evolution supressed in new zealand? i think not

While searching for some background on another post, I happened across this headline on the Herald site: University denies author’s PhD claim. I went on to read the story, as it’s always a bit of a concern to see people claiming credentials and the supposed awarding institution denying that this is the case. And a statement from the person making the claims caught my eye.

"During a period in which ‘evolution’ became a bad word [in New Zealand] punishable by revocation of credentials and confiscation of property [the 1980’s], I refused an order from a department chairman to withdraw my books Darwin’s Universe and Time Gate from press," he told a contemporary writers’ website.

Really? I have to say, that was news to me. The history of attitudes to teaching evolution in NZ has been quite well documented, most notably in works by Numbers & Stenhouse (2000), McGeorge (1992), & Peddie (1995), & it’s an area I’ve followed with interest.. Way bac,k in the 1880s there was an attempt by local creationists to get an Otago academic removed from his post for daring to mention evolution in his lectures (to no avail), and in the 1940s the creationist lobby was successful in getting a radio program for schools that talked about the evolution of life, taken off the air.

But to claim, as this person has done, that in the 1980s you could lose your credentials or even have property confiscated for mentioning the ‘e’ word?! This was the same time that I was teaching evolutionary biology to impressionable young minds in Palmerston North high schools – and I wasn’t run out of town or tarred & feathered 😉 Mind you, the fact that evolution wasn’t taught until the last couple of years of high school, thus exposing the smallest possible number of of impressionable young minds to this dangerous idea of Darwin’s, may have had something to do with that 🙂 Similar claims have been made in the US, around the infamous movie Expelled. And they’ve been shown to be similarly without substance. (Unless, in some alternate universe…)

Don’t get me wrong – there are problems associated with teaching evolution, particularly in some parts of NZ, as Peddie documented in his 1995 thesis. But they don’t manifest in people being pilloried or losing their belongings. Instead, as Peddie found, teachers may face pressure to skip that part of the curriculum (perhaps made easier to do by the fact that schools don’t have to offer the full number of achievement standards in a subject). Hopefully the fact that evolution is so prominent in the new science curriculum (beginning in primary schools) – being implemented this year, along with all the other curriculum areas – will make it that much harder to avoid teaching about this key biological concept, in state schools anyway.

But as for the claim that began this post? Pure fantasy.


C McGeorge  (1992) Evolution in the Primary School Curriculum. History of Education 21(2): 205-218

RL Numbers &  J Stenhouse (2000) Antievolutionism in the Antipodes: from protesting evolution to promoting creationism in New Zealand. The British Journal for the History of Science 33: 335-350

WS Peddie  (1995). Alienated by Evolution: the educational implications of creationist and social Darwinist reactions in New Zealand to the Darwinian theory of evolution. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Auckland.

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