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.