Evolution, Religion, and Indian Traditions-whose Clash Is It Anyway?

Evolution, Religion, and Indian Traditions-whose Clash Is It Anyway?

Evolution-a Crash Course

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) gave us the most important theory of evolution sweeping away god or intelligence as creators of living and non-living beings. His theory rested on the four pillars of evolution, gradualism, common descent, and speciation. Living species evolve and they are not immutable. Our ancestors were not like us. This happens extremely slowly allowed by the billions of years of Earth’s existence, roughly about 4.5 billion. All the living species have a common origin way back in time. At various times, a species splits into two different forms; and then again; and again, leading to the development of a wide variety of species. An amazing 8 million species are supposed to exist and counting.

Adam Rutherford in ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ says, Darwinian evolution is a theory without peer. It does not have to compete with other theories, because it is the only game in town. Charles Darwin formulated his idea 50 years before genes, 100 years before the double-helix, and 150 years before the human genome read in its entirety. But they all say the same thing. Life is a chemical reaction. Life derives from what came before. Life is imperfect copying. Life is accumulation and refinement of information embedded in the DNA. Natural selection explains how life after starting, evolved on Earth. Evolution is a continuing game and the species is dead if it stops evolving. The hope for the continuation of species is evolution.’

The bedrock of these mechanisms is natural selection, which says that as species evolve, those who are capable of good reproduction and a better adaptation to a changing environment, survive and propagate their species. A species not good at adapting to a changing environment or a species not reproducing well goes extinct. This is how the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ came about.

Imperfections in a Perfect Theory

Arguably, evolution is the most beautiful theory described ever in any branch of science. It was a perfect theory, and the only flaw was due to a complete ignorance of genes in those times. The problem was in understanding of the mechanism of natural selection. Darwin is blame free because scientific knowledge had not yet made genes popular as a unit of heredity. The prevailing theory of heredity of those times was a ‘mixing or blending theory’ where, like paints, the characteristics of parents get mixed and in fact diluted in the offspring. A black and a white parent should produce gray offspring. The imperfection in the perfect theory was that natural selection does not work with a blending theory of heredity.

Had Darwin been aware of Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) work, his contemporary, who worked on peas and produced a particulate theory of heredity-seeds of the genetic theory, in fact- the theory of evolution would have been on firmer footing. Was Darwin aware of Mendel? Mendel had published his results in an obscure journal, but Darwin had in his possession two books which quoted Mendel. Unfortunately, one book was extremely brief in the description of Mendel’s work, and the other had uncut pages mentioning Mendel which Darwin completely missed!

Darwin’s thoughts on the nature of heredity in later years made some suspicious of influence by Mendel without acknowledgement. Not true, authorities say emphatically. Surprisingly, Mendel was completely aware of Darwin’s work and it is indeed a big mystery why he did not choose to communicate with him and improve the understanding of evolution. His silence was likely because he was training to be a bishop, and it would be a bad idea as a man of Church to publicly defend evolution!

Darwin was a humble genius who perhaps tried to unite humanity by his theories of evolution. Ironically, his cousin Galton, a genius himself, arrogantly used these theories to create a pugnacious field of Eugenics and division of humans based on race. Darwin was strangely silent on the objectionable science propagated by his cousin. Eugenics became a fashionable movement in the early part of the 20th century with people like Churchill and Roosevelt supporting it. It is a shameful episode in the history of the world. Humans know better now, but are they wiser? The racial profiling continues all over the world; the differences in skills are due to the skin colour; intelligence and fighting skills equates to caste; and on and on.

Evolution, Embryology, and Genetics: the Latest Chapters

Evo Devo is short for ‘Evolutionary Developmental Biology’- a branch of biology which studies the development of organisms as embryos and then connects it to evolution of animal and species. Darwin’s revolutionary thesis said that there was a common ancestor to all living species from which diversity evolved over billions of years. He was also aware that embryos of a wide ranging differently looking animals looked remarkably similar in the earlier stages. However, he was clueless about the underlying mechanisms.

Embryology is a study of the embryos to determine the development of an animal from first cell to the completely evolved animal. Genetics is the study of the genes which determine the life processes. Genes are the basic units of life, present as discrete units on the chromosomes of each cell. The genes determine the production of proteins, which in turn determines the body organization from a cellular to a gross level. The ‘modern synthesis’ was a fusion of embryology and genetics.

