With Ram Madhav and Satyapal Singh in Charge, Even Lord Ram Can’t Help Indian Science

If the minister’s pen, with RSS support, blots the page of textbooks, the Indian child will be at even greater risk of learning nothing in school than she already is.

From left to right: Ram Madhav (Credit: PTI), Charles Darwin (Credit: Wikipedia Commons) and Satyapal Singh (Credit: PTI).

From left to right: Ram Madhav (Credit: PTI), Charles Darwin (Credit: Wikipedia Commons) and Satyapal Singh (Credit: PTI).

Article 51a of the Indian constitution enjoins upon citizens the “fundamental duty” to develop “the scientific temper”. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its leaders, who invariably lament the fact that fundamental rights are given more importance than duties, would do well to internalise this section, if only to end the confusion that prevails in the public mind about where the party and government stands on the importance of science.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking an active interest in using space-based resources to push social, economic and even diplomatic goals. But then, the same prime minister also thinks Lord Ganesha’s elephantine head was transplanted onto the body of a human in ancient India using plastic surgery.

There is official acknowledgment that climate change is real, and proactive measures are being taken at multilateral fora to ensure developing nations don’t end up being penalised for pollution caused by developed nations since industrialisation. And yet the government is letting thermal power plants break its own rules so it can favour Big Coal.

You’ve got a clutch of ministries and departments – like the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Department of Biotechnology – doing good work, taking the country forward. But then you’ve got another clutch of ministries – like those of Human Resource Development and of Environment, Forests and Climate Change – working to undermine important progress made over decades and taking us backward.

You’ve got scientists doing excellent work somewhere or the other in India, doing amazing things with scant resources. And then you’ve also got politicians and even ministers saying the most stupid things. Latest exhibit: Satya Pal Singh, Union minister of state for human resource development, telling an audience in Maharashtra that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is not real because “no one saw an ape turning into a man”.

Singh’s claim could have been dismissed as the unfortunate ignorance of a police officer-turned politician except that he has received support from Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the BJP and a key ideologue of the RSS, the BJP’s parent body.

Soon after Singh made his creationist statement, Madhav tweeted a link to an article discussing the provenance and purpose of a list called ‘The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism’.

This list is old, having been in the works since 2001. It currently has a little under 1,000 signatories, of which around 150 are biologists. If evolution is wrong, wouldn’t one biologist have sufficed? Second, the remaining 850-odd signatories aren’t biologists, irrespective of whether they’re from some of the world’s best universities. What stock should we place by their thoughts on evolution? This is two rookie mistakes at once: the ad verecundiam and ad populum fallacies. Third, all signatories are signing up to the following statement:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

This is an interesting composition. It doesn’t mention the word ‘evolution’, immediately raising suspicion as to its intent. Does the statement want scientists to talk about whether evolution is an inaccurate or incomplete theory or does it want them to acknowledge that mutations can’t account for biological complexity? The answer to the latter question is often “yes”: complexity, many biologists have argued, arises from a variety of factors, only some of which can be brought together under the umbrella of natural selection. So in a blog post in 2007, Laurence Moran, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s department of biochemistry, described the effect of such deliberate ambivalence:

There’s nothing wrong with the statement. I am skeptical of claims that natural selection accounts for all of the complexity of life. There are lots of other things going on during evolution. But I will not sign this petition because [Bill] Dembski and the IDiots will deliberately misinterpret my intentions. They have no idea what dissent from classical Darwinism really means. They have no idea that someone like me could (mostly) agree with the statement while, at the same time, referring to all Intelligent Design Creationists as IDiots. (emphasis added)

Singh’s remarks are dangerous because he is a minister with the power to change what’s printed in school and college textbooks. This way it is more pernicious than claiming cow urine can cure cancer or whatever else.

Why? Because Singh’s remarks are against students – not scientists, many of whom know how to recognise bullshit with a single whiff. Students must learn how to do that for themselves. This means that, irrespective of the contents of classroom lessons, students should learn about how to eliminate bias when trying to learn things about the natural universe, about how to evaluate evidence for its reliability, and know when to dissent and – most of all – how to do so constructively. Without this foundation, you get people like Ram Madhav taking any sentence that begins “According to scientists…” at face value.

The people whose job it is to verify whether Darwin’s theories of evolution are right think it is right. It doesn’t matter what a physicist or an astronomer thinks about that. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter what a minister thinks either – but Satyapal Singh has his censorious pen poised over our school textbooks. The most effective way to oppose this would be to redouble our outreach efforts. For schools, colleges, universities, museums, laboratories, conferences and the panoply of scientific institutions India has created to think about effective ways to reach younger people and communicate good science effectively. For newspapers, magazines, journals and websites to focus more on science journalism. For everyone to introspect on the methods of science and why they are what they are.

The RSS has been trying to establish Hindu scripture as the source of all knowledge – e.g. the Manusmriti and its feudal prescriptions – in its quest to equate India with Hinduism and Hindus with Indians. One way it tries to achieve this is by establishing the primacy of ancient India (i.e. before the arrival of Christianity and Islam) in the production of scientific and technological knowledge.

For example, 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.

