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Anti-Darwin comments in India outrage scientists

Researchers and government officials have condemned the statements of a junior minister who questioned the theory of evolution.

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Satyapal Singh takes the oath during the swearing-in ceremony of new ministers in New Delhi, 2017.

Satyapal Singh is a junior minister for human resource development in India.Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty

Thousands of scientists in India have signed an online petition protesting against comments by a higher-education minister who last week publicly questioned the scientific validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and called for changes in educational curricula.

The incident continued to simmer when Indian science minister Harsh Vardhan, a medical doctor, declined to comment on his colleague’s remarks at a press conference on 24 January. Vardhan said he had not studied Darwin’s theory since he was a student and so wasn’t qualified to discuss it.

The original comments were made by Satyapal Singh, a junior minister for human-resource development who oversees university education. On 20 January, he told reporters at a conference on ancient Hindu texts in Aurangabad that Darwin’s theory of evolution of humans “is scientifically wrong”. Singh added that “nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man”. Two days later, he proposed holding an international seminar on the subject.

The comments provoked outrage in the Indian scientific community. Vishwesha Guttal, an evolutionary ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, suggests the remarks are the first time that such anti-evolution opinions have been aired by high-ranking politicians in India. “I have seen these kind of issues (anti-Darwin stance) when I was a student in the US. This was totally unheard of, so far, in India,” says Guttal. “My first thought was, ‘Is this coming to India now?’”

Senior government officials later dismissed the comments. On 23 January, Singh’s boss Prakash Javadekar, the senior minister for human-resource development, said that he had asked Singh to refrain from making such remarks. “We should not dilute science,” Javadekar said. He added that his ministry would not support any anti-Darwin activities such as Singh’s proposed conference or changing curricula. Singh did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Nature’s news team.

Online petition

Scientists reacted swiftly to Singh’s comments, launching an online petition asking the minister to retract his claims. Such comments harm the scientific community’s efforts to propagate scientific thoughts and rationality through critical education and modern scientific research, the petition said, and also diminish the country’s image internationally. The petition had collected more than 3,000 signatures when its creators closed it on 23 January, after Javadekar responded to the situation, according to Mukund Thattai, a computational cell biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore who signed the petition. “There is strong support for science in India from government departments. But public attitudes can be swayed if people in responsible government positions make such statements,” he says.

Soumitro Banerjee, general secretary of the advocacy group the Breakthrough Science Society, thinks that Singh’s comments might already have done damage. “The seed of doubt has been planted in the minds of the common people that Darwin’s theory of evolution may, after all, be incorrect,” says Banerjee, a physicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata.

The minister’s comments also prompted a statement from three Indian science academies, which rarely respond publicly to such events. “It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths,” they said.

Singh’s remarks come at a time when India is already battling a rising tide of pseudoscience by some politicians. Last year, the Breakthrough Science Society also urged researchers to speak out against unscientific ideas after an astrology workshop was planned at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. The event was later cancelled.

Vidita Vaidya, a neurobiologist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, says the latest incident highlights the growing gap between the Indian scientific community, policymakers and the public. “It is the responsibility of the scientific community to engage much more actively to ensure that science education and research in this country continue to thrive,” she says.

Nature 554, 16-17 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01241-9
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