Scientists decode evolution after ministers ape comment

New Delhi: Darwin’s theory of evolution that different species are related through common ancestry is accepted worldwide though there may be debate on the details, say senior Indian scientists.

Discussion on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, most commonly, if erroneously, held to mean that humans descended from apes, has moved out of classrooms to drawing rooms and opinion columns with Union minister for human resource development Satyapal Singh saying recently that it was “scientifically wrong”.

Senior scientists slammed the minister’s comment — that nobody, “including our ancestors”, mentions seeing an ape turning into a man — as wrong at multiple levels and defying both logic and biology.

An online letter by scientists and “scientist oriented members of public” also asked Singh to retract his statement.

Raghavendra Gadagkar, professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said he wasn’t sure how useful it was to refute the statement on the basis of facts, which are “very clear”.

“To start with, all scientific evidence suggests that humans diverged from their closest living relatives, namely the chimpanzees, about five million years ago. Thus, there was no question of our ancestors being able to witness the event and record it in their scriptures.”

Expressing concern that such statements are aimed at polarising science and scientists on the lines of religion and politics, he explained that the evolution of man from a primate-like ancestor was not a quick event.

Evolutionary events take long periods of time, thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, and therefore they cannot even be considered events for anyone to witness, he told PTI.

The broad Darwinian paradigm of evolution says different species are related to one another through common ancestry, being descendants of a single or very few ancient life forms, according to the scientists.

It also states that species can give rise to new species, sometimes very gradually, sometimes quite fast.

Species can also undergo alteration in their characteristics over many generations, largely (but not necessarily only) through the mechanism of natural selection.

These broad ideas have overwhelming support within the scientific community.”What has been said by Dr Singh is wrong at multiple levels. Indeed, it defies both logic and biology,” said Amitabh Joshi, professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR).

“First, the broad facts of evolution, and how it occurs, as well as the rough time-line of major changes in human, and hominid, evolution are widely accepted by scientists worldwide,” he told PTI.

Joshi, who is also a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, added that there are debates within evolutionary biology about details, as there are in any area of science.

But this does not mean that there is dispute over the broad tenets of the Darwinian view of evolution.

Manaswini Sarangi, PhD research scholar in Evolutionary Biology Laboratory at JNCASR, said it was a matter of “great distress” to hear Singh’s views on evolution as a concept.

“Evolutionary biologists have provided numerous experimental evidences to show that one can observe evolution happening in the laboratory in real time, using fruit flies, bacteria, for example, among other model systems,” she told PTI.

An online letter to Singh, signed by over 3,000 people, echoed the sentiment and decried the “overly simplistic and misleading representation of evolution”.

“We, the scientists, science communicators and scientifically oriented members of public, are deeply pained by your claim. It is factually incorrect to state that the evolutionary principle has been rejected by the scientific community.”

On the contrary, the letter states, every new discovery supports Darwin’s insights. The theory is no longer merely a mechanism for organic evolution, but several other evolutionary phenomena in nature.

Ayan Banerjee, associate professor at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, expressed his worries about the impact of the minister’s statement.

“I have two kids and I am scared he is actually going to somehow change what we have worked on,” said Banerjee.

On the specific issue of monkeys, apes and humans, the Darwinian view is that humans share fairly recent common ancestors with apes, and a little more in the past, with monkeys, Joshi explained.

“Thus we are not descended from apes or monkeys, we share common ancestry with them. They (i.e. the existing apes and monkey species) are our cousins, if you like, not ancestors,” he said.