Evolution: still controversial after all of these years

In the 19th century, after the emergence of the theory of evolution, it was not surprising that it was controversial. It called for a totally different world view. The so-called 'Oxford Evolution Debate' of 1860 took place at the Oxford University Museum, seven months after the publication of 'The Origin of Species'. It happened as part of the British Association's week-long annual meeting and was attended by numerous prominent British scientists and philosophers. These, included Thomas Huxley and, as the main opposition to this new idea, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, a well-known preacher and orator.

The debate is best remembered today for a lively exchange in which Wilberforce is said to have asked Huxley whether his 'descent from an ape was from his grandfather's side or his grandmother's'. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have an ape as an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected to a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Someone else present said that Wilberforce's real question was "whether, in the immensely shaky state of the law of development, as established by Darwin, anyone can be so enamoured of this so-called law, or hypothesis, as to rejoice that his great-grandfather was an ape or a gorilla?"

Since Darwin's theory had not proposed any mechanism for the change of species over time, it was obviously legitimate to express doubts about the whole idea. However, Abbot Mendel had already clearly shown that there had to be a complex genetic mechanism for defining the characteristics of plants, even if the actual explanation, the double helix, would only be known a hundred years after the Origin of Species.

In the West, except for creationists and indigenous groups in New Zealand and elsewhere, we have the impression that evolution is generally accepted as the explanation for the geological record - a record that goes somewhat beyond Archbishop Usher's 4004 BC. The whole of biological science these days is based on the hypothesis.

But according to an article in the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ last week, its acceptance is under attack in one of the world’s biggest countries - India. Darwin is no longer part of the compulsory curriculum for Year 10 pupils. His theory that all species, including humans, have evolved over time through a process of natural selection, that humans and apes shared a common ancestor who lived more than 7 million years ago, does not apparently deserve to be studied by the majority of young Indians. Only students who specialise in biology in higher classes will have access to it.

This is the decision of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, which has been given the task of revising school textbooks. Officially this is in order to lighten the workload of students following the two-year closure of classes during the Covid-19 epidemic.

This purge though is one of dozens of others concerning history, the environment, society, the period of the Mughal Muslim emperors, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, global warming, energy sources such as fossil fuels and renewable energies, sustainable management of natural resources... School textbooks have been purged of anything that does not suit the Hindu nationalists who run the country. According to the journal ‘Nature’, the periodic table has also been deleted. The Indian magazine ‘Frontline’ has also noted the removal of Michael Faraday's name from the understanding of electromagnetism.

Darwin has been in the sights of Narendra Modi's government for some years now. In 2018, Satyapal Singh, then Minister of Higher Education, adopted the same straw-man argument as Bishop Wilberforce. He told Parliament that Darwin's theory of evolution was "scientifically erroneous". He went on to say: "Ever since man appeared on Earth, he has always been a man! No one, including our ancestors, whether in writing or orally, has ever said that they have seen a monkey turn into a human being", and added that school and university curricula would have to be modified accordingly.

Le Monde reports that, under fire from his critics, the minister declared that his ministry was “ready to host an international conference at which scientists can say what their position is on the issue". "I have a list of about 10 to 15 leading scientists in the world who have said that there is no evidence that the theory of evolution is correct". He even said that Albert Einstein had acknowledged that the theory was not "scientific", although I cannot find that he ever said such a thing and Singh gave no reference for his assertion or the names of his miniscule group of ‘leading scientists’.

More than 4,500 Indian researchers and teachers have signed a petition calling for the reinstatement of the learning of evolutionary theory. They point out that "students will be seriously handicapped in their thought processes if they are deprived of it".

The current government's distrust of science is in marked contrast to the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. He was educated at Cambridge and a friend of Einstein and went on to govern India for seventeen years, from 1947 to 1964. A Hindu himself, Nehru had a striking faith in science.

At the Indian Scientific Congress on 26 December 1937 he said: "Only science can enable us to solve the problems of hunger and poverty, unhealthiness and illiteracy, superstition, customs and traditions, waste of vast resources, a rich country inhabited by starving people".

In 1976, the Indian Constitution was amended by his successors to include: "the diffusion of the scientific spirit, humanism and the spirit of research and reform" among the fundamental duties of every citizen.

Narendra Modi, however, is someone who wants to establish Hindu domination in India. To do this, he is pushing a fundamentalist version of Hindu. He began setting the tone the day after his election as Prime Minister in 2014. Addressing a gathering of medical experts in Mumbai, he claimed that Lord Ganesh (a god with the head of an elephant on a human body) was proof that the country had mastered plastic surgery millennia ago.

He also said: “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.”

Modi also said: “There must be many areas in which our ancestors made big contributions,” he said. “Some of these are well recognised. If we talk about space science, our ancestors had, at some point, displayed great strengths in space science. What people like Aryabhata had said centuries ago is being recognised by science today. What I mean to say is that we are a country which had these capabilities. We need to regain them.”

He had said similar things earlier, when chief minister of Gujarat state. He wrote the foreword to a school textbook in Gujarat which maintains, among other things, that the Hindu God Rama flew the first aeroplane and that stem cell technology was known in ancient India.

To students concerned about climate change, he said: "The climate hasn't changed. We have changed our tolerance, and our habits have changed. If we change, it's because God has built the system in such a way that it can balance itself.” Which obviously make absolutely zero sense.

Following his lead, however, the most far-fetched theories have been put forward by other Hindu nationalists, mixing Indian mythology with science. In addition to plastic surgery, television and the Internet, ancient India is said to have invented the aeroplane, Pythagoras' theorem and even the laws of motion long before Newton.

Gauhar Raza and Suriit Singh, two independent scientists who carried out a study in 2018 on the place of science under Modi, believe that behind "seemingly innocuous, irrational and sometimes laughable statements made by political leaders", there is "a far more serious assault on scientific rationality''. For them, "these statements made in public by political leaders are not slips. Each of them is carefully considered and appeals to the anti-rationalist and anti-scientific leanings of right-wing religious nationalists.”

Fundamentalist religion continues to make its mark!

Paul Buckingham

25 June 2023

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