Most young learners in India will no longer be exposed to key science topics in school textbooks—unless they voluntarily major in science in higher classes.
On June 1, India cut a slew of foundational topics from tenth-grade textbooks, including the periodic table of elements, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Pythagorean theorem, sources of energy, sustainable management of natural resources and contribution of agriculture to the national economy, among others.
A small section explaining Michael Faraday’s contributions to scientific understanding of electricity and magnetism has also been removed.
Even as thousands of scientists across the country protested the decision to slash evolution in May, it did not deter the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)—the public body that designs curriculum and textbooks—from expanding its list of omitted topics.
These changes effectively block a major swath of Indian students from exposure to evolution through textbooks, because tenth grade is the last year mandatory science classes are offered in Indian schools.
That means the only students who will learn evolution under these new cuts are those who have opted to “major” in biology in their final two years. Students who opt for a different topic, like commerce, computer science or humanities, will not have the opportunity.
In a statement, the council rationalised the reduction by stating they wanted to reduce the content load on students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Defending its decision to chop off evolution and the periodic table, the council said “that children may not have to study same concepts at different stages and it needs to be done at appropriate stage (sic)“.
Outside of science, topics such as democracy and governance have also been severely diluted. Scientists fear this overall move to expunge some of these foundational topics will facilitate a climate ripe for superstition and unreason to fester.
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Growing influence of pseudoscience in India
In 2018, Minister of State for Higher Education Satyapal Singh baffled the scientific community by demanding that the theory of evolution be removed from school curriculum because “no one ever saw an ape turning into a human being”. Other political leaders from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party came to his defence on social media.
Shortly after, three major scientific bodies—Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the Indian Academy of Science (IASc), and the National Academy of Sciences-India (NASI)—issued a joint statement: “It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths,” they said, adding that evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well-established.
While fields like astrology have always slipped in and out of fashion in India, research institutions are seeing increased funding for the exploration of pseudoscientific topics. One that caught public attention was the call for research proposals on the medical benefits of cow urine. On multiple occasions, Hindu groups have spread false information about the benefits of cow urine, including claims that it cures COVID-19. Scientists took to the streets in India to counter the claims.
Fields such as Ayurveda and homeopathy have been receiving concessions in recent years, while the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has embarked on projects to promote “spiritual farming” using the tag “Agriculture with a soul is essential for sustenance”.
In 2015, a paper was presented at the Indian Science Congress claiming that an ancient Indian rishi had given detailed guidelines for making aircraft 7,000 years ago. At the same event, the then Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan said that ancient Indian mathematicians had discovered the Pythagorean theorem, although the Greeks got the credit.
And during the same year, in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made headlines after citing Hindu scriptures as proof that plastic surgery had existed in ancient India.
Sharp criticism from the scientific community
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins responded to the issue on Twitter, calling the cuts a “tragic affront to India’s secular beginnings”, blaming them on leaders’ religious beliefs.
Almost 2,000 stakeholders have signed an appeal by the Breakthrough Science Society, a campaign group based in Kolkata, India, demanding the reinstatement of evolution in secondary school textbooks.
“In the current educational structure, only a small fraction of students choose the science stream in grade 11 or 12, and an even smaller fraction of those choose biology as one of the subjects of study. Thus, the exclusion of key concepts from the curriculum till grade 10 amounts to a vast majority of students missing a critical part of essential learning in this field,” the appeal read.
They further reiterated that the scientific community worries that students will remain seriously handicapped in their thought processes if deprived of exposure to this fundamental scientific discovery.
“Knowledge and understanding of evolutionary biology is important not just to any subfield of biology but is also key to understanding the world around us,” they wrote.
T.V. Venkateshwaran, a senior scientist for Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body of the Indian government that works in science popularisation, expressed similar thoughts to DW in an interview. He said the general science education that all Indian students commonly get until class 10 is instrumental in helping them develop perspectives about the world.
“For example, the periodic table not only tells you that everything is made of atoms, but why certain elements behave a certain way; how their atomic structure contributes to it,” the scientist told DW. “It tells you that you and all other humans are made of the same kind of material that behaves the same way, and no one is more special. When you see a chemical reaction in nature, you don’t think it magical, you know it is physical. Some elements are inert, others are reactive—both because of their electronic structure.”
In August 2017, scientists across India held a ‘March for Science’ to protest the rampant spread of superstitious beliefs and the centre’s implicit endorsement of many of them. The government did not respond.
Conflict between religion and evolution
Many conservative religious groups and states around the world have struggled, or refused, to accept scientific evidence for evolution.
A fundamental concept in evolution is that all life forms, including humans, have a common ancestor. Although it’s strongly backed up by scientific observation, the theory directly contradicts many religions that say humans were deliberately created by a supernatural being.
Many American States including Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, and Pennsylvania have had their tiff with evolution. Serbia, Poland, and the Netherlands have also had issues with teaching evolution in schools. In 2017, Turkey dropped it. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria, and Morocco have banned the teaching of evolution completely. In Egypt and Tunisia, evolution is presented as an unproven hypothesis.