Teaching Evolution To Children

NCERT in a Fool’s Paradise

Ashok Nag

National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is an autonomous organisation set up in 1961 by the Government of India to assist and advise Central and State governments on issues relating to school education. Textbooks issued by NCERT are recommended textbooks in all CBSE schools. In the wake of COVID-19, when schools were closed for a large part of the academic year, NCERT started a rationalisation process of contents of textbooks of class 6 to class 12. This was buttressed by the National Education Policy of 2022 which stated, “The reduction in content and increased flexibility of school curriculum–and the renewed emphasis on constructive rather than rote learning–must be accompanied by parallel changes in school textbooks”.1

For the Class 10 science syllabus, the chapter 9 was rationalized in the following manner:

I.   Chapter name changed from “Heredity and Evolution” to “Heredity.”
II.  Dropped Items:
Box item: Charles Robert Darwin
Box item: Origin of life on earth
Box item: How do fossils form layer by layer
Box item: Molecular phylogeny
9.3       Evolution
9.3.1   An Illustration
9.3.2 Acquired and Inherited Traits
9.4       Speciation
9.5       Evolution and Classification
9.5.1   Tracing Evolutionary Relationships
9.5.2   Fossils
9.5.3   Evolution by Stages
9.6       Evolution should not be equated with ‘Progress’
9.6.1   Human Evolution

Although NCERT has not expunged the topic “Evolution” from the class 12 syllabus, its elimination from class X syllabus would ensure that majority of children–who do not opt for Biology as a subject of study after class 10–would be deprived of a proper introduction to the concept of Evolution and the science behind it. This is a stratagem that all students of science would easily apprehend. So, no wonder that more than 1800 Indian scientists, science teachers and educators in an open letter expressed their deep concern about this scissoring out of the topic “Biological Evolution” from the science syllabus of class 10. But, as Hamlet would have said, there are “more game plans in a mere syllabus rationalisation” than are dreamt of in the government’s pedagogical philosophy.

The debate between scientific community and theologians of all denominations about the propriety of teaching of Evolution in schools has continued till today in many countries, particularly in the USA. As recently as February 2006, the Board of Directors of American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement on the teaching of Evolution. The statement averred–“Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science. It is the foundation for research in a wide array of scientific fields and, accordingly, a core element in science education. The AAAS Board of Directors is deeply concerned, therefore, about legislation and policies recently introduced in a number of states and localities that would undermine the teaching of evolution”.2

Monkey Trial in USA
Although Origin of Species was first published in November, 1859, its impact on the scientific community as well as general public became more pronounced only in the beginning of 20th century. The religious fundamentalists on both sides of the Atlantic started their crusade against Darwinism when they found that this new theory has started influencing their children’s education. Enrolment of children in American high schools rose from 0.2 million in 1980 to nearly 2 million in 1920. In Tennessee, the high school population rose from less than 10,000 in 1910 to more than 50,000 in 1925. Most of these new schools included Darwin’s theory of Evolution in their curriculum. Ironically, the captains of industry found a resonance of their cut-throat competitive capitalism in the popular interpretation of Evolution by natural selection- that is survival of the fittest. Those who were rallying against excess of capitalism, found in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an apology for such excess. Thus, there were lot of resentments among common people against teaching of evolution in public schools. This got reflected in a spate of anti-evolution legislations in various US states.

One of the earliest legislations in USA on this topic was the Butler Act, 1925, passed by the Tennessee legislature, which prohibited teaching of any doctrine denying the divine creation of human being as depicted in the book of Genesis- the first book of Hebrew Bible. Defying this law, a high school teacher- John T Scopes started teaching Evolution. He was put on a trial, popularly known as Monkey Trial, for violating the Act. A circus of the trial followed, and Scope was found guilty and a minimum sentence of $100 fine was awarded. The lawyer defending the state’s action against Scopes was William Jennings Bryan, a progressive politician who ran for president three times as the Democratic Party’s candidate. Bryan had complete clarity about the danger that Darwin’s theory posits to the concept of God. In his New York Times essay of 1922 he wrote, “(if) a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible. . . . Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism”.3 

