Science educators in India are urging the government to restore material on Darwinian evolution which has been removed from science textbooks in the wake of Covid-19.
The theory of the 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin, which centres on the concept that species adapt and evolve over time through a process of natural selection, is fundamental to our understanding of the biological world.
The National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) has deleted material relating to the theory from school books on the grounds that the study load on schoolchildren needs to be lightened after the pandemic.
From this month – the start of the academic year – material on evolution no longer figures in grade nine and ten science textbooks in India, while the chapter ‘Evolution and Heredity’, taught to grade 11 and 12 students, has been reduced to ‘Heredity’, and a box on Charles Darwin and his work erased.
An open appeal, signed on by hundreds of leading scientists and science educators and released on 22 April, said the “changes introduced as a temporary measure during the Corona pandemic, are being continued even when schooling has gone back to offline mode”.
Subjects and topics are added or deleted from textbooks with no reference to evidence from educational psychology or science education. So, when there is a hue and cry that textbooks are heavy, especially after Covid, deletions are made randomly.
T V Venkateshwaran, scientist, Vigyan Prasar
In a pointed reference to the Covid-19 rationale given by NCERT, the statement stressed the relevance of Darwin’s theory today. “The principles of natural selection help us understand how any pandemic progresses or why certain species go extinct, among many other critical issues,” it said.
T V Venkateshwaran, a scientist at Vigyan Prasar, a Department of Science and Technology body that aims to popularise science, said the deletions were symptomatic of the handling of science education in India.
“Subjects and topics are added or deleted from textbooks with no reference to evidence from educational psychology or science education,” he told SciDev.Net. “So, when there is a hue and cry that textbooks are heavy, especially after Covid, deletions are made randomly.”
Venkateshwaran believes science education should be about communicating key concepts about the world through modern science. “Otherwise, we will be living with 14th century perceptions that can generate friction and lead to violence,” he said.
“The human genome project, for example, has shown that humankind is one — it has pulled the rug on divisive ideas of race and caste. Also, evolution points to the interconnection among all living beings in the world.”
Objections to the theory of evolution by the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party were first made known in 2018 when Satya Pal Singh, then minister of state in the education ministry, declared in Parliament that “nobody, including our ancestors, in writing or orally, has said they saw an ape turning into a man”.
“Darwin’s theory is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curricula,” he added.
Singh was then taken on by India’s three main science academies, the Indian Academy of Science, the Indian National Science Academy and the National Academy of Sciences, which issued a joint statement that said: “It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.
“The theory of evolution by natural selection as propounded by Charles Darwin and developed and extended subsequently has had a major influence on modern biology and medicine, and indeed all of modern science. It is widely supported across the world.”
Opposition in India to Darwinism is similar to Christian orthodoxy’s problem with the idea that humans evolved from ape-like bipeds, rather than the Biblical idea that god created man in his own image, says D. Raghunandan, member of the All India Peoples Science Network and the Delhi Science Forum, a public interest group.
“Historically, there has never been any conflict between Hindu religious orthodoxy and the theory of evolution simply because there has never been an orthodox view of creationism until the votaries of Hindutva, a politicised version of Hinduism, began propagating their own interpretation of Hindu mythology and legends,” said Raghunandan.
According to Raghunandan, Hindu mythology holds that the deity Vishnu descends to Earth as an “avatar” (form) whenever the cosmic order is disturbed. Vishnu first descended as a fish, then as a tortoise, a boar, a half-man-half-lion, a dwarf, as a warrior-god and finally as Krishna, a preceptor.
“While Hindu mythology sees avatars as stages of consciousness, Hindutva jingoists interpret it as a theory of evolution that long preceded Darwin,” Raghunandan explained.
Islamic orthodoxy also frowns on Darwinism and countries that have banned the theory completely include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria and Morocco. Lebanon has removed evolution from the curriculum while in Jordan the subject is taught within a religious framework.