In Mint: The Fight over Darwin

(This piece was published in the Sept 15th issue of Mint)

In 2009, while the world is celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary, American scientists have a unique challenge: convince 60% of their fellow countrymen that God did not create man. It might seem odd that a country which has won the maximum number of Nobel prizes, sent man to the moon, and has the best universities in the world, takes the antediluvian creation myth in the book of Genesis literally.

A 2009 Gallup poll revealed that only 39% of Americans believed in evolution.  There were two reasons for this: education and religion. Among the high school educated, only 21% believed in evolution and 52% had no opinion; among those with a college degree, 29% did not believe and 30% had no opinion. For the religious, Darwin contradicts the word of God and those who attended church regularly were found to not believe in evolution.

To analyze the role of religion in this debate, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life asked major religious groups in United States on what they thought about evolution. The study found that at the bottom of the chart were Jehovah’s Witnesses: only 8% of their members believed in evolution. Slightly better were Mormons (22%), Evangelical Protestants (24%), Historically Black Protestants (38%) and Muslims (45%). Among the Catholics and Protestants, more than 50% believed in evolution.

A major problem facing America is that religious groups which deny evolution are out to impose their views as science on everyone by modifying science text books. In 2004, 150 years after Darwin published his seminal work, the Cobb County Board of Education in Atlanta affixed a sticker on thousands of public school textbooks which stated that evolution is a theory, not a fact. In Dover, Pennysylvania, the school board decided to teach that an “intelligent agent” created various species.

The same Pew Research poll which found that only 8% of Jehovah’s Witnesses believed in evolution also found that 81% of Buddhists believed in evolution along with 80% of Hindus. Like the story of creation in the book of Genesis, Hindus too have creation myths, but in India,  where the most American-Hindus are from, these creation myths stay in religious books, not in school text books. Also there are no Hindu or Buddhist groups questioning a fact which has been debated, analysed and tested for 150 years.

While various American Christian groups are vehemently anti-evolution, it cannot be generalized that it is a common behavior of all Abrahamic religions, since the group which stands third in ranking, after Hindus and Buddhists, are Jews with 77% believing in evolution.

The Pew religious survey found  one thing in common between American Hindus, Buddhists and Jews: members of these religions lead the religious groups in terms of education and were most likely to have a post-graduate degree. This ties with the Gallup poll which found that 74% of Americans who had a post-graduate degree believed in evolution. This also explains the frenetic effort among religious groups to subvert the education system

There is one more difference. In India, the syllabus is decided by the government — both state and central — whereas in United States, local school boards have the authority to decide tests, texts and teaching materials. Thus depending on the religious beliefs of the school board members, insane ideas can be taught and science can be redefined.  To prevent this, parents have to file law suits or vote the school board out – both disruptive activities.

Courts in United States have found that teaching “intelligent design”, a euphemism for creationism, violates the constitution. The creationists now are fighting for academic rights, so that educators can teach “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”Fortunately, this is a fight we don’t have in India.

Postscript
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  1. A British film about Charles Darwin cannot find a US distributor.
  2. Texas public schools are required to teach Bible this year. According to second most powerful member of the Texas House, evolution is an anti-religious Jewish plot.

10 Comments

  1. I am not a biologist, but I have a read a couple of articles a while ago, on this subject. The problem is that the debate has become a ‘Darwin Vs. Bible’ one rather than a ‘science Vs. myth’ one.

    Darwin says that birth of indivuduals with exact characteristics that actually match the change in surroundings is actually based on chance. But, all the genetic permutations and combinations may never produce that one individual who succeeds in a changed environment. For example, according to him, taller giraffes were selected as the trees grew taller. That seems quite incredulous, since there is a huge chance that a taller giraffe might not have been present in the first place.

    Scientists have recently found a feedback mechanism from the external environment to the genetic code, by the way of m-RNA (or is it t-RNA?) carrying the information regarding external enviroment from the cell-membrane to the nucleus that tunes the offspring to the changed environment. That means, giraffes actually grew taller as the trees grew taller.

    That takes us back to Jean Baptist de Lamarck’s theory.

  2. “Fortunately, this is a fight we don’t have in India.”

    Tell that to the Hindu/Indian “atheists” and “rationalists” who, after uncritically swallowing anti-religious ideas of Dawkins and others of the same ilk, internalize anti-Hindu-ness (the assumption being that the tenets of Christianity – with which Dawkins is most familiar and spends most of his time talking about – are the same as those of Hinduism, or that there is a strict one-to-one relationship between the two religions), and clutch at straws to show how Hinduism is subverting science (“Oh my Neptune, the head scientist from ISRO went to a mandir just before the launch!! How scandalous!!!”, and of course, that old reliable – astrology). Quite pathetic, actually, that how ignorant these Hindus are of their own religion and its philosophy.

