Darwin must stay in Indian school textbooks

Rather than erasing the ‘theory of evolution’ from textbooks, which is short-sighted from the point of a well-rounded education, the way Darwin’s theory is taught needs to change

Updated - April 28, 2023 01:34 am IST

Published - April 28, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘Aspects of Darwin’s theory offer insights about science in both the historical and contemporary world’

‘Aspects of Darwin’s theory offer insights about science in both the historical and contemporary world’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In 2018, the then Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Satyapal Singh, called Darwin’s theory of evolution “scientifically wrong” and asked that it be removed from Indian school and college curricula. The next year, the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University, Nageswara Rao Gollapalli, made a claim at the 106th Indian Science Congress, that the “theory of Dashavatara” explains evolution better than Darwin’s theory.

Both instances spurred sufficient controversy. However, little did we know that Mr. Singh’s statement also demonstrated clairvoyance.

The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) dropped Darwin’s theory from the examination syllabus for Class 9 and 10 students in the academic year 2021-22. In a development this year, the NCERT has now dropped the entire section on evolution from its Class 10 textbooks.

Need for Darwin’s theory, teaching change

Scientists and educators across the country are understandably disappointed. As one of the most firmly established theories in science, Darwin’s theory not only explains the origin of human beings (and all other forms of life in the world), but also rescues this explanation from the belief that an ‘intelligent designer’ (read: god) built them the way they are and put them in their place. Depriving students of this information, especially those who do not take up biology after Class 10 is, as dissenting scientists and educators have pointed out, “dangerous”.

Our approach to teaching Darwin’s theory has been, largely, to tell students a story of a lone Englishman (sometimes two Englishmen, if one were to throw Alfred Russel Wallace into the mix) swimming against the tide of his times. And while Darwin must stay in our textbooks, this is where our teaching of his theory must change.

Darwin’s theory is based on the fossils he collected and the wildlife he observed on his five-year trip (1831-36) on the HMS Beagle — a fact that is routinely taught. Something that is not taught, however, is that right before Darwin set out on his journey, the captain of the ship handed him a copy of geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology.

Lyell, having studied glaciers, volcanoes and fossils, proposed the concept of “gradual geological change”: that geological phenomena and objects today result from minute changes accumulating over a period of time, much like how random mutations that confer advantage to certain organisms accumulate over time, giving rise to their present-day species. Darwin himself acknowledged the strong influence of Lyell’s theories on his work.

Biologist Ruth Hubbard, the first woman to hold a tenured professorship position at Harvard University’s biology department, wrote in 1979: “By the time Darwin came along, it was clear to many people that the earth and its creatures had histories.” As an example, Hubbard talks of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the French naturalist who proposed his own theory of evolution before Darwin. Flawed as it was, it also portrayed evolution as a process that included accumulation of changes over time and did not involve an ‘intelligent designer’.

Other influences

The other important aspect that biology classrooms ignore is the impact that social beliefs of his times had on how Darwin looked at the natural world. Philosopher Bertrand Russell has written about how Darwin’s theory was “essentially an extension to the animal and vegetable world of laissez-faire economics”. The term, conceived by economist Adam Smith and developed by Thomas Malthus, referred to self-interest and free competition in the marketplace. Malthus also propounded a theory of population in 1798, where he claimed that humans compete for limited resources until a catastrophic event leads to a decline in their population.

Darwin was greatly influenced — as he has acknowledged in his autobiography — by Malthus’ ideas of competition in an environment with limited resources. Thus, only those living beings survive that carry variations that give them an edge over others — a phenomenon that Darwin termed “natural selection”.

Finally, another grave omission in the teaching of the theory of evolution is the consequent use of his theory — both by others and Darwin himself.

For instance, Herbert Spencer’s idea of “survival of the fittest”, proposed in 1864, coalesced eventually into a philosophy called “social Darwinism”, which is well known to have fuelled eugenics in the late 19th century. In his later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin claimed that men have evolved to be naturally more intelligent since they have had to continuously use their “mental faculties” to hunt for food, and to defend “their females” and offspring.

Notably, here Darwin seems to invoke the same Lamarckian theory of use and disuse, which his theory of natural selection had disproven in the Origin.

A reminder about the world of science

But, why must students and teachers in school concern themselves with these aspects of Darwin’s theory? The reason is that these examples carry crucial insights about science in both the historical and contemporary world; it is rarely the story of a lone man, and it is shaped by the social and cultural beliefs of its times (think about how the Second World War was crucial to several scientific inventions and discoveries, which includes the atom bomb), to which it also actively contributes.

Most importantly, however, these examples remind us that science is a messy affair (like all human endeavours) that requires caution alongside curiosity, creativity and imagination. If the strength of science lies in its ability to stand the test of critical inquiry, then science classrooms must inculcate the embracing of critique, sometimes at the risk of confronting its own troubled history.

Editorial | Right lessons: on the lack of professionalism in the NCERT’s deletions in textbooks 

The teaching of Darwin’s theory offers possibilities of this confrontation without underplaying its strengths. Thus, while Darwin must remain in our textbooks, how we teach him must change.

Sayantan Datta is a science journalist

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