By Prabhat Prakash and Abhishek Bhatia
New Delhi: Before the theory of evolution, most scientists until the middle of the nineteenth century believed God created mankind in his own image. They thought that all creatures had been conceived by divine force until Charles Darwin arrived. Many believe Darwin’s theory and his writings have been responsible for drastic modifications in the average person’s worldview.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an autonomous organisation of the Government of India recently decided to erase Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (also known as Darwinism) for the senior secondary classes. Darwin himself faced a wide range of criticism for his theory of natural selection, ranging from religious priests to scientific sceptics and conservative politicians. Despite all of this, the theory, which earlier was seen as an overarching explanatory hypothesis, several countries in contemporary times are still struggling to get a reality check.
Terming it a rationalisation exercise, the premier body has failed to convince the scientific community as to what triggered this change. With this, India has joined the likes of Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman, and Egypt.
Over 1,800 Indian scientists—the numbers still counting—including the nation’s foremost biologists, researchers, and educators staunchly came out with a letter calling the move ‘a travesty of education’. In their open letter, the scientists have expressed that erasing Darwinism from senior secondary curricula is going to make students seriously handicapped in their thought processes if they are deprived of exposure to the fundamental discovery of science.
ETHealthworld spoke at length with prominent academicians, biologists, and researchers to understand further why they are opposing NCERT’s decision. To understand the importance of evolutionary biology, and the relevance and influence of Darwin on modern thought, experts have not shied away from giving a scientific response to the antagonism against the theory of evolution.
Fundamental to modern biology
The supporters of the NCERT’s decision criticise the theory for being undated and holding little relevance to the world today. Researchers and biologists rebuke the criticism by calling it unfair and present the theory of evolution apart from genetics as part of the two principles that are fundamental to modern biology.
“Without understanding them, you cannot understand biology,” reaffirmed Dr Chaitanya Athale, Professor, Department of Biology, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.
Whether studying arts, sciences, biology, or non-biology subjects, irrespective of that, one has to understand how nature works, and the evolution theory is at the base of it, believes Prof Soumitro Banerjee, Dept of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata. He added, “Darwin’s theory has impacted human thinking. In the history of science, Darwin’s theory was the first scientific theory that based itself on the theory of probability. Very few people understand that it was the first theory that talked about the probability of survival. That means natural selection is something that impacts the probability of cultures of different variations.”
While explaining the relevance of the evolution theory in the contemporary sense, Dr Athale shared an anecdote of h
is recent visit to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Four floors of the museum were dedicated to an exhibition on evolution and its linkage to genetics. “In a way, these two are very intimately tied.”
He further added, Mendel’s laws of inheritance and plant breeding, the genetics of diseases, the genetics of our characteristics, and so on, are very current and global. If we want to make Indian education and Indian students on par with the rest of the world, at the very least, teaching those foundational concepts in a way that is accessible to them is crucial. Mincing no words on the theory of evolution, he asserted, “Not just not outdated; there’s an increasing consciousness that it has become even more relevant.”
In the open letter issued by the Breakthrough Science Society, it was mentioned that evolutionary biology is an area of science with a huge impact on how we choose to deal with an array of problems we face as societies and nations, from medicine and drug discovery to epidemiology and ecology. The principles of natural selection help in understanding critical issues such as pandemic progression.
Evolution’s influence on modern world
TNC Vidya, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, said anybody who has gone through the pandemic and thinks that evolution is not relevant hasn’t understood anything. Elaborating further, she said, “For instance, if you look at the COVID pandemic, we know that there is evolution in action. To find out what the relationships are between different strains of a virus, we are using principles of evolution. One cannot make a phylogenetic tree of a COVID virus mutating, without using evolution.”
Looking at the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 in isolation, coronavirus mutations are extremely related but different, said Dr Vineeta Bal, Professor Emeritus, IISER Pune. “Essentially, mutations are part and parcel of our lives. The virus has gone through multiple rounds of application by its need to get into a new host, assuming it came out of some animal. It got into human beings to ‘adapt’, for it to live, thrive, multiply, and get transmitted. This process is called adaptation and is resulting in what Darwin called speciation,” she added.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the notion of evolution are intertwined, according to researchers. AMR is predicted to kill an additional 10 million people by 2050, based on the ‘Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a Crisis for the Health and Wealth of Nations. 2014’ report. It is estimated that 700,000 people every year lose the battle with AMR. AMR would have a significant financial impact as well. As per projections, it would cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050 by reducing the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2–3.5 per cent. AMR has been declared an urgent priority in the past by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The theory of evolution helps in understanding the mechanisms behind AMR.
