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Of monkeys and men: A concise look at Darwin's Theory of Evolution and its criticisms

Text by Avinash Mudaliar, Sunep Imchen, Siddhartha Banerjee | Images by Shripad Sonawane

BJP MP and minister of state in the HRD ministry Satyapal Singh recently kicked up a major storm when he stated that there is no proof validating Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and that it is “scientifically wrong”. He even shared his notion that it should be done away with from  school and college curricula across the country. The former Mumbai police commissioner dismissed Darwin’s theory because according to him, nobody actually saw an ape turning into a man!

Such a statement piggybacks on many misconceptions about the theory of evolution, which has stood the test of time for over 150+ years (with minor modifications, as science has made strides in biology et al). Mr Singh also needs to understand that evolution is a process in which it takes ages for a change to occur in the traits of any organism and therefore it would have been a miracle for anyone to have been able to witness the metamorphic change in apes which Darwin states in his theory.

Sadly, Mr Singh is not the only codger among the erudite of the present day who have come out against evolution globally. But every time we feel the pain in our back due to a bruised tail bone, it is a reminder of evolution.

As our neighbour China continues to make prodigious progress in genetics (their scientists have genetically engineered the cells of at least 86 cancer and HIV patients in the country using Crispr-Cas9 technology since 2015, the first time this cutting edge stuff has been reported in human subjects at this level), if our everyday discourse is still stuck around the veracity of evolution — coming from the top echelons of our leadership — India risks being left in the dust of myriad scientific journeys undertaken by progressive societies around the world.

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Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

Widely known as the pioneer naturalist who proposed that nature has its own contrivance for determining how species evolve, by enduring and adapting within the ever changing milieu of the environment over a period of time, Charles Darwin’s publication would challenge the ecclesiastical acceptance of how humankind came to be.

This very thought — of how his far-reaching ideas would be accepted by the multitudes or risk being called heretical in a period lead by inveteratists, where religion superseded all forms of logic and scientific elucidation — caused him to initially defer the publication of his book by more than 20 years. It is quite ironic that the theory came from someone whose interest in medical school at Edinburgh University plummeted after a year of joining, thereby dashing his father’s visions of seeing his son take up the doctor's profession.

His transition from being a medical school drop out to an individual whose paradigm-shifting ideas would indirectly question the Christian belief of a sole creator of the universe was an evolution in itself. Perhaps the gradual change and the progression of his own thoughts would also undergo a transformative change which would finally allow him to understand the right time to share his theory with the world.

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February (sharing his date of birth with the reformist Abraham Lincoln) 1809, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in a large Georgian estate overlooking the town and the river Severan. (His “American Cousin” was however born in a log cabin.) Charles hailed from a family of academics; his father Dr RW Darwin was a medical doctor while his grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin, was a renowned botanist. Being born to such comforts meant a future which would have little or no struggle at all.

He was an oddity in some ways — Charles Darwin couldn't stand the sight of blood, nor was he particularly interested in pursuing edification in the field of medicine.

When Charles was 22, Dr RW Darwin received an invitation for his son to join a surveying expedition for South America. The senior Darwin wasn't in favour of his son going on the voyage, but Charles' uncle insisted, and so he was allowed to join the crew of the HMS Beagle on its exploratory voyage. It was during this voyage that Darwin began studying and observing the fauna at each of the many locations the Beagle visited; he discovered some peculiar yet very interesting patterns among the organisms that inhabited these regions — most notably in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.

What led Darwin to further investigate his premise was the discovery of a similar species of finches (a type of a bird belonging to the Passeriformes order and largely characterised by their claws, which consist of three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing backwards) in and around the nearby islands. He observed that each of the different, yet similar varieties of finches around the Galapagos Islands had evolved as per their survival needs: finches whose diet included large seeds had large, tough beaks; those that consumed insects had thinner, sharper beaks.

Darwin’s possible answer to this was that the finches had occupied these islands from the mainland and had adapted over time, which led to the evolution of such distinct species of finches on the islands.

These finches found on the Galapagos Islands are today also known as Darwin’s Finches.

His revolutionary book — On the Origin of Species — was published in 1859 (it was originally named “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”). In his book, he proposed that the adaptability of species arises not by choice but due to a shortage of resources and a change in the environment, which inherently makes it necessary for a species to change in order to survive, as it fights to ensure the continuation of its generation over time. Such adaptations led to a change in the traits of sub-classes, though their original class remains common. This idea of 'natural selection' was a theory which was proposed by Darwin in his highly controversial (at least in the 1850s) book which stated that as all species evolved over time, there was a common lineage in terms of inherent anatomical traits that linked all species to a common ancestor.

