A recent Financial Times report (“India Drops Evolution and Periodic Table from Some School Textbooks,” June 6, 2023) adds to the bad news we have been hearing from India:
India has dropped Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the periodic table of elements from some school textbooks, part of a widening campaign by the Hindu nationalist government that has prompted warnings from educators about the impact on teaching and the country’s vital tech sector. …
It said the new textbooks were a transitional solution that would apply only to the current 2023-24 academic year. …
While evolution would still be taught in grades 11 and 12, [Aniket Sule, a professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai] noted, many Indian pupils chose not to study science or maths beyond grade 10. “You are depriving this knowledge for the bulk of students,” he said. …
I asked my friend Neera Badhwar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a native of India, if she thought this piece of news was significant. She replied:
It’s very disturbing. I don’t believe the claim that it’s temporary, although the fact that evolution hasn’t been banned from the upper grades does hold out some hope. And [Indian Prime Minister Narenda] Modi is desirous enough of foreign adulation that he may be persuaded not to do anything that destroys science in India.
To which extent the erosion of the teaching of evolution and the periodic table will apply to all high schools in the country is not clear. In any event, I want to focus mainly on some underlying ideology that seems on the rise. The Financial Times notes:
In 2018, Satyapal Singh, then-India’s minister of state for human resource development, dismissed the theory of evolution as “scientifically wrong” and called for it to be removed from school and college curricula. No one “saw an ape turning into a man,” he said in remarks quoted by the Press Trust of India, a news agency.
That nobody has ever seen a man descending from an ape made me think of another famous scholar and political friend of Narenda Modi, Donald Trump. The latter defended a historical plaque on his golf course in Sterling, Virginia, which claims that a Civil War battle nearby transformed the Potomac into a “river of blood.” The problem is that historians apparently believe that the said battle never happened. Contradicting the historians’ opinion, Trump declared:
How would they know that? Were they there?
Of course, biology, history as a discipline, or any field of organized knowledge tries to explain events that were not witnessed or to critically examine observers’ testimonies and interpretations. If we had to base our knowledge on the testimonies of people who “were there” or reported what the latter told them, we would know very little—close to nothing, in fact. The experience of one human being is extremely limited. To know what happened and to find causes, we need to observe facts and study the theories that help interpret them. Nobody has ever seen a dinosaur or, with his own eyes, a black hole. Nobody has seen a demand curve elsewhere than in an abstract theory or an econometric estimate.
Reviewing a recent book by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman (The Age of the Strongman), I echoed what he believes as do many other observers:
Although India is known as a democratic country—the largest democracy in the world—its supporting institutions have weakened under Modi’s Hindu ethnicism and nationalism.
All that teaches us something about superstition and the state. What’s happening in India parallels the apparent retreat from rationality that we observe in the West. It may very well be true, as most classical liberal thinkers believed, that the state was necessary for mankind to culturally evolve from the tribe to the “Great Society,” to use Friedrich Hayek’s terminology. (It is worth reading Hayek’s last book, The Fatal Conceit.) But it was not any kind of state that could come close to that ideal, which is obviously still imperiled. It had to be the constitutionally limited classical liberal state, now challenged by the rise of right and left populism and nationalism. In political regimes that are not sufficiently constrained and liberal—the state naturally supports and fuels the mob’s superstitions instead of protecting individuals against them.