A growing number of science students on British campuses and in sixth form colleges are challenging the theory of evolution and arguing that Darwin was wrong. Some are being failed in university exams because they quote sayings from the Bible or Qur'an as scientific fact and at one sixth form college in London most biology students are now thought to be creationists.
Earlier this month Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin's theories as false. Evangelical Christian students are also increasingly vocal in challenging the notion of evolution.
In the United States there is growing pressure to teach creationism or "intelligent design" in science classes, despite legal rulings against it. Now similar trends in this country have prompted the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy, to confront the issue head on with a talk entitled Why Creationism is Wrong. The award-winning geneticist and author Steve Jones will deliver the lecture and challenge creationists, Christian and Islamic, to argue their case rationally at the society's event in April.
"There is an insidious and growing problem," said Professor Jones, of University College London. "It's a step back from rationality. They (the creationists) don't have a problem with science, they have a problem with argument. And irrationality is a very infectious disease as we see from the United States."
Professor David Read, vice-president and biological sciences secretary of the Royal Society, said that they felt it was essential to address the issue now: "We have asked Steve Jones to deliver his lecture on creationism and evolution because there continues to be controversy over how evolution and other aspects of science are taught in some UK schools, colleges and universities. Our education system should provide access to the knowledge and understanding gained through the scientific method of experiment and observation, such as the theory of evolution through natural selection, and should withstand attempts to withhold or misrepresent this knowledge in order to promote particular beliefs, religious or otherwise."
Leaflets questioning Darwinism were circulated among students at the Guys Hospital site of King's College London this month as part of the Islam Awareness Week, organised by the college's Islamic Society. One member of staff at Guys said that he found it deeply worrying that Darwin was being dismissed by people who would soon be practising as doctors.
The leaflets are produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a Slough-based charity set up in 1992 with the aim of improving the understanding of Islam. The passage quoted from the Qur'an states: "And God has created every animal from water. Of them there are some that creep on their bellies, some that walk on two legs and some that walk on four. God creates what he wills for verily God has power over all things."
A 21-year-old medical student and member of the Islamic Society, who did not want to be named, said that the Qur'an was clear that man had been created and had not evolved as Darwin suggests. "There is no scientific evidence for it [Darwin's Origin of Species]. It's only a theory. Man is the wonder of God's creation."
He did not feel that a belief in evolution was necessary to study medicine although he added that, if writing about it was necessary for passing an exam, he would do so. "We want to become doctors and dentists, we want to pass our exams." He added that God had not created mankind literally in six days. "It's not six earth days," he said, it could refer to several thousands of years but it had been an act of creation and not evolution.
At another London campus some students have been failed because they have presented creationism as fact. They have been told by their examiners that, while they are entitled to explain both sides of the debate, they cannot present the Bible or Qur'an as scientifically factual if they want to pass exams.
David Rosevear of the Portsmouth-based Creation Science Movement, which supports the idea of creationism, said that there was an increasing interest in the subject among students. "I've got no problem with an all-powerful God producing everything in six days," he said. He said it was an early example of the six-day week. Students taking exams on the subject should not be dogmatic one way or the other. "I tell them - answer the question, it's no good saying it [creationism] is a fact any more than saying evolution is a fact."
A former lecturer in organic chemistry at Portsmouth polytechnic (now university) and ICI research scientist, Dr Rosevear said he had been invited to expound his theories at many colleges and had addressed the Cafe Scientifique, a student science society, at St Andrews university, Fife. "The students clearly came expecting to have a laugh but they found there was much more to it. Our attitude is - teach evolution but mention creationism and let students decide for themselves."
Most of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists, according to a biology teacher at a leading London sixth-form college. "The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism," she said, "and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole ... it's a bit like the southern states of America." Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists.
The doctrine of creationism holds that the origins of humanity and the Earth are recent and divine as related in the book of Genesis. Strict creationists believe Adam and Eve are the mother and father of humanity and God created the Earth in six days. Support for creationism in the UK has traditionally lacked real vigour but in the US a recent poll found 45% of Americans believed God created life some time in the past 10,000 years. Recently American creationists suffered a setback when Ohio's board of education threw out a model biology lesson plan which gave credence to creationism. Not all creationists believe in a strict six-day creation. Current scientific research suggests the universe is 13bn years old and humans are descended from ape-like creatures.