Koko, the gorilla. (Gorilla Foundation @kokotweets)
Snapshot
  • The anti-science rhetoric, which is now becoming a pattern, is doing great harm.

The latest anti-science quip from Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Satyapal Singh, shows that the anti-science attitude that was once an aberration is fast becoming a pattern. Given that the minister is associated with the most ambitious institutional reform agenda in education, he is doing great harm to his work with his anti-evolution remarks. The minister finds himself in the company of nineteenth century fundamentalist Christian clergy and the peddlers of modern-day pseudo-sciences of creationism and the 'intelligent design' that is fundamentalist creationism with a different name

Hindus will do well to keep their distance from these anti-science movements inspired by fundamentalists. At the same time, we need to look into the historical roots of this malaise of anti-Darwinism. Already, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has given Dharmic traditions a bad name with their crusade against evolution. Their version of pseudo-scientific Vedic devolutionism, is more a comic term that appeared in the classic film Inherit the Wind (1960, directed by Stanley Kramer). There, a fundamentalist speaks of “human devolution”, demonstrating it to the onlooking children with a chimpanzee in a cage.

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Hindutva and Evolution

Meanwhile, it will be good for the anti-Darwin enthusiasts among Hindutva proponents to revisit the 1974 speech of Bala Saheb Deoras, the third sarsanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Today, this speech is considered to be a vital document defining the vision and guiding the mission of the Hindutva movement. Here Deoras says:

In 1925, a thrilling court case took place in America – a country believed to be most scientific in outlook. A teacher in one of the states was placed in the dock. He was charged by a Christian citizen with teaching the theory of evolution in contravention of the story of Genesis and Creation of Man as told in the Bible. The teacher had taught in the light of the latest theory of evolution. The court declared him guilty and he was punished. However, today, no Christian gives credence to that story of evolution in the Bible; but still they have not tried to destroy their faith in the Bible. This may appear strange, but has a great lesson for us.
Bala Saheb Deoras

Those who make childish statements against evolution like “we are not the children of apes” may find it challenging to understand the arguments and proofs offered by science. But as they may feel compelled to listen to authority, perhaps, there is a possibility that Deoras’ statement may bring them back to employ their critical faculties in understanding evolution.

Great savants of Hindutva and Vedanta: Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Savarkar, Upadhyaya, and Deoras were all comfortable with the theory of evolution. Great savants of Hindutva and Vedanta: Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Savarkar, Upadhyaya, and Deoras were all comfortable with the theory of evolution.

Jana Sangh ideologue Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya was also not uncomfortable with the science of evolution. Interestingly, he rightly rejects the “survival of the fittest” in the social context though he wrongly attributes it to Darwin. It was not Darwin  but Herbert Spencer, who coined that term and used it in social context. However, when it comes to evolution as a process, Upadhyaya does not differ much with Darwin, though he considers prana (life force) as the basic force animating evolution.

According to Darwin’s theory, living beings develop various organs as per the requirements dedicated by the circumstances. In our shastras, it was stated slightly differently, that the soul constructs, using the strength of “Prana’“, various organs as the need is felt, for the purpose of continuing life.
Jana Sangh ideologue Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya

Though prana is in the realm of speculation for a biological scientist, one should say Upadhyaya is in good company when postulating prana as the motive force behind evolution. Albert Einstein equated the concept of prana with the force behind the Bergsonian ‘creative evolution’.

I believe, that energy is the basic force in creation. My friend Bergson calls it Man vital, the Hindus call it prana.
Hermanns, William. Einstein and the Poet – In Search of the Cosmic Man. (Kindle Locations 1352-1354). Branden Books.

The emphasis here, again, is not on prana, but the fact that Upadhyaya did not differ fundamentally but only slightly from Darwinian evolution, even as he rejected social Darwinism. This has also been the hallmark of all Hindu savants, particularly Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. (For a more detailed article on the Hindutva acceptance of the science of evolution, read here.)

Anti-Darwinian Left

Actually, Balasaheb Deoras was wrong in a way when he said that the West had accepted evolution. The West was not ready to relinquish the human uniqueness that easily. Even as evolution began to be accepted in academia, a subtle yet strong resistance emerged, and continues to exist.

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Marxists have always resented natural selection as a factor in shaping human evolution. One should note that Marxist aversion is not just to social Darwinism – a horrible misappropriation of the science by colonial-era racists and unethical ‘competitionists’. Marx, after his early infatuation with Darwin, came to the conclusion by 1866 that the English naturalist had been superseded by Pierre Tremaux, a French orientalist and architect, who advocated a racist notion of evolution.

