We have to inculcate in people a proper scientific temper and help them use science and technology to rise out of their misery.

The world today is driven by scientific and technological developments. Some 150 years ago (or five generations ago — the time of your great-great-great-grandparents), we did not have electricity, refrigeration, air-conditioning, motor vehicles, trains, airplanes, telephones, television, movies, digital cameras, computers and the Internet, antibiotics, vaccines, microbiology, our current understanding of genes and DNA, modern medicine, and so on.

Can you now imagine a world without them? All these developments have come from science, and mankind’s never-ending desire to make our lives more comfortable. Our innate curiosity about the physical world around us has helped us understand it better, and find new ways of controlling it. Scientific thinking and the industrial revolution are the most recent step in human evolution.

And, yet, the fraction of people who are educated enough to understand science is minuscule. We live in a country where many of our fellow human beings live in abject poverty and inhuman conditions, with inadequate food or shelter. Why? Why do we accept it? What did they do to deserve it? The short answer is that the ruling class has failed them.

Our politicians have a vested interest in keeping the public illiterate so that they can get their votes. If Kerala and Tamil Nadu can achieve 100% adult literacy and replacement levels of children/woman (about 2.2 on average) 20 years ago, why can’t the other States follow suit?

Leaders will happily tell the gullible public that their station in life is because of their karma, that it is their fate, but they will not spend the time and effort in educating them. An educated public is a threat to our politicians; that is why they keep them that way. Recently, Tarun Gogoi, Assam Chief Minister, got into trouble for saying that the reason for the high population growth among Muslims in the State is their high illiteracy levels.

This is true. Worldwide, it has been shown that literacy (of women) and economic growth are the surest ways to curb population growth. But Muslim leaders were up in arms against Mr. Gogoi. Instead, their energies would be better spent in increasing literacy levels — indeed, not just of Muslims but all people irrespective of religion.

But educating them is not enough. We have to inculcate a proper scientific temper in them, help them use science and technology to rise out of their misery. Instead of spending thousands of crores on building nuclear weapons, the government should spend the money on primary education.

Recently, the Karnataka government gave a lot of money to temples to appease the rain gods. We know scientifically what causes rain. The money would have been better spent in other ways, writing off loans due from the affected farmers, for example. Similarly, if we want to tackle water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid, we need to use modern medicine and techniques like boiling drinking water, not pray to god that the person be cured.

Two hundred years ago, everyone believed in an almighty god, one who created the world and all life on Earth. Many of us might not know the story of Charles Darwin, father of modern evolution. He was a pastor by training, and was hired on board the ship HMS Beagle as a priest for its voyage around the world. He was a staunch believer in creationism and the immutability of species. But what he observed on the trip, especially birds on the island of Galapagos, made him realise that species evolve and change with time. What he saw was inconsistent with the species being created at some instant. And humans are as much part of this evolution as is the rest of the living world.

Creationists will argue that evolution is a theory, and open to debate. No. Evolution is a fact. Yes, there are open questions how exactly evolution happens, how new species are formed, what actually defines a new species because evolution is a continuous process with the offspring resembling the parents, etc, but the fact that evolution occurred is undeniable. We do not have all answers to these questions yet, but the good thing about science is that the debates will lead us to the answers. Because science, unlike religion, is not dogmatic. Everything is open to scrutiny and debate.

Evolution is not the only reason that Darwin stopped believing in god. A turning point in his life was the loss of his beloved 10-year-old daughter to a sudden fever. He could not believe that a “benevolent god” would take away an innocent young girl. In fact, the occurrence of natural calamities in 19th century Europe convinced most thinking scientists that there is no god. Natural calamities like earthquakes and storms would kill thousands of innocent people, including children.

If there was an almighty god, why did He stand around doing nothing? Ask any religious person to explain that. The only logical explanation was that there is no god with supernatural powers. Einstein, arguably the greatest scientist in human history and my personal hero, termed belief in God “childish superstition.” I close with a quote from Darwin about the condition of the poor, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” We are great sinners, indeed!

(The writer belongs to the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Email: profvasant @gmail.com)

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