Aditya Sinha: Now playing: Planet of the apes
Don't be fooled by the caveman-like behaviour of political parties that want us to go backwards instead of advancing to the future
Nowhere in The Origin of Species does Charles Darwin say that the transition from one stage of evolution to another is instantaneous or predetermined. That hasn't stopped a member of independent India's dumbest Cabinet, Satyapal Singh, from advocating that Darwinism be thrown out of school textbooks. His reasoning is that no one — especially not our "venerated ancestors" — has seen an ape evolving into man. It has turned Mumbai's former police commissioner into the butt of numerous jokes on social media. One does wonder how such a neanderthal became the top cop and whether there are other such neanderthals in line. In defence of the police, no one has publicly uttered such nonsense: remember as commissioner Satyapal said that most suicides were committed by those who had studied in the English medium. What a cruel joke on the farmers who took this drastic step.
Darwinism conjectures that we have a common ancestor and that different species emerged through a process of genetic mutation called natural selection. It is gradual: even at the human stage, we as homo sapiens descended from homo erectus, who died out 1.4 lakh years ago. Evolution takes millions of years, a timeline beyond any human power of observation, even that of our "venerated ancestors". Two books to check out for the intense debate within Darwinism are philosopher Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
Darwinism is currently the best explanation that exists of how life came to be as complex and bio-diverse as it is, on our planet. True, Darwinism may one day be proved inadequate, or even wrong. That has not happened yet. Nobody seriously regards 'Intelligent Design' (as posited by Christian fundamentalists in the USA) as an alternative. And it is in the nature of scientific theory that a conjecture is taken to be knowledge until it is refuted.
For instance, humans believed the sun revolved around the Earth, until Nicolaus Copernicus developed telescopes and astronomy to prove the opposite. This was heresy because it no longer meant that man was at the centre of the universe; physicist Galileo Galilei was jailed for advocating it. Isaac Newton was considered the last word in physical laws until Albert Einstein produced his mind-bending insights on the nature of space, time and gravity. So there is no final theory. Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) even believed that new scientific theories were not paradigm shifts but merely incorporated new terminology. The Buddhists point out that our senses limit us to the type of knowledge we can ever gain.
Most Indians act ignorant of Copernicus. They regard the sun as a planet or a celestial body that influences the Earth. Astrology continues to put man at the centre of things, and millions of Indians (even PhD holders, which proves that we pigeonhole knowledge and beliefs to preserve the status quo) regard astrology as a predictive science. It is nonsense, but belief in its superiority is currently the fashion where, like Satyapal, we believe our "venerated ancestors" held all they keys to knowledge and nothing they knew can be improved upon.
This is crap. Our ancestors had limited technology, despite what Prime Minister Narendra Modi blabbers about Lord Ganesh and plastic surgery. None of our ancients calculated the speed of light. They spoke of disprovable nonsense such as the 'fact' that cows exhale oxygen. Also, unlike the ancient Greeks, we did not encourage the critical method, which arguably led to our civilisational stagnation, which undoubtedly made us vulnerable to invasion. But I get it: all this celebration of our distant heritage is not to make us more intelligent. It has a purely political purpose.
For instance, the Rajasthan education minister just a fortnight ago asserted that Newton's law of gravity had already been formulated a thousand years back by mathematician Brahmagupta, and that it should thus be replaced in school textbooks. The fact that he blandly stated this, without giving any context of Brahmagupta's formula, should alert us to his political intention. If he truly believed in knowledge production, he would have spoken of joining LIGO to measure gravity waves. Such ministers are regressive and embarrassing. The UPA had its share of dimwits, but at least they kept their mouths shut.
If any of you readers value scientific temper and wish the best for your country, then you should keep this caveman behaviour in mind next time you vote for a political party. An organisation like the RSS that wishes its political offspring to glorify the distant and mythic past at the cost of a technologically advancing future is not one that can be called patriotic by any measure of the word. It took us millions of years to evolve from apes, but the right wing wants us to regress immediately.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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