Teaching Evolution In The Start-Up Nation

Educating students on Darwin’s theory of evolution—especially with regard to mankind’s common origins—can be tricky in Israel, teachers say.

A detail of British artist John Collier's 1883 painting of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin's former home. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A detail of British artist John Collier's 1883 painting of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin's former home.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Darwin’s theory of evolution is a contentious topic of discussion in high schools and even some university classrooms in Israel, educators argue. While Israel is often referred to as the Start-Up Nation—a technological hub of innovation and advancement second only to Silicon Valley in the US—opposition to the scientific study of human evolution is becoming more evident in the Jewish state.
Last week, Israel Channel 10 News reported that the Education Ministry was quietly discouraging the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. Several educators told the Israeli network that they had received little training on how to properly teach the subject and had therefore opted not to teach it all.
While the report focused on elementary, middle and high schools, it appears the problem might extend to some places of higher learning in the country as well.
Dr. Guy Bloch, a biology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, noted he had experienced opposition within the university itself to the teaching of evolutionary theory, especially from religious and conservative groups.
“When I was head of the department, we had to work very hard to strengthen the study of evolutionary theory,” Dr. Bloch told The Media Line. “It was not compulsory beforehand even for biology students, which is astounding.”
In his opinion, religious students sometimes view human evolution as a challenge to their faith and sacred texts like the Torah (Old Testament).
“Some people take the creation story in the Torah literally and Darwin provides an alternative [to that],” he said. “With regard to secular people, the issue is different: The problem is that human evolution is difficult to understand and not entirely intuitive. It is possible to demonstrate evolution using simpler examples like bacteria, where the process takes place much more rapidly.”
“[Scientists are currently facing a] challenge with bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, but as soon as we talk about the evolution of human beings, for some people it becomes very complicated even though the process is basically parallel.”
Dr. Ilan Gronau, a senior lecturer at the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center who has researched evolution, said he had not experienced any opposition to the theory, but that it should be of central importance in any high school biology class. He believes the Education Ministry has managed to successfully skirt around more controversial aspects of the theory by not mentioning human evolution specifically.
“In the United States, the topic of evolution is much more explosive than in Israel,” Dr. Gronau asserted to The Media Line. “Here in Israel, however, I think the Education Ministry has managed to avoid teaching it in schools for the most part, and in such a way that most of the public remains unaware of the issue.
“Overall, I think the situation in Israel is positive, but evolution seems to be treated as a controversial theory, which should not be the case at all,” he added.
Others working in the field of biology disagreed that the teaching of evolution is a problem in Israel, with one professor saying the Channel 10 report was “simply not true.”
“For the past few years, evolution has appeared in the syllabus for high school biology as an obligatory topic,” Professor Anat Yarden, the head of the Department of Science Teaching and head of the Biology Group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, told The Media Line. “It appears also as part of the junior high syllabus in grades eight and nine.”
Dr. Yarden was referring to a recent change made to middle and high school curricula. Up until the 2015 academic year, evolutionary theory was only taught as part of an elective high school biology class, which the vast majority of Israeli students did not take.
Following the Education Ministry’s revisions, however, the subject is now included as part of the core curriculum in both junior and high school. Still, the sensitive topic of mankind’s origins from primates is not mentioned. Rather, the official middle school syllabus includes evolution under the rubric “ecology,” with a focus on how environmental factors affect natural selection across species, and
how human beings influence such natural processes.
“It is true that it is perhaps not so easy for religious or conservative people to accept [human evolution],” Dr. Yarden conceded. “But this item about evolution not being taught is simply not true. High school teachers must teach it, because it’s obligatory.”
According to a 2016 Pew Report, evolution remains a contentious topic among many Israelis. The survey found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis believe in evolution, with notable disparities between religious and secular populations.
Only 3% of ultra-Orthodox Jews believe in evolution, compared to 11% of Modern Orthodox and 35% of traditional Jews. By contrast, about 83% of secular Israelis believe in the theory.
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