If there is no record of someone seeing something, that is no particular reason to believe that it cannot have happened
Several media outlets in India (here, here, here, here) have recently reported on comments dismissing the theory of evolution made by the Hon. Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Government of India, Dr. Satyapal Singh, apparently while speaking with reporters in Aurangabad (Maharashtra), where he was attending the Akhil Bhartiya Vaidik Sammelan (All India Vedic Conference). The office of the minister (@OfficeOfSPS) has also put out a video of these remarks in a tweet. Speaking in Hindi, Dr. Singh said that our ancestors in the past thousands and hundreds of thousands of years have never written or said that they saw, in any jungle or town, a monkey turning into a human. Therefore, he said, Darwin’s theory regarding evolution was scientifically wrong, as no one had ever seen a monkey turn into a human, and that ever since man had come on the earth, he was man, and would remain so forever. He also said that our school and college teaching should be altered to reflect this. He then went on to say that, although many in the audience may not know it, scientists in foreign countries had established that the notion of evolution had no truth to it, about 35 years ago.
What has been said by Dr. Singh is wrong at multiple levels. Indeed, it defies both logic and biology. First, the broad facts of evolution, and how it occurs, as well as the rough timeline of major changes in human, and hominid, evolution are widely accepted by scientists worldwide. There are, no doubt, debates within evolutionary biology about details, as there are in any area of science. That does not mean that there is dispute over the broad tenets of the Darwinian view of evolution. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that Darwin’s explanation of evolution is wrong. People, including scientists in India, routinely observe evolutionary change, including the first steps towards species formation via reproductive isolation, in the laboratory. I am also at a loss to understand what evidence was presented 35 years ago to debunk evolution as a biological concept. I can only hazard a guess that Dr. Singh was referring to the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ debate of the 1970s, which was a technical argument about whether evolutionary change is usually slow and relatively continuous, or rapid, interspersed with long periods of relatively little change. If that be the case, he clearly has not understood the nature of that debate at all. Moreover, logically speaking, if there is no record of someone seeing something, that is no particular reason to believe that it cannot have happened. Even more surprising is Dr. Singh’s expectation that our ancestors, who were presumably already human since he expected them to speak or write about their experiences and observations, would have been able to observe monkeys turning into humans when they had already evolved to become human themselves. The conflation of a Darwinian view of evolution with monkeys turning into humans is itself spectacularly wrong. Evolutionary biology tells us that humans, and all other apes and primates, including monkeys, are descended from a common ancestor in the relatively recent evolutionary past. The empirical evidence for this is striking and includes phylogenetic reconstruction of our evolutionary lineage(s) using DNA sequence data and the theory of molecular population genetics, both of which also underlie many advances in bio-medical genomics that our government is heavily invested in encouraging.
The remarks of the Hon. Minister are also distressing in light of the many contributions of Indian scientists, within the Darwinian paradigm, in the generation of new knowledge in evolutionary biology. Indian evolutionary biologists have made major internationally recognized conceptual and empirical contributions to our understanding of various phenomena in evolutionary biology, including coevolution of insects and plants, parent-offspring conflict, hybridization and race-formation, evolution of sociality, evolution of competitive ability, evolutionary history of various animal lineages in the sub-continent, genome-level sexual conflict and evolution in fluctuating environments. Just last year, the contributions of Indian evolutionary biologists to contemporary debates about the conceptual structure of ‘core’ evolutionary theory were highlighted by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.
Incidentally, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy are signatories to a 2006 Inter-Academy Panel ‘Statement on the Teaching of Evolution’, supported by 67 science academies from around the world. In the beginning of this statement, the academies express their concern thus: “We, the undersigned Academies of Sciences, have learned that in various parts of the world, within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science. We urge decision makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and to foster an understanding of the science of nature. Knowledge of the natural world in which they live empowers people to meet human needs and protect the planet.
We agree that the following evidence-based facts about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet have been established by numerous observations and independently derived experimental results from a multitude of scientific disciplines. Even if there are still many open questions about the precise details of evolutionary change, scientific evidence has never contradicted these results:
- In a universe that has evolved towards its present configuration for some 11 to 15 billion years, our Earth formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
- Since its formation, the Earth – its geology and its environments – has changed under the effect of numerous physical and chemical forces and continues to do so.
- Life appeared on Earth at least 2.5 billion years ago. The evolution, soon after, of photosynthetic organisms enabled, from at least 2 billion years ago, the slow transformation of the atmosphere to one containing substantial quantities of oxygen. In addition to the release of the oxygen that we breathe, the process of photosynthesis is the ultimate source of fixed energy and food upon which human life on the planet depends.
- Since its first appearance on Earth, life has taken many forms, all of which continue to evolve, in ways which palaeontology and the modern biological and biochemical sciences are describing and independently confirming with increasing precision. Commonalities in the structure of the genetic code of all organisms living today, including humans, clearly indicate their common primordial origin.”
There are, of course, many websites maintained by creationists, especially in the USA, that routinely try to project evolutionary biology as a mere theory that has no widespread support in the scientific community. Some individuals who broadly share Dr. Singh’s world view (@rammadhavbjp) have been referring to such sites in tweets supporting his assertion that evolution is a scientifically discredited notion. One of the references in these tweets is to an article misleadingly titled ‘Over 500 Scientists Proclaim Their Doubts About Darwin’s Theory of Evolution’. However, this article is referencing an older piece listing scientists who have signed on to the 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 list has been criticized by many scientists, too. Such sites are trying to portray a narrow technical argument about the relative importance of natural selection acting on small variants versus mutational biases in affecting the course of evolution as a broad-scale rejection of the Darwinian paradigm. It is possible that one could get misled by such creationist sites but, then, one would have hoped that Dr. Singh would have taken the trouble to ask any of the evolutionary biologists in India, mostly working for MHRD or DST supported institutions, for their professional views on the matter, before concluding that evolution was discredited and that our curricula should be changed accordingly. It is heartening to note that the Indian Academy of Sciences (Bengaluru), The Indian National Science Academy (New Delhi), and the National Academy of Sciences, India (Allahabad), have issued a joint statement saying “The three Science Academies of India wish to state that there is no scientific basis for the Minister’s statements. Evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well established. There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution” (see here and here). Numerous scientists, teachers and students have also signed a petition urging the Hon. Minister to retract his remarks.
Calling for evolutionary biology not to be taught also has practical consequences. If we were to throw away the Darwinian paradigm of evolutionary biology, it would severely compromise our ability to study and find remedies for such pressing societal challenges as the evolution of multi-drug resistance in bacteria, to take just one example (see here).
What is particularly sad about these statements by Dr. Singh is that he is both trained in science (MSc and MPhil in chemistry) and the minister of state of the ministry overseeing higher education in the country. Given the latter, these are views of someone in a position to directly affect educational and research priorities and agendas. For the Hon. Minister to dismiss a well accepted concept in biology as being “scientifically wrong” and to call for it not be taught the way it has been, is scary, especially as he is apparently refusing to accept his error. Evolution today, what tomorrow: quantum physics and molecular genetics, about which also, presumably, our ancestors said or wrote nothing!
Amitabh Joshi is a Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, and a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences (Bengaluru), the National Academy of Sciences, India (Allahabad) and the Indian National Science Academy (New Delhi). He is also a J. C. Bose National Fellow, and recipient of the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award (Biological Sciences: 2009) and the Lakshmipat Singhania National Leadership Award (Young Leader, Science & Technology: 2010). He has been studying, researching and teaching evolutionary biology for the last 30 years.