India’s scientists have reacted angrily to Union Minister Satya Pal Singh’s opinion on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and his suggestion that it be removed from school curriculums. According to Singh, a chemistry student and former IPS officer who currently holds the HRD portfolio, “Nobody among our ancestors, in written or oral, said they saw an ape turning into a man. Since man has been seen on the earth, he has always been a man.” A petition protesting this has been circulated in the science community and has gathered over 2,000 signatures from institutes like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. “There is plentiful and undeniable scientific evidence that humans and other great apes and monkeys had a common ancestor,” says the statement.
Imagine a working professional loudly airing a view like Singh’s, in an office meeting or a large gathering. He would forever be ridiculed by his colleagues, sniggered at behind his back and not taken seriously again. Singh, however, may continue in his position as HRD minister, unblemished and unapologetic. As did another Union minister, Harsh Vardhan, after he made a startling claim at a conference two years ago that ancient Indian mathematicians discovered the Pythagorean theorem. The real gem though, was the insistence than an ancient Hindu sage beat the Wright brothers in building a plane by 7,000 years, and just to be clear, this plane went from planet to planet. Politicians are blessed to be able to talk with authority on complicated topics such as evolution or climate change without fear of repercussions to their careers. Singh may flippantly dismiss Darwin and indicate that metamorphosis is sheer magic, as seen in Tom & Jerry cartoons.
In a video that has been shared over 2,41,000 times on You Tube, Tata Institute of Social Sciences professor Tejal Kanitkar lucidly decodes how people in power repeatedly get away with making ludicrous statements. Kanitkar says it’s because of our collective, everyday obscurantism. She quotes examples like when people show preference for a Vaastu compliant home or perpetuate entirely unvalidated folklore, that stepping out into a solar eclipse can make you blind. “This provides the grounds for statements like cows exhale oxygen,” says Kanitkar. The link between somebody holding forth on the myth of the pushpak vimaan in ancient times and another believing that poverty today is because of sins in a past life is closer that it seems. However, the problem of questioning our belief systems on a daily basis means completely shedding our prejudices, hard for a society that has always been drowning in superstition. There is also the fact that every person has a right to believe in what he or she finds suitable. However, there need not be a contradiction in supporting freedom of choice, yet calling out barfworthy stupidity.
Traditions offer comfort and in a chaotic world, we search for an order that makes sense to us. The uncertainty of how life will pan out in India explains our obsession with the zodiac. Almost every Hindi news channel has an astrology show, anchored by men wearing rudraksh malas and using terms like gotra and nakshatra. They garner the highest TRPs. I must confess, I too, pour over my horoscope regularly. When I really shouldn’t considering that at my first job at a magazine, I would edit, rather expand and embellish the astrology column. I began at Aries and by the time I got to Capricorn, it was a challenge to find generic, feel-good adjectives I hadn’t already used.
What the astrologer is really banking on is that people only read their own horoscopes and maximum, one more. He can scale his imagination down to six different possibilities, secure in the knowledge that Sagittarius is not interested in how Virgo’s day goes. He will not be found out. Similarly, there is a place for Singh’s version of evolution when animal morphs into man in full view. It’s in fantasy fiction, art and film. Mutation from one species to another is a rare ability even among the witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series — an indication that a metaphor which can connect two unrelated elements is not to be trifled with, even in our wildest imagination.