A DUP MLA has sparked controversy calling for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.
Education Committee chair Mervyn Storey's demand comes amid fresh debate over the origins of mankind, in the run-up to the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's famous work On the Origin of Species.
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Mr Storey said that his personal view was that it would be "ideal" if evolution was not taught at all, although he was not demanding its removal from the curriculum.
But last night world-famous biologist Richard Dawkins – whose appearance on Radio Ulster's Talkback programme yesterday "jammed" BBC phone lines – told the News Letter that he felt "sad" that creationists were elected to positions of power, likening them to "flat earthers".
Mr Dawkins, an outspoken atheist, is currently presenting a three-part Channel Four series entitled The Genius of Charles Darwin, in the first episode of which he showed fossils to schoolchildren as evidence of evolution.
Mr Dawkins said creationism – the belief that human life did not evolve over millions of years but was created by God, perhaps as little as 5,000 years ago – should be confined to religious education classes. He described Mr Storey's belief in creationism as a "ridiculous view".
But Mr Storey, who is an MLA for North Antrim, told the News Letter: "Creationism is not for the RE class because I believe that it can stand scientific scrutiny and that is a debate which I am quite happy to encourage and be part of.
"The issue for the current Education Minister (Caitriona Ruane] is that she tells us she's all for equality – surely if that is the case, you can't have one set of interpretations being taught at the expense of others.
"So, if there are those from the scientific community (who believe in creationism] who can give a view about how the world came into existence then it can't be set aside. You can't have one very narrow theory.
"This is not about removing anything from the classroom – although that would probably be the ideal for me – but this is about us having equality of access to other views as to how the world came into existence and that I think is a very, very important issue for many parents in Northern Ireland."
But Mr Dawkins responded that it would be completely unacceptable to teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes.
"I have no objection to all kinds of daft ideas being taught in comparative religion classes but in science what we should teach is what there is evidence for and children should be encouraged to examine evidence," he said.
"If this politician (Mr Storey] wants to import creationism into science classes, I'm wondering which kind of creationism – Hindu creationism, Jewish creationism, Babylonian creationism, Aztec creationism?
"My guess is that it is probably Genesis creationism and there's absolutely no reason for it."
However, although he said he was "sad" that creationists were in positions of power in government, Mr Dawkins said that he respected Mr Storey's democratic mandate.
"We live in a democracy and anyone can get elected," he said.
"I think it's sad that people with ridiculous views do get elected because it suggests that the electorate is not sufficiently well-educated to see through them.
"I would hope that a flat-earther would not be elected and would not be serving as an important official in educational circles – exactly the same would be true of at least a young earth creationist."
And he attacked Mr Storey's stated desire for the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre to include creationist arguments that the distinctive rock formation was formed less than 6,000 years ago.
"It concerns me as a scientist and I think that you would find that it would concern any churchman of any education, either a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church of a bishop of the Anglican Church.
"I would be very concerned about scientific falsehoods being purveyed in the name of religion."
But Mr Storey said that he was untroubled by Mr Dawkins' dismissal of his views.
"I'm quite happy to take criticism from Mr Dawkins and be castigated by him," he said.
"Evolution is a theory – it is not a proven fact and we are quite happy to allow our views to be subject to scientific scrutiny just the same as his views are subject to scientific scrutiny."
Mr Storey added that his church, Ballymoney Free Presbyterian Church, would later this year be bringing speakers from England to "address Mr Dawkins' arguments".
Fundamentalist DUP members have been involved in similar rows in the past, such as those over the Giant's Causeway, rejecting the overwhelming view among geologists that the Causeway was formed 60 million years ago.