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Monday, May 16, 2022

By not teaching them Darwin, we have failed our children

The TV news anchor’s statement that “there are two sides to everything” is even more dangerous. Yes, there are two sides at the start of any argument. But in the end, one side is supported by the preponderance of evidence.

Written by Mukund Thattai |
January 23, 2018 2:48:42 pm
It is the news anchor’s remark, not the Minister’s statement, that I really want to talk about here. Express photo by Renuka Puri

A chill ran down my spine as I read the news report last week about the junior Human Resources Development minister Satyapal Singh stating that lessons on evolution must be removed from school curricula. It is difficult to explain how I felt upon hearing this. I did not feel angry, nor insulted. Mostly, I felt frightened and powerless. Did this require a response? And if so, what kind? From me as an individual, a member of the general public? Or from me as an evolutionary biologist, part of the scientific community?

“Just ignore it, do your job,” was one prescription. That is, don’t rise to the bait, don’t draw unnecessary attention to remarks that were clearly targeted at a particular constituency, don’t lose control of the terms of the argument. Go back to your universities and your laboratories, do good science, that is what your training has prepared you for.

“So what, people say this kind if thing all the time,” was another comment. After all, the Minister’s original and subsequent statements clearly mirrored the talking points of the creationism movement of American right-wing groups, strange as that might be. Indeed, many on social media attempted to support the Minister by sharing an old, long-discredited link from a creationist website. This was not new, so why the need to respond now?

More empathetically and usefully, some suggested we must first acknowledge that we live in a complex and heterogeneous country, that there is a growing disconnect between scientists and society. Any apparently anti-science statement must be understood in context, only then can the proper response be made. This is not an overnight effort, it is a long-term process. But again the recommendation came down to: Don’t respond now.

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But of course, one has to respond. Silence from scientists can be interpreted by the public as acquiescence. Moreover, this was no private individual asserting his right to freedom of expression. This was a Union Minister speaking on the record, whose comments could become policy within weeks.

By Saturday there were numerous efforts at a response underway. Essays were written in online journals. A group of scientists and science communicators drafted a letter of protest that quickly gathered thousands of signatures. By Sunday, in an unprecedented move, India’s three science academies released a joint statement denouncing the Minister’s remarks and directing readers to resources explaining why Darwinian evolution was one of the most well-supported discoveries in all of science.

The Minister was given a chance to respond by a news channel. On live TV he stated “I am a man of science,” yet continued to insist on the correctness of his claims. And then something important, yet unnoticed, happened. The news anchor interviewing the Minister said this: “Of course there are controversial theories about Darwin. When it comes to the theory of evolution, there are two sides to everything, there is a debate.”

It is the news anchor’s remark, not the Minister’s statement, that I really want to talk about here.

In recent years the space for open thought and speech in India has been shrinking. History and science have been subverted for political ends. Academics, journalists and writers have been explicitly silenced or live in a state of self-censorship and learned helplessness. Bigotry and chauvinism of various types have been normalised, even within the scientific community.

This has all been enabled by the systematic erosion of the standards of proof and evidence. It is no coincidence that when the Minister refused to retract his statement, his defence was that “there are so many books available now refuting Darwin’s ideas.” What about the other books supporting Darwin’s ideas? For the Minister, all arguments should ultimately be settled by a bare appeal to authority: “It is written … It is said … Our ancestors wrote …”.

For me, books only lay out arguments, and we must develop a critical faculty to decide which arguments to believe. It scarcely matters that the Minister denies evolution. I am all for sitting down face-to-face with evolution sceptics, going over the predictions of evolutionary theory and seeing how they hold up. But to do this we must first agree on what it means to find confirmatory or falsifying evidence for an idea.

Ideally scientists should carefully lay out arguments, make a good-faith attempt to convince sceptics. Indeed, within the scientific community we are supposed to be our own greatest sceptics. But when interacting with the public we often take shortcuts, simply asserting truths. This is a mistake.

The reason the Minister’s statement brought out such a unified and immediate reaction was not because denied evolution, but because he implicitly denied long-established standards of proof and evidence. Scientists must not fall into the same trap. The fight is not between the believers and deniers of evolution. It is between those who would impose their views on others, and those who affirm each person’s right to reach their own conclusions. If scientists are seen as merely imposing our own views, we are the hypocrites.