To keep up with changing microbial dangers, it also emphasises the importance of research in the development of new antimicrobial drugs. Member states of the European Union have emphasised the necessity to teach evolution, citing practical justification by giving examples of AIDS therapy and antibiotic resistance. India developed the National Action Plan for AMR in 2017. “In all of these fields, evolution is very much a part of it. When people are talking about antibiotic resistance or different variants of SARS-CoV-2 spreading, they are all based on evolutionary principles,” added Prof Vidya.
Scientific enlightenment can help society
In 2018, Satyapal Singh, Former Minister of State, Human Resources Development, criticised Darwin’s theory of evolution, claiming that no one had ever witnessed a monkey evolve into a person. Additionally, Singh argued that evolution theory should no longer be taught in schools and institutions.
Commenting on it, Dr Bal stated, “These kinds of statements for a rooted ecologist or a biologist are laughable. Somebody in authority is saying this, and it goes against the notion of Darwinism. This is irrational based on faith, or I can call them lies, but such things do need to be avoided.”
Dubbing the exclusion a major disruption and an attempt to push the knowledge system in such a way that it becomes subservient to religion, Prof Tanvir Aeijaz, Ramjas College, University of Delhi, said, “Removal of certain things from science or social science can cause major harm to its continuity, which in its outcome will have knowledge in patches.” He insisted on looking at the flip side of the argument by suggesting that the idea of extinction of certain species can also be seen in terms of evolution and not in terms of creation because if it is created, it needs to be destroyed by somebody.
Prof Aniket Sule, Associate Professor, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science and Education, Mumbai, criticised the lack of transparency and prior consultations by NCERT in its ‘rationalisation exercise’ for the curricula. He remarked, “These sweeping changes are not acceptable. People should not believe us just because we are scientists. We want to put out a counterpoint that opens the possibility for society to reflect and make up their mind.”
In the United Kingdom, where Darwin hailed from, a survey was conducted, which found that around 40 per cent of teachers reported being challenged by students about evolution. Nelio Marco Vincenzo Bizzo, a researcher from the University of Sao Paulo, interviewed a group of high school students. As part of the misconceptions about Darwin’s ideas, many students tended to perceive biological conceptions of competition as acts of violence. Studies have also attributed the poor understanding shown by students to the teaching style or students’ cognitive abilities.
Dr Athale said the way evolutionary biology is taught in schools may have become problematic because of its greater emphasis on historicity than its scientific propositions. To explain the situation better, he coined the idiomatic expression ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’, suggesting that in this case, the core scientific principle is to be protected. There are a thousand ways of presenting the same topic. He voiced, “We are very conscious of the idea that concepts must be got across in a way that is not just accessible but also exciting to the students. And maybe that is something that needs to be worked on.”
Darwin’s grandfather was part of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and had many intellectuals from various fields, including science, industry, philosophy, and literature, as members. Some of its prominent members included Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Joseph Priestley. These individuals were known for their contributions to fields such as engineering, manufacturing, chemistry, and medicine.
“While the Lunar Society discussed a wide range of topics, including how scientific enlightenment can help society and therefore act against slavery, the whole idea of humanism has evolved out of biology. Evolution has believed all humans are equal,” said Dr Amitabh Pandey, Science and Astronomy Educator, who also initiated the campaign against the NCERT’s exclusionary move.
When asked if the letter issued by the scientists will be able to deliver a strong message to society towards becoming more rational, especially to those with dogmatic beliefs that the universe has been designed by a supernatural force,
Dr Vidya remarked, “We don’t even need this. It is enshrined in our constitution that people should have a scientific temper, irrespective of what a bunch of scientists say. scientific temper is one of the rare things that most countries’ constitutions don’t have.”
Darwin used a metaphor that has come to be known as the ‘tangled bank quotation’ to close his book. The passage from the book states, “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Alluding to the difficulty raised by the concept of natural selection beyond conceptual understanding issues. Darwin’s quote exposes the notion of the struggle for existence, which could be unsettling. It is also known that people frequently oppose change. In other words, the idea of change—which is arguably continual, rapid, and unstable—is the foundation of evolution.
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