In his 1876 essay "The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Friedrich Engels, the founding father of Marxist dialectics, offered an explanation as to how labour had shaped and fine-tuned the human hand. This, according to him, made our branch of apes uniquely human. Darwinian synthesis of evolution and Mendelian genetics was suppressed ruthlessly by the Soviet regime. Volumes of Soviet anthropological work towed the Engels line and restated the uniqueness of human species through collective labour.

Anti-Darwinians emphasising human uniqueness: Bishop Wilberforce, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, archaeologist Gordon Childe and linguist Noam Chomsky.  Anti-Darwinians emphasising human uniqueness: Bishop Wilberforce, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, archaeologist Gordon Childe and linguist Noam Chomsky. 

Even in the non-Marxist academia of the West, tool-making was considered a uniquely human feature. Then that human uniqueness claim was demolished by the discovery of tool-making by chimpanzees. Thus, the left in its own way emphasised the Christian human exceptionalism. They only replaced the Christian deity with dialectical materialism – an equally unscientific article of belief. The point is that the left has its human uniqueness, which, in turn, comes from Christian theology. (For a detailed understanding of how the left is fixated with human uniqueness, opposing Darwinian evolution, read here.)

If Christianity rejects souls in animals and makes them exclusive human possession, in its own way the left-influenced academia refuses languages for non-human animals. So linguist Noam Chomsky, even as he accepts evolution, finds it hard to attribute Darwinian natural selection to the evolution of language. Daniel Dennett rightly points out that “if Darwin readers ever wanted a champion... deeply and influentially enmeshed within science itself, they could not do better than Chomsky.”

Linguist Steven Pinker was actually amused by this stand of Chomsky. He points out that Chomsky “would have everything to gain by grounding his controversial theory about a language organ in the firm foundation of evolutionary theory” and yet “more often he is sceptical”. (Readers interested in this matter are directed to read Chomsky Contra Darwin: Four Episodes in Dennett's excellent book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea,1995, pages 384-400). Chomsky considers language as something that is special to humanity. Some have even wrongly portrayed him as ‘crypto-creationist’, but Chomsky’s stand stems most probably from his leftist belief system.

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Hindu Anti-evolution

Now it is important to trace the Indian roots of the anti-Darwinian stand that Singh is taking. Essentially, he just made a very crude Indian imitation of the “human uniqueness” stand. One can only wish that he could have been more on the side of Chomsky than the assorted anti-science fundamentalists.

Swami Dayananda Saraswathy, left, of Arya Samaj and  his letter, right, to a disciple wherein he declares all castes have the right to study the Vedas. Swami Dayananda Saraswathy, left, of Arya Samaj and his letter, right, to a disciple wherein he declares all castes have the right to study the Vedas.

The roots of the minister’s statement can be traced to that of Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83). The Arya Samaj movement has contributed substantially to the eradication of caste, untouchability, child marriage, and many other social evils. Yuval Noah Harari makes the following evaluation of Swami Dayananda:

Dayananda Saraswati headed a Hindu revival movement, whose basic principle was that the Vedic scriptures are never wrong ... – though truth be told, Dayananda often interpreted Vedas in a surprisingly liberal way, supporting for example equal rights for women long before the idea became popular in the West. Dayananda’s contemporary, Pope Pius IX, had much more conservative views about women, but shared Dayananda’s admiration for superhuman authority.
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2015, p 270

So, Saraswati’s faulty views of evolution, more a reaction to what he perceived as colonial knowledge, should not in any way diminish his immense contribution to nation-building. Swami Dayananda had this to say about Darwin’s theory:

... if man was really a descendant of a monkey, then it was, as it were, a fact — a law which, according to the followers of Darwin and other philosophers of his school, was unceasing in its operations under any conditions whatsoever. If the law was of a constant and permanent nature, ever working itself out, how was it that for thousands of years past, no monkey’s young one had developed into a human being? ... We have thus little respect for a theory such as that of Darwin which propounds that human species are a development of an inferior animal nature. For, if we were to accept this, we would be at a loss to trace the origin of human language and the possession of Divine knowledge, which are peculiar to mankind only.
Bawa Chhajju Singh, Life & Teachings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1903)

It should be noted here that such views were not binding as unalterable truths on the followers even then. For example, Swami Dayananda rejected the Puranas completely and he also rejected a substantial portion of Ithihasas. Yet, when discussing the uplifting of the marginalised or ‘fallen’ people, Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent Arya Samajist, did not hesitate to use Ithihasas and Puranas as authorities on a par with the Vedas:

The Vedas and the Vedanyas, the Shruti and the Smriti, itihas and Purana all give hope and chance to the fallen and the degraded. In olden times the fall was only a personal fall and not a hereditary one. The children of the fallen could rise to a position even higher than the one originally occupied by their fallen parent.
The Collected Works of Lala Lajpat Rai. Volume 4, p 280.