  3. It is okay for a scientist to go to temple and pray for a successful launch or any other successful beginning. Human sentiments and emotions do not go away just because one is a professionally trained scientist.
    Even the so called rationalists are human beings with emotions and sentiments. They conveniently forget it when they are engaged in “Exists” vs “Not Exists” debate.
    In the debate over Creationism vs. Evolution, it is primarily a question of control and power. It serves the powers that be that Evolution theory not be taught and to sow the seeds of doubt in people’s mind.
    As far the problem not existing in India, various faith systems followed by millions of Indians going under the umbrella of “Hinduism” allows them to question. So science and and raising one’s spiritual awareness co-exist peacefully.

  4. JK,

    Isn’t it odd that large percentage of Jews believe in evolution then Christians and Muslims, both of whose believe systems start from same Jewish tribal myths that originated in current Israeli area? Norman Podhoretz, a conservative Jew, asks the same question as why Jews are so liberal when compared to their Christian counterparts in US.

    Also this whole thing about Darwinian evolution is a tough concept to understand. One doesn’t see evolution in everyday life. One can see in labs and isolated islands with significant and sudden disruptions.

    A better question to ask people of western religions would be, “Do you believe earth is 6000 years old?” as their religious texts say it is, again picking up from Jewish myths. That type of question would be better representative of science vs religious debate.

    As for Hindus and Buddhists – speaking for Hindus anyway – I doubt most Hindus even know that Vedic and Upanishad texts try to answer very complex questions on cosmology and life of Earth in a very complex way. While it is far closer approximation to reality then western religions mythical believe systems, I doubt Hindus agree with evolution by ignoring their own religious beliefs – meaning, it could be ignorance of own religion rather than liberal view of science.

    1. Chandra,

      A better question to ask people of western religions would be, “Do you believe earth is 6000 years old?” as their religious texts say it is, again picking up from Jewish myths. That type of question would be better representative of science vs religious debate.

      Interestingly, we have young earth creationists (YEC), who believe in a 6000 year old earth and creationism.

      Regarding Hindus, it is probably true that most are ignorant about the complex questions and about Purusha Sukta and hiranyagarbha. But something which is more common is about the origins of Brahma (from the navel of Vishnu) and the like. Then the book of Genesis has been around for millennia; it is just that some folks decided to take it literally. Even the Hindutva proponents in India have not gone that route.

  5. JK:
    At the risk of speaking for the whole of us, the way Hindus look at it is–

    Of course evolution occured. There is no point arguing with truth. We have always prided ourselves by standing by the truth all the time.

    All the Supreme Entity has to do is, create something that men call “physics”–the rules of the universe (its a narrow term, but thats what English is about). It is exactly this that forms the concept of “Rta” of the Veda.

    “Rtam satyam parambrahma[m]… namo namah”–purusha sUktam, uttarAnuvAka.

    At some really low level, there is something that “causes” the energy to transform from one type to another. Hence, bigbang occured. From Nothing, came Everything. Before that, there was no matter, only energy that we call anAhata (without sound) Adi nAda, or in short, the “Aum”.

    Also, the famous nAsadIya sUktam (RV X-129) refers to an initial state when there was no matter or energy —
    na asat (untrue or intangible or unprovable) AsIt (was there), na sat (true or tangible and provable) AsIt (was there)

    Also, many people have noted the similarity between evolution of chordates and the avatAras of Vishnu.

    Personally, I treat everything from the bigbang, formation of Solar System and Earth, birth of life on Earth, Organic Evolution, Arrival and development of Homo-sapiens, pre-history and later history as “itihAsa”.

  6. Quote : “… there are no Hindu or Buddhist groups questioning a fact which has been debated, analysed and tested for 150 years. ”

    This is of course false – case in point, ISCKON
    From

    http://vaisnavaapologetics.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/prabhupada-on-darwin-and-moral-decline/

    we have the following quotes –

    Prabhup?da: ?Darwin is a rascal. What is his theory? We kick on your face. That?s all. That is our philosophy. The more we kick on Darwin?s face, the more advanced in spiritual consciousness. He has killed the whole civilization, rascal.?

    Prabhup?da: ?That is nonsense. Darwin was a number-one nonsense. Yes. Rascal. He has confused the whole world.? Prabhup?da: ?Full nonsense, this rascal. How much havoc he has done to the human society. A grand rascal, this Darwin. And he is taken as the basic principle of anthropology. The whole world has become??

    Prabhupada: ?The Darwin?s theory, this theory, that theory, simply they are bewildered, thinking this body is the self.? Prabhupada: ?So the modern civilization, according to Darwin?s theory, they are advancing to become animal. That?s it. Therefore they are claiming their forefathers are coming from monkeys.?

    Prabhupada: ?Because they are standing on a wrong theory, all their calculations are wrong, and people are suffering. The rascal Darwin?s theory. So many, based on this foolish theory, wrong conception of life. So we have to challenge, protest. defeat. This will be our work. Our worshiping of K???a, that is our internal affair. The external affair?we need to establish this theory. Otherwise they?ll be leading this society. Misleading. They are misleading, not leading, misleading. So we have to stop this misleading.?

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