Some thoughts on Darwin Day
Marvin Olasky – the “spiritual advisor” of former U.S. President George W. Bush is certainly an avowed enemy of Taliban and now slain Osama Bin Laden. But he shares one passion with Talban. It is opposition to evolution. Seemingly on either side of the famed “clash of civilizations”, the fighters for the only true faith find themselves shaking hands when it comes to fighting evolution. Anti-evolution tracts come in many forms.
From Harun Yahya to Hare Krishna anti-evolutionary tracts are the same wine in different bottles with varied theological labels. If one makes a survey of anti-evolution religious literature, one finds that the main insistent argument repeated is that evolution is a theory, and not true science, was actually a ploy by atheist scientists to deceive people, particularly students. Sometimes in the extreme ends of propaganda, it is also implied that evolution was a Zionist plot or Masonic or illuminati – fill in the blanks with your favorite conspiracy cult.
Soon the pattern becomes clear. Every fundamentalist evangelist, a Wahabhi or an evangelical Christian or an ISKCON devotee, attacks evolution because it is a strong rebuttal to a literal interpretation of the scripture. If one part of the scripture – particularly one as central as the creation of the universe and life – becomes poetic and symbolic, then so does every other part of the scripture. Every part becomes subject to interpretation as per the inner spiritual needs of the individual. That is the last thing that a Wahabbist – or, for that matter, any religious fundamentalist – needs. If the Garden of Eden is only a poetic metaphor then what does that make of a hell fire and if I am to spread my religion by means of the fear of eternal damnation, what does that make of my evangelical career?
Hence the fervent attempts to reject evolution.
Unlike Islamic fundamentalism, which is throbbing with suicide bombers and Fiyadheen attacks throughout the world against the secular culture, Christian fundamentalism is essentially a spent force, at least in the West. One just has to watch that old movie “Inherit the Wind” to see the last deathblows that scientific humanism dealt to the Bible-thumping fundamentalism in the Bible belt of the United States. But now, as a counter to Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism is again raising its ugly head in the West while in post-colonized countries it is the worst form of fundamentalist Christianity that has been raging through for decades. There is again a pattern here. In the case of the Wahabbist jihad, the suicide cannon fodder is usually derived from those in Third World nations’ Islamic populations who have been lured to become outsourced for the jihadi industry by Wahabbist preachers. But in the case of Christianity, the outsourcing is at a much higher level. One has such eminent theologians from India as Ravi Zachariah, right-wing political writers like Dinesh D’Souza, and fundamentalist politicians like Bobby Jindal at the frontlines of the pro-creationist camp, working to enter creationism into the national curricula of the United States, surreptitiously camouflaged as a scientific theory: “intelligent design.”
If one goes to any Wahabbist bookstore, one would find there books by Harun Yahya; for years his books have been recommended by Islamic evangelists to their friends as a good scientific introduction to Islamic creaationism. The line runs thus, if only you would read Harun Yahya with an open mind, you would give up on the delusion of evolution. But what does one find in Harun Yahya? There exists in those professionally designed pages simply recycled lies and half-quotes of Western creationists. Misquoting evolutionist Douglas Futuyma or misinforming about the whale evolution or the oft-repeated lie about fossils not supporting evolution – each one of the lies nailed down by evolutionary scientists countless number of times– yet like the undead they resurface in the pages of the glossy books prepared with extravagant pictures for consumption by students in schools run by Islamic establishments. The same schools also teach toddlers with alphabet charts that say “J is for jihad.”
Interestingly, with increased Christian evangelism in India, which is camouflaged with the mask of modernity, one finds almost an equal leaning towards creationist fundamentalism. The churches of India in fact are becoming backwaters of outdated theologies from the West. When religious Indian masses are converted to Abrahamic faiths by evangelical organizations with billion-dollar budgets, they embrace the most fundamentalist worldviews which no respected Christian theologian would touch in the West with pair of tongs. Thus the churches regain their medieval clout making innocent masses of the third world its own version of theological cannon fodder. Again evolution is an obstacle to proselytization.
Then there are also fundamentalist of the Indic variety who oppose evolution, on both theological grounds like ISKCON and because it is a ‘western’ import. Evolutionary view which sees all humanity as one branch of apes in the tree of life is not exactly comforting to those who claim Karmic superiority through birth. Thankfully, Hinduism is more democratic and hence more scientific, because of the historic processes that have shaped its early evolution. One finds even from the earliest days of encounter with evolution, Hindus in general have had no problem with evolutionary view of life and its origins.
