Richard Dawkins on BJP and Hinduism

Richard Dawkins is wrong! – India didn’t cut evolution from textbooks

A few Indian leftists wrote an open letter, which gathered 1,800 signatures, in which they claimed, “India cuts evolution from school textbooks.” This headline was repeated in the media around the world in what appears to be well-orchestrated propaganda. The headline was a bait that Richard Dawkins couldn’t resist. He responded with the uncontrollable urge of a man about to have a premature ejaculation and sought his orgasmic release by tweeting:

“Modi’s BJP is a tragic affront to India’s secular beginnings. Hinduism is at least as ridiculous as Islam. Between them, these two idiotic religions have betrayed the ideals of Nehru and Gandhi.”

Let’s unpack this tweet. It has the following messages:

Message #1: Modi’s BJP is against evolution. By extension, Hindus are opposed to evolution. Implicitly, Hindus are no different from the Christian and Muslim creationists whom Dawkins has battled all along.

Message #2: Hinduism is not just an idiotic religion but is at least as ridiculous as Islam. Note that Christianity doesn’t figure in this list of idiotic religions!

Message #3: Hinduism, along with Islam, has betrayed the ideals of Gandhi and Nehru. 

Message #4: Modi’s government is an affront to the secular vision of Nehru.

Let’s examine each of these four messages. 

Message #1: Let’s start with the first message.

Are the BJP and the Hindus opposed to evolution? 

Christians have opposed evolution from the time Darwin proposed it. They had a reason. The Bible teaches that god created the universe in six days. Christianity teaches that the world is just 6,000 years old. Muslims share these beliefs. The Christian and Islamic worldview is earth- and anthropocentric. Earth is a special place because it is here that man was created in the image of god and was given the revelations. This is why Christendom was violently opposed to the heliocentric model until recent times. In contrast, the Hindu astronomer Aryabhata had codified the heliocentric theory back in the 5th century CE itself. A combination of biblical creationism and earth- and anthropo-centricity is the reason why Christians oppose evolution.  

The necessity of god as an intervening agent was so central to the Christian worldview that even great scientists like Newton subscribed to it. Newton believed that the planetary orbits would be unstable and the planets would wander off into space unless god intervened periodically. Of course, Newton’s mathematical analysis was incomplete which led to his erroneous conclusion. Newton also didn’t know how the solar system had originated. So, he filled both gaps in his understanding with the Christian conception of god. The French mathematician Laplace came up with the necessary equations which eliminated these two gaps. Yet, when he presented his magnum opus, an incredulous Napoleon asked, “Is it true that you have made no mention of god, who created the solar system, in your book?” Laplace replied that his equations worked as fine without requiring god! 

The theory of evolution and the discovery of fossils falsified Christian beliefs. It showed that life on earth is billions of years old and that it evolved gradually from simple to complex forms. Humans share the phylogenetic tree with other primates and branched off the same tree. Evolution was a process filled with errors and imperfections as the DNA was copied from one generation to another. There was no need for a creator god. This was a huge shock to the Christians. Creationism and god as an intervening agent are fundamental religious dogmas in Christianity and Islam. So, Christians, and subsequently Muslims, began vehemently opposing evolution.  

Hinduism has no such fundamentalist dogma. On the contrary, it has a worldview that is diametrically opposed to that of Christianity and Islam insofar as it pertains to creation and evolution. Hinduism has multiple creation myths. However, the oldest is to be found in the Rgveda. It’s the oldest surviving religious scripture in the world and was compiled 4,000 years ago. It’s also the most important scripture for the Hindus. The Rgveda has a Creation Hymn known as Nasadiya Sukta. What does it say about creation? I will render a selection of the relevant lines in English:

“In the beginning, there was no material universe – neither existence nor non-existence

Neither the realm of space, nor the sky beyond

That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse

Other than that there was nothing beyond

Darkness it was all;

From it came this creation

How did it manifest? By whose action?

Who really knows? 

Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe

Whether gods’ will created it or not?

