Two hundred years ago in February, Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, a small English village about 65 miles from Liverpool. This November, it will be 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin's magnum opus. For the first time in history, humanity was provided with a reasonable and scientific answer on questions concerning human origins and development. It is no surprise that "Darwin Year 2009" has been celebrated at universities around the world.
However, this Darwin year inspires us to more activities than simply throwing a party for the achievements of human intellect. One of them is reflection on the debate that Darwin's theory started back in the nineteenth century, and which is still going on to this day. In this article, I will give a brief sketch of the situation in the Netherlands over the last few years. While there is no serious scientific doubt about the fundamentals of the theory of evolution among academics in the Netherlands, things look quite different in mainstream society. Recent studies, as published in Science (Miller and others 2006) and in the Dutch popular scientific magazine Quest (as reported in De Volkskrant 2008 Nov 13; available on-line at http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/article1091241.ece/44_van_100_Nederlanders_gelooft_in_leven_na_de_dood), show that the rate of acceptance of scientific theories in the Netherlands is low compared to the rest of Europe. Perhaps because of this, there were some controversies concerning evolution during the last decade, which received considerable media attention.
On March 2, 2005, Maria van der Hoeven, at that time the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture, and Science, stated on her website's blog that she was fascinated by the concept of "intelligent design" (ID). (See this report [in Dutch] from Kennislink 2005 Jun 9; available on-line at [link expired] http://www.kennislink.nl/publicaties/ministerontvangt-boek-over-id). Van der Hoeven, a member of the Christian Democratic Party with no scientific background whatsoever, told her staff to investigate whether ID could be used in secondary school to "build bridges" between people with different life stances. Scientists from all over the country were furious. Ronald Plasterk, a prize-winning molecular geneticist, columnist, and coincidentally the current Minister of Education, Culture, and Science, wrote in a column: "When van der Hoeven as a citizen feels the need for a talk about the creator she is free to join a conversation club. As a minister [of government], she should focus on her task and that is to guarantee the quality of education. No more, no less" (2005 May 8; my translation; the original Dutch is available on-line at [link expired] http://www.vpro.nl/gramma/buitenhof/afleveringen/22038179/items/22323895). The secular parties in the House of Representatives raised their voices as well. After this storm of protest, van der Hoeven was forced to withdraw her plans.
The next controversial affair had its roots in the way the public broadcasting network is organized in the Netherlands. Until the late 1960s, society in the Netherlands was segregated into "pillars". This phenomenon — pillarization — made it possible for people of various "life stances" to live separated from each other. Marriage, newspapers, broadcasting networks, and labor unions were all organized within one's own pillar. Currently, the Dutch broadcasting network, as a legacy of pillarization, is still divided into Catholic, Protestant, and Social Democratic organizations, each with its own television shows and radio stations.
In July 2007 a scandal came to light. The Evangelische Omroep — the Evangelical Network — was broadcasting the BBC's The Life of Mammals, a natural history program produced by David Attenborough. While the original DVD contains ten episodes, the evangelicals broadcast only nine, leaving out the last episode — the one on the origin and evolution of humans. In the other episodes, scenes that mentioned evolution or the age of the earth were cut as well. Two evolutionary biologists, Gerdien de Jong (Utrecht University) and Hans Roskam (Institute of Biology Leiden), started a petition to discourage the use of BBC material to mislead viewers of natural history programs in the future. (This is discussed at The Panda's Thumb blog: 2007 Oct 1; http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/10/dutch-petition.html.) They presented the petition to the BBC and David Attenborough, who, by the way, reacted quite mildly.
When asked about the situation by NOS Headlines, a Dutch news website, EO director Hans Hagoort said he "did not understand the drama": "since the start of the EO," he said, "we have been broadcasting natural history programs, including the ones from the BBC." When asked about the deleted scenes, he answered, "we edit the series to fit the Christian faith; we have been doing it for years. We made good arrangements with the BBC about it." De Jong objected. 'They should broadcast the complete series, or not broadcast it at all" (2007 Jul 28; my translation; the original Dutch is available on-line at http://headlines.nos.nl/forum.php/list_messages/7478).
The third event took place on Darwin's birthday, February 12, 2009. Three months earlier, an impressive list of Dutch orthodox Christian organizations joined forces in a campaign against the theory of evolution. Groups such as Schreeuw om leven ("Cry for Life") and Bijbel en onderwijs ("Bible and Education") announced in the national media their plan to send leaflets to six million households in the Netherlands on Darwin's birthday. The total number of households in the Netherlands is estimated at roughly seven million.
The leaflet that was distributed defended creationism as true and opposed to evolutionary science. "You have a choice. You can believe what evolution tells you about the history and origin of man, or you can follow the Bible." The eight-page leaflet was filled with pictures and stories that are used in American creationist brochures as well: natural selection would only lead to decay and disease and not to new or enhanced functions in organisms; fossilized trees that are upside down in the earth indicate a mass flood; and so on. Needless to say, none of the initiators of this campaign had a background in evolutionary biology or geology. The committee of recommendation contained numerous scholars of theology, some priests and churchmen, but not one scientist with a decent academic career. It is unclear how many leaflets were spread in the end. However, the size of this campaign marked a new chapter in the history of creationism in the Netherlands.
These three examples by no means provide a full account of what is going on in the Netherlands. Still, at least one conclusion can be drawn from them. While the Netherlands do not have such a tradition of anti-scientific creationism as the United States has had since the Scopes Trial, public comprehension of evolution is still low and the academic world should remain aware of this. In this Darwin year, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, scientists cannot yet rest on their laurels.
Miller JD, Scott EC, Okamoto S. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313 (5788): 765–6.