South Korea, a World Leader in Science Ed, Removes Examples of Evolution From Student Textbooks

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 25 2012 1:01 PM

South Korea, a World Leader in Science Ed, Removes Examples of Evolution From Student Textbooks

A student reads a book at Korea University in Seoul.
A student reads a book at Korea University in Seoul.

Photo by PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea is known for providing some of the world’s best science and mathematics education.

But just like in the United States, tensions exist between those who promote science education and those whose religious beliefs conflict with what’s being taught.

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Earlier this month, the Society for Textbook Revise pressured South Korean publishers to remove specific evolutionary examples from high school biology textbooks, reported Nature, which has dominated the English-language coverage of the story. The group describes evolution theory as an “error” and hopes to “correct” students’ understanding of biology.

In response, the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced that publishers will exclude examples of the evolution of the horse and the Archaeopteryx, an ancestor to modern-day birds, in revised editions of their textbooks.

Predictably, the scientific community objected. While the revisions still stand, MEST announced the formation of a committee, comprised of evolutionary scientists, to oversee future revisions of science textbooks.

Despite this, many Korean researchers feel excluded from the decision. “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,” said Seoul National University evolutionary scientist Dayk Jang told Nature. He has formed a group of 30 like-minded researchers supporting evolutionary education.

South Korea’s attitude toward evolution is complex and has become a major issue within the nation’s science community, one that seems to extend beyond personal religion.

A 2011 survey by the International Journal of Science Education revealed that 40 percent of South Korean biology educators themselves question evolution. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the study reports that “[r]eligious beliefs … do not appear to be strongly associated with diminished evolution content knowledge. In other words, understanding of evolution is not significantly related to religious belief.” Jang says that there simply aren’t enough evolutionary scientists teaching in South Korean universities.

Eventually, this could threaten South Korea’s dominance in science, David K. Wright, an assistant professor at Seoul National University, wrote recently in the Korea Times. “Removing this component [evolution] of the science curriculum deprives our children of the basic knowledge they need to undertake careers in science. … If changes to scientific curricula are taken to the STR’s logical end, Korean research institutes will have difficulty filling positions with indigenous scientists and Korea’s stature will fall on the global scale.”

Read more from Slate's special issue on science education and give us your best ideas for raising the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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