Aykut Kence dies

Aykut KenceThe Turkish biologist Aykut Kence died on February 1, 2014, at the age of 67, according to soL Portal (February 1, 2014). A pioneer in evolutionary biology and population genetics in Turkey, and a mentor to many of the country's evolutionary biologists, he was also a tireless advocate for the teaching of evolution, opposing the government's attempts to include creationism in the Turkish biology curriculum and the efforts of fundamentalist groups to undermine the teaching of evolution.

Writing in Reports of the NCSE in 1999, Kence and a colleague reviewed the history of evolution education in the Turkish Republic. From 1923, when the country was founded, to 1948, education was wholly secular. The rise of fundamentalism after World War II eventually ushered creationism to the biology classroom in the 1980s, thanks to a minister of education impressed with "scientific creationism," and textbooks were revised to teach evolution "in a biased, ludicrous, and non-scientific way." A change in government in 1998 led to temporary improvements in evolution education. But these improvements "infuriated and mobilized those who wanted evolution to be taken out of the curriculum," including powerful Turkish politicians as well as the Islamic creationist organization headed by the pseudonymous Harun Yahya, which launched — and continues — a well-funded and ill-founded blitz against evolution, both in Turkey and worldwide. The result is that Turkey enjoys the lowest rate of acceptance of evolution in the developed world, according (subscription required) to a 2005 study published in Science, and as Kence and two colleagues wrote (subscription required) in Science and Education in 2010, "[c]urrently most students at K-12 and beyond in Turkey are not provided with a scientific understanding of the origin and history of life." From the 1980s to his death, Kence consistently was at the forefront of scientists working to counter and reverse the antievolution activity in Turkey — even despite receiving anonymous death threats. "I won't let them silence me," Kence told (subscription required) the journal Science in 2001. "If knowledgeable people keep quiet, it only helps those who spread nonsense."

Aykut Kence was born in Istanbul, Turkey, on August 27, 1946. He received his diploma in zoology and botany from Istanbul University in 1968 and then earned his Ph.D. in biology from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1973. After a postdoctoral stint at the University of Houston, he returned to Turkey, spending the rest of his career in the biology department of the Middle East Technical University of Ankara. He served as the president of the Biological Association of Turkey from 1988 to 1992.