Edward L Larson, in his painstakingly researched book “Summer for the Gods”, provides a detailed and balanced account of the Scope trial. He has identified 3 phases of “anti-evolutionism” in USA. The first phase is characterised by the effort for outright banning of teaching of Evolution in high-school biology classroom. The second phase started when a scientific gloss was put on the “biblical account of a six-day creation within the past ten thousand years”.4 Two young Earth Creationists, John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris coined a new phrase “scientific creationism” in their 1961book “The Genesis Flood”.5 They posited “Creation science “as an alternative theory to the theory of Evolution and started a new phase. The proponents of “creation science” started a concerted movement seeking a balanced treatment of two contending views about origin of human beings. In March 1981, the state of Arkansas legislated an act titled “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act.” This Act was declared unconstitutional because it failed the test of constitutionality under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.The third phase began with the idea of Intelligent Design (ID). The proponents of ID argue that natural selection mechanism of evolution cannot explain emergence of extraordinarily complex organs and its intricate components with specialised functions. Like a watch needs a watchmaker, existence of such special organs in a living being, say existence of eye of a Homo Sapiens, must have a conscious designer behind its creation. Thus, proponents of ID aimed to position their views as a scientific alternative to Darwin’s theory of Evolution, which according to them is also a theory and not a proven fact. This would help them to avoid the legal hurdle of teaching ID in public schools. Jay D Waxler pointed out the real motivation behind this movement–bringing the idea of God through a backdoor- “Because intelligent design theory does not necessarily rely on any particular conception of the designer and does not require belief in any particular biblical story ... intelligent design theory is put forth as science, not religion, and thus as a worthy complement to evolution in the classroom”.6

After 100 years of Monkey Trial, there is still no resolution of the debate about the origin of human being. Science can never convince the public at large that, irrespective of the existence or non-existence of God, the theory of evolution has stood its ground on the basis of evidence and not faith. A 2013 survey by Pew Research Center found out that, about a quarter of U S adults (24%) agreed that “humans and other life evolved, but that this evolution was guided by a supreme being”. The same survey found that a third of Americans (33%) reject evolution entirely, saying humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”.7

As compared to general public, the scientist community of USA were divided between believers and non-believers in God. According to a Pew research survey conducted in 2009, four-in-ten scientists (41%) declared that they did not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public found that only 4% of Americans shared this view.8

In USA, the opposition to the Theory of Evolution has been mostly from people of Christian faith. But the responses of people of Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic denominations in countries where they represent the majority are no different. However, the conflicts of opinions among the protagonists of two sides in these countries have not been so intense as to leading to a plethora of court cases, like in USA. A plausible reason could be that an overwhelming majority of scientific community belonging to these religious denominations are themselves practitioners of their respective faiths. They are quite comfortable with the theory of evolution as well as existence of a super-being.

God and Evolution—Hindu Philosophy
A number of surveys apparently suggest that educated Hindus generally accept the notion of “Evolution”. Use of the word “apparent” is deliberate and significant. Swami Nikhilananda, a revered spiritual scholar, has explained the Hindu perception about the concept of Evolution:
“It should however be noted at the very outset that any comparison between the Western and the Indian idea of evolution will be both unfair and fruitless; for they have different premises, different methods, different aims and purposes, and different fields of investigation. Darwin and his followers were solely concerned with the evolution of physical forms and structures, whereas the Hindu philosophers discussed evolution from the standpoint of the soul”. This understanding of Hindu view of Evolution is nothing new. According to Swami Vivekananda, “idea of evolution was to be found in the Vedas long before the Christian era; but until Darwin said it was true, it was regarded as a mere Hindu superstition”. Keshub Chunder Sen, another Hindu reformer was more explicit–“Hindu Avatar rises from the lowest scale of life through the fish, the tortoise, and the hog up to the perfection of humanity. Indian Avatarism is, indeed, a crude representation of the ascending scale of Divine creation. Such precisely is the modern theory of evolution”.

God and Evolution-Islam
Muzaafar Iqbal (2007) in his book “Science and Islam” has observed that the Islamic discourse on science has been conducted from two perspectives—the first one can be described as a “discourse in which Islam is used as a justifier of science” and the second one as “Islamisation of Science” or more broadly speaking “Islamisation of knowledge”. The “justifier of science approach” explains why verses in Quran is a way of explaining evolutionary process which is being discovered by the western scientists now.9 Although Iqbal and the proponents of “Islamisation of Knowledge” talks about three dimensions of knowledge–“ethical, epistemological and ontological/metaphysical views of science” in their effort to distinguish so-called “western science” from their “Islamic science”, they miss the most important dimension of science–that is the dominant paradigm within which scientific discourse is being carried out. The role of paradigm is most effectively brought out by Stephen Hawking through a hilarious anecdote in “A Brief History of Time”.

