Down with Darwin! How things can suddenly change for the worse when you least expect it

Massimo Polidoro

Just when one thought that creationism was just a lost war in a country like Italy, where even the Pope spoke against it and in recognition of evolution, there came a cold shower. The Italian government recently announced that evolution was going to be banned from schools. As Nature magazine (April 8, 2004) put it: “School curriculum guidelines announced in Italy last month propose that children aged eleven to fourteen do not need to be taught evolutionary theory in biology classes–but they should learn about creationism in religious studies, which are voluntary.”

It all started when the minister of education, universities, and research, Letizia Moratti, announced the new teaching programs banning teaching evolutionary theory to young teenagers.

“Pupils aged ten to thirteen are much too young to be confronted with such complicated material,” explained Director General Silvio Criscuoli, who was responsible for the teaching plans. Only older pupils who specialized in natural science were to learn about the theory of evolution.

Education Minister Moratti defended the change by explaining that pupils should learn about the origin of species gradually, according to “didactic criteria.” That is, they would first learn the biblical version of creation and, only years later, the scientific theory.

In Italy, as in the United States, creation and evolution are becoming political issues. Last February, for example, tight-wing party Alleanza Nazionale, one of the parties in Berlusconi’s governing coalition, held a series of events to dispute the theory of evolution. In the course of a conference entitled “Teaching Evolution: A Fairytale for the Schools,” parliamentarian Pietro Cerullo linked Darwin’s theory to leftist thought.

All this has provoked an uproar from the country’s top scientists, who wrote an open letter to the minister through the daily La Repubblica: “In the new program, established by legislative decree on February 19, 2004, there is no trace of the history of man’s evolution nor of the relationship between mankind and other species. Ignoring the theory of evolution is a cultural limitation sacrificing the scientific curiosity of youth. It’s unquestionably fair to point out that Darwinism ,and the theories that derived from it show gaps and unsolved problems, but the link between the past and the present of mankind shouldn’t be completely ignored. We urge therefore the italian Ministry of Education to review the secondary school’s programmes and to rectify an oversight which is detrimental to the scientific culture of the new generations.”

Fearing the measure will pave the way for creationist teaching, more than 50,000 citizens have signed the petition, leading the minister to revise her position.

“The current school reform does not have rigid programs,” said Moratti in a statement. “It features national guidelines that establish the main teaching principles, allowing teachers to adapt the program according to the context and the pupils. It is absolutely false that the ministry banned the teaching of evolution theories in primary and secondary schools. The discussion of Darwin’s theories will be included in the education of all students from six to eighteen years, according to gradual teaching criteria.”

If this was all a misunderstanding, it is not clear who then convinced all those scientists and those 50,000 worried citizens of the contrary. And it does not explain what has now induced Moratti to appoint a committee specifically to provide guidelines for teaching evolutionary theory at various stages. Chaired by Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, one of the top scientists who signed the protest petition, and featuring Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia; both are CICAP (the Italian skeptics group) members.

According to Umberto Veronesi, pioneer in the fight against cancer in Italy and director of the European Institute of Oncology, this result shows that “the ‘quiet strength’ of rationality can prevail on political positions, conflicting interests, polemics, and even motivated beliefs. It shows that science, the supreme form of rationality, can also express social values and can have cultural weight in our country…. Today our kids have conquered the opportunity of acquiring from the start that free and authentic scientific spirit that will lead them through life, independently from their specific choices. The teaching of biological evolution right from the early school years, and consequently along with the development of independent thinking, will grow their ability of interpreting the natural world around them. This is the great appeal and value of Darwin’s theories.”

“Notwithstanding minister Moratti’s reassuring words,” says Mike McIlwrath, a lawyer in Florence and Director of the U.S.-based National Center for Science Education, “the American experience teaches us that this debate is not an isolated episode, and there is always the risk of this happening again.”

Especially now, when many things seem to be changing, and not for the better, in Italy. Most Italians are in fact astonished by recent blatant attempts to limit freedom of thought. Our country, for example, has just been downgraded by Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, from Free to Partly Free due to increased media concentration and subsequent political pressure.

“Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been able to exert undue influence over the public broadcaster RAI,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Freedom House’s survey managing editor. “This further exacerbates an already worrisome media environment characterized by unbalanced coverage within Berlusconi’s enormous media empire.” The empire includes Italy’s three largest private television stations.

This same government has recently passed–but now temporarily stopped–a new law allowing torture in Italy “only if it is not reiterated.” This project, as well as the banning of evolution from schools, has now apparently been corrected, but it is a clear indication of how things can take a terrible turn at any time.

As Dacia Maraini, a respected Italian novelist, recently put it in the Corriere della sera, Italy’s largest selling newspaper: “It seems a paradox that those who, right this moment, are intent in bringing democracy and liberalism, even imposing it with guns, in countries considered to be underdeveloped, are assuming the same archaic practices of these countries, like the abolition of evolution and the massive introduction of religion in schools, personal use of guns, the glorification of war and racism and, as a completion of all this, the use of torture. When, we ask, will the cutting of hands for thieves be introduced?”

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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