Evolution is the study of how diversity arose from common ancestors and species. The study of evolution included palaeontology, which is the science of fossil animals and plants. The Third Synthesis is bringing together of evolution, embryological development, and genetics into a common field- Evo Devo. This exciting branch now tries to integrate evolution with embryology at macroscopic level and with genetics at a microscopic level.

Evo-devo: Same Ingredients, Tinkering the Recipes

Humans have a mere 21,000 to 25000 genes in their genome, almost the same as in rats, and yet we are one of the most complex products of evolution. Let there be more humiliation- roundworms have 19000 genes and rice has almost double the number of human genes! Evo-Devo proposes that evolution uses the same ingredients in all organisms, but tinkers with the recipe.

By expressing genes at separate times in development and/or in various parts of the body, the same genes work in different combinations to allow evolution, diversity in external features, and innovation. Animals look different not because the molecular machinery is different, but because various parts of the machinery activate to differing degrees, at different times, in different places and in different combinations. The number of combinations is huge, and so this is a plausible explanation for the development of complex and diverse phenotypes from even a small number of genes.

This is now the prevailing theory: all animals are from essentially the same set of regulatory genes—‘a genetic toolkit’, and that phenotypic (physical external appearance) variation within and between species arises simply by using shared genes differently. Evo Devo has shown that a handful of conserved tool kit genes for over 500 million years is responsible for changes at the macro and the micro level. This Third Synthesis has settled some unresolved questions with quality evidence. Novelty and innovation probably do not arise from new genes but due to selective activation and deactivation of existing genes and structures. For example, limbs, fins, and wings have a common origin.

Other Narratives

Eva Jablonka and Marion lamb, in their wonderful book, ‘Evolution in Four Dimensions’ say that transmission of information either vertically between generations or horizontally between the species in the same generation is the key to evolution. Instead of focussing only on the ‘selfish gene’ as a method of evolution, the transmission occurs in four different ways. Genetics is the first and the most important still. But the other mechanisms are epigenetics, cultural factors, and symbolic factors. Language development is an important component of the last. The combination of these four makes the way for evolution.

Lynn Marguilis in her book ‘Microcosmos’ places mutation as only one of the mechanisms causing evolution. Apparently, there is a horizontal transmission of genes from freely flowing DNA between the bacteria to the extent that all the bacteria in the world is almost a superorganism having a common genetic pool. The transmission and adaptation of organisms were traditionally random and untargeted. But, these horizontal transmissions in the same generation is responsible for the widespread antibiotic resistance in times of stress. Mainstream evolutionists cringe at the idea of targeted mutations.

Symbiosis is another interesting method of adaptation and evolution. Bacterial genes incorporate into human and other genetic pools; and species have co-evolved in a spirit of co-operation rather than competition. The mitochondria in every human cell responsible for oxygen utilisation; and the tails of the sperms are examples of symbiotic phenomenon. Here human and bacterial genes came together and co-evolve. Even intelligence may be an outcome of a symbiosis occurring in the brain! A speculation is that quantum jiggling of microtubules, of possible bacterial origin, is a mechanism for consciousness and intelligence.

Western Problems in Understanding Evolution

A question was asked in a survey of 21 countries to review the public understanding of evolution: ‘Human beings developed from an earlier species of animals. In your opinion, how true is this using a four-point scale: 1 definitely true; 2 probably true; 3 probably not true; and 4 definitely not true?’
The best country was East Germany with a mean score of 1.86. Great Britain had a mean score of 2.18, Canada at 2.45, and surprisingly the United States stood at the bottom of the table with a mean score of 3.22! Sean Carroll in his book Evo Devo-Endless Forms Most Beautiful notes ruefully that this is perhaps a good thing because US can only move upwards in the score now.

The National Science Board in 1996 took another survey. To a statement, ‘The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs’ requiring a yes/no answer, 32% said yes and 20% did not know (an amazing 52% of the total people polled). Some are highly disturbed at the public ignorance of one of the most established tenets of scientific discipline in the wealthiest, most powerful, and technologically driven nation. They feel that this scandal of ignorance is at par with not knowing the principles of Constitution.

Creationists and ‘intelligent design’ groups still interfere with the teaching of biology and make it faulty. Goethe said, ‘Nothing is worse than active ignorance’, and Sean Carroll is worried at the agenda of the ‘lost souls’ to thwart science and education. The Church is finally taking positions of acceptance much to the relief of scientists, but he cautions that science and evolution best moves forward by scientific knowledge and not by attacking religion. Similarly, religion would do better to promote its theologies and teachings rather than to attack scientific views. Classically, religion looks at the gaps in the understanding of science and promotes them as evidence of god-the ‘god of gaps.’ However, as the gaps in understanding close by scientific method, the religious fundamentalists have less space to wiggle.