Perhaps the universe formed itself, or perhaps it did not;

May be no one knows”

Look at the complete absence of dogma. There’s no false certitude. Instead, there is an open-minded speculation. Most tellingly, there’s the proposal that the universe formed itself. Since there was no fundamental belief in creationism, Hindus have traditionally not had any objection to evolution. Hinduism, unlike Christianity or Islam, does not subscribe to young earth timescales. On the contrary, it subscribes to very large cyclical epochs. This is best summarized in the words of the cosmologist Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos. Let me quote him verbatim:

The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Carl Sagan in his book, “Cosmos”

Hindus believe in reincarnation and the law of karma. They believe that depending on one’s deeds in this birth, one could attain a higher or lower birth in the next lifetime. One could be reborn as an animal, bird, or fish. Hinduism teaches that the atman is indestructible. Atman is a Sanskrit word that is hard to translate into English but I will use soul as a short-hand. The idea that a man and a primate descended from the same phylogenetic tree is repulsive to a Christian or a Muslim because of two reasons. First, their religions teach that animals have no soul. Second, they believe that their god created humans in his image and gave man dominion over all other life forms. That is why the idea of evolution is so repugnant to them. However, Hindus have no such dogma. On the contrary, Hinduism teaches that all living beings possess the same soul and it’s only the outer body that differs. Hindus also depict their avataras (i.e., divine incarnations) in the form of various animals such as the boar and fish. So, the central idea of evolution, i.e., a descent of all species from the same phylogenetic tree, has never been repugnant to Hindus. Quite the contrary, evolution and cosmological theories are consonant with the Hindu worldview.

Why would the BJP have any opposition to evolution when Hindus, its core electorate, have no objection to it? If Dawkins had even possessed a modicum of understanding of Hinduism, he wouldn’t have taken the leftist bait and tweeted the way he did. There has never been any concerted opposition to evolution or cosmology or science from Hindus. If anything, every discipline of science has been treated as a sacred philosophical system in Hinduism. India has at least 30 boards of education and they operate independently of one another. There has not been a single petition in the 75+ years of Indian history since Independence that evolution be axed from the syllabi of any of these boards. There has not been any petition from parents, citing religious or other reasons, that their children not be taught evolution. 

Had Dawkins simply controlled his premature ejaculative urge for a few seconds and done a simple Google search he would have found this out and not published the now infamous tweet.

So, was evolution really dropped from textbooks? Not exactly. Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar clarified that the NCERT, one of the 30+ boards of education in India, had been rationalizing the course structures in response to Covid. As a result of lockdowns, most schools had to go online. However, this is a big challenge in a developing country such as India. Children are not accustomed to online learning. In every state, there have been demands to lighten the syllabi and to waive examinations to alleviate student struggle. Many state boards acquiesced to student demands. In the case of NCERT, evolution was earlier taught in class 10 as well as class 12. Now, it is only being taught in class 12. This is understandable, although not ideal. In India, it’s the class 12 curriculum and scores in public exams which counts for college admissions. A student could have fared poorly in class 10 but it won’t affect her chances of college admissions provided she performed well in class 12 public examination and the entrance exams to colleges. So, any reasonable administrator would want to retain the teaching of evolution in class 12 while waiving it in class 10 so that the student is better equipped for college preparation. It should also be noted that NCERT is ahead of most state boards in teaching evolution in class 10 whereas many state boards only teach it in class 11 and 12. In rationalizing the syllabi in response to Covid lockdowns, NCERT was merely aligning with the state boards.

Just take a look at the NCERT biology syllabus for class XII. The total exam marks are 70 out of which 20 (29%) are for genetics and evolution. What are the students taught and tested on? That includes heredity and variation, molecular basis of inheritance, and evolution. Under evolution, the course covers origin of life, biological evolution and evidences for biological evolution (paleontology, comparative anatomy, embryology and molecular evidences), Darwin’s contribution, modern synthetic theory of evolution; mechanism of evolution – variation (mutation and recombination) and natural selection with examples, types of natural selection, gene flow and genetic drift, Hardy – Weinberg’s principle, adaptive radiation, human evolution. If a government wanted to drop evolution from textbooks is this what one would expect to find in the syllabus? 