So there is nothing sacrosanct about the stand of Swami Dayananda on evolution. In fact, in the same lecture, Dayananda also hints at a possibility of an involution-evolution process despite his faulty rejection of evolution.

Apart from the Arya Samaj, the virulent anti-Darwin attacks have been part of the teachings of ISKCON founder Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (1896-1977). In conversation with a PhD scholar in organic chemistry, Dr Thoudam Singh (later Swami Bhaktisvarupa Damodara), Prabhupada declared:

Darwin and his followers are rascals. If the higher species have evolved from the lower species, then why do the lower species still exist? At the present moment we see both the human species, with its advanced intelligence, and the foolish ass. Why do both these entities exist simultaneously? Why hasn’t the ass form simply evolved into a higher species and thus become extinct? Darwin thought that human beings evolved from the monkeys. But why do we never see a monkey giving birth to a human being? 
ISKCON founder Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada

Since then, ISKCON has produced some cultist creationist authors like Michael Cremo (Drutakarma Dasa) and mathematician-turned-'Vedic' creationist Richard Thompson (Sadaputa Dasa).

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Srila Prabhupada, Michael Cremo (top), Richard L Thompson (below), ISKCON’s anti-Darwin publication Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Srila Prabhupada, Michael Cremo (top), Richard L Thompson (below), ISKCON’s anti-Darwin publication

Prabhupada’s stand is in a way baffling because according to Shukavak Dasa PhD, Hinduism scholar who is also a student of Bhaktivedanta Swami, Prabhupada’s spiritual predecessor, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur (1838-1914) was astonishingly open in his approach to evolution. According to Shukavak, Bhaktivinoda presents “his evolutionary view” in his work Krishna Samhita:

Here the Samhita describes how each incarnation of God successively assumes a physical form to match the evolutionary development of the embodied soul (jivatma) from its most primitive invertebrate state to its highest vertebrate and intelligent state. Not only do these passages suggest the evolutionary theories of Darwin, they also reflect the view that the passage of time is synonymous with progress.
Shukavak Das, Bhaktivinoda and Scriptual Literalism in The Hare Krishna Movement: The postcharismatic fate of a religious transplant, Columbia University Press, 2004

Yet attributing such rigid, anti-evolution views to Prabhupada, as done by modern-day ISKCON, is being questioned by studies into the original literature and transcripts of the conversation their founder had. Oliver Zambon and Thomas Aechtner in their latest paper on anti-Darwinian tendencies of Vaishnavaism say, “Bhaktivedanta’s disciples heavily redacted the text before publication in the 1970s”, and so they set out “to reassess Bhaktivedanta’s position regarding evolution”. According to them, Prabhupada's “most extensive discussion about Darwinian evolution” happened in a conversation with another one of his disciples, Syamasundara Dasa, in 1972. Scrutinising this material, Zambon and Aechtner reveal the following:

Strikingly, this conversation reveals that Bhaktivedanta had neither a clear understanding of evolutionary theory, nor a consistent response to it, and that many of his objections appear to be based upon misapprehensions of its scientific underpinnings. Nevertheless, throughout these exchanges Bhaktivedanta acknowledges various scientific ideas, while recurrently attempting to affirm that God is the ultimate creative force behind evolutionary processes, whatever they may be.... Bhaktivedanta also argued that the entire process of mutation, natural selection, and the appearance of new species on Earth happens according to higher principles. ... Rather than only assailing the scientific evidence buttressing evolutionary theory, as later ISKCON leaders have been wont to do, he instead provided Syamasundara with an elaborate Vaishnava rendering of evolution. ... What can be observed in the communications of Bhaktivedanta’s most proximate Vaishnava predecessors, and in Bhaktivedanta’s own comments, therefore, are considerations of evolution that are frequently not expressed by the bulk of later ISKCON publications.
Vaishnavism, Antievolutionism and Ambiguities: Revisiting ISKCON’s Darwin-skepticism, Zygon, Vol 53, No 1 (March 2018)

The passage perhaps can be applied to all Hindu opposition to evolution, which in itself has been a fringe phenomenon until it gained notoriety recently with the statement of the central minister. This also points out that there is nothing axiomatic about being anti-Darwin or anti-evolution, even in the most vocal anti-evolution streams within Hinduism, even as predominantly Hindu traditions have no or little conflict with evolution.

Are We Really Unique?

