The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has dropped the theory of evolution as propounded by Charles Darwin from the science syllabus for the tenth standard. This has been done as a part of the ‘rationalisation’ exercise taken up during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic to reduce the ‘content load’ on students. The purging of the section on evolution on the pretext of the pandemic could not have been more ironical – the novel coronavirus that caused the pandemic is indeed a result of the natural selection process that Darwin sought to explain and children ought to learn more about it. The theory of evolution is fundamental to understanding the basis of several sub-branches of modern biology like genetics, immunology and so on.
It is hard to believe that the change effected by NCERT, particularly relating to the chapter on evolution and heredity, has anything to the stated goal of reducing the burden on students in the wake of the pandemic. In 2018, minister of state for human resources development Satyapal Singh declared that Darwin’s theory of evolution was scientifically wrong because “no one had ever seen a monkey turn into a human” and that ever since man had come on the earth, he was a man. Singh later defended his comments and asserted that schools and colleges should stop teaching the evolution theory. Singh is no more in the education ministry but what he desired is being implemented.
Darwin has raised the hackles of obscurantist groups and different religions in many parts of the world including the US during the past several decades, but only a few have taken the extreme step of stopping teaching evolution to their children. Most of these countries are in the Middle East and India’s neighbourhood. Science textbooks in Pakistan, for instance, have been rubbishing the evolution theory for a long time. The theory has been banned completely in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria and Morocco, and it is not taught in Lebanon. It is taught within the framework of religion in Jordan and is portrayed as an unproven hypothesis in textbooks in Egypt and Tunisia. Darwin is also a subject of many fatwas. In the US, a creationism lobby – backed by some Catholic groups – has been advocating the teaching of creationism as an alternative to the human evolution theory. Creationists believe that the world – humans, natural life, the universe – is a creation of the divine power or the god, and it did not evolve.
The removal of Darwin from the school syllabus is not an innocuous change. Seen in the context of revivalism and a return to the so-called ancient science, it is a retrograde step for the teaching of science and an onslaught on rational thinking and scientific temper. It can adversely impact the quality of higher education in science, scientific research and India’s position as a formidable science and technology power in the world community.
The concept of evolution is fundamental to all branches of biology and research in this field is going to help the world fight against some of the biggest challenges facing humanity – be it climate change or antibiotic resistance or future pandemics emanating from the increased animal-human-environment interface. As it is, the teaching of science in Indian schools is a matter of concern. With the new changes in the school curriculum – and perhaps more in the future in line with the drive to reinforce traditional values and mythology – the teaching of science at the school and college levels could suffer more. Just imagine the state of Indian science in future if our schools start teaching Dashavatara as an alternative to the evolution theory. The dashavatara theory was propagated by Andhra University Vice Chancellor G. Nageshwar Rao at the Indian Science Congress session in 2019. ‘Papers’ were also presented debunking theories of Newton and Einstein at this meeting.
The school curriculum change has serious implications for scientific research in the country. In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of pseudoscience activities in research institutions and universities in the name of research on ancient knowledge and to provide a scientific basis to myths. Funding agencies like the Department of Science and Technology and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have also been forced to support research on some topics concerning ‘ancient science’ – cow urine, cow dung, spiritual farming, medical astrology etc. With a state agency (NCERT) discarding the theory of evolution, funding agencies may soon have to deal with proposals to study alternatives to the evolution theory and to find a ‘scientific basis’ for ancient ideas. All such trends don’t augur well for the future of Indian science.
Response from scientific community
When Satyapal Singh rubbished the theory of evolution in 2018, the scientific community condemned it strongly. In a rare move, three academies – Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the Indian Academy of Science (IASc) and the National Academy of Sciences-India (NASI) – issued a joint statement. They categorically stated that “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.”
Referring to Singh’s statement that the theory should be removed from the syllabus, the academies said: “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.” Evolutionary biologists presented their arguments and requested the minister to retract his statement. Now that what Singh said then is being implemented by NCERT, the academies should reiterate their stand and use their collective clout to reverse the decision. Science academies the world over have been fighting anti-science and pseudoscience tendencies, and proactively trying to promote public understanding of science. Indian science academies should be no exception.
An independent group of scientists and educators, Breakthrough Science Society, has written an open letter criticising NCERT. It said “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.”
The voices of rationality need to become stronger because the onslaught against science is not going to stop at Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, if the developments leading to this decision are any indication. It should not be seen as just a matter of science education or science academies but as something that concerns society and the country as a whole.
Dr Dinesh C. Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is Indian Innovation, Not Jugaad: 100 Ideas That Transformed India (Roli Books, 2022).