A total of 1250 copies of On the Origin of Species were initially printed, selling for 15 shillings each.

Darwin's theory was questioned, criticised and even ridiculed. His methodology was mocked by scientific icons like Herschel and “thought leaders” like John Stuart Mill. A friend and mentor of types, Adam Hedgewick, who was a British geologist and one of the founders of modern geology, scoffed at Darwin suggesting that the latter focus on better things (such as assisting Hedgewick in his geological pursuits). He wrote in a letter to Darwin: "...I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have deserted — after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth — the true method of induction, and started us in machinery as wild, I think, as Bishop Wilkins's locomotive that was to sail with us to the moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved, why then express them in the language and arrangement of philosophical induction?"

However, over a period of time, Darwin's work continued to gain wider acceptance and today, it remains highly celeberrimous not only within a closed academic circle but also with the masses.

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Simplified Example to Explain Natural Selection and Evolution

A popular hypothetical example used to explain Darwin's theory is to consider two groups of mice with different coloured fur — black and tan respectively, who have just been resettled into a new environment which is dominated by black-coloured rocks.

The environment is also inhabited by hawks, who prey on mice for their food. With their keen eyesight, these hawks can easily identify and hunt the tan mice within the black rocks due to the contrast in colours between the prey and the natural surroundings.

Over a period of time, the population of the tan mice would diminish while the population of the black-coloured mice would gradually increase, due to the higher number of survivors. This change in the heritable traits over time is how the process of evolution works.

This scenario emphasises the point that natural selection favours traits that are beneficial to survival and reproduction of a species and what seems as a superior trait may actually turn out to the detrimental to one species’ survival.

Genes and Modern Understanding

One of the arguments that goes against Darwin was the fact that the study of genetics was still unknown when he published his study on evolution.

Genetics brought about an understanding of how DNA forms the building blocks of life and also enables the passing of genetic traits from parent to offspring. These findings were later incorporated with Darwin’s observations, that led to a new field of study known as modern evolutionary synthesis.

Changes in the gene structure lead to mutations which further leads to a change in the physical and behavioural traits of a particular species. Mutation can lead to beneficial changes, which becomes prevalent in the next generation. Natural selection therefore guides the evolutionary process, preserving and adding up beneficial mutations thereby ensuring the survival of the fittest among species.

Aside from natural selection, the transfer of genetic information also occurs from one population to another whenever organisms migrate from one environment to another.

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Alfred Wallace: Lost in History

A key contributor to Darwin’s study and his ideas was the Monmouthshire-born Alfred Russel Wallace, who had a very keen interest in natural history. His interest was further developed during his time as a land surveyor which took him to places where his experiences with the natural world grew fonder over time.

Wallace and Darwin had jointly published the paper "The theory of evolution by natural selection” in August 1858. It was however, Darwin's Origin of Species — published a year later — that grabbed the world’s attention and pushed Wallace’s name into the annals of history, even as it condemned him to a bit role. It is said that though both parties had presented their papers, it was awarded to Darwin because of his finer attention to detail and a clearer presentation of his findings.

Wilberforce, Darwin’s Bulldog and immediate debates around evolution

Darwin’s theory, when published, caused a massive uproar within academia circles; of note is the debate held at the Oxford University Museum in 1860. The participants of the debate included the renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, physiologist and surgeon Benjamin Brodie, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker and scientist Robert Fitzroy (who was incidentally the captain of the HMS Beagle, on which Darwin had set out on his expedition).

One heated exchange during the debate involved Wilberforce reportedly asking Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey!

Huxley retorted that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. For his staunch defense of Charles' work, Huxley came to be affectionately called “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

The book also clashed with the general public as it pushed forward the notion that humans as a species evolved from monkeys and not as per religious Christian beliefs (of Adam and Eve). Darwin's theory continues to divide opinion, even today.

Specifics of the Evolution Debate

Creationists — among the most vociferous opponents of Darwinian evolution — have not warmed up to, nor paused to introspect on, the idea of evolution via natural selection. Their arguments have (for the most part) never been closely inspected nor debated, and seem to be based on a reluctance to understand (or even a misunderstanding of) evolutionary science and its evidence.

The idea that humans evolved from monkeys does not have wide support because it cannot be proven via tests yet — nor can it be disproved.

However their argument fails to consider the micro and macro evolutionary changes that have occurred over a period of time with each species.

