More on (the banning of) evolution in India

April 28, 2023 • 11:35 am

I first mentioned this about two weeks ago, when I posted this:

*According to Al Jazeera, the Hinducentric government of Prime Minister Modi of India has slowly been removing mention of evolution from school curricula; now it’s available only in classes 11 or 12, when students are 16-18 years old (many have left school by then).

Now, a piece in the magazine India Today dilates on that finding, but, in implicitly decrying the removal of evolution, the article complicates matters by presenting this “straight-line progress” view of human evolution on the cover.

By now people realize that the depicted sequence from knuckle-walkers to bipedals to modern humans is not only a cliché, but flatly wrong. Our evolution had many twists and turns, with modern H. sapiens living at the same time (and having common ancestors with) with very different forms, including Neanderthals, Denisovans, and even the tiny “hobbit people“, H. floresiensis.  Yes, you can trace one lineage through the branching bush of human evolution that would correspond to the sequence drawn below, but you could equally well show very different sequences by tracing different lineages. Remember, human evolution is not one straight-line lineage, but a complex branching bush, with hybridization between some of the branches.

In other words, the picture is teleological, implying a unidirectional force of natural selection that led to modern humans. But it’s not unidirectional, because some lineages didn’t go this way! Steve Gould attacked this “march of progress” trope in the first chapter of his book Wonderful Life; you can read more about this diagram, and where it came from, here.

But again I digress. What is going on in India! I’ve asked an Indian evolutionary biologist and a friend to help me out.  She, one of the 1800 signers of the letter mentioned in the link above, says that it’s complicated.  It’s not so much that evolution is in strong opposition to Hinduism (as it is in fundamentalist Christianity); as she wrote:

While the distortions in history text books are not at all surprising, removing evolution is a bit strange because Hindus don’t have anything against evolution. There is no particular creation story for humans and since people are familiar with the Dasavatar, they usually think evolution is somewhat similar and acceptable. The one set of people who seem to be against evolution are the ISKCON (Krishna cult) people, who seem to have a lot of western influence and money. There are websites coming up trying to project Krishna as the god of Hindus and showing a monolithic Hinduism.

But what is the case is that evolution used to be part of science class in “Classes 9 and 10,” which in India are kids 13-15 years old.  After that they take exams and have to decide what subjects to specialize in: science (with or without biology), commerce, economics, the arts, and so on. Specialization begins early, before the age at which kids go to college in America.

In India now, only the students who decide to go the Biology route in Classes 11 and 12 will get any exposure to evolution at all! It’s been wiped out of the biology material taught to any kids who don’t choose to major in biology.

The deep-sixing of evolution was originally part of the whittling-down of the Indian school curriculum during the pandemic, but now it appears to be a permanent change, and not just in public schools, but also in many private ones, who follow the same standards set by the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education).

At any rate, 1800 Indian scientists, science teachers, other academics, and concerned citizens wrote a letter opposing the dumping of evolution in the pre-specialization science curriculum, a letter you can access by clicking on the link below.  I’m happy to see several of my Indian colleagues, whom I met when I lectured there in five cities a few years back, have been instrumental in creating this letter and then have appended their signatures.

I don’t know whether as non-Indians we can help in this appeal, but often countries are sensitive to how they look to other countries (viz,. the New Zealanders who are upset by attacks from people like Dawkins and I on their equation of Maori “ways of knowing” with modern science).  If there are opportunities for us to help get evolution back into schools in what is now the world’s most populous country, I’ll let you know about them.

Here’s the letter, which is a better summary of the case for evolution than that given in the India Today article:

We, the undersigned, have learned that sweeping changes are being proposed in the CBSE curriculum in the secondary and senior secondary courses. These changes, first introduced as a temporary measure during the Corona pandemic, are being continued even when schooling has gone back to offline mode. In particular, we are concerned with the exclusion of the teaching of Darwinian evolution from the 10th standard curriculum, as seen in the information (see, page 21) available on the NCERT website

In the current educational structure, only a small fraction of students choose the science stream in grade 11 or 12, and an even smaller fraction of those choose biology as one of the subjects of study. Thus, the exclusion of key concepts from the curriculum till grade 10 amounts to a vast majority of students missing a critical part of essential learning in this field.

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. Evolutionary biology is an area of science with a huge impact on how we choose to deal with an array of problems we face as societies and nations from medicine and drug discovery, epidemiology, ecology and environment, to psychology, and it also addresses our understanding of humans and their place in the tapestry of life. Although many of us do not explicitly realise, the principles of natural selection help us understand how any pandemic progresses or why certain species go extinct, among many other critical issues..

An understanding of the process of evolution is also crucial in building a scientific temper and a rational worldview. The way Darwin’s painstaking observations and his keen insights led him to the theory of natural selection educates students about the process of science and the importance of critical thinking. Depriving students, who do not go on to study biology after the 10th standard, of any exposure to this vitally important field is a travesty of education.

