Monkey off science's back

Academies speak out on minister's version

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 22.01.18
Satyapal Singh

New Delhi: India's three science academies on Sunday censured junior education minister Satyapal Singh's remarks deriding the theory of evolution, placing commitment to science above self-interest in a field where vindictive regimes can ruin careers and strangle academic life.

The Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, India, described as "retrograde" Singh's suggestion that the theory of evolution be modified in school and college curricula.

Singh has claimed that Charles Darwin's theory is "scientifically wrong", arguing that no one has ever described observing a monkey turn into a man.

"The three science academies of India wish to state that there is no scientific basis for the minister's statement," the academies said. "Evolutionary theory is well-established.... There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution."

The academies - whose fellows and office-bearers are among India's top scientists - had till now not issued any statements reacting to what many scientists view as irresponsible remarks by people in positions of responsibility.

Senior scientists said it was not easy for the academies to take on the government.

"The academies receive funds from the government. A vindictive government may not allow the academies to exist," said a senior faculty member at an academic institution funded by the Union human resource development ministry, requesting anonymity.

Many scientists have over the past three years been concerned at what they saw as bizarre or misleading claims from prominent people that appeared intended to portray ancient India as steeped in glory.

Three years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had linked Ganesha's elephant head to plastic surgery in ancient India. A Rajasthan High Court judge, Justice Mahesh Sharma, had claimed peacocks reproduce without sex. Rajasthan education minister Vasudev Devnani said earlier this month that ancient Indians, not Isaac Newton, had discovered gravity.

"It's not easy to respond each time. Not everybody agrees on what is the right thing to say," said Gadadhar Misra, a professor of mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

"There is a debate on what to say and when to say it - should the academies respond every time?"

Another senior scientist, who asked not to be named, mentioned the academies' failure to respond when, about 15 years ago, the earlier NDA government was preparing to introduce astrology courses in universities.

"I might hear someone on a city bus question evolution, that should not bother me - everyone is entitled to have an opinion, right or wrong - but when a minister says the theory should be changed in curricula, it's time to be worried," Misra told The Telegraph.

The three academies said in their statement that the theory of evolution had made many predictions that were repeatedly confirmed through experiments and observations.

An important insight from the theory is that all life forms on this planet, including humans and the other apes, have evolved from one or a few common ancestors, they said.

"It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from college and school curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths," they said.