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Thu 20 Dec 2018

Decoding ndtv darwin's theory debate

Tags: pseudoscience evolution india ndtv news debate

I wanted to decode an old debate 1 that I saw on ndtv. It was about a controversy erupted by the comments of a junior Indian education minister, Satyapal Singh. He is India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development. He had claimed that evolution is “scientifically wrong” because he never “saw an ape turning into human being”.

I'm not a scientist. Thus its not my forte to expound on the meaning of science. However, there are scientists who believe in god whereas some don't. With all the diversity of life, I am just sharing my personal views.

How does he claim evolution is “scientifically wrong”? Does the said minister have a degree in biology or have published a paper that can be peer reviewed? On the contrary, he had a career of Police Commisioner of Mumbai.

Panelist for the debate

The debate panelist include the following members viz,

  1. Das Ratan Nigam (a lawyer & also a member of RSS)

  2. Ankit Sule, a doctorate in Astophysics from Bhabha Centre for Science Education

  3. Chandra Sharma, professor of education at IGNOUS

  4. Two young students

I wonder why there was no evolutionary biologist invited to the panel while discussing evolution. It’s akin to debating laws without inviting lawyers. I would love to hear the defense of “evolution” by biologists like Richard Dawkins or Amitabh Joshi. Here’s an interesting speech on evolution by Amitabh Joshi2.

RSS is an Indian right-wing organization. Right wing usually opposes “evolution” since it embarrasses their religious beliefs. Religion presents an anthropomorphic view of the world where human deserves a pedestal higher than rest of the animals. While evolution dashes those hopes stating that there is nothing special about humans who originated from last universal common ancestors 3.5 billion years ago & recently branched off from orangutans 14 million years ago. In the United States, many right wings religious group often opposed “evolution” to being taught in school3.

Das Ratan Nigam is a lawyer by profession & is affiliated to RSS. He is known to espouse pseudoscientific theories likes which were promulgated by self-proclaimed historian P.N. Oak who stated that both Christianity & Islam were derivatives of Hinduism and that Vatican City, Kaaba, Westminster Abbey, and the Taj Mahal were once Hindu temples of Shiva. His petition to rewrite history has been dismissed by the Indian Supreme court4.

In 1:19 minutes of the video, Das Ratan says the minister Saytapal Singh is only challenging Darwins’s theory of evolution. He says that there are multiple theories of evolution. But he didn’t elaborate on what other theories of evolutions he was alluding to. Maybe he meant botanist Carolus Linnaeu’s theory who based his categorization of species on the theory of unchanging life created by God. Or George Louis Leclerc who believed that Earth was only 75,000 year old & men descendent from apes. Or Does he believe in Genesis or tales of Hiranyagarbha (golden embryo) mentioned in the Rig Vedas?

Charles Darwin

However, he makes a straw man fallacy by claiming that Darwin himself didn’t believe in his theory as there was a lack of fossil evidence. When confronted by the anchor that fossil evidence has been found, he retorts that “no fossil evidence has come for the incomplete species”. This argument has always been used in popular media to discredit evolution. But missing link is now considered a non-scientific term. Copied verbatim from Wikipedia

The term "missing link" has fallen out of favor with biologists because it implies the evolutionary process is a linear phenomenon and that forms originate consecutively in a chain. Instead, last common ancestor is preferred since this does not have the connotation of a linear evolution, as evolution is a branching process.

It would be prudent for him to listen to this speech by Richard Dawkins on “missing link”5.

He babbles that evolution taught today is Neo Darwinism which has nothing to do Darwin’s theory of evolution. He confuses Modern Synthetic theory with Neo Darwinism. Neo Darwinism is the interpretation of Darwinian evolution by incorporating Mendelian genetics. However, the theory still hinges on Darwin’s idea of “natural selection”.

Ras Ratan Nigam continues to discredit evolution by claiming that Darwin had no clue for genetic mutation. This is a similar argument to reject Newtonian physics by claiming that Newton had no idea about space-time continuum or that mass increase with velocity or space is not infinite. Newton’s idea was revolutionary in understanding the laws of gravity. Einstein realized that Newton’s theory of gravity was not complete which eventually gave birth to “theory of relativity”. Darwin didn’t know much about DNA or nucleotide. He was also wrong about heredity due to blending (later it’s found to be particulate). Yet his idea of natural selection lays the foundation for modern evolutionary theory. People opposing evolution however never suggest alternative theory that is both falsifiable & verifiable.

