In March 2009, the ultramodern city of Hong Kong became an unlikely battleground in the war on evolution.
The Hong Kong Education Bureau is currently conducting a series of initiatives to update the city's school system, and a new curriculum for high schools was scheduled for implementation in September 2009. Its development attracted little notice from the public until a problematic statement was discovered in the draft biology curriculum: "In addition to Darwin's theory, students are encouraged to explore other explanations for evolution and the origins of life, to help illustrate the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge." Nowhere else in the science curriculum was there a similarly worded clause invoking "other explanations" as rivals to an established scientific theory.
Scientists at the University of Hong Kong, including Dean of Science Sun Kwok, Science Faculty Board Chairman David Dudgeon, former manager of its Genome Research Centre William Mak, and Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Jason Ali, expressed their concerns about this language to the South China Morning Post. The scientists argued that the draft guidelines on teaching evolution tacitly encouraged schools to promote creationism in their biology lessons. In the same article, the Morning Post reported that over thirty of Hong Kong's governmentaided schools openly endorsed "intelligent design" or creationism as "alternative explanations" (Heron 2009a). (These schools are fully funded by the government and required to follow its curriculum, but are owned and administered by private organizations, usually religious in nature. A smaller number of schools are actually owned and operated by the government.)
Yet the Education Bureau was reluctant to act and insisted that there were no problems with the clause cited. In early March 2009, I, and others who were concerned, started a Facebook group, "The Concern Group for Hong Kong Science Education" (http://www.facebook.com/board.php?uid=50382348521).
Standing Up for Evolution
We decided to approach the issue by asking the Education Bureau to clear up the confusion caused by the remarks of some educators who endorsed creationism, and by starting a website to document the whole incident and to pool together resources for understanding evolution and debunking creationism.
With help from friends in local activist groups, we were able to contact Cyd Ho, the Chairperson for the Legislative Council Panel on Education. The panel is a committee of legislators tasked with monitoring and discussing the government's educational policies, and with making recommendations about them to the Council as a whole; while it has no direct authority over the Education Bureau, its opinions carry considerable weight with the latter body. Ho agreed to put forward our case to the Panel for its attention.
On April 16, 2009, we submitted a paper to the panel. In this paper, we observed that the present draft guidelines contained a loophole permitting the teaching of "intelligent design"and other nonscientific material in science classes, and we criticized the Education Bureau for ignoring the advice of scientists and educators. We noted the consensus of the international scientific community that evolution is the only well-supported theory for the diversity of modern life, and added that Nature had reported on the scientific community's concern over the guidelines (Cyranoski 2009). Finally, we urged the Education Bureau to review and reconsider its curriculum, to address the nature of science and the question of whether creationism or "intelligent design" qualify as scientific theories, and to clarify what sort of alternatives to evolutionary theory and abiogenesis would be allowed by the curriculum.
Our submission to the Panel was reported in a local newspaper, the South China Morning Post, by reporter Liz Heron who was independently following the story (Heron 2009b). On April 24, a local news program ("The Pulse," on Radio Television Hong Kong) also reported the curriculum row. As a result of our submission and the ensuing publicity, the Legislative Council's Panel on Education urged the Education Bureau to provide a written response.
Meanwhile, our group had contacted a senior official in the Education Bureau, whom we met in early May. The official was initially reluctant to acknowledge our concerns, however, saying that this was an "academic debate". From other sources, we learned that a group of sixty or so people was also "interested" in this issue; we found out later in May that they were the stealth "intelligent design" proponents in Hong Kong. To our surprise, they included principals of elite high schools, molecular biologists, and even a dean from a local university. We realized that we were faced with a very tough challenge.
