No evolution for Italian teens

Scientists, teachers shocked by plan to cut evolutionary teaching in secondary school

Apr 28, 2004
Rossella Lorenzi(

Tens of thousands of Italians have expressed their disagreement with a plan by the minister of education, universities, and research, Letizia Moratti, to ban the teaching of evolutionary theory to young teenagers.

Fearing the measure will pave the way for creationist teaching, more than 40,000 citizens—and the number is still increasing—have subscribed a petition launched last week by some of the country's top scientists through the daily La Repubblica.

The document, signed by Nobel laureates Rita Levi Montalcini and Renato Dulbecco, together with scientists including Luca Cavalli Sforza, Bruno Dallapiccola, and Alberto Piazza, urges Moratti to “review the secondary schools programs and to rectify an oversight which is detrimental to the scientific culture of future generations.”

“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,” write the scientists.

The Italian school system, which Moratti aims to reform shortly, is divided into three levels: primary school (“scuola elementare”), which lasts 5 years, from 6 to 11 years of age, secondary school (“scuola media”), which lasts 3 years, and high school (“scuola superiore”), which lasts 5 years.

Established by legislative decree on February 19, the new teaching programs for secondary schools make no mention of the history of human evolution, nor of the relationship between mankind and other species.

As a result, boys and girls aged 12 to 14 will have no idea of subjects such as “Structure, Function, and Evolution of Living Organisms” and “The Biological and Cultural Evolution of Mankind,” said the scientists who launched the petition.

The National Association of Natural Science Teachers (ANISN) believes the ban will affect deeply the teaching of science. “This is the structure on which the entire teaching of natural sciences is based. We cannot talk of plants and animals without talking of evolution as well,” Vincenzo Boccardi, vice president of ANISN, told The Scientist.

Italian children, argues Moratti, would not understand such a complex subject at that age. She added that evolutionary biology will be taught in high schools, according to “gradual teaching criteria.”

Carlo Alberto Redi, a developmental biologist at the University of Pavia and one of the petition's subscribers, said that waiting until high school to teach the concepts of evolutionary theory could be too late.

“Darwin's conceptual paradigm is fundamental in the education of young students,” Redi told The Scientist. “This is an unbelievable step backwards.”