As Islam takes on a more visible public profile in Turkey, academia is becoming a battleground over the theory of evolution. Scholars who espouse creationist ideas are becoming more assertive in challenging Darwinism.
The recent push by those who see a divine role in human evolution has alarmed Darwin’s adherents. In May, hundreds of academics and students angrily protested against what was billed as Turkey's first academic conference on creationist ideas, held at Istanbul's Marmara University.
"Bringing the scientific theory of evolution together with creationism undermines the foundations of science,” asserted Alaeddin Şenel, a retired professor of anthropology, in remarks to protestors outside the May 16-17 symposium. “Creationism is not supported by scientific data and doesn't have any place in education at any level."
The two-day conference on intelligent design was titled, "Why Does Science Deny Inter-Species Evolution?” It brought together over a dozen academics from across the country who used the occasion to challenge some of Darwin’s core concepts, in particular the theory of natural selection, which explains how apes developed into humans.
Many of the speakers highlighted what they claim are numerous deficiencies in the theory of evolution, supposed deficiencies that they say leave the door open to religious beliefs when teaching science. "The molecules and everything cannot randomly come together. … This theory disturbs me so much!" said geneticist Ibrahim Pirim of Izmir’s Katip Celebi University, one of the keynote speakers at the conference. "These are not random things; a creator had to put all these things in order."
One Darwin defender characterized conference participants as stuck in the Dark Ages. "You cannot teach genetics, you cannot teach biology without evolution because there are no other laws," said Kerem Cankocak, an assistance professor of physics at Istanbul Technical University. "It's the same problem if we teach that the world is not turning, but the sun is turning around the earth."
A university student club organized the symposium, but, tellingly, Marmara University rector Hamza Kandur and Turkey's administrative authority for higher education, YOK, supported the event.
Critics believe that Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, was the real organizational force behind the meeting. Earlier this year, in defense of provisions for classes on the Islamic prophet Mohammed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that "all children will be brought up as good Muslims."
Defenders of evolution have long complained that, during its decade-long rule, the (AKP) government has increasingly downplayed evolution theories in textbooks at the expense of creationist explanations. Officially, teachers are supposed to teach both concepts, but they are given great latitude in their classrooms.
The national Education and Science Workers’ Union (Egitim Sen ) claims that some of its 125,000 teacher-members now face pressure from religious parents, school administrators and Turkey’s Ministry of Education not to teach evolution. The union is warning that instruction of evolution theories is now under threat.
“The reason for having this symposium in a university is an attempt on their part to create a perception that being against evolution is supported and acknowledged by universities and the scientific world,” charged Suat Bozkurt, director of Egitim Sen’s Istanbul branch.
The ministry downplayed such claims, saying that Turkish public schools explore all ideas.
Cankocak, the physics professor, disputed official assertions, countering that many incoming university students are unfamiliar with evolutionary concepts. “My students did not learn evolution in high schools, so, therefore, in my university 90 out of 100 [students] don’t believe or don’t know evolution,” he complained. “But it’s worse in other universities."
Cankocak, who is also a researcher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, argued that government support for creationism began after the 1980 military coup d’état, when Turkey’s ruling generals vigorously encouraged Islamic beliefs as a counterweight to left-wing political ideas that enjoyed a wide following in Turkey at the time. Along with purging many teachers for liberal or leftist political sympathies, the policy introduced creationism into school textbooks and compulsory religious education.
Despite the frustrations among Turkey’s academic community, many of the students who attended the creationist symposium welcomed it. "Our lecturers say everything starts with evolution, but there are many things you can’t prove with evolution theory," asserted 20-year-old Fatma, a female medical student dressed according to Islamic tradition. “This symposium helps us to talk about it, and open us to other ideas."
“We can’t just accept evolution opinions just because it's our lecturers’ political views," added medical student Ayse Gül, another young conference attendee.
Assistant Professor Cankocak maintained that the face-off over evolution reflected a larger problem. "You cannot run a country without science,” Cankocak said. “This [the AKP’s stance on evolution] is the Middle Ages, and it's getting worse and worse."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.