Sean Carroll is firm in telling that nothing of intelligent design should ever be in the teaching curriculum despite any attraction of allowing disparate opinions and the dubious writings of some mainstream scientists for creationists to raise their heads. Science and religion should stay within their limits and not get into each other, he feels.

The Pope on Evolution- Finally

In 1996, a century after Darwin, Pope John Paul made a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences accepting evolution, but in a very grudging and a circuitous manner. Science however celebrated this as a success in its fight against religion!

… the origin of life and evolution—an essential theme of lively interest to the Church, since Revelation contains some of its own teachings concerning the nature and origins of man. How should the conclusions reached by the diverse scientific disciplines be brought together with those contained in the message of Revelation? And if at first glance these views seem to clash with each other, where should we look for a solution? We know that the truth cannot contradict the truth…

…In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points…

.. I used the occasion—and the example of Gallileo—to draw attention to the necessity of using a rigorous hermeneutical approach in seeking a concrete interpretation of the inspired texts. It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unseasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean…

.. the encyclical Humani Generis treated the doctrine of “evolutionism” as a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and serious study, alongside the opposite hypothesis (bold mine). Pius XII added two methodological conditions for this study: one could not adopt this opinion as if it were a certain and demonstrable doctrine, and one could not totally set aside the teaching Revelation on the relevant questions. He also set out the conditions on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith…

…And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology…

… Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God. The Council recalled that “man is the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake…

…As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person…

A repeated reading of the whole statement hardly convinces about an unambiguous and unconditional acceptance of evolution by the Church.

Swami Vivekananda on Evolution

Swami Vivekananda said in contrast that both science and religion are searching for a unity, and science finally would perhaps reach the same unity that Vedanta already reached thousands of years back. Evolution created great friction between science and religion of the west, which was an unknown in Indian traditions. It clashed with the Creationist view of Abrahamic religions; and still do. The crux of arguments against scientific theories is that complex life (especially humans) must have an origin in an ‘Intelligent Design’ or its previous version-God. A blind, purposeless, stumbling, random journey cannot be the means to such a beautiful product like the human beings. It basically boiled down to the human mind not able to think in perspectives of the huge time scales involved-4.5 billion years.

There were never such problems with Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda spoke extensively and strongly on evolution. Swami Vivekananda with his understanding of an ancient philosophy rooted in Vedanta was far ahead of his times, and perhaps, we have still not caught up with his ideas of involution preceding evolution. Swami Vivekananda said that evolution is ultimately matter struggling to reach the transcendence. There is nothing wrong with evolution, he said in the last decade of the 19th century, when the world was coming to grips with evolution and was actively resisting it. He wanted evolution in accordance with the more exact science of Physics, which could demonstrate that an involution must precede every evolution. He thought simply in terms of matter struggling to reach the Brahman as evolution. The reverse process of Brahman degenerating into matter through ignorance is involution. Sri Aurobindo refined these ideas further.

His ideas on evolution become explicit by some of his statements he made in various essays, lectures, and interviews. Maybe, his ideas lacked a scientific basis; or maybe his ideas were far advanced beyond the limits of our understanding, but there were absolutely no objections to evolution. In fact, there was a wholesome acceptance which science, positing strongly against Abrahamic religions, never bothered to study.

… Looking around us, what do we find? A continuous change. Everywhere circles are being completed, birth, growth, development, and decay following each other with mathematical precision. Inside of it all, behind all this vast mass of what we call life, of millions of forms and shapes, millions upon millions of varieties, beginning from the lowest atom to the highest spiritualised man, we find existing a certain unity. Every day we find that the wall that was thought to be dividing one thing and another is being broken down, and all matter is coming to be recognised by modern science as one substance, manifesting in different ways and in various forms; the one life that runs through all like a continuous chain, of which all these various forms represent the links, link after link, extending almost infinitely, but of the same one chain. This is what is called evolution. It is an old, old idea, as old as human society, only it is getting fresher and fresher as human knowledge is progressing. There is one thing more, which the ancients perceived, but which in modern times is not yet so clearly perceived, and that is involution…

…If you look behind to the place from which you started, you will find that before you were an animal, now you are a man, and will be a god or God Himself in future…

