The recent comment by Satyapal Singh, the Union minister of state for human resource development, that ‘evolution is unscientific’, takes a different tack on science than that of the saffron science brigade. The difference is that the votaries of saffron science have been going to the extent of attributing modern discoveries and insights to ancient sages, texts like the Vedas, Puranas and the products of other theological endeavours; even evolution had been compared to the Dashavatara. By appropriating such modern theories, their intention has been to grant pride of place to ancient enterprises. Singh’s comment, instead, takes a more regressive (and ridiculous) stance.
The theory of evolution is a part of the standard literature in the biological sciences. Of course, no theory in any of the sciences are held as dogma (at least, they’re not supposed to be). At the same time, a theory can be rejected or falsified using explanations and arguments based on evidence and not by issuing public statements, as the minister seems to have done.
The dismissal of a theory for scientific wrongness should be preceded, or accompanied, by an understanding of what science is. Does the minister know this?
Something similar happened in the US. In the 1980s, some politicians and people were pushing to have creation science included in school curricula. The votaries of creationism wanted the teachers at schools to hold evolution and creationism on equal footing. Arkansas passed a law to this effect. Its lawmakers did not say blatantly that evolution wasn’t scientific the way Singh has but wanted to pass off creationism as being equally scientific.
Scientists subsequently challenged the law’s constitutionality, and the judge hearing it refused to admit creationism as a science. The court’s ruling could prove instructive to Singh as well as the saffron science brigade as such.
Bearing upon the testimony of scientists and philosophers, the judge drafted some criteria that overlaid a certain conception of science. Scientific knowledge, according to the judgement (McLean v. Arkansas, 1982), ought to possess the following characteristics:
- Be guided by natural law
- Be explanatory by reference to natural law
- Be testable against the empirical world.
- Have conclusions that are tentative (i.e. not necessarily the final word), and
- Be falsifiable
The scientists who had challenged Arkansas’s law had protested that creationism was a bit of religious speculation masquerading science. There was nothing to be found in its canon that could have satisfied the judge’s criteria. In fact, he (William Overton) had also noted that the creationists had taken the Bible’s contents literally and attempted to find scientific support for it, and quoted from Studies in The Bible and Science, a book by a creationist named Henry Morris, to make his point.
… it is … quite impossible to determine anything about Creation through a study of present processes, because present processes are not creative in character. If man wishes to know anything about Creation (the time of Creation, the duration of Creation, the order of Creation, the methods of Creation, or anything else) his sole source of true information is that of divine revelation. God was there when it happened. We were not there … Therefore, we are completely limited to what God has seen fit to tell us, and this information is in His written Word. This is our textbook on the science of Creation!
Singh’s words were similar to Morris’s: “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. … Our nana–nani [grandparents] never mentioned Darwin going to the jungle to witness ape-to-human transformation. His theory is wrong, it should not be taught. Humans appeared on Earth as humans from the very beginning.”
His language implies that he subscribes to the view that scientific theories have to be handed down as revelation and that they are not to be worked out rationally, on the basis of natural laws and empirical testing. Further, evolution does not claim that apes became people in a single transformation, only that they have common ancestors. This – and other parts of the theory – have been supported by fossil records. In sum, it seems the minister is not only unaware of the specifics of what he’s talking but also of the basic characteristics of science.
S.K. Arun Murthi teaches philosophy of science. His areas of research include epistemology and metaphysics of science, Indian philosophy and political philosophy.