We, the undersigned scientists, science teachers, educators, science popularisers and concerned citizens disagree with such dangerous changes in school science education and demand to restore the theory of Darwinian evolution in secondary education

Aniket Sule, Mumbai Ragavendra Gadagkar, Bengaluru Amitabha Joshi, Bengaluru L. S. Shashidhara, Bengaluru T. N. C. Vidya, Bengaluru Enakshi Bhattacharya, Chennai Rahul Siddharthan, Chennai D. Indumathi, Chennai Amitabha Pandey, Delhi Ram Ramswamy, Delhi T. V. Venkateswaran, Delhi Anindita Bhadra, Kolkata Soumitro Bannerjee, Kolkata S. Krishnaswamy, Madurai N. G. Prasad, Mohali Aurnab Ghose, Pune Satyajeet Rath, Pune Shraddha Kumbhojkar, Pune Sudha Rajamani, Pune Vineeta Bal, Pune

and 1800 others.

Imagine learning biology without any mention of evolution, and then never hearing anything about it again unless you become a biology major! What a lacuna that puts in your education! I hope the letter accomplishes something.

I just realized that while my book Why Evolution is True has been translated into 19 languages, including two forms of Chinese, it has never been translated into any Indian language like Hindi or Malayalam (unless you consider English an Indian language). As I said, India is now the most populous country on Earth, and its science education needs to be up to snuff. In the interest of spreading the life-transforming truth of evolution to Indian students and science fans, I’ll allow it to be translated into Hindi or any other Indian language for a very low fee. (My agent sets the fees; I can’t make it free, but I can importune them to set very low translation fees if a country needs evolution education. This is what we did in the only Arab-speaking country to translate the book, Egypt.)

14 thoughts on “More on (the banning of) evolution in India

  1. Kansas beat them to it by 17 years ;

    “In response to a Nov. 7 [my edit : 2006] referendum, Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life.”

    ” “From now on, the streets, forests, plains, and rivers of Kansas will be safe from the godless practice of evolution, and species will be able to procreate without deviating from God’s intended design,” said Bob Bethell, a member of the state House of Representatives. ”

    And, a quote just for PCC(E) and Allan Orr :

    “To enforce the law, Kansas state police will be trained to investigate and apprehend organisms who exhibit suspected signs of evolutionary behavior, such as natural selection or speciation.”

    (Couldn’t resist – one of my favorites!)

      1. THAT as you say is a very thorough reply to righting a wrong question to the wrong person, I wonder if John ever recovered… it made me laugh. Thanks for that.

      2. Heh, I just posted that on the ‘Science is Dope’ discussion (see comment 1 by StephenB).
        As a fun trivium, due to being an oblong spheroid the top of mount Everest (highest above sea level) is not the point furthest from the centre of the Earth. That is the top of mount Chimborazo, in Equador (as the name of the country suggests: close to the Equator).

    1. Heh, that too I posted on the “Science is Dope” discussion linked by StephenB at comment 1.

      Maybe we move in too small a circle? Or maybe these quotes by Asimov and Dobzhansky are so great as to be shining hills? I hope , and think, the latter, but fear the first.

  2. Fortunately, India has relatively few written languages. The number of spoken languages is misleading. This is a common human pattern. For example, there are many dialects of spoken Arabic, but only form of written Arabic.

  3. Everything I know about evolution was self-taught because school materials (Netherlands, previous century) did a very poor job explaining Darwin’s theory of evolution. Luckily there were many good books in our public libraries that filled this knowledge gap.

    When I read “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, I finally made the connection how biology relates to chemistry and physics; more importantly, it removed all magical thinking from my brain.

    In our days there are probably good materials on the internet if one is motivated looking for it. Still it is sad that governments refuse to educate their people properly.

  4. If I had to guess I’d say evolution wasn’t removed because it’s considered ungodly, but because it’s considered un-Indian.

    Back in the early 00s Meera Nanda explained how regressive Indian Nationalists were trying to subordinate “Western” science to the native-born wisdom of India which had not only gotten there first, but better. Like the Muslims, they were combing sacred works such as the Bhavagad Gita for passages which sounded vaguely like some discovery in science and then claiming the discovery actually came from their own Hindu “science.”

    As I recall, they did this with the Theory of Evolution but its Western roots and association might have been too strong.

    1. Yes Sastra, when Mahatma himself had appendicitis he was asked whether he would go for a ‘Western’ operation or stick to his Aryuvedic Medicine, so much propagated by him. He chose the ‘Western’ operation. Nuff said, I guess.

      Note, I don’t think he was as bad as Mary Bojaxhiu (aka Mother Theresa) who denied even analgesics to her victims (‘suffering will bring them closer to Jesus’), while going to expensive Western hospitals when suffering herself. The late Christopher Hitchens pointed that out in his small, but pertinent, booklet “The Missionary Position”.

      A few years ago, I was discussing this ‘All modern science is predicted or shown in the Qur’an” on a site promoting this -I may say it now- nonsense. When I pointed out a few fallacies in these tenets, he didn’t want to discuss with me anymore. Literally: “I don’t like you anymore”. Sadly enough, because that would mean he liked my comments at first, I guess. Should I have gone even softer? I think I was pretty soft and gracious, -but no. I feel I lost that one.

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