As early as April, I had gotten in touch with NCSE to seek help. When the "Group of 64"(as it came to be known) sent a letter to the panel on May 11 (Heron 2009c), recommending that the problematic language be retained, we referred it to NCSE for analysis, which pointed out that "intelligent design" propaganda filled the group's writing: references to the Discovery Institute's Dissent from Darwin list, claims that the Cambrian Explosion challenges evolution, and the like. Although the Group of 64 did not mention creationism by name in its letter to the panel, the argument was clearly designed to defend it; it criticized the practice of methodological naturalism in science and asserted that life could not originate through "natural processes".
NCSE had provided a great deal of background information on the nature of science and the scope of scientific support for evolution, which we used in our first submission to the Panel. For our second submission, on May 19, we again used NCSE's help to debunk the Group of 64's claims; an expanded version of this analysis was placed on our website.
The Panel on Education was very busy and hardly talked about the creationism issue for weeks. While we waited anxiously for the Education Bureau's response, debates in the form of letters to the editor raged in the South China Morning Post, and "intelligent design" proponents spammed our Facebook page.
We enlisted two academics to advise us, while I and Adrian Mok maintained the website. I also attended as many panel meetings as possible to follow up.
The whole saga was revealing to us in a number of ways:
The extent of creationism in our school system and academia was beyond our imagination; the Group of 64 includes professors from six academic institutes.
The ignorance of the public about this subject was also surprising — many do not understand why evolution is important and what is problematic about creationism, and thought that it would be beneficial to add any extra material to the curriculum.
The way local "intelligent design"proponents work is a mirror of their US counterparts: quote-mining, misrepresenting both science and "intelligent design", and concealing their true motives for attacking evolution. NCSE's assistance in tracking down misquotations and sourcing creationist claims was very useful in combating these tactics.
In June we began the signature campaign for a public petition to the Education Bureau. This petition called for a review of the new curriculum with respect to its implications for the teaching of pseudoscientific material, and the release of a statement emphasizing the importance of evolution in biology and the inappropriateness of discussing creationism in science class. To our pleasant surprise, we received over 700 signatures, including those of eighty academics from all over the world, among them Steven Weinberg and Daniel Dennett!
As our signature campaign reached its close, good news arrived: on June 22, 2009, the Education Bureau issued a five-page document, excluding "intelligent design" and creationism from the biology curriculum. The Morning Post reported this as a "Victory for Darwin" (Heron 2009d); Nature followed suit, reporting that the Bureau had "vindicated biologists — and disappointed creationists" (Anonymous 2009).
Was it a total victory for Darwin, though? We were not quite convinced. The language about "other explanations" was still in the draft curriculum and had not been satisfactorily explained. Furthermore, the document issued by the Bureau appeared to have been directed primarily to the media; there was no indication that it would be disseminated to Hong Kong's educators as well. On August 15, we submitted our petition to the Bureau, expressing the position of the general public as well as the opinion of the scientists.
On September 9, we received a formal response from the Bureau, with language similar to that of the document it had previously issued. The Bureau stated that "Creationism and Intelligent Design are not included in the Biology Curriculum framework nor are they considered as an alternative to Darwin's theory. ... Only evolution is included as it is supported with evidence to explain the origin of species." It also clarified that "other explanations" should be discussed only to shed light on the historical development of evolutionary theory, and invoked the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Russel Wallace as examples of such explanations. However, the Bureau did not express any intent to write these clarifications into the curriculum itself, or to announce them to the schools of Hong Kong. Furthermore, the Bureau gave no explanation at all of why and when "other explanations"of "the origins of life" might be appropriate for discussion. We fear, therefore, that the Bureau's response may not yet signal any actual change in educational policy. We are currently composing another formal reply to the Bureau, and hope that further media exposure will encourage it to take genuine action.
Although our concerns about the treatment of evolution in the biology curriculum are somewhat abated,we continue to defend the teaching of evolution in Hong Kong. Over the months we have populated our website (http://sites.google.com/site/hkscienceeducation/Home) with lots of articles, FAQs, and links. We hope it will continue to be a useful resource for local educators — who, as we discovered during the course of our efforts, are likely to be besieged for many years to come by those wanting creationism to be taught alongside evolution.