If the minister’s pen, with RSS support, comes down and blots the page of our textbooks, the Indian child will be at even greater risk of learning nothing in school than she already is.

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  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Some people are as dumb as half a brick. And they take such pride in proving it, in trying to measure up to the dumbness standard set by their Supreme Leader.
    Good, wholesome family entertainment though!

    • Anjan Basu

      Entertainment, surely – but I devoutly wish for such entertainment to be labelled ‘For Adults Only’. For god’s sake,
      let not our children be exposed to such BS. As for us, bone-weary and brain-dead oldies, Singh or his tribe can do no more harm. We have suffered the likes of him for so long that we are past caring already.

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        True, that. If this is the “knowledge” that’s poised to worm its way into school texts, then our children will grow up to be the laughing stock of the world – and that’s to add to their already abysmal reading/writing skills (forget thinking!).

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    We can’t engage in any serious scientific discussion with these crackpots. But then, lets be aware – there’s a method in their madness. Modi patronizes modern scientific experiments in military and nuclear technology, while at the same time encourages obscurantist religious superstitions among the public through his ministers in the Centre and States. While this minister in his government dismisses Darwin’s theory of evolution, his prime minister is following the path of social Darwinism – trying desperately to adhere to his theory of `survival of the fittest.’

    Sumanta Banerjee

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    After going through all the responses, I now agree that the honourable minister S.P. Singh has really disproved Darwin’s theory of evolution of human beings from apes. He can offer himself as a unique example of counter-evolution – from human beings to apes.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Have you read this fully yourself, or did you go just by its title? This article explains why Darwin’s theory of evolution might need more nuanced analyses, particularly in the light of discoveries in epigenetics which seem to suggest that the environment may also play a role in genetic determination. All very scientific, and how science should be. The last paragraph of the article says that Darwin himself “went to his deathbed protesting that he’d been misinterpreted: there was no reason, he said, to assume that natural selection was the only imaginable mechanism of evolution.”

    I am quite sure the Honble minister has no clue about the existence of this article, nor does he have an alternate scientific theory. Rather, he comes straight from the Golwalkar school of “scientific thought”, which claims: “Out of the heap of hypotheses we reject all and positively maintain that we Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always, from times immemorial and are natural masters of the country.” (We, or Our Nationhood Defined, by M.S.Golwalkar).

    In other words, the usual BS that goes by the name of Hindutva.

    • Malwa

      Thank you sir. That’s what I was going to write

    • V Suresh

      Well said !

      No wonder, RSS leader Ram Madhav supports this missing link !

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        Thanks! The below-contempt claim that humans just literally popped out from the soil of India and were Hindus from time=0 is central to the RSS’s Hindutva fantasies. Darwin’s or any other scientific theory of evolution has no place in that claim. Thats where the Honble minister is coming from, nothing more.

  • Malwa

    No one is questioning the THEORY!!!

    ” but
    let’s keep in mind that he was also responsible for what is arguably the
    greatest theory ever: evolution by natural selection. He just didn’t
    live long enough to see the final piece, genetics, fall into place
    (well, the final giant piece, I should say—we still have much to learn about evolution).

  • V Suresh

    Well he got his PhD in Chemistry from Delhi University didn’t he ? ANd studied alongside the PM, another graduate of Delhi University …

  • V Suresh

    “Now our very own DNA proves that we all came from one couple and it is only 6000 yrs old”.

    Pray tell us who that couple are ? Adam & Eve?

    Clearly, Satyapal Singh has many a crackpot friend. No I wan’t referring to you, but to Ram Madhav, the RSS führer.

  • V Suresh

    Yes, when the PM – or anyone else for that matter – can come up with such nonsense at a Science Congress, well, he must not be surprised at the ridicule he gets. One of his predecessors – a Gujarathi to boot – went about giving interviews in the US CBS channel on the benefits of drining one’s piss. That was considered so gross that it was not aired – until a rival channel aired it.

    And then you had Prakash Javadekar at the 102nd Indian Science Congress where the seminars extolled the inter-planetary travel skills of ancient Indians, apparently using a concoction consisting of cow dung, cow urine and ghee.

    Of course you had the worthy in Rajasthan, a so called Minister of Education Vasudev Devnani who claimed that Brahmagupta, not Newton discovered the Laws of Gravity ! Said BIMARU intellectual also claimed that the cow is the only animal exhales oxygen.

    The list of BJP, Hindutva inspired scientific revisionism is long. Hopefully the list of their “educated” admirers like you is short.

    • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

      Nice ending! 🙂

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Educate yourself first. Darwin’s theory of evolution does NOT claim that monkeys transformed into humans! That you claim that it so claimed is ridiculuos.

  • sumit

    I strongly believe in Darwinism and admit along with most of the people on this earth that the Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct and could not been challenged in scientific community till now.
    But Why you people just can’t criticize the Minister,rather than dragging every single BJP thing into this. Why pull every thing and dilute the main fact by doing so. Let’s admit the minister is either ill-informed or he is really skeptical about Darwinism. If he really is skeptical he should have come out along with an alternative scientific fact with evidence in which he believes. That’s it.