Scrapping Charles Darwin: Hindutva’s Anti-Scientific Maladies
Welcome the canons of pseudoscience. Open your arms to the dribbling, sponsored charlatans. According to a growing number of India’s top officialdom, teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to children in their ninth and 10th grades is simply not on.
Last month, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a purportedly autonomous government organisation responsible for curricula content and textbook publishing for India’s 256 million primary and secondary students, continued its hostility against Darwin as part of its “content rationalisation” process. NCERT had taken the scrub to evolution during the COVID-19 pandemic, implausibly arguing that it was necessary to drop its teaching in moving classes online. (Darwin would have been most bemused.)
A closer look at the list of dropped and excluded subjects in the NCERT publication of “rationalised content in textbooks” from May last year is impressive in its philistinism. In addition to dropping teaching on Darwin, the origin of life on earth, evolution, fossils and molecular phylogeny, we also see the scrapping of such subjects as electricity, the magnetic effects of electric current and the “sustainable management of natural resources”.
Evolutionary biologist Amitabh Joshi of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research was less than impressed, calling the measure “a travesty of the notion of a well-rounded secondary education.”
On April 20, the non-profit Breakthrough Science Society launched an open letter demanding a reversal of the decision. “Knowledge and understanding of evolutionary biology is important not just to any subfield of biology, but is also key to understanding the world around us.” Though not evident at first glance, “the principles of natural selection help us understand how any pandemic progresses or why certain species go extinct, among many other critical issues.”
A sense of despondency reigns on whether NCERT will change course, even in the face of protest. In the view of biologist Satyajit Rath, “Given the recent trajectories of such decisions of the government of India, probably not, at least over the short term. Sustained progressive efforts will be required to influence the long-term outcomes.”
The anti-evolutionary streak in Indian politics, spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been present for some time, always threatening to spill over with acid implications into the education syllabus. In 2018, India’s then Minister for Higher Education, Satyapal Singh, urged the removal of evolution from school curricula, remarking that no one had ever seen “an ape turning into a human being.” Before a university gathering at a university in Assam, he claimed to “have a list of around 10 to 15 great scientists of the world who have said there is no evidence to prove that the theory of evolution is correct.” He even threw poor Albert Einstein into the mix to justify the stance, claiming that the physicist had thought the theory “unscientific”.
As ever with such characters, ignorance is garlanded with claims of expertise. Singh was speaking as a “man of science”. As a man of science, “Darwin’s theory is scientifically wrong”. Man, he claimed, “has always been a man.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure has been characterised by a coupling of mythologisation and anti-scientific inquiry, grouped under the notion of Hindutva – that India was, and is, the sacred homeland of Hindus, with all other religious groups foreign aberrations. By blending the two, outrageous claims purportedly scientific can be drawn from ancient folklore and texts. Myth is rendered victorious.
In 2014, Modi gave a most extravagant example of this exercise by claiming that “plastic surgery” and “genetic science” explained the creation of Lord Ganesh’s elephantine head and Karna’s birth respectively. Given that the latter, an epic figure of the Mahabharata, “was not born from his mother’s womb”, Modi could confidently state that “genetic science was present at that time.”
Such astonishing, crude literalism is tantamount to stubborn claims that Indians were the first to discover the means of flying, given Arjuna’s ride in a chariot piloted by Lord Krishna at the Battle of Kurukshetra. And sure enough, the 102nd session of the India Science Congress, hosted in January 2015, featured a panel led by a number of BJP government members claiming that Indians had pioneered aviation that could fly not only across planet Earth but between planets.
Other instances of this abound, some blatantly, and dangerously irresponsible. In April 2019, BJP parliamentary member Pragya Singh Thakur told the television network India Today that a heady “mixture of gau mutra” (cow urine), along with “other cow products”, including dung and milk, cured her breast cancer. Oncologists mocked the conclusions, but the damaging claim caught on.
With such instances far from infrequent, academics and researchers feel beleaguered in a landscape saturated by the credo of Hindutva. In 2016, number theorist Rajat Tandon observed that the Modi approach to knowledge was “really dangerous”. Along with more than 100 scientists, including many heads of institutions, he signed a statement protesting “the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.”
A number trying to buck the trend, notably those numbered among rationalists and the anti-superstition activists, have been threatened and, in some cases, murdered. The scholar and writer M. M. Kalburgi paid with his life in North Karnataka in August 2015 for a remark made quoting Jnanpith awardee U. R. Ananthamurthy that urinating on idols was not a transgression that would necessarily attract divine retribution.