In all those denunciations of Darwin, one can see that the emphasis is on human uniqueness. But the attempts to establish human uniqueness through science have been proved wrong again and again. Darwinian evolution does explain language and we have witnessed non-human primates use sign languages to speak. For decades, animal cognition scientists have explored the ability of non-human primates to use symbolic language. We now know that they may even be evolving as we speak – what we call culture and probably rudiments of religion. And in this line of research, Koko the gorilla played an important role. Koko, who was born in 1971, was the first gorilla to learn a modified version of human sign language. She was also the first to use a computer.

Koko with researcher and her friend Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson. The 1980s kids in India learnt about the linguistic skills of Koko from the LIC advertisement, which informed also that when caught eating a red crayon, Koko pretended like she was applying lipstick. Koko with researcher and her friend Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson. The 1980s kids in India learnt about the linguistic skills of Koko from the LIC advertisement, which informed also that when caught eating a red crayon, Koko pretended like she was applying lipstick.

In other words, the empirical scientific Darwinian understanding of the inner world of the co-travelling species on ‘spaceship’ Earth is more holistic and full of empathy than the ideologically and theologically motivated views of our relation to fellow species predicated on our supposed superiority. We are apes, or the “naked apes” as Desmond Morris put it decades ago. And there is nothing to be ashamed of in being an ape. We, including humans and chimpanzees and gorillas, are all apes.

There is grandeur in this view of life as Darwin himself once wrote. What’s more, it is also closer to the non-dualist approach to life.

Unlike Christian theology (Francis of Assisi is an exception), almost all Indic streams of spirituality acknowledge, the richness of the inner lives of non-human life forms and also their ability for salvation. Temples in South India show non-human animals in worship, pointing out that they have an inner life. The Bhakti traditions of both Saivite and Vaishnavaite streams of Hinduism show non-human animals as equalling any human seer in their efforts for salvation and they are given liberation.

That non-humans also have the right to divine grace and connection is not just belief, but a conviction in Hinduism. Visual at right depicts the story of Gajendra Moksa. That non-humans also have the right to divine grace and connection is not just belief, but a conviction in Hinduism. Visual at right depicts the story of Gajendra Moksa.

In our times, we have a continuation of this tradition. Consider this passage:

He was able to figure out the cause of many of their conflicts. For example, he noticed the female monkeys remained within the group after reaching adolescence, while makes, competing for wives and food, often left the tribe at that particular stage. Males approaching adulthood would be forced out and made to join another group, or else to live alone for a while. This custom, he observed was one of the main reasons for clashes between monkeys . Fights with other tribes, however, were usually over territory and food. Whatever the reason, since fighter males had very sharp two-inch long fangs powered by strong jaw muscles, combat between them was best avoided.

No, this is not a commentary by the Discovery channel or the notes of a primatologist. The one referred as ‘he’ is actually Ramana Maharishi. The sage of Tiruvannamalai recognised the rich inner lives of non-human animals with remarkable clarity. The passage quoted is about the observations made by Maharishi after living closely with the monkey tribes in Tiruvannamalai for 15 years.

When a chief of a monkey clan died, Maharishi gave him a burial with great respect. S Harihara Subramanian, who documented the interactions of Maharishi with non-human animals, writes:

Bhagvan gives the king all the honours due a sannyasin. The monkey’s body is anointed with water, then milk and vibhuti. A new piece of cloth serves as a shroud, leaving the face uncovered. Camphor is lit and waved before him as in the tradition for sannyasins. The monkey-king’s face shines like that of a pious hermit. Then he is interred, and over the burial site a painted stone reads, ‘Even from insult these bones protect’
Nondi & the Monkeys of Arunachala (Translation of Prani Mitra Bhagavan Ramanar)

It is not a coincidence that Jane Goodall refused to oblige Western notions of non-human primates by calling her chimp subjects as ‘he’ and ‘she’ while decades before her, Maharishi called the members of the monkey community he observed in human terms and even studied their social structure like a Darwinian scientist.

Both Ramana Maharishi and Jane Goodall used “he” and “she” to refer to non-human primates. Maharishi’s observations on monkey communities are insightful treasures which need to be studied by cognition scientists.  Both Ramana Maharishi and Jane Goodall used “he” and “she” to refer to non-human primates. Maharishi’s observations on monkey communities are insightful treasures which need to be studied by cognition scientists. 

When Koko coined new words using the American sign language, she perhaps reinforced this Advaitic vision of inner oneness that was also stated by Darwin when he considered the mental processes between humans and non-human animals. She also demolished the ideologically and theologically motivated claims of human uniqueness.

Koko, the gorilla, died on 19 June this year. Had the minister expressed condolence for this gorilla instead of indulging in anti-science rhetoric, he would have served the cause of science as well as Dharma, climbing the mount improbable, if not with Dawkins, then at least surely with Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi.

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