I used to be smug that the ridiculous ‘controversy’ in North America about the Theory of Evolution was confined to the opposite side of the Atlantic. I really believed that the more secular societies of Europe would laugh the ideas of biblical literalists and creationists out of public discourse. It just couldn’t happen in a place like the UK.
Okay, I once overheard a man taking his granddaughter round the musuem where I work and explaining to her how “they’ve got it all wrong” in our Palaeolithic and Mesolithic display “because the world didn’t exist so long ago”. I struggled with my conscience: should I step in and say why her grandfather was talking nonsense or just leave it? I decided to leave it, probably correctly, but I still feel guilty for missing an opportunity to counter a religious viewpoint that has no basis in reality. That was an isolated incident and I know that our public museums don’t bow to sectarian beliefs and that our education system rightly teaches the Theory of Evolution by Common Descent as the best available explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I also know that religious creation stories are taught in religious education lessons.
So when I learned that Nelson McCausland MLA, the Minister for Culture in Northern Ireland, had written a letter to the governors of The Museum of Ulster, asking it to include references to special creation, I was staggered. It was worse than I thought, though. According to his blog, the letter “asked the trustees to consider the representation of the Orange Order and othen (sic) fraternal organisations”, complained about “the omission of any mention of the Ulster-Scots” as well as “the consideration of alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life”. According to a report carried by the BBC, Mr McCausland has complained that the letter “had been leaked to the media by a “malign” individual” who “had “showed a lack of respect” for the trustees of the museum and the institution itself”. To me, the greatest “lack of respect” is Mr McCausland’s, who seems to think it appropriate for a government minister to interfere in how things are displayed in a national museum.
Alas, he’s not the first Northern Ireland Minister to try this tactic. Mervyn Storey MLA tried another creationist tactic in August 2008, when he said that it would be “ideal” if evolution was not taught at all in science classes. In February 2009, he threatened legal action over a display at The Ulster Museum dealing with Charles Darwin, calling for an “alternative exhibition” promoting creationism to be staged alongside it, using equality legislation as his weapon of choice. He has also criticised noticeboards on the 550,000,000 year old Giant’s Causeway for not giving the ‘alternative’ view that the earth is only a few thousand years old.
The Ulster Museum includes discussions of evolution among its displays of zoology. This is only sensible. To pretend, as a correspondent to the Belfast Times does, that there is “strong scientific evidence for the Christian position according to the Bible” is either misinformed or a deliberate lie. There is no such evidence. However, Mr McCausland seems to have been influenced in his views by Wallace Thompson of The Caleb Foundation, who wrote to him that The Ulster Museum’s displays demonstrate a “lack of balance which had tipped sideways so far, it had fallen right over and was “absolutely appalled” at “wholly misleading propaganda” aimed at “[t]hose who visit the Nature Zone, including impressionable young children, [who] will be seriously misled and misinformed”.
A quick perusal of The Caleb Foundation’s website shows it to be a self-proclaimed fundamentalist evangelical protestant organisation. It has a special page dedicated to the Ulster Museum and a form letter complaining that the display at the Giant’s Causeway is “discriminatory” in only presenting geological data about its age.
Although these statements have produced little more than criticism from museum professionals and other educators, there is the danger that this is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Nelson McCausland MLA and Mervyn Storey MLA are speaking for a sizeable proportion of the population of Northern Ireland and their statements will have resonance among others with a similar conviction in biblical literalism. Their use of equalities legislation to try to force museums and teachers to present “alternative viewpoints” is worrying. Is not the point of education – and I include museums as an element in education – to confront people’s prejudices, to show them uncomfortable truths and to explain that the world isn’t quite as simple as some Iron Age goat herders living three thousand years ago in the Middle East believed it to be