In September 2017, the progressive journalist and publisher Gauri Lankesh was gunned down returning to her home from work. She had become yet another victim of what the police in India euphemistically call “encounters”, drawing attention to herself for her stand against the Hindutva stampede and her sympathetic stance towards the Maoist Naxalites.
The recent bureaucratic assault on Darwin and the continued elevation of mythology above sceptical scientific inquiry, bode ill for India’s rationalists. But despite being browbeaten and threatened, many continue to do battle, defiantly and proudly.
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Forget about Darwin. What about Galileo?
In this period of ever increasing political correctness and rectification of historical oversights, I wonder about a detail, readily framed as of little consequence. Is use of “sunrise” and “sunset” now to be recognized as a form of misinformation to be deprecated — although widely promoted and reinforced by the meteorological sciences and others. Such use is clearly correct in terms of appearance, since the Sun appears to rise and set. It is however fundamentally incorrect in that it is the Earth which is turning. Galileo Galilei was dramatically tried by the Inquisition for making that distinction. Does the misuse constitute a betrayal of an icon of science by science since 1642? No appropriate terms appear to have been proposed by science to counter the illusion. “E pur si muove”
India has features of culture that attract some admiration, but, the people in all classes and castes still are liable to believe in a fantastic, fraudy, fictional, foolery of fabled superstition, whereby none of the “gods and spirits” have ever been seen. There is no evidence, DNA sample, witnessed personal appearance, foot or finger print, photo, voice recording, etc ever, and it cannot be rationalised, tolerated. All religious fanatics KNOW that all the other ones are not to be believed. Institutional stupidity is tolerated for “form” and politeness, as is the easter bunny, father Xmas, a tooth fairy, leprechauns, etc. But attacking science is too regressive to tolerate, for India is barely getting into an age of hygeine, health, science, modern transport, engineering, domestic equipment, industry. We now have the best ever telescopes and microscopes, so that former mysteries are being opened up and out. India is capable of being part, making these things, enjoying the benefits of fringe “Oxbridge” education and influence. Political reliance on, and exploitation of, utter emotional stupidity, anger, resentment, etc., is part of a world trend to a new savagery, primitive and it’s despicable. Janata and the leadership must be sensible, responsible, prudent, honest, genuine…
Religion is the scourge of the world.
We look back at recipes to invoke “spontaneous generation of life”, such as the belief that leaving a sweaty shirt in a box overnight would magically bring forth mice, as primitive and ignorant yet we still continue to accept and protect beliefs in miracles, virgin birth, godly powers and other such religious nonsense.
I cannot see the world ever ridding itself of the belief in invisible people and things that can’t be proven.
Especially now when far right cultists bow down to the charlatans who purvey this rubbish to progress their own wealth and power and even prison evasion by promoting disdain for science and scientific history.
I’m no expert on relativity … – but I do believe that relativity allows you to reference any movement at any speed against any point in space you choose. It’s just that some points of reference require far more computational effort than others. But (I guess) it can be done.
Perhaps by following, if you can, the lead of mathematics genius John von Neumann, about whom his fellow mathematicians and physicists marveled: “Most mathematicians prove what they can, von Neumann proves what he wants.”
All true indeed. My point is simply that science has chosen to reinforce a point of view which is convenient but factually incorrect — a betrayal of a perspective for which Galileo was tried. Misinformation?
They’ve drowned the metaphor and lost the plot. Reminds me of Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics – he did a far better job.
You’d think the Indian government was using the same tactics of fossil fueled Anglosphere Koch Network ‘libertarian’ think tanks, in attempts to nobble education curricula and syllabi i.e. remove or disrupt science and skills of analysis, leading to dumbed down nation ill equipped to be educated, empowered and holding power to account?
My reference to Galileo is of course a provocation. But to what extent is the systematic reference by science to “sunrise”/”sunset” to be interpreted as pseudoscience — given Binoy’s introductory sentence: Welcome the canons of pseudoscience? Who is misled by such usage by science? One cannot be too careful these days!
Arnd, your reference to relativity reminded me of the tale of the Zen master who came across two monks watching a flag, and arguing as to whether it was the flag moving, or the wind moving.
He said “You’re both wrong. It’s your mind that moves.”
Darwin came up with a theory of evolution and now there are others who have come up with a theory that humankind just suddenly appeared fully evolved.
Now that’s an interesting theory so why not subject it to scientific and academic analysis.
In the meantime let’s teach all viable theories and allow thinking people to make up their own mind : placing blinkers on students and educators is not helpful.
I’ll stick with Darwin until an alternative theory has been fully fleshed out.
One of the reasons for his theory attracting hostility is that many or most of his followers were dogmatic, insisting that Darwin explained everything. But Darwin himself knew this was not the case.