Microevolution looks at changes that have occurred within species over time while macroevolution studies how taxonomic groups above the level of species have changed.

Today, microevolution has gained further ground due to studies that have been conducted in laboratories providing supporting examples to the natural selection process. Studies on the increase in resistance in certain types of bacteria to drugs only emphasises the adaptation of a species to its changing environment.

Macroevolution, on the other hand, studies inferences from fossils and DNA rather than direct observation. Evidence of fossil records support the ideas put forth by evolutionary biology, through various validations. An example, as predicted by evolutionary biology, is that one does not find modern human fossils embedded within the soil layers from the Jurassic period, which was 65 million years ago. This argument then suggests that humans therefore have evolved from apes gradually over time and not as Creationists would like to believe.

Based on the above evolutionary biology argument, the counter question that is often asked is if humans descended from monkeys, why are there monkeys still today?

This answer to the above is that new species evolve by splintering off from established ones — when populations of organisms break off from the main branch of their family and evolve with sufficient differences to remain forever distinct. The parent species meanwhile may survive indefinitely or may become extinct depending on its ability to adapt. As an example, many species of dogs, tigers or hawks exists across various geographies today.

The origin of life remains very much a mystery and some argue that evolution cannot explain how life first appeared on Earth.

Biochemists have arrived at a possible explanation where the earliest form of nucleic acids, amino acids and other building blocks of organic life could have formed and organised themselves into self-replicating and sustaining units of life, leading to the creation of the first cellular organism. Studies from astrochemical analyses also suggest that there could have been compounds which might have originated from outer space and fallen to Earth, thereby explaining the source for the earliest life-giving chemicals that may have risen under the conditions that prevailed when our planet was still in its infancy.

Creationists point to science's inability to explain the exact origin of life; however, one has to understand that if life on Earth turned out to have a non-evolutionary origin, it would have been confirmed by micro-evolutionary and macro-evolutionary evidence as gathered and analysed today. In the same vein, some argue that it is mathematically impossible for anything as complex as a protein, let alone a living cell or a human to spring up by chance.

Although chance plays a part in evolution — such as random mutations that can give rise to new traits — evolution does not depend on chance to create organisms, proteins or other entities. It is in fact, quite the opposite — where evolution ensures and harnesses a non-random change by preserving “desirable” (adaptive) features and eliminating “undesirable” (non-adaptive) ones.

Hence, as long as the forces of selection stay constant, natural selection remains the guiding principle which pushes evolution to produce sophisticated structures in its successor. Speciation is probably fairly rare and in many cases might take centuries, but studies have reported speciation events in plants, insects and worms. In an experiment, researchers subjected organisms to various types of selection to identify anatomical differences, mating behaviours, habitat preferences and others and found that they had created populations of organisms that did not breed with outsiders.

William R Rice of the University of New Mexico and George W Salt of the University of California, Davis, demonstrated that fruit flies if sorted by their preference for certain environments and bred within that preferred environment for over 35 generations, the resulting generation of flies refused to breed with those from a very different environment.

The discoveries of transitional fossils — creatures that are half reptile and half bird — suggest intermediate species that were part of various taxonomic groups. One of the most famous fossils of all time, the Archaeopteryx, combines feathers and skeletal structures peculiar to birds with features of dinosaurs. There have been recent discoveries worth the size of a flock of other feathered fossil species, some more avian and some a little less.

A sequence of fossils spans the evolution of modern horses from the tiny Eohippus to the amazing fossil creature from 375 million years ago named Tiktaalik which embodies the predicted and long-sought transition of certain fish to life on land. Whales have had four-legged ancestors that lived and walked on land, and creatures known as Ambulocetus and Rodhocetus, over a period of time, helped in making that transition from land to sea.

Studies have also found that fossil seashells can be traced back to the evolution of various mollusks through millions of years.

As for us, it is perhaps around 20 or more hominins — though not all of them are our ancestors — that appear to fill the gap between Lucy the Australopithecine and modern humans of today.

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Development of the Eye

Generations of creationists have tried to counter Darwin by citing the example of the eye as a structure which is highly complicated. The argument that it could not have evolved since the eye's ability to provide vision depends on the perfect arrangement of its parts and therefore natural selection could never favour the transitional forms needed during the eye's evolution — what good is half an eye?

Darwin suggested that even a half an eye has its benefits, such as helping creatures orient themselves towards light and thereby survive for further evolution as time passed on.