But this is easier said than done. Each open mind is a battlefield. Regressive forces try to restrict information, to direct thought from the top-down, and appeal to authority. Progressive forces first teach self-reliance of thought, then attempt to convince. This is asymmetric warfare: the regressive side always starts out saying “believe me” while the progressive side always starts out saying “you don’t have to believe me”. So, who are you going to believe?

The matter gets worse when it comes to educating our children, who are mere hostages in the culture wars. It sounds perfectly fine to say that children should be exposed to many types of information: scientific, traditional, ambiguous, precise, and allowed to make up their own minds. Indeed, this sounds very progressive. But the fact is, children lack the critical faculty to identify credible sources. No society in the world simply exposes children to a cauldron of information, it is the job of adults to select a subset of credible information. In every society at any time in history, there is always a debate about what this credible subset is. But at some point, we choose and move forward.

This is why the news anchor’s statement on live TV was so dangerous. In a well-meaning attempt to critique the Minister, she claimed “there are two sides to everything”. I only use the news anchor as an example; survey after survey reveal this to be a near-universal misconception about evolution. Yes, there are two sides at the start of any argument. But in the end, one side is supported by the preponderance of evidence. We no longer debate whether the sun rises in the east, or the particle nature of the electron.

And so, to Darwin.

Darwin knew that he had made a dangerous discovery that opened him to reputational harm, if not worse, unless he was able to make a convincing argument. This is why he waited as long as he did to publish “On the Origin of Species”. It is not a textbook, it is a heartfelt appeal to the reader. Each chapter is a sculpture of ideas, ranging from geology, to beehives, to the working of eyes; each fact in support of these ideas is based on experiments on plants and pigeons, on observations of forests and native American burial grounds, on the work of numerous botanists and naturalists. Darwin was writing for his greatest sceptics, anticipating each possible counter-argument and providing data to refute these.

You see, Darwin’s book is not about the fact of evolution. It is not even about data in support of the fact of evolution. Rather it is one of the most beautiful demonstrations we have about how science must be communicated, about how an argument must be constructed. It is startling in its humility, in its basic premise that the reader must be convinced or the writer has failed. This is why it is a great book, not for any other reason.

I honestly have no recollection of studying evolution in school. At best one encounters the caricature that “man descended from apes,” a formulation that seems almost designed to offend. But evolutionary theory is a nuanced, intersecting collection of ideas and observations, mathematics and data, general principles and detailed patterns. It takes maturity and effort to get used to these ideas, and one must return to them continually through one’s education before finally coming to terms with their astonishing and unexpected implications. The forces of evolution continue to act today, on humans and whales, on bacteria and viruses, and the theory of evolution has passed every empirical test. All this must be taught, if we are to claim that evolution is being taught. In this light, I think it is fair to say that evolution is not taught in schools at all.

This has serious real-world consequences. A lack of understanding of evolution among school and college students, among scientists and doctors, among teachers and lawyers, among journalists and politicians, has profound negative implications for human and planetary health.

If the Minister were to go through with his threat to ban evolution from the classroom, it would change nothing: it is quite clear that Darwin’s ideas about evolution are not being taught even today. We have failed our children. We have not taught them that the theory of evolution is a humble one. We have not taught them Darwin’s example of scientific argumentation. We have not taught them how to make up their own minds. The polemical Minister and the well-meaning but non-committal news anchor, both highly educated by any standard, reveal the consequences of a system of education that is reduced to transmitting facts. They are not the cause, they are the consequence of systemic failure.

So where do we go from here? In our paradoxical era of unlimited information and fake news, the real fight is over shared standards of truth and evidence. In this, scientists can lead by example. But for science to be persuasive, it must be inclusive. What does an inclusive way of doing science look like? Scientists have typically not had to grapple with this issue, content to work in isolation and disconnected from the diverse society in which we live. This is a wake-up call, and there has never been a better time for introspection. We have lodged a statement of protest. Now we must follow it up with an inclusive and persuasive message.

Mukund Thattai is a member of the faculty of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, a part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, whose research focuses on the evolution of complex cells. Outside the laboratory, he is deeply involved in public engagement efforts and art/science collaborations, working with conceptual artists and theatre practitioners to explore the practice of biology and its impact on society. He tweets @thattai

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