CBSE Class XII Biology Syllabus

Anyone, who is not credulous enough to be manipulated by leftist propagandists, would have also noticed that it is not just evolution that was shifted from the syllabus of one class to another. So was the periodic table. What religious or ideological opposition could have been there to it? Even Christians and Muslims don’t oppose the periodic table!  

I am amazed that Dawkins fell for this leftist propaganda. After all, it is the leftist establishment in the west which has unfairly called him Islamophobe and transphobe and cancelled him. As a result, he has been denied public platforms in most places. Indian left is simply the extension of this western left – just that it is more uncouth and relishes playing the role of the native informant. Should Dawkins not have paused for a moment to ask whether the leftist claim of India dropping evolution from textbooks is any more credible than its portrayal of him as Islamophobe and transphobe? The Hindu philosopher Abhinavagupta (8th century CE) observed that intelligence and knowledge alone does not lead one to the right perspective; one needs discernment too. Evidently, Dawkins showed no discernment in this case!

Dawkins uncritically trusts the opinions of those whom he considers his ideological bedfellows. I got the first inkling of this during the televised conversation that he had with Bill Maher in December 2022. Dawkins seemed completely unaware that the media reports of the efficacy of Covid vaccines in preventing transmission were simply propagandist claims without basis. He had not even heard of the Great Barrington Declaration, which was a study conducted by top-ranking epidemiologists and signed off by more than 16,000 scientists and doctors, which demonstrated the lack of efficacy in curbing transmissions. Dawkins admitted that he had not even heard about the study which was quite surprising given that it’s related to his domain. However, much to my shock, Dawkins attempted to change the discussion to measles vaccines. However, Maher brought him back to Covid efficacy and Dawkins would, in a manner imitating religious dogmatists, then simply repeat his belief that the vaccines prevented transmission. That was when I realized that Dawkins may not be as objective a scientist as I had thought he was and may simply seek confirmation bias to reinforce his beliefs. It’s six months since that conversation happened and Dawkins hasn’t shown the intellectual curiosity, or even honesty, to peruse the Great Barrington Declaration and the studies it was based on. Any scrupulous scientist, who had advocated vaccines, would at least peruse those studies which contradict his premise. Not Dawkins though. If that’s the case with science then I am not surprised that he decided to amplify a baseless propaganda unleashed by his unscrupulous ideological bedfellows on the current topic.

As the writer Aravindan Neelakandan has highlighted, one could ignore a prejudiced propagandist like Dawkins but one shouldn’t ignore a more fundamental problem that afflicts education in India. Time and again, most essential subjects such as evolutionary biology, genetics, statistics, calculus, analytic geometry, etc. have been repeatedly diluted by the various boards of education. It’s not only the BJP that is culpable in this. Starting with India’s independence, Nehru himself paid no attention whatsoever to K-12 education. That shameful legacy has continued since then. In the state of Tamilnadu, Dravidianist politicians have diluted K-12 education using the façade of uniform education so much that students from the state are no longer able to qualify for tough college admission tests such as IIT JEE (Advanced) or NEET. Such hare-brained policies have led to the widening gap between the demand for knowledge and the resources necessary to impart it. It’s a structural problem that nobody has addressed. Every government has taken the easy route of diluting the curriculum instead of investing in rigorous K-12 education. Evolution is a very important subject that must be taught from the middle school itself. Not only evolution, other subjects like statistics, linguistics, investments and financial markets, calculus, computational theory, and systems biology are all going to be foundational to the future of science and economy. All of these must be taught in a rigorous manner. It’s also important to teach competing scientific explanations so that we inculcate critical thinking in the minds of students. A good example of this is the gene selection hypothesis of Dawkins vs. the multi-level selection hypothesis of E. O. Wilson. Or, take epidemiology. A student should be presented with datasets pertaining to seroprevalence studies so that she could analyze whether the claims made regarding the efficacy of Covid vaccines stand up to scrutiny. That would enable the student to inculcate critical thinking rather than blindly accept an assertion made by establishment scientists. That won’t be possible unless we make our K-12 education rigorous rather than dilute it. 

(Responses to messages #2, #3, and #4 to follow. This article is the first of a multi-part series rebuttal to Richard Dawkins)

Featured image sourced from internet.

Kalavai Venkat