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Celebrating Darwin’s birthday

The discussions over Darwin in Turkey call to mind the medieval period: scientific facts versus religious dogmas. The age of the world, its protection against the sun, modern physical laws and the evolution of human and animal species cleared the way for critical minds. Darwin should be discussed in this perspective

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, announced 2009 as the "Darwin Year" due to British evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin’s bicentennial birthday. Over 20,000 articles about his views have been published around the world.

Darwin in his book titled "On The Origin of Species" claims that all living species including humans come from a common tree of life and are subject to evolution. He gives solid proof. The view is that natural selection is the motor force of evolution. Different organisms pass their differences to the next generation by inheritance.

The weakest one living in the same environment of limited food sources disappears. Strong organisms survive if they are able to adapt to the situation. In time, the inheritance of different qualities gives birth to new species.

Development through evolution

Darwin builds his viewpoint on sustainable development. A critical outcome of these views is the explanation of human nature and behaviors through evolution, disposing of remarks like, "We act in certain ways because we were created as such." The progress revealed that humans have the capability to learn and that social factors are relatively more important than educational and cultural inheritance.

As Darwin’s views are being discussed around the world due to his 200th birthday, what is going on in Turkey?

The country’s No. 1 scientific research institution, TUBITAK, dedicated an issue of the Bilim ve Teknik Dergisi (Science and Technical magazine) to Darwin. His picture appeared on the cover of the magazine.

But Turkish readers couldn’t read the articles inside. In the publication phase, the cover was changed, articles were eliminated and the editor-in-chief was removed from office. Due to heavy public criticism, TUBITAK announced in a statement five days later that this was not censorship but an administrative disruption. On the other hand, the editor-in-chief, Dr. Çiğdem Atakuman, claimed the magazine was censored because Darwin is a controversial issue in Turkey.

The fact is that Darwin’s views are kept away from the public and students in Turkey. His views are not included in textbooks with the exception of a few references. And teachers who want to teach Darwin are punished. According to a Gallup poll, the theory of evolution is least accepted in Turkey among Western countries. Fifty-two percent of Turkish people believe the theory is wrong and 25 percent think it is accurate. The rest are undecided (The Economist, Feb. 7, 2009).

The discussions over Darwin in Turkey call to mind the medieval period: scientific facts versus religious dogmas. The modern world was born out of questioning religious authority and views.

Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus and Newton’s theses and discoveries turned religious dogmas upside down. The age of the world, its protection against the sun, modern physical laws and the evolution of human and animal species cleared the way for critical minds. Darwin should be discussed in this perspective.

Ties with laicism broken

All of these show that the view that the modernity adopted by the government and the pro-government in Turkey can go hand-in-hand with Islam is not accurate considering today’s practices. What they are attempting to achieve today is social engineering, a radical transformation of society.

For this reason, on one side, state-of-the-art technology is being applied today; ties are being broken with the culture of laicism on the other.

Therefore, they are attempting to show that there is no connection between modernity and laicism and that modernity can live together with religion. Resistance to this is suppressed by a violation of fundamental rights and freedoms.

The aim is the Islamization of modernity, not the creation of a modern society. The healthiest way to keep modernity and religion together is the principle of laicism. The solution should be sought in a modern, universal understanding of laicism. Only then can Turkey join in Darwin’s birthday celebrations.



Rıza Türmen is a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR and a columnist for the daily Milliyet in which this piece appeared yesterday. It was translated into English by the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review's staff
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