Biologist today have identified primitive eyes and light-sensing organs throughout the animal kingdom and have even tracked the evolutionary history of eyes through comparative genetics. As per findings, it now appears that in various families of organisms, eyes have been known to have evolved independently.

The theory of evolution has evolved over centuries, with inputs from genetics and other branches of science, it has not and cannot be disproved in its entirety.

Evolution is a process that has taken millions of years and we are currently at a place where the pace of evolution appears to be outpaced by the sudden and rapid change in environment such as the depletion of habitat, natural resources and changes brought about by climate change and so forth.

We will therefore need to observe the changes and adapt accordingly as mentioned by Darwin, where the survival of a species depends on its ability to adapt to its every changing environment.

Evolution and Vishnu’s Avatars

Hinduism believes in the permanence of soul. The soul traverses through millions of temporary bodies before being united with God, thus achieving freedom from rebirth. In these rebirths, being born again as a human is considered to be the pinnacle. The soul could be born into the body of insects or amphibians or mammals, as it progresses, depending its accumulated karma from past lives. Even the Jataka tales of Buddhism talk about rebirth in various animal and bird forms. These tales can also be construed as indicating evolution, though at a more personal or individual level, which on the aggregate level of all souls, may be a reference to evolution. Even the whole cycle of Yugas in Hinduism can in some ways be argued to resemble modern theoretical physics' concept of multiple cycles of creation of universe through the Big Bang and its eventual destruction and so on.

Hindu scriptures also mention the existence of 'vanaras' in Ramayana or the existence of 'nagas' in Mahabharata (Naga princess Uloopi married Arjun and had a son with him). Science tells us that homo sapiens shared earth with Neanderthals (some even suspect inter-breeding) and homo floresiensis. Were the Hindu scriptures telling us this through the metaphorical tales, centuries before Darwin?

So, if the evolution sceptics in India had read the Hindu scriptures more closely and not merely literally, they could have probably paused for introspection before dissing Darwin.

Scopes, Morals and Religion – The Global Religious Debate

The debate on what needs to be taught and what needs to be screened from children has been fiercely debated for a long time. A perfect example is the Scopes Trial of 1925, which arose after a newly passed Tennessee state law against teaching evolution or any other theory denying the Biblical account of the creation of man.

The case reflected a collision of traditional Christian views and values with modern ones, which were believed to be undermining the authority of the Bible and Christian morals in society.

John Scopes, a 24-year-old defendant, taught in the public high school in Dayton, Tennessee, and had included evolution in his curriculum. He was arrested for teaching the subject of evolution and was put on trial where the American Civil Liberties Union backed him in his defence.

The Scopes trial was dubbed as the "trial of the century" and was attended by hundreds of reporters who thronged the Rhea County Courthouse in July 1925.The case progressed and the focus shifted to the authority of the Bible vs Darwin's theory rather than the charges on which Scopes was arrested.

The verdict that was handed out found Scopes guilty of violating the law and he was served with a fine of $100 This Tennessee law would stand for another 42 years. While the judgement was hailed as a victory by prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and the anti-evolutionists, the press reported that Bryan had won the case but lost the argument, as the presence of scientific evidence for evolution had now been publicised.

Only in the 1960s would the story of evolution re-appear in school curricula and so far, no one has been able to settle the controversial issue of teaching Darwin’s theory in schools, which continues to incite strong passions and court actions to this day.

Pope Francis has in recent times come out in support of evolution and at the same time acknowledged that it is a very contentious issue among the believers of the Christian faith and very difficult to accept. The Pope in his words stated that God is not "a magician with a magic wand" and voiced his acceptance on the substantial evidence available on the theories of evolution and the Big Bang. The Pope explained that the argument between the idea of creationism/intelligent design vs the divine creator does not contradict the beliefs of one another but instead argued that such scientific theories need the existence and belief of the other higher power.

A 2014 Gallup poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe humans were created by God 10,000 years ago while a further 31 percent believe in evolution, but under God’s guidance. Politicians in the US state of Texas are considering a bill which would give legal protection to teachers who present Creationism as a scientific theory.

Along with Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma and South Dakota are the others eight US states where similar laws have been proposed since 2017.

The ongoing debate between Creation and Evolution continues to evoke tremendous interest and in 2014, Bill Nye, considered as ‘the science guy’, defended Evolution against Creationist Ken Ham on a popular TV show. The two-hour-long debate has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube and one point, drew more than 5,00,000 viewers online.