…Our theory of evolution and of Âkâsha and Prâna is exactly what your modern philosophies have. Your belief in evolution is among our Yogis and in the Sankhya philosophy. So, we have very little to quarrel with in the new theories…

…The moderns have their evolution, and so have the Yogis. But I think that the Yogis’ explanation of evolution is the better one. “The change of one species into another is attained by the infilling of nature.” The basic idea is that we are changing from one species to another, and that man is the highest species. Patanjali explains this “infilling of nature” by the simile of peasants irrigating fields. Our education and progression simply mean taking away the obstacles, and by its own nature the divinity will manifest itself…

…Out of what has this universe been produced then? From a preceding fine universe. Out of what has men been produced? The preceding fine form. It comes out and becomes manifest. It will go back to that minute form, and again will be made manifest. Now we find that the fine forms slowly come out and become grosser and grosser until they reach their limit, and when they reach their limit they go back further and further, becoming finer and finer again…

…This coming out of the fine and becoming gross, simply changing the arrangements of its parts, as it were, is what in modern times called evolution. This is very true, perfectly true; we see it in our lives. No rational man can possibly quarrel with these evolutionists (bold mine). But we must learn one thing more. We must go one step further, and what is that? That an involution precedes every evolution. The little cell, which becomes afterwards the man, was simply the involved man and becomes evolved as a man. If this is clear, we have no quarrel with the evolutionists, for we see that if they admit this step, instead of their destroying religion, they will be the greatest supporters of it…

…The theory of evolution, which is the foundation of almost all the Indian schools of thought, has now made its way into the physical science of Europe. It has been held by the religions of all other countries except India that the universe in its entirety is composed of parts distinctly separate from each other…

…The whole universe, as it were, shrinks, and then it expands again. To use the more accepted words of modern science, they are involved and evolved. You hear about evolution, how all forms grow from lower ones, slowly growing up and up. We know that the sum of energy that is displayed in the universe is the same always, and that matter is indestructible. So, this cycle is the evolution out of the involution of the previous cycle, and this cycle will again be involved, getting finer and finer, and out of that will come the next cycle. The whole universe is going on in this fashion…

…The question is: The involution of what? What was involved? God. The evolutionist will tell you that your idea that it was God is wrong. Why? Because you see God is intelligent, but we find that intelligence develops much later during evolution. It is in man and the higher animals that we find intelligence, but millions of years have passed in this world before this intelligence came. Therefore, the protoplasm was the involution of the highest intelligence. You may not see it but that involved intelligence is what is uncoiling itself until it becomes manifested in the most perfect man. It, therefore, follows absolutely that the perfect man, the free man, the God-man, who has gone beyond the laws of nature, and transcended everything, who has no more to go through this process of evolution, through birth and death, that man called the “Christ-man” by the Christians, and the “Buddha-man” by the Buddhists, and the “Free” by the Yogis — that perfect man who is at one end of the chain of evolution was involved in the cell of the protoplasm, which is at the other end of the same chain…

…The two causes of evolution advanced by the moderns, viz. sexual selection and survival of the fittest, are inadequate. Suppose human knowledge to have advanced so much as to eliminate competition, both from the function of acquiring physical sustenance and of acquiring a mate. Then, according to the moderns, human progress will stop and the race will die. The result of this theory is to furnish every oppressor with an argument to calm the qualms of conscience. Men are not lacking, who, posing as philosophers, want to kill out all wicked and incompetent persons (they are, of course, the only judges of competency) and thus preserve humans! (Think Galton here) Evolution is the manifestation of the perfection which is already in every being; that this perfection has been barred and the infinite tide behind is struggling to express itself…

The Swami declared that the Hindus were Spinozists 2,000 years before the birth of Spinoza, Darwinians centuries before the birth of Darwin, and evolutionists centuries before the doctrine of evolution had been accepted by the Huxleys of our time, and before any word like evolution existed in any language of the world. The worm of today is the God of tomorrow, he simply declared while speaking of evolution.

Sri Aurobindo on Evolution

At a time when Darwin’s evolution was deep in controversy, Sri Aurobindo freely accepted the evolution of matter and life. He said that the highest principle evolved so far is mind. But evolution cannot stop with mind, for mind is not its last word– and that was his boldest statement.

