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It is Darwin Time: Will We Accept It?

by Q. Isa Daudpota , 12 January 2009

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Abstract: The failure of Pakistan’s Natural History Museum to recognize Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as fundamental to Biology and Medical Sciences needs to be corrected. Public awareness through TV programs is essential in this year of Darwin.

Charles Darwin was kind enough to publish his great work, On the Origin of Species when he was exactly fifty years old. That will allow us to celebrate his 200th birthday anniversary and the sesquicentennial of the book this year. His work’s scientific, philosophical and social implications are revolutionary. Today all true scientists accept his theory of evolution as fundamental to understanding of life on earth. It underpins all modern biological and medical sciences and helps view life as a unified system based on rather simple yet profound rules. All his works are available at www.tinyurl.com/a96jkg.

The biggest ever Charles Darwin exhibition, www.tinyurl.com/aysymz, will run until mid April in London. Not all is lost if you cannot get to it as much exists on the net that can help remove the misconceptions that many Pakistanis have about the theory, starting with this website and its excellent links. Several new books will appear as will documentaries and TV programs that will reach our shores if there is enough demand. Among the important recent audio visual presentations worth showing in Pakistan is the seven-part TV series Evolution prepared by the US Public Broadcasting Service. The accompanying book with the same title by Carl Zimmer is also useful to remove doubts about the theory. Supplement these with a study of the PBS website on evolution, www.tinyurl.com/783wm8 - it has a wealth of material, in text and video, for students and teachers.

What if one wants to visit one of our own museums to learn about evolution? One would naturally turn to our Museum of Natural History in Islamabad, www.tinyurl.com/9qshma. I in fact visited it about four years ago when asked to review the design of a planned extension to the building. Sadly the building, set in idyllic green surrounding of Shakarparian Hills, is poorly designed and constructed.

During the visit I walked to the lowest level, and have frequented later. This is where the museum explicitly shows how the evolution of life took place on earth. You enter the moderately sized room with its four walls painted to show quite nicely the story of life. Starting on the right one sees in almost seamless progression the appearance of primitive life forms in water, moving onto fish, reptiles, amphibians, land-based animals, primates and then early humanoids, the hunter-gatherers, finally getting to modern humans – this brings one back to the door where one began the journey. If you stand in the middle and turn around you see the panorama of life before you. A good teacher of biology could keep a class occupied for several hours in this room alone.

One wonders how many teachers in Pakistan would, however, notice the white pillar from floor to roof, over one foot wide, that separate the pictures of the hoards of apes from the hunting humanoids. (Nowhere else in this room are the different life forms shown separated from other groups.) More importantly, will the teacher on noticing this anomaly, point it to the students and discuss it. A clear discussion on this issue alone could lead to a much better understanding of biology (and life generally) than a year of learning facts that fail to unify the subject.

I gathered a number of museum staff nearby to ask their opinion about why the Museum chose to separate the apes from the humanoid, given that after Darwin it was generally accepted that human are primates, i.e. closely related to monkeys and apes. Most remained quiet. One said, in true bureaucratic fashion, that I would need to contact the director who has designed the room. Another said that if the connection was shown the museum would be burned down by religious fanatics who think of humans as a special creation of the Lord, and were therefore unconnected with the earlier life-forms. The Museum’s stagnant website, perhaps reflecting this attitude, has no mention of Darwin or evolution. Instead, it should be the main institute explaining and displaying artifact of Natural History on the foundations laid by scientific Darwinian ideas.

Then there are people like Harun Yahya, the prolific Turkish writer, whose slick books fill our bookshops and unambiguously oppose Darwin. I was once horrified to see a room full of talented Pakistani school students at a Space Camp subjected to a movie about creationism produced by Yahya’s outfit. This is not an affliction particular to Pakistan or the Muslim world. In America about 55% of adults held a tentative view about evolution for the last decade. A third of adults firmly rejected the theory; only 14% thought of it as ’definitely true’. Only enlightened education, formal and informal can overcome this ignorance. Nature, the premier science magazine offers 15 examples from over the past decade or so to illustrate the breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking that totally demolishes the wrong headed ideas of people like Yahya. See www.tinyurl.com/a3n4nh.

For the Semitic religions to have relevance in today’s world, they must accept that the rules of nature apply only to materials bodies, energy and the environment to create the immense variety of species and their evolution. That they arise from a single of a small number of basic primal organisms and transform due to mutations and natural adaptation was outlined carefully by Darwin. A good place to study the journey of life is the BBC page, www.tinyurl.com/7ngsqc and the links therein