A famous astronomer, after a lecture, was told by an elderly lady, who was perhaps under the influence of Hinduism, that his cosmology was all wrong. The world, she said, rests on the back of a giant tortoise. When the astronomer asked what the tortoise stands on, she replied: ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever. But it’s turtles all the way down’.

As no amount of evidence or lack of evidence would persuade the lady to change her view about the cosmos, so is true even for a top geneticist who believes Cosmos has been created by Allah. Up to a certain level of scientific practice, belief or disbelief or agnosticism may not be of any relevance to a scientist, but it may create a mental block when confronted with observations that are clearly at variance with a religious text like Quran. Iqbal’s book traces a number of such issues-like Stem Cell research, Organ Transplantation, In Vitro Fertilisation etc. which challenged Muftis to issue fatwa on these subjects in accordance with their interpretation of Quran and Sunnah. Such desperate attempts to cut the modern foot to fit into a mediaeval shoe is destined to fail at certain point of time. For example, if fertilisation of human being can be carried out outside a womb, a distinct possibility in near future, what would happen, a sufficiently long period ahead, to the Human Gender. This author strongly believes that marriage will be an antiquated term in the next hundred years. A large number of verses in Quran will become obsolete in that kind of society.

What Next
In this age of internet and social media, NCERT’s effort at rationalisa-tion of syllabus by way of keeping out one of the most important scientific achievement of 19th Century from the reading list of young children is like “tilting against the windmill”. It needs to be understood by the framers of syllabus for NCERT that today when AI is coming of age, manicured textbooks of NCERT types are the least important source of knowledge to the children.

Science is always a work in progress. Internalisation of scientific research outputs of a given time is an ongoing activity of any science research programme. Today, apart from historians of science, nobody reads the original writings of Newton or Galileo. But their findings have been completely internalised and current researchers take off from the knowledge base left to them. Every scientist knows that truth is always elusive, a beacon to be reached-that is neither too far nor too close. Thus, certainty is the death of science.

Theology is just opposite of the science. People still have to read Vedas/Gita/Genesis/Bible/Quran to understand what God or Allah has revealed. There has been no more addition to knowledge after these texts became available to the mankind. That is why God is always a static and frozen entity, even if it had created the Universe.

1.    Expert committees set up for finalizing new syllabus adopted the following 5 criteria for rationalization of existing syllabus.
a.   Avoidance of overlapping of content amongst different subjects in the same class.
b.   Avoidance of similar content in the lower or higher class in the same subject.
c.   Reduction in difficulty levels.
d.   Weeding out contents that are easily accessible to children from other sources and self-learning is recommended.
e.   Weed out contents that are not relevant in the present context.
2.   American Association for the Advancement of Science, Board of Directors. (February, 2006), Statement on the Teaching of Evolution
3.   quoted in God vs. Darwin The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom by Mano Singham , page 154)
4.   See Larson page 270 Chapter Afterword
5.   Lorence G Collin’s (2018) article on this topic gives “eight different bits of evidence, using good science that demonstrates that a global flood never happened during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras, and shows that Moses did not use the knowledge of modern science to write his story about Noah and the flood.
See God vs. Darwin The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom by Mano Singham for details of various court cases on this issue.
6.   Jay D. Wexler, Darwin, Design, and Disestablishment: Teaching the Evolution Controversy in Public Schools, in 56 Vanderbilt Law Review 751 (2003).
Available at:
7.   Darwin versus Religion 5 facts about evolution and religion BY David Masci available at https://www.pewresearch. org/short-reads/2014/10/30/5-facts-about-evolution-and-religion/#:~:text=The%20rejection%20of %20evolution%20by,they%20see %20as %20biblical%20truth.
8.   See Pew Survey titled Science and Religion(2020) https://www. pewre search. org/religion/2020/08/26/on-the-intersection-of-science-and-religion/
9.   According to Islamic scholars, Evolution is a reality but it was not through natural selection per Darwin but under the guidance of a divine power. For example, consider the following two lines: with water did We create every living thing (Holy Quran, Chapter 21, Verse 31)
And surely, we created man from dry ringing clay made from stagnant blackish mud (Holy Quran, Chapter 15, Verse 27)

These two verses have been interpreted as: This picture of water and clay, presented by the Holy Quran, seem to be consistent with the mixture of inorganic materials becoming organic, which was followed by a dry stage to allow the organic material to develop irreversible strength.

[Quranic Concept of Evolution Author: Atif  Munawar Mir]

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Vol 55, No. 51, Jun 18 - 24, 2023