There are few if any laws in biology because biology is messy. There are too many unknown influences in biological processes to be dogmatic.
Unlike dogma – a premise with its foundations in designed fear, science makes proposals based on research and evidence, until more and better evidence comes to light, whereupon science makes modified proposals. Understanding that the more you know, the more you find you don’t know.
It’s a fine functional framework, and bears no comparison to the accumulation of rumour and conjecture of belief.
There is certainly a retrograde aspect to elements of public discourse currently in play in India, obviously suiting the agenda of the apparatchiks of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its increasingly autocratic leader, Narendra Modi; one ought not be too surprised at these developments given the fractious nature of that nation’s kaleidoscopic society with its competing interests and beliefs and social strata and the highly relevant issue of who wields power and to what use that put that facility to.
Inasmuch as ignorance is freely demonstrated alongside wisdom, and scientific excellence is in play in the presence of age-old superstitions and beliefs, it’s no surprise to read of the current pullback from adherence to a relatively modern corpus of knowledge based on Darwin’s observations in relation to the development of species.
Despite the accuracy of the former Minister for Higher Education’s observation that no one had ever seen “an ape turning into a human being,” he clearly seems to have focused on the obvious while ignoring the relevant, the fact that we humans share around 98.8% genetic correlation with our chimpanzee cousins. It’s somewhat amusing in that tragicomic way that so often appears on the human stage that people of that country can argue for the facticity of Lord Ganesh or Karna’s birth or any of the other myriad fantastic beliefs that constitute much of Hindu and other religious belief systems that exist within the teeming subcontinent, yet deny our relationship to the other members of the great ape family.
With all due respect to Darwin’s observations and the general acceptance of his theories, and India’s current rejection notwithstanding – given its substantial basis rooted in politics and irrational dogma – there are cracks in the fabric and not everyone is convinced, as for example professor of biochemistry Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, where the argument for irreducible complexity is explored… a work much criticised but nevertheless one which raised a host of intriguing questions.
Canguro: Behe’s “irreducible complexity” achieves traction only because he cannot imagine otherwise, with his view that “it is extremely implausible that components can fortuitously change function within a complex system”. When great minds like Einstein et al come along “quantum leaps” in theory/understanding occur. We know that significant chunks of genetic material can be exchanged between life forms or modified due to radiation. Whether the result is viable is determined by the environment.
There is bound to be an explanation for how complex biological system function changes can occur without “divine intervention” or equivalent, it simply requires a great intellect to solve. Covid 19, a tiny particle somewhere between 50 and 140nm in diameter (cf. visible light is 400 to 700nm), is clearly demonstrating evolution at work. We have subjects like “string theory” in quantum physics, “dark matter” and now “dark energy” in astronomy to be fully explained. While I might not be as smart as Behe, I would suggest that he isn’t adding to our understanding of complex biological systems.
I just keep going on and on, people are basically stupid. Modi sees this as a way to stay in power. Appeal to the most base of bases. The fact he is so rich just proves my point, the facts are just an obstacle and he doesnt give a shit so long as he remains in power. During the covid days, he just didnt give a shit about the populous, pretty much as Putin displays now. All the crazy religeous sects in India are basically the same shit mentality. I guess when your arse is to the floor, you would cling to anything. Keeping people struggling to survive is purely a power play. As George Carlin would say, its about control…….you have non. Better to keep them on the edge and stupid.
Evolution is not a theory, it is a fact, recognised in the geological fossil record and reinforced by genetic science that Darwin did not have access to when he formed his theory to explain the indisputable phenomenon of the evolution of new species throughout the history of life on earth.
Darwin’s brilliant theory is that natural selection is the process that explains the fact that new species have evolved. It isn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is Darwin’s theory of the evolution of new species by natural selection. Natural selection is the theory, not evolution. Wallace came up with the same theory of natural selection independently before Darwin felt ready to publish his work.
There is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a fact, just denialism from defenders of the faith of creationism whose pathetic theory to explain how new species evolve is that they are continuously created by a supernatural entity. A theory with no evidence at all to back it up.
“Irreducible complexity” is just a fancier, newer term for the old canard of “there’s no such thing as half an eye”. In fact, there is. Half, 1/4, 1/8. 1/16 etc. There is everything from simple light-sensitive surface patches to the extremely complex compound eyes of many insects.
Those who argue against evolution mostly do so from a positions rooted in blind faith supported by ignorance. Satyapal Singh’s comment is evidence of this: humans did not evolve from apes and evolutionary scientists have never claimed that they did; both humans and other modern primates evolved from a common ancestral species.