Unsurprisingly Reiss's comments caused some outcry among the scientific community, and over the weekend the debate has rumbled on in the papers, with calls being issued for Reiss to be dismissed from his post at the Royal Society.
None of this has been helped by the fact that Reiss is an ordained Church of England minister, with the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto saying he never agreed with Reiss's appointment: "I warned the president of the Royal Society that his was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be."
Kroto's words were echoed by a fellow Nobel Prize winner, Sir Richard Roberts, who called outright for his Reiss's removal: "I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down."
Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins focussed on the fact that Reiss is a man of the cloth: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch."
A major issue in all this centres on what Reiss may or may not have actually said – was he suggesting that creationism should be taught, as part of the science curriculum, or was he saying that teachers should be prepared to debate ths issue if pupils raise questions relating to creationism? In a letter to the Guardian today, Reiss claims he was misrepresented and points out that he meant the latter, criticisng the paper for reporting on his comments under the headline "Teach creationism, says top scientist":
"Your headline (Teach creationism, says top scientist, September 12) misrepresents the views of myself and the Royal Society. The society believes that if a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation. This does not put it on a par with evolution, which is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species.The issue of creationism in class is a difficult one. Critics such as Kroto, Roberts and Dawkins are understandably wary of religious ideas being allowed anywhere near school science labs, especially at a time when creationist organisations and proponents of Intelligent Design are stepping up efforts to shoehorn their ideas into science curricula. But if we take Reiss at his word (and if you read the blog posted on the Guardian last week, it's clear he wasn't suggesting creationism should be taught), then wasn't he just pointing out that the classroom should be a forum for free and open debate, and teachers must be ready to enter discussion with their pupils, and put them right when the views they bring from home clearly contradict the overwhelming evidence for evolution? Isn't this part of the aim of education?
"Evolution is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world. Creationism, which has no scientific validity, can be discussed in a science class if it is raised by a pupil, but should in no way be seen as comparable to evolution or any other scientific theory which is backed up with evidence."
As for whether a clergyman should hold such a position at the Royal Society, this forms a part of the wider issue of the relationship between science and religion. As the Church of England argues in today's apology to Darwin, it sees no difficulty in reconciling Christianity with evolution. If Reiss loses his job over his comments, does this mean religious people should not be allowed to hold eminent scientific positions?
Difficult issues, and we'd love to get a sense of what our readers think. Leave your comments and take part in our poll: What are your views on Michael Reiss's comments on creationism in schools? Choose from these four options –
- Outrageous – creationism has no place in schools and he should be removed from his post
- Irresponsible – no one wants to stifle debate, but his comments risk encouraging the encroachment of creationism into schools
- Misunderstood – his sensible comments on free debate were misrepresented by hysterical media
- Brave – In a scientific community hostile to religion, he has made a stand for open debate