Dr Satya Pal Singh, the junior Minister for education, has declared Darwinian evolution invalid because no one has ever seen an ape turn into a human. This is perfectly true, because humans do not live long enough to witness evolution leading to the birth of new species. If Singh were to enjoy the gift of life for about a million years, he would indeed witness evolution. Including, perhaps, that of his own species.
The Minister is a retired IPS officer, a student of science who has M.Sc and M.Phil degrees in chemistry, and has obtained a Ph.D He is the author of several books and papers and, according to the Lok Sabha website, is working on four more books. He must know that his objection to Darwin could be countered very easily. But he did not only say that there is no witness of evolution in the historical record. He also said that there were no witnesses in scripture and epic literature. That is, evolution has not been witnessed even outside history — in the realm of myth, legend and faith.
The big question resolves to this: if the forces of evolution did not create the vast variety of species in nature, who or what did? Only the God argument remains in an otherwise meaningless universe. For a traditionalist, that would spell a return to the beliefs of church, temple and scripture, where a divine creator is credited with laying out the universe. Creationism is a comprehensive solution which accounts for everything, even the fossil record on which evolutionary theory depends. An omniscient creator must know that humans would be curious about creation. And naturally, God would leave the landscape littered with fossils of brontosaurus and Homo habilis to keep human beings reassured.
The evolved believer has jettisoned creationism in favour of intelligent design, promoted by the American think tank Discovery Institute. It wishes to be seen as an empirically sound exploration of the origins of life, and argues that the universe exhibits complexities that cannot result from natural forces, and conditions that appear to be specifically tailored for life to flourish on earth. If the universe has been made to order, an intelligence may be presumed to have planned it down to the last detail. If the fundamental physical constants and the forces and units of quantum mechanics were slightly different, galaxies, stars and planets may not have formed, their chemical composition would be quite different, and planets could be incapable of supporting carbon-based life forms, such as humans. Besides, the DNA molecule could be unstable, and the code on which evolution runs would become gibberish.
The argument behind intelligent design predates the term, which first appeared in a creationist school textbook in 1989. Perhaps its most compelling form is the wry pub joke: “No matter how sophisticated human civilisation is, we must remember that none of us would be here without sunshine, rainfall and six inches of topsoil.” Within the scientific literature, it occurs in the form of the watchmaker argument — the complexity of a watch movement points to the prior existence of an intelligent watchmaker.
The argument that the universe is tailor-made for human life (which is not very different from the anthropocentric view which informs religion and the history of philosophy) does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, though. If the surface of the earth were at a very high temperature, for instance, in which present life forms would be vaporised, a chemistry of life based on silicon rather than carbon may be speculated about.
An Old Battle
The tensions between religion and science which Satya Pal Singh has tried to ignite have a long history. The battle has its roots in Semitic traditions, and is fought between believers who take the first page of the Book of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”) literally, and the scientific community, which insists that the laws of the universe constitute the only true document. The theatre of war was provided by the United States, where Christianity is still a compelling political and social force (see chart below), while churchgoing has been in decline in Europe. And the battlefield was the classroom, with the teaching of evolution banned for periods in some states, accompanied by lobbying for the teaching of creationism. Currently, the debate focuses on whether one theory should be taught, or both, or whether creationism should be taught as a belief. In sum, these are the dimensions of what’s called the Modernist-Fundamentalist debate.
In 1925, the town of Dayton in Tennessee saw the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which 24-year-old schoolteacher John T Scopes was fined $ 100 for teaching human evolution, which had been banned from state-funded institutions by the new Butler Act. The prosecution was led by former US Secretary of State and presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, and Scopes was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union and the formidable agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. The epic legal battle drew national attention to the small town, which was the covert purpose of the show. It turned out that neither Scopes nor his students were sure if he had taught evolution, and he incriminated himself on purpose at the behest of local interest groups, to drum up business for Dayton.
Instigating monkey business about humans being descended from apes has always been rewarding.