South Korea to Reconsider Plan to Drop Evolution Examples From Textbooks

Evolutionary dispute. A Korean creationist group called for deleting discussion of the bird ancestor Archaeopteryx (above) and horse evolution from high school textbooks.

H. Raab/Wikimedia

The South Korean government is poised to appoint a new committee that will revisit a controversial plan to drop two examples of evolutionary theory from high school textbooks. The committee, to be led by insect taxonomist Byoung-Hoon Lee, a member of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology, has been asked to re-evaluate requests from a Korean creationist group to drop references to bird and horse evolution that they argue promote "atheist materialism."

At the same time, about 50 prominent Korean scientists are preparing to present government officials with a petition, organized by the Korean Association of Biological Sciences, which calls for rejecting the proposed changes.

"When these things are done, I think it will turn out that after all Korean science will not surrender to religion, so to speak," says Jae Choe, an evolutionary biologist at Ewha Womans University in Seoul who helped organize the petition.

The controversy began in May, when Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced that revised editions of high school textbooks would leave out discussion of two examples of evolution: the Archaeopteryx, an ancient ancestor to birds, and ancestors of the modern horse.

The Society for Textbook Revise (STR), an independent offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research, had proposed the revisions. According to microbiologist Bun-Sam Lim, the chief of STR's Scholarship Committee, the organization aims to weed out "atheist materialism" that paints an "unhopeful" worldview for students. The Archaeopteryx and horse examples were targeted as "typical icons of evolutionism," Lim said in an e-mail.

Last month, the Korean media picked up the story, which was first reported by Nature on 5 June, sparking extensive public discussion. Some Korean scientists were particularly upset that the Nature story reported that "anti-evolution sentiment seems to be winning its battle with mainstream science" in Korea, says Choe, who is known as Korea's Richard Dawkins or E. O. Wilson (Choe's former Harvard University adviser). "The Nature article was good in one sense, but in another it was quite humiliating to Korean scientists," says Choe. "We didn't surrender. We're not really that frail."

Choe says he also received more than 60 e-mails from high school and elementary school students around the country. "They ask me: 'What's going on and why aren't you responding to this?' " he says. Soon, Choe and other researchers began organizing the petition against the textbook changes.

Prior to the Nature article, many scientists did not want to "participate in that muddy debate" over the teaching of evolution, says Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University who also helped organize the petition. Choe, for example, hadn't wanted to debate with creationists because he worried that "responding to them somehow legitimizes their actions."

On 24 June, the controversy prompted the education ministry to announce that it would seek "expert opinions" on the issue from the Korean academy and the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies before finalizing the revisions. It asked Lee to lead the effort.

Now, "I think we have room to fix the situation," Jang says. He believes that scientists may even be able to persuade officials to replace the Archaeopteryx and horse examples with more compelling examples of evolution, and rework textbooks to be more engaging for students.

"We've been making good progress," Choe adds. "After all this hoopla, it looks as if South Korea will not 'surrender' to creationist demands."

The STR's Lim, meanwhile, says the group won't end its efforts to remove other evolution examples from Korean textbooks "one by one."

But that could be difficult, notes Choe. Government regulations mandate that all Korean science textbooks include a section on evolutionary theory with a discussion of the fossil record. STR sidestepped those rules by targeting two examples of evolution whose exact mechanisms evolutionary biologists still puzzle over, Choe says. "Korean newspapers give the impression that the whole discussion of evolution is disappearing" from textbooks, Choe says, "which is ridiculous, but exactly what the STR was aiming at."