In a survey published in 2009 in the UK, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, it found that around half of British adults did not believe in the theory of evolution with 22 percent preferring the theories of creationism and intelligent design. About 25 percent of Britons believed in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution with another quarter opting for it being "probably true".

Most recently Turkey has decided to remove the subject of evolution from its textbooks. It joins Saudi Arabia as the second country that has excluded the teaching of the theory of evolution from its curriculum. But to get back to Mr Satyapal Singh’s statement, strictly speaking, the statements “Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong”… “since the man as seen on Earth has always been a man” are not incorrect.

Was Darwin wrong?

Darwin did not know about genetics. So, even though his Theory of Evolution was directionally correct, he later came up with the Theory of Pangenesis to describe certain observations, which has subsequently been found to be flawed. As per this debunked theory, there are “gemmules” that are seeds of cells that one gets from parents during conception. They must form in the proper order to build a healthy organism, and the way they mix results in variations. Some gemmules can lie dormant, resulting in traits that skip generations, or change over an organism’s lifetime, resulting in offspring inheriting traits that their parents had developed due to environmental factors.

So, one can arguably say that Darwin is wrong strictly speaking as better theories of evolution are today accepted by the larger scientific community.

As regards Satyapal Singh’s second statement: The current human species is known as homo sapiens. Strictly speaking, we did not evolve from any of the current apes like gorilla or chimpanzees. Human beings and apes share a common ancestor from which they branched off more than one million years ago. Current-day homo sapiens had ancestors like Australopithecus and Homo erectus who were distinct from other apes (or rather their ancestors) for two million years and more. Even more surprisingly, for a period of time till about 10,000 years ago, there was simultaneous existence of multiple forms of ‘humans’: Neanderthals (with brains larger than homo sapiens), homo floresiensis (nicknamed Hobbit Man) and so on.

Today, it is a debated topic whether homo sapiens interbred with these species or these other species competed with homo sapiens for resources but were outmanoeuvred into extinction. So, a member of the genus “homo’’ can be said to always have been ‘man’ after they evolved from their ancestors, and we have not evolved from chimpanzees or gorillas.

Many historians have been rediscovering the scientific advancements made by early Indian civilisation. Indian civilisation gave the world Arabic numerals and zero among other things. If we now start denying evolution, it will take us back and we will find even more difficulty in regaining our former torch-bearer status in the annals of science and technology. So, we should stop monkeying around the topic and see how we can harness genes, the underlying machinery behind evolution, to perhaps solve Indian problems e.g. eradication of tropical diseases, development of treatments for diabetes, etc.

Darwin’s Origin of Species is part of the literary canon: Darwin joins Aristotle and St Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton and Stuart Mill, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac in that pantheon of texts that provide the foundations of western culture. Origin meets the test of a great book: It mattered then, and it matters now. Its publication changed the world, and yet it can be read again and again, even in that changed world.

Following Mr. Singh's statements, there was an immediate petition that was launched asking for him to be removed from his office. His words appeared to have diverted a lot of negative publicity to India and its scientific community.

In spite of all the furore caused by a brief momentary lapse of reason on the minister’s part, the science community does acknowledge the significant and continuous support provided by the government to Indian science in the form of funding and scientific freedom towards critical research and scientific education.

What is detrimental, however, is when the people in power, who do not choose their words wisely and demand change without debate or consultation, can impact the minds of so many.

Darwin was always a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects and discourse. He believed that the freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which arises from the advancement of science and therefore avoided or tried to abstain from writing on subjects related to religion. He always maintained that his work was never carried out with an intent to cause any pain to anyone let alone the members of his family, but that was inevitable no matter how true or genuine his intent was or the approach taken in his work, which was in the name of science.

In the light of the above, free thought remains the foundation of science and it would be a death knell if Mr. Satyapal Singh is castigated for the same. There have been unwarranted calls for his removal from the HRD ministry. This would be an approach which even the staunchest supporter of science and the harshest critic of Mr. Singh should not support as it would mean going against the very tenets of scientific exploration and critical thinking.

At the end, the arguments against evolution seem to have risen from a misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory. One has to understand that Darwin's theory is not being refuted but simply being argued, to the effect that it does not explain in detail all the complexities of life. In short, the concept of evolution is not disputed nor written off but its opponents simply imply that it is yet to provide answers to all the questions that we have. However it is imperative to remember Darwin’s words: “Free will is to mind what chance is to matter.”

 


Published Date: Feb 05, 2018 13:49 PM | Updated Date: Feb 10, 2018 10:33 AM

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