Satyapal Singh, India’s Minister of State for Human Resources, has faced ridicule over the past week for a speech to the All India Vaidik Sammelan in which he said that, since nobody ever saw an ape turning into a human, ideas about evolution are erroneous and ought not to feature in school syllabi. Faced with the backlash, Singh underlined his ignorance by citing in his own defence Soren Løvtrup’s Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth. Had he actually read that book by a Danish historian of science, he’d have found that Løvtrup concurs with Darwinists about our ancestors, differing only in his conviction that changes from one species to another happen very rapidly rather than gradually.

At one level, I’m not surprised that such a statement should emanate from a ruling party that consists mainly of misinformed individuals making public policy based on religious beliefs and literal interpretations of Hindu myths. On the other hand, Satyapal Singh’s contention went against the grain of the standard Hindutva approach, which is to link Darwin’s ideas to the Dashavatara or some other legend, thus claiming for Hinduism a spurious scientific validity.

Attacks on evolution come more frequently from Muslims and Christians, whose creation myths are more coherent than ones available to Hindus, rendering their incompatibility with Darwin’s ideas starkly apparent. The popular preacher Zakir Naik, who consistently utters absurd falsehoods confident that his audiences aren’t knowledgeable enough to call him out, has a novel refutation of evolution. Naik argues that the theory of evolution is by definition questionable since it is merely a theory and therefore not fact. There’s no book on earth called The Fact of Evolution, he continues, although, if the publication of a book with that title is all it takes, a simple search reveals such a book exists. Amusingly, Naik then declares, “Darwin himself said there were missing links in his theory”. Darwin didn’t use the term “missing links”, and certainly not in the way Naik imagines. Troubled by jumps in the fossil record, he anticipated future discoveries that would reveal transitional forms between species. Plenty of these have been found since his time, though we no longer think of them as transitional, or as missing links in a chain. Of the many extinct hominid species discovered, few were direct ancestors of modern humans. Most have no direct links to anything alive today.

Understanding evolution

I became an enthusiastic Darwinist at the age of nine or ten, soon after reading a biography published by Ladybird in its series, Lives of the Great Scientists. It told the story of a man of no great accomplishment, who went on a long voyage at sea and returned with an understanding of how every living form on earth came to be the way it was. Darwin’s ideas and the evidence on which they were based immediately made more sense to me than other stories I’d been told about life, the universe and everything. A few years later, I read Inherit the Wind, a fictionalised account of the Scopes Monkey trial, in which a high school teacher in Tennessee was tried for teaching human evolution in his class. The trial in Inherit the Wind climaxes with the lawyer for the defence asking the fundamentalist Christian accuser whether, since the Biblical God created the sun only on the fourth of seven days, the previous days could have been longer than twenty-four hours. Without the sun to determine time, perhaps each day could have been millions of years long, long enough to allow for the whole of evolutionary history to play out within that Biblical span of seven days.

Although the argument discombobulates the villain, I consider it bizarre. Since life on earth is unthinkable without the sun, the duration of days before the sun existed is irrelevant to any consideration of evolution. Inherit the Wind proved most disappointing in its attempt to reconcile science and religion, and other efforts in the same direction I have come across since have been equally unsatisfactory.

More than the tale of humanity’s origins, which can be considered metaphorical, Darwinism and religious faith are at odds in their underlying philosophies. Darwinism’s implications are somewhat obscured by talk of transitions and missing links, which, like the word “evolution” itself, convey a sense of development. Darwin himself occasionally employed language that suggested a pattern or a journey of progress involved in the way life had proceeded from its origins. Such language imbued with a sense of purpose a process that is fundamentally purposeless.

An understanding of evolution can spur wonder just like religious faith does. I am awestruck by the fact that I share an ancestor not just with apes but with the mouse and frog, with the buffalo whose milk is in the coffee that sits on my desk as I write this, the plants from which the coffee was picked and sugar extracted, and the tree that provided wood for the desk. But I interpret that awe as a construct of my mind and not an indication of the larger truth or purpose essential to religious faith

Drawing the line

The contrasting narratives of life provided by religion and Darwinism, and the chasm in spirit between the two, have meant their relationship has often been adversarial. In our time, the biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett have led a neo-Darwinist attack on religion as a misguided and dangerous delusion. Along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett were labelled leaders of the New Atheists, having renewed a war that had been dormant for decades. They were spurred by the rise in the United States of a pseudo-scientific concept called Intelligent Design, under the cover of which Christian groups tried to insert religious Creationism into school syllabi. Some defenders of Satyapal Singh have turned to Intelligent Design for intellectual support, demonstrating the essential similarity between fundamentalists of all faiths.

Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist who was among the few popular science writers to rival Dawkins in book sales, took a more conciliatory approach than the New Atheists, advancing the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA for short. In his view, religion and science had separate areas of authority and neither should interfere in the others’ domain.

Unfortunately, Gould never made clear where the borders would lie and who would mark them. Take for instance the notion that certain products derived from cows have special medicinal properties. This is obviously a matter of faith but also one susceptible to empirical investigation. What happens when magisteria overlap in this fashion? When our government wants everything from our diet to our history texts and scientific institutions to conform to wildly irrational, faith-based ideas, what room is left for conciliation? Most scientists have thus far borne the government’s assault meekly, but a few voices made themselves heard in response to Satyapal Singh’s loony pronouncement. I hope they will protect their turf more vigorously in the future.