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Science teachers in India are advocating for the reinstatement of material on Darwinian evolution that was taken out of science textbooks due to the need to ease the study burden on students following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hypothesis of the 19th century English biologist Charles Darwin, which revolves around the idea that organisms adjust and develop gradually over time via the mechanism of natural selection, is essential for our comprehension of the biological realm.

Beginning this month, coinciding with the start of the academic year, information regarding evolution has been removed from the science textbooks for grades nine and ten in India as a result of deletions made by the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT).

The module titled 'Evolution and Heredity', which is instructed to pupils in grades 11 and 12, has been condensed to 'Heredity', and a panel discussing Charles Darwin and his contributions has been eliminated.

On April 22nd, an open petition was issued by hundreds of notable scientists and science educators, asserting that the alterations made to the science textbooks during the pandemic as a temporary measure are being perpetuated despite the resumption of offline schooling.

The declaration emphasized the significance of Darwin's theory in modern times, specifically in response to NCERT's COVID-19 justification. "The concepts of natural selection are crucial in comprehending the progression of pandemics, as well as the reasons for the extinction of particular species, among numerous other pressing concerns," the statement asserted.

According to T V Venkateshwaran, a scientist at Vigyan Prasar, a Department of Science and Technology organization that seeks to promote science, the omissions reflect the way science education is managed in India.

Venkateshwaran told SciDev.Net, "Subjects and topics are included or removed from textbooks without considering any educational psychology or science education research findings. Consequently, when there is a public outcry about the weight of textbooks, particularly after COVID, the deletions are carried out arbitrarily."

Venkateshwaran believes that the purpose of science education is to convey fundamental ideas about the world using current scientific knowledge. "Otherwise, we will continue to cling to beliefs and ideas from the 14th century that can create conflict and result in violence," he stated.

He further stated that advancements in science, such as the Human Genome Project, have demonstrated that all humans are one and have eliminated the notion of divisions based on race and caste. Furthermore, evolution highlights the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living beings on the planet.

The ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party first expressed opposition to the theory of evolution in 2018 when Satya Pal Singh, who was then the Minister of State in the Education Ministry, proclaimed in Parliament that "there is no record, either written or oral, of anyone, including our ancestors, having witnessed an ape transform into a human."

Singh also asserted that "Darwin's theory is scientifically incorrect and must be removed from school and college curricula."

Following Singh's comments, the three main science academies in India, the Indian Academy of Science, the Indian National Science Academy, and the National Academy of Sciences, collectively released a statement opposing Singh's views. The statement declared that "it would be a backward move to remove or weaken the teaching of the theory of evolution in school and college curricula or to provide non-scientific explanations or myths in its place."

The statement from the three science academies further emphasized the significant impact that the theory of evolution, as formulated by Charles Darwin and subsequently extended and developed, has had on modern biology and medicine, as well as on science as a whole. The statement also highlighted the global acceptance and support for the theory of evolution.

Raghunandan, a member of the All India Peoples Science Network and the Delhi Science Forum, a public interest group, has drawn parallels between the opposition to Darwinism in India and the Christian orthodox objection to the notion that humans evolved from bipedal apes, as opposed to the biblical view that humans were created in God's image.

Raghunandan further explained that in the past, there was no conflict between Hindu religious orthodoxy and the theory of evolution, as there was no orthodox view of creationism. He attributes the current opposition to the theory of evolution in India to the propagation of a politicized version of Hinduism, known as Hindutva, which has its own interpretation of Hindu mythology and legends.

Raghunandan explains that according to Hindu mythology, the deity Vishnu descends to Earth as an "avatar" or form, whenever the cosmic order is disturbed. These avatars include forms such as a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a half-man-half-lion, a dwarf, a warrior-god, and finally as Krishna, a preceptor.

It's worth noting that while Hindu mythology sees avatars as stages of consciousness, not stages of biological evolution, some proponents of Hindutva have interpreted them as a theory of evolution that pre-dates Darwin.

Darwinism is also viewed with disapproval by Islamic orthodoxy, and several countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria, and Morocco have banned the theory altogether. In Lebanon, evolution has been removed from the curriculum, while in Jordan, it is taught within a religious framework.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.