UPDATE: Reader Snowy Owl has pointed out that pushback against Singh’s anti-evolution comments have also appeared on Indian websites and newspapers (h/t: Snowy Owl). Here are two articles defending evolution:
The Hindu: “What Darwin actually said about man and apes.” (I left a comment.)
And all three major Indian science academies have denounced Singh’s statement (h/t: Vidya). Their statement:
“The Honourable Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Shri Satyapal Singh has been quoted as saying that “Nobody, including our ancestors, in writing or orally, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curricula.”
“The three Academies of Science wish to state that there is no scientific basis for the Minister’s statements. Evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well established. There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution. This is a scientific theory, and one that has made many predictions that have been repeatedly confirmed by experiments and observation. An important insight from evolutionary theory is that all life forms on this planet, including humans and the other apes have evolved from one or a few common ancestral progenitors.
“It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.
“The theory of evolution by natural selection as propounded by Charles Darwin and developed and extended subsequently has had a major influence on modern biology and medicine, and indeed all of modern science. It is widely supported across the world. See for example.”
One statistic I adduced when I lectured on evolution in India was this: Indians are about as religious as Americans, but the acceptance of evolution among Indians is substantially higher. (The statistics for India show some variance, but are consistently higher than for the U.S.) When I asked Indians why, most responded that Hindu scripture already has evolutionary concepts incorporated in it, and although those religious tenets aren’t really scientific (e.g., reincarnation), Hindus don’t, as a group, adhere to creation stories that explicitly contradict evolution.
Whether that’s the reason or not, we do see an absence in India of the kind of organized creationism that afflicts the U.S. But there’s still religious fundamentalism, and, in fact, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its adherence to Hindu nationalism (“Hindutva”) and the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is slowly becoming more theocratic—like Turkey. Modi is a canny right-winger who has no credible opposition in India’s Congress Party, and, I found, has garnered surprising support among not just Indians in general, but scientists. (I hasten to add that most of the scientists I met were no fans of the BJP.) One humanities scholar I met told me that the main academic opposition to the BJP comes from humanities scholars rather than scientists, who either ignore Modi or, as several told me, see him as the only prime minister who can get widespread popular support.
Last year, Erdogan’s Turkish government banned the teaching of evolution in secondary schools (see also here and here), on the dubious grounds that it’s “too complicated for students at that level.” The real reason, of course, is that Erdogan’s government is tinged with Islamic theocracy, and evolution explicitly contradicts the creation myth of the Qur’an.
What about India? Though the country is more evolution-friendly than Turkey or the U.S., the BJP has increasingly tried to manipulate science to religious ends. One striking example is India’s creation of institutes designed to prove (not to test, but to prove), that the five products of the sacred cow: dung, milk, urine, yogurt and ghee (clarified butter) are wonder substances that can cure diseases, including cancer. This ayurvedic cure, with all these things mixed into one nostrum, is called panchagavya, and the Modi government is diverting money that could go to real science into institutes and research that, operating on confirmation bias, will prove the sacredness of the cow.
The Science Chronicle reports other disturbing incursions of faith into Indian Science (my emphasis):
On January 8, 2018, speaking during a programme at the Rajasthan University in Jaipur, the Rajasthan Education Minister Vasudev Devnani said Brahmagupta-II discovered the law of gravity a thousand years before Issac Newton.
“We all have studied that Newton gave the law of gravitation, but delving deeper, we can find that Brahmagupta-II came up with the theory of gravitation 1,000 years before (Newton). Why don’t we include this fact in the curriculum?” Devnani asked.
It was widely reported in the media and there was much furore in the social media. But the scientific community was conspicuous by its silence; there wasn’t even the slightest murmur of protest despite such rubbish being articulated by an education minister of a large State.
The scientific community’s silence shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that Karna and Ganesha were a testimony of ancient Indians’ mastery of reproductive genetics and cosmetic surgery thousands of years ago and well before the West could discover or use them. Not a single scientist challenged him.
“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 said.
Modi then went on to say: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
When Indian theocrats claim the scriptures contain all that’s true in modern science, or the Prime Minister argues that an elephant-headed god is proof of early plastic surgery, Indian scientists had better start worrying. Can creationism be far behind? After all, the idea of organic evolution itself, as Darwin proposed, isn’t really in Hindu scripture.
Well, now several venues, including ndtv.com, reports that an education minister is denigrating evolution, and on the same ridiculous grounds used by American creationists. Here’s an NDTV news video, and an excerpt from their online report appears below that:
Yep, the education minister is touting the old creationist saw that “nobody saw evolution happen”:
Claiming that the theory of evolution put forth by naturalist Charles Robert Darwin was “scientifically wrong”, junior education minister Satyapal Singh says it should be changed in school and college text books. The minister of state for human resource development did not offer any scientific counter to the 19th century English naturalist’s theory but said, “our ancestors haven’t mentioned anywhere that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being”.
“Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curriculum. Ever since humans came to Earth, they have always been humans,” he told to reporters.
According to Darwin, who is regarded as the father of evolution, all organisms had a common ancestry way back time and kept on changing or evolving — a process that takes many, many years — to adapt to the change in environment.
Mr Singh, a former police commissioner of Mumbai, was in Aurangabad to attend the ‘All India Vaidik Sammelan’.
“Nobody, including our ancestors, have said or written that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being. No book we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had any such mention,” said the ex-IPS officer who took voluntary retirement to contest the 2014 general elections.
This is an education minister? Had he checked about the evidence for evolution (perhaps one book he should read is WEIT), he’d know what a stupid thing he said. And I predict that, given that the BJP is in power, this isn’t the last incursion of creationism into Indian politics.
This isn’t the first time Singh has put his metatarsals in his mouth. Flipboard reports this:
Singh recently made another claim that is part of the same trend: that a Mumbaikar named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade successfully flew an airplane eight years before the Wright brothers did by building a “mercury vortex engine” first described in the Vaimanika Shastra. “A Hindu person did it first”? Check. “It worked”? Check. “Knowledge came from ancient text”? Check.
Of course Indian scientists are appalled by what Singh said about evolution, and are now taking action. This is reported in the Science Chronicle article “At last, there’s a welcome push back by the Indian scientific community“, which reports a letter to Singh signed by several hundred Indian scientists. It’s a strong response, and ends like this:
When a minister working for Human Resource Development in the country makes such claims, it harms the scientific community’s efforts to propagate scientific thoughts and rationality through critical education and modern scientific research. It also diminishes the image of the country at the global level and reduces faith of the international historical research community in the genuine research by the Indian researchers.
Therefore, we urge you to retract the reported speech at the All India Vedic Sammelan with immediate effect and issue a clarification about the Ministry’s policy towards teaching the theory of evolution.