In 3:48 minutes of the video, anchor ask Chandra Sharma about his views on evolution. He diplomatically says that the minister has only raised the question on evolution. He said that it’s valid that we must more research on evolution. He says that the Indian minister quoted scientist and books that discredit evolution. He somehow slips into Vishnu (India god) claiming that ancient India books contained much more knowledge. This is a slippery slope because many people claim that their holy ancient books contain scientific wisdom. It might be true sometimes, but often it leads into a maze of pseudo scientific claims.

In 7:21 minutes of the video, Das Ratan Nigam quotes Noble laureate Fred Hoyle who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution. He probably forgot that Fred Hoyle also doesn’t believe in Big Bang Theory. This is argument ad populum often used by people to claim a proposition is true because “Some smart scientist believes so”. Probably he doesn’t understand science.

What is science

In crude terms, any scientific theory must at least satisfy the following

  1. verifiability (based on observation)

  2. peer-reviewed (reviewed by other qualified scientists)

  3. falsifiability (that can be refuted)

Hence Germ theory of disease is a scientific theory but Homeopathy is a pseudoscience. Quantum Healing or Law of Attraction also fails the scientific test despite being bestsellers. Science also dismisses Astrology with no scientific validity yet large number of people still believe in it. String theory with all its fanfare & mathematical theoretical framework is still a hypothesis.

Scientific Consensus

How do we know evolution is true? It’s because of “scientific consensus”. It’s the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field. Newton was a brilliant physicist who postulated laws of gravity. However, he also believed in alchemy. There is no “scientific consensus” that alchemy is valid. Kurt Wise is also a smart man who holds a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard University. He believes that earth is literally less than 10,000 years old. However, there is “scientific consensus” that earth is a 4.5 billion-year-old. So it doesn’t matter if a particular scientist holds a fringe belief which is often touted by religious people to promulgate their beliefs.

But what if Scientific consensus is wrong? Scientist in mid-20th century believed in Steady state model instead of Big Bang Theory. Or scientist believed in the ether, a hypothetical medium, that allowed light & heat to transmit in space. But with evidence, scientific consensus corrects itself while the religious folks are frozen in time in their scriptures.

The only sane voice I found was that of Ankit Sule. He had started the petition addressed to the minister Mr. Singh and was signed by over 5000 scientists from India and abroad6. In 9:53 minutes of the video, he says that he support the efforts to study ancient Indian scriptures but opposes reverse engineering every modern scientific fact and try to trace in the ancient scriptures.

In parliament, once a BJP MP said that cow dung and cow urine could cure cancer 7. The minister Mr. Singh had also earlier talked of airplanes in ancient India8. Such exaggerated claims are made by all religious people. Some people have found big bang in Quran9. Or that Bible says that earth is supended in empty space10. Or the speed of light is mentioned in 14th century Puranic Cosmology11.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that there is no wisdom in ancient scriptures. Sushruta wrote the treatise The Compendium of Suśruta in surgery around 6 century BCE. Or Pāṇini was the father of linguistics lived around 4th century BCE. Algebra was coined by Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi around 820 AD. Or the works of Confucious(479 BC), one the greatest philosophers of China. And much more.

Since time immemorial, religion has to forsake some parts belief to accommodate science. Nordic believed in God Thor responsible for thunder. I guess that myth died as soon as the science filled the gaps. Some Hindus believed that demon Rahu swallows the sun to cause the eclipse. However, as science explained eclipses, people no longer believe such myths.

Even if religious books contain scientific fact, it doesn’t prove them divine. As an atheist, I refrain from commenting on the validity of religious scriptures. I respect & celebrate all religion with their diversity. However, when it comes to science, the evidence is the king. And the science doesn’t owe you anything that it would not offend your sentiments.

Evolution is a harsh fact12, though sometimes I hope that there was the more gentle & benign beginning of the life in the universe. But I guess, I did not choose this universe, but this universe chose me.

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