinking even though it underpins their logic. Consequently, it is hard to believe that students who choose not to pursue further education will possess even a basic understanding of evolution. Students are exposed to the fundamental principles of maths, chemistry and physics in a manner suitable to their importance, but this isn’t the case with biology. Why?

The human-centralised view of biology found throughout our society has perforated our schools, making it clear that the current teaching of biology is aimed at future medical students, rather than any sort of practicing scientist. The importance for schools to inspire new doctors can’t be stressed enough, but for some reason, this currently appears to be a trade-off, limiting the teaching of evolution. This is flawed: a greater understanding of evolution through a more fair representation in school teaching would be helpful to everyone, especially doctors. This is highlighted when we consider the problem of antibiotic resistance, now recognised as one of the major crises facing our species. A better, general understanding of how evolution works across society would help to combat antibiotic resistant pathogens, as the current misuse—stemming from ignorance of the consequences—would cease. People are much more likely to do something if they understand why they should do it. Doctors would be more inclined to stop over-prescribing and people would be more aware of the importance of finishing their prescriptions.

The other major point as to why evolution is not currently taught to a respectable level is probably the one you expected as you began reading this article. As a former Catholic school student, I speak from personal experience when I say the teaching of religion hindered by progression as a biologist. The hypocrisy from lesson to lesson and teachers who wouldn’t listen made my time at school both frustrating and alienating. Religion has long enjoyed manipulating facts which are detrimental to its stature and somehow shoe-horn them into aligning with religious teaching. The lifespan of the earth, the big bang and now evolution all have alternative explanations from a religious point of view. I don’t want to suggest removing the teaching of religion from our education system. Religion is deeply ingrained in the history of our species, something which students should be taught about. However, I propose that it is time to stop allowing religion to hitch-hike with facts that it contradicts. It makes no logical sense to counter argue something with evidence with an alternative with no evidence. Our education system needs to accept that evolution is fact and ensure that religious education here in the UK doesn’t interfere with its teachings.

A lack of evolutionary knowledge is not a fault of the individual in our society, but the fault of our education system. We are all undoubtedly ignorant to phenomena. It is guaranteed that our lists of ignorance would be longer if it weren’t for the principles which were introduced to us at school. Evolution must be one of these principles. Just as our first experience of learning about the solar system allowed us to answer the questions of where we are in the universe, let us make the why we are here more accessible. Understanding evolution is the path towards this goal.

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