Matter transforms itself into the higher forms of life; and life into mind. The mind is that of the Jiva, above which there are three minds, the Overmind, the Supermind and Saccidananda– the highest ideal to realise and the pinnacle of evolution. Man has the potential to realise these higher states through knowledge, effort, and Sadhana. At the highest point, one becomes identical with Siva. The latter’s Sakti (power) with man makes him a Superman. Superman is one who has surrendered his own ego (ahamkara) to Siva and merged himself in the Absolute. He is a self-ruler but does not strive to stamp his own individuality upon the world.

According to Sri Aurobindo, man’s destiny lies in understanding the real purpose of nature and in trying to realise it in his individual as well as social life. The philosophy of evolution has a special status in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. There are two aspects involved-an ‘Involution’ (a downward movement) and an ‘Evolution’ (an upward movement). Involution is the delight of Saccidananda or Brahman, plunging or degenerating into the realm of ignorance to create the world. From the bottom level of inert matter, evolution is a home-coming to Brahman. Hence involution precedes evolution and understanding them together is important in Aurobindo’s philosophy.

The scientific view does not grant any purpose, meaning or direction to evolution. Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo’s evolution includes this idea in a broader framework of spirituality. For Aurobindo, evolution becomes a conscious movement, at least from the mind onwards. Aurobindo was not scientifically off when he said of a conscious movement in evolution. This aspect holds importance in some mainstream narratives of evolution.

Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb say that cultural factors and symbolic factors -critically language development- are important components in evolution. In higher animals like chimpanzees and humans, symbolic communication plays a key role in deciding the direction of evolution. In humans especially, the development of language is an extremely high form of symbolic communication which allows a very rapid transfer of information; and is instrumental in strategies to manipulate the environment using science and technology. In this scheme, the manipulation of genes itself gives a certain direction to evolution.

Concluding Remarks

Today, there is a religious tolerance to evolution, but the acceptance is inadequate. It was the open face of Indian traditions, especially Vedanta which accepted evolution as a fact. Religion belongs to the West-the Semitic religions only- which had to be against science and evolution in its fundamentally doctrine-based ideology. It was previously violent, involving burning at the stake too, now perhaps a little muted. Science grew out in this intolerant background and it is not hard to understand the antagonism. Evolution is still an issue in hard conservative areas; and there is a movement to teach ‘Creationism’ in schools just to give an ‘overall balanced’ perspective, something articulated by the Pope clearly.

In contrast, our traditions never made a fuss with science at any point, leave alone evolution. There is never a contradiction when we do deep science and yet go to the temples. The clash between evolution and religion is a western idea and for us it is simply out of context. As SN Balagangadhara says in his book, ‘The Heathen in His Blindness’, it is a category mistake to ask a Belgian priest whether he is a Brahmin or not as he lies outside the scope of both the question and the answer. Similarly, it a category mistake to question how a scientist can visit temples and cry in rapturous ecstasy. Again, as SN Balagangadhara says, there are no religions in India, only traditions. Religions are narrow and intolerant by definition; traditions are broad, pluralistic, and amorphous. The secular fields were highly spiritualized, but religious persecution and priestly interference never came in the way of science and technology. The materialists and the leftists see themselves as propagators of science and they position themselves against religion. Unfortunately, these are all transferred western perspectives; as our traditions and philosophies had no such issues and encounters with science.

Swami Vivekananda was very surprised at the objections to evolution because he believed it was a given. He was frequently touched on evolution by various people interested in knowing the Vedantic views. His opinion never changed; however, he insisted on the concept of involution preceding evolution. Maybe, we will realise this later, but for the present it suffices to say that Vedanta had almost never clashed with the so called ‘radical’ evolution. Vedanta in fact, spoke about evolution thousands of years before Darwin. Unfortunately, all ‘religious’ resistance is defined by what Christianity felt about evolution. Barring a few, most scientists then and amazingly now also are completely ignorant about Indian traditional views. Aurobindo and Vivekananda wanted a blending of Eastern Spiritualism with Western materialism for the future of humanity. Unfortunately, western authors do not consider Indian traditional systems, especially Vedanta and Advaita, in the equations of science with religion.

In 1996, the Church makes an ambiguous statement on evolution and science celebrates; in 1890’s, Swami Vivekananda accepts evolution wholesale in English language, and science is not even aware. Science seeks unity, and so does Vedanta. Brahman is the unity which Vedanta realised long back transcending God, Man, and Nature and yet immanent in all. Science looks at Man and Nature at its most macro and micro levels searching for the elusive single equation explaining everything. If only western scientists and authors make a little effort to understand Indian traditions before widely condemning ‘religion’ as standing in the way of science.

Featured Image: India Today

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.