In 2018, India’s then junior minister for higher education while speaking in a public function at a university in Assam demanded that the theory of biological evolution should be removed from school curricula because, as he explained, no one “ever saw an ape turning into a human being”. He later claimed that Darwin’s theory has no scientific basis, and wondered why no one, including our ancestors, wrote or said that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being. Reacting to the minister’s statements, more than 2,000 Indian scientists had signed a petition calling his remarks misleading and unscientific. The scientists’ statement said that contrary to what the minister said, every new scientific finding adds support to Darwin’s theory.
It is no wonder the minister, being a part of a conservative political faction in India, chose to berate Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin has been a punching bag for religious fundamentalists around the world since the publication of his magnum opus On the Origin of Species in 1859, where he introduced the concept of “common descent by natural selection”. The idea that life began billions of years ago, that its evolution is continuing around us even today and is likely to go on forever, is among the greatest insights humanity has had. In one masterful stroke, this theory defined our past, present and future in the universe and removed ‘divine intervention’ from the scheme of things.
It was Karl Marx who said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” We see here a cycle of events in an opposite sense – a farce evolving into a tragedy. Five years after the minister made his farcical statement and had expressed his incredulity of ‘man being a child of monkey’, tragedy has now struck us real hard. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has decided to delete the theory of biological evolution from the Class 10 syllabus, permanently. Initially the NCERT dropped this part of the syllabus as only a temporary measure purportedly for easing the study load during the coronavirus pandemic, as the teaching was conducted online. But the NCERT document as shown on its website now states that this portion in the syllabus was removed permanently as a step towards ‘content rationalisation’! It is not clear how the NCERT can rationalise the makeover of syllabus, started as a temporary measure during the pandemic, and made permanent even when schools have gone back to in-person mode.
The NCERT document indicates that as a part of the ‘rationalisation of content’ in textbooks for Class 10, the original chapter in the textbook, titled as ‘Heredity and Evolution’, has been replaced with ‘Heredity’. The topics that have been dropped in this chapter include Charles Robert Darwin, Origin of life on Earth, Molecular Phylogeny, Evolution, Evolution and Classification, Tracing Evolutionary Relationships, Evolution by Stages, and Human Evolution. An open letter has been issued, signed by 1,800 scientists expressing their consternation to this latest body blow for science education in the country. The minister’s words against what he made five years ago have come tragically true. It is worth mentioning here how the late Stephen Jay Gould, an eminent evolutionary biologist and a science communicator, reacted when he was asked to comment on the decision of the Kansas School Board to make the teaching of evolution optional in biological classes. He said it’s like saying ”We’re going to continue to teach English, but you don’t have to teach grammar anymore.”
The scientists in their letter titled ‘An Appeal Against Exclusion of Evolution from Curriculum’, make clear that the understanding of the process of evolution is crucial for building a scientific temper, and that depriving students of this exposure is making a mockery of secondary education. Evolutionary biology is not only important to any sub-field of biology, but it is also key to understanding the world around us. The scientists point out that the principles of natural selection help us understand human evolution, why some species go extinct and how pandemics progress, and help us tackle some critical issues like drug discovery, epidemiology, ecology and environment.
The shrinking space for science education in India today is worrisome and doesn’t augur well for our overall intellectual and cultural development. It is not difficult to see why countries dominated by theocratic models of governance fail to make scientific and technological leaps. Iran, for example, was one of the major contributors to the Islamic Golden Age but today, a thick blanket of its own version of Islamic fundamentalism strangles its creativity. Closer home, Pakistan provides another case of a crisis-ridden state, a condition mostly brought about by its obsession with the tradition of religious practices. It is not difficult to see that countries dominated by theocratic ideals struggle to make scientific and technological leaps. India with a forward-looking constitutional base should not fall into a theocratic trap.
Removing biological evolution from the school syllabus cannot be seen in isolation. It should be seen as a part of the efforts by some of our leaders of the current ruling establishment questioning the relevance of science as a force that guides our spirit and culture. In the late 1990s, the then minister of human resources sought to have astrology taught in universities as a branch of science. It has also been claimed that ancient India achieved many scientific and technological feats that the scientists are achieving only today and how they outclass the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics in their ability to faithfully describe nature. Political leaders declare cow urine can cure cancer – a claim that has not been proved by any scientific procedures.
Many of the world’s cultures were born when humans had limited knowledge of the external world. Using their imaginative abilities, they arrived at some conclusions on natural phenomena, most often wrong, but they later became part of religious doctrines. The advent of modern science pushed back against this tendency. The science policy resolution that the Indian Parliament passed in 1958 is a reiteration of its commitment to modern science and its analytical power in solving the problems faced by the society. Through a constitutional amendment (Article 51A), the Government of India in 1976 again emphasised its commitment to encourage science culture. In a tradition-bound country like India – where dogma and superstations rule the roost – the best interests of the growing generation can be secured only by emphasising the role of science in their educational activities. From that perspective, the action by the NCERT is miserably retrograde.
C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.