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200th Anniversary Of Darwin's Birth Won't Be Marked In Kabul Or Tehran

  • Farangis Najibullah

English naturalist Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published in 1859.

English naturalist Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published in 1859.

For many, 19th-century English naturalist Charles Darwin is the man whose groundbreaking theory of evolution and natural selection changed our understanding of the world.

According to Darwin, all species of life descended over time from a common ancestor through the process of natural selection.

Despite being vehemently contested by religious opponents, Darwin’s theory -- published 150 years ago in his book "On the Origin of Species" -- is largely accepted by the scientific community and taught in schools and universities worldwide.

And events are planned worldwide this week to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth on February 12.

Not in Afghanistan and Iran, however.

Iran has left Darwin's theory out of textbooks as a teaching that contradicts Islam's version of the creation of mankind.

In Afghanistan, Darwin's ideas are viewed as an extremely sensitive and controversial issue that could lead to condemnations and even violence if it finds its way into school programs.

'It Has Been Decided'

Mohammad Sabir, a German-educated biologist, is part of a team of experts set up by Afghanistan's Ministry of Education to prepare the national curriculum for Afghan schools. Sabir says it was mostly a political decision to exclude Darwin's theories from Afghanistan's education programs.

It has been decided that...it would be to the Afghan education system's benefit if Darwin’s theories are not taught in schools, [otherwise] it would provide a pretext for opponents to incite against [the education system]."
"Afghanistan is a religious country, and there are other theories about the creation of mankind than Darwin's theory," Sabir says. "It has been decided that under current circumstances it would be to the Afghan education system's benefit if Darwin's theories are not taught in schools, because [otherwise] it would provide a pretext for [political] opponents to incite against [the education system]."

Many Afghans believe their deeply conservative society is not ready to even consider Darwin's concept of humans' evolution from animals.

According to Sabir, Afghan schools teach that mankind was created by God and that there is no such thing as evolution. Any other teaching would be seen as a challenge to religion.

The Education Ministry fears that the inclusion of Darwin's teachings into the school curriculum would provoke severe condemnation by religious leaders and incite anger and outrage among ordinary people.

And the ministry's apprehension is not baseless.

Some of the country's conservative leaders have shown little tolerance for anything that contradicts their interpretation of Islamic values and Afghan traditions.

'Islam Doesn't Allow It'

Wahid Mozhda, a Kabul-based expert on political and social affairs, says the inclusion of any subject in the national curriculum that could be seen as a challenge to Islamic teachings would likely provoke a strong reaction.

"A supplementary textbook was published here recently, and it had stories where animals were given human names. For instance, a mouse was called Ahmed," Mozhda says. "It caused many reactions. Articles were published in newspapers. It was viewed as an insult to Islamic names. For instance, they wrote: 'Amin is a name to describe the Prophet's eminence. When you give it to an animal, you are be offending the Prophet’s name, and Islam doesn’t allow it.'"

While Afghanistan's school curriculum largely ignores Darwin's theories, Iranian textbooks briefly mention the English scientist's teachings as among many theories of creation.

According to Shirin Hosseini, a Tehran University student, there are books available in libraries for those who want more extensive material about Darwin and his scientific works. But students must seek those books out on their own.

"Everything I read about Darwin, I read privately," Hosseini says. "In Iran, they mention Darwin. They say he studied the creation of humans. However, religious teachings put pressure on Darwin's theory, saying Adam was created as the first human being and that mankind originated from Adam. That is how creation is explained here."

Hosseini says that personally, she was curious to know the English naturalist's controversial hypothesis. However, the 20-year-old student says Darwin is not an "everyday issue" for her friends and classmates in Iran and that she has never heard anyone showing any particular interest in Darwin's concept of evolution.

Likewise, Mohammad Sabir in Kabul is convinced that "there is not a dire need at the moment to take worthless risks to include Darwin's theory of evolution into the Afghan curriculum and suffer the consequences."

"We will do it when the time is right," Sabir concludes.

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