And there is an irony of sorts. Going through the annals of early importers of British system of education into India one finds that they expected the ‘useful knowledge’ in India to ‘demolish what by its people is regarded as sacred’ (Alexander Duff in 1835). Calcutta Review – a periodical founded in 1844 to which mostly Christian missionaries and colonial administrators contributed, considered education itself as ‘a species of religious education’. Missionaries expected this system of education to destroy Hinduism. They envisioned a clash between the emerging ‘scientific’ worldview of Christendom which was demolishing their own religious edifice in the West to do the job even more effectively in India. Of course the western education imposed on Indian society which was already suffering heavily from wars and ravages did create a stir and regeneration. Any new input to a chaotic humanscape would have done that. But whatever churning happened and whatever renaissance that came out was not because of any special Christian feature of the West.
Then in 1859 Darwin exploded in the mindscape of the West. Soon Hindu thinkers found the cosmology unveiled by the sciences to be more consistent with the philosophical worldview of their ancient texts. We find that the early authors of Indian renaissance Keshab Chandra Sen, M.G.Ranade and R.G.Bhandarkar embracing Darwinian worldview with ease. In fact it is interesting to note that R.G.Bhandarkar even considered teaching evolution centrally as counter to both Christianity and materialist culture which he considered as two evils of western education then. Most probably he viewed a shallow consumerist approach to life as ‘materialist’.
Then there is Swami Vivekananda who very emphatically showed that evolution is consistent with Vedantic view of life. What is very interesting in Swami Vivekananda is that he rejects the use of Darwinian science to create a justification for the colonial racist worldview in the form of social-Darwinism, which incidentally Darwin also rejected. After all it should be remembered that the concept of ‘Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw’ often associated with Darwinian view of nature, is actually pre-Darwinian. Those were words of Alfred Lord Tennyson which were written a full nine years before the publication of ‘Origin of Speices’. Darwin himself has pointed out that ‘natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being’ and hence in evolution he opines, ‘all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection’. While stating that evolution has validated the Vedantic vision of oneness of life which Indian savants have been advocating, Swami Vivekananda also uses a beautiful imagery to show how in humanity the laws of evolution cannot be that of struggle in a physcial sense: “Like a living tree and its reflection in the water of a tank, we find opposite kinds of struggle in the animal and human kingdoms.”
Later Jesuit and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin speculatively and geologist Vernadsky more emphatically ponder over the subject of how human evolution is qualitatively different and give us the concept of ‘noosphere’. And in Sri Aurobindo’ ‘Savitri’, evolution becomes an epic song of spiritual odyssey. In the poetry of Tamil poet Bharathi are lines which are artistic premonition of Gaia. All these show what theory of evolution can do to a culture, when embraced as a worldview and science – it at once broadens the canvas of human understanding and internalizes the spirituality.
Let us just imagine: If every seminary, every madrassa, every Veda-padasala, were to teach its students evolution, how would their worldview change? If every student of religion were to undergo a course in cosmology with no theological strings attached, could such students ever live in a vision wrapped between the covers of their scriptures? When bathed thus in the immensity of the cosmos, where comes the need for proselytization, crusades, jihads and other holy wars?
A cosmic vision as unveiled by science today preserves the feeling of the sacred that we see in the scriptures of humanity but transcends the visions of deities which claim to be creators and sole custodians of the ultimate truth. Evolution shows us the value and wonder of life. The value of life we see around us – the result of billions of years of organic evolution – provides us with an ethics that compels us toward the preservation of nature and a resource sharing that unites us across petty national barriers into one planet. The codes of Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammed and Manu never achieved such wonderful heights and spiritual depths as the codes which the vision of the web of life, as revealed by science, compels us to live by for our survival as a species. Perhaps it was there in our heritage too – as reflected in the traditions of mother goddess which we inherited from our paleolithic ancestors, which manifest in the words attributed to Chief Seattle.
Yet it is a pity that the heads and zealots of globally dominant religions fail to grasp this beauty of science. Carl Sagan questioned this attitude of religious people so forcefully in his book, “Pale Blue Dot”:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
If the literalist backbone of fundamentalism is broken then perhaps religious terrorism will die a natural death – or, in evolutionary terms, will become extinct. How better to break the literalist stranglehold of religion than by demonstrating to the believers of one true book, the genomic unity of chimpanzee and humans?