Satyapal Singh's evolution remarks: Monkeying around with education will make Indian students a laughing stock

On Friday, Union minister Satyapal Singh claimed that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was "scientifically wrong" and it needed to be changed in school and college curriculum.

 Satyapal Singhs evolution remarks: Monkeying around with education will make Indian students a laughing stock

File image of Union minister Satyapal Singh. Twitter@dr_satyapal

Singh, the Minister of State for Human Resource Development — for those that skipped civics, this department is in charge of India's education system — told some presumably slack-jawed reporters (one hopes) that nowhere did our ancestors mention they saw an ape turning into a man.  "Darwin's theory (of the evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curriculum. Since man is seen on earth he has always been a man," he said.

For those wondering where Singh got such a fantastical idea, worry not. Singh was quick to provide a sound explanation and scientific support. Not. "Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, said they saw an ape turning into a man," he said. "No books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention," the minister added. Well, quite.

This is disturbing for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, Singh is in charge of the department responsible for what children and teenagers learn in schools and colleges and he holds a prominent position in the Narendra Modi Cabinet. Second, some of us, at a young age, learned not to take too seriously the tales our grandparents told us (some of which were tinged with casual racism and sexism). It seems that Singh never learned that invaluable lesson.

Third, Singh is an educated man (although he may have played hooky with a few biology classes during his schooling). According to a report in The Indian Express, Singh is an MSc, an MPhil in Chemistry from Delhi University, has an MBA in Strategic Management from Australia, and an MA in Public Administration, including a PhD on the Naxalite movement. Singh is also an author, and has written books on Naxalism and the tribal conflict resolution, according to The Indian Express report.

Examining why the Narendra Modi government seems to have an anti-science bent is an article for another day (just do a quick Google search for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ganesha and plastic surgery).

Some have said that India and the US share uncanny parallels: The world's largest democracy and the world's oldest democracy (side note: Greece is actually the world's oldest democracy. In fact, the word democracy comes from the Greek word "demos", which means people. But let's pull a Satyapal Singh and ignore this fact). We both freed ourselves from the British, have had some of the great leaders on the world stage and like to Netflix and chill.

However, there's one major difference: Unlike in India, Darwin's theory of evolution continues to be fiercely debated in parts of the United States. This been ongoing for nearly a century. In 1925, the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which prevented the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools. This law was later challenged by the Scopes Trial  (also known as the trial of the century until a certain OJ Simpson came along) in which John Scopes, a substitute teacher in a public school, declared that he had taught evolution to his pupils and was promptly arrested.

Much like our HRD minister, an intrepid individual in the United States called William Jennings Bryan took up the case against evolution. Unlike Singh, Bryan was a Christian, a pacifist, and a former presidential candidate. Fighting for Scopes (along with reason and logic) was legendary attorney Clarence Darrow.

Long story short: Much like Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, logic and reason was soundly defeated. Scopes was found guilty of violating the law, which gave credence to the old adage that sometimes, the law (along with large swathes of the American people) is an ass. The result, however, can be instructive: Evolution wasn't taught in US classrooms for nearly 40 years.

Let's imagine Singh gets his way and evolution is done away with in classrooms. In its place, Indian students are taught one of the several creation myths of Hinduism, along with dubious theories such as ancient India had airplanes and nuclear weapons,   yogic farming (empowering seeds with the help of positive thinking) can solve our agriculture problems, astrology is the topmost science, and cow urine can cure cancer (someone tell Dennis Leary).

All this will leave our students a laughingstock when they go abroad. Heck, even President Donald Trump (a stable genius by his own reckoning and no one else's) was smart enough to make sure his six-year-old granddaughter was taught Mandarin (Ni Hao, my future Chinese overlords).  To quote Homer Simpson: Children are the future. Unless we stop them now. And monkeying around with their education is a good way to do that.

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2018 17:13:20 IST