No Evolution in Korea?

Dear Korean,

This is horrifying. I knew many are stupid this way in the US, but I hadn't realized that S. Korea was worse - although with the large Christian population, maybe it's not surprising. (No offense to Christians, I just have trouble with people who can't reconcile religion and science.) Is this likely to be a permanent state of affairs in S. Korea, or is there an intellectual/scientific majority who will re-instate evolution in schoolbooks?

(With apologies if The Korean doesn't believe in evolution either, but I don't think that's possible.)

Judith H.

Don't worry -- the Korean is Christian, but he believes in evolution. He cannot see how anyone can deny evolution.

At any rate, this article on Nature magazine got a lot of publicity, especially thanks to the Huffington Post article that re-transmitted the Nature magazine article. Time magazine and Los Angeles Times covered the story as well. So what happened with this? Have all Koreans lost their minds? Hey, those stupid Koreans believe in Fan Death, so why not "creation sciences"?

Here is a rule of thumb on dealing with bizarre news from Korea in English-language media:  be very, very skeptical, until you have independent verification from a reputable Korean media as well. Certainly, bizarre things happen in Korea. But if they do, it is extremely unlikely an English-language media would break the news -- English-language media simply do not have enough resources to track down bizarre stories coming out of Korea. If there is a bizarre story regarding Korea that gets a lot of play outside of Korea but not in Korean media, your bullshit radar has to be on high alert.

That is exactly what happened with this story. The Korean reads two Korean newspapers every morning, and he has not seen any coverage on this topic. Only after the Huffington Post article did Korean newspapers begin covering this issue, and only perfunctorily at that.

Let's get to the bottom line first:  is Korean science textbook going to drop the discussion about evolution? Short answer -- nope. In fact, there was never any danger that creationism would prevail in Korean science textbooks.

(More after the jump.)

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First, we need to go over how textbooks are made in Korea. For each subject, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) would issue a guideline on the topics that need to be included for each subject. Then each textbook company publishes its own textbook, following the MEST guideline. The textbook company makes the decision on the precise format of the textbook, including diagrams and examples. MEST, however, has to approve the final product before the textbook is released in the market.

Having said that, this is the whole story. Like Judith mentioned, Korea does have a large Christian population -- 25% of the country, approximately. Some of them are hardcore fundamentalists who sincerely believe in creationism. The group that represents these creationists, called Society for Textbook Revise (STR), has attempted to attack the references to evolution in Korean science textbooks in any manner possible.

What STR did manage to pull off with three textbook publishers was this: STR convinced those publishers that two diagrams in their books -- one about the evolution of horses, and the other about archeopteryx -- and the text accompanying them were scientifically incorrect. Notice the claim here:  the claim was not that the diagrams were against creationism. The claim was that the diagrams were scientifically incorrect.

The incorrect diagram about the evolution of
horses in some Korean science textbooks

And you know what? Technically, they were right! The diagram above showing the evolution of horses is horribly outdated, and the pictures no longer comport with the current scientific consensus. The text accompanying archeopteryx said archeopteryx is the middle step between dinosaurs and birds, which is also technically incorrect -- archeopteryx is considered a close relative to the true ancestral birds, not itself a true ancestral bird. So the three textbook companies decided that they would drop the two diagrams in the next edition of their textbooks.

Pay close attention to what actually happened here. What got dropped was two diagrams and the accompanying texts about evolution that were scientifically incorrect -- not the theory of evolution. It is not possible for the textbook publishers to drop the discussion about the theory of evolution, because that would violate MEST guidelines. Further, not even the decision to drop the two diagrams was final, because MEST still had to approve the new textbooks that the publishers proposed to make.

But of course, STR nutcases thought they scored a huge victory for creationism, and started trumpeting their "victory." By and large, Korean media yawned -- exactly one national newspaper (and a relatively minor one at that) covered the story, and even that story made it quite clear that all that got dropped were diagrams. But the Nature magazine decided to run with the story, with a sensational headline that read: "South Korea surrenders to creationist demands," and here we are -- Korea is branded as a dumb country that doesn't believe in evolution.

After this story caused an international sensation, MEST reaffirmed that the theory of evolution must be included in science textbooks, and indicated that it would even deny the proposed deletion of those diagrams. (Rather than deleting the diagrams wholesale, they are to be replaced with more accurate diagrams and texts.) And the major Korean media continued to yawn, only reporting MEST's statement that the theory of evolution will be alive and well in Korean science textbooks.

But hey, if two of America's largest news networks can't even get the biggest story of the year right, perhaps it makes no sense to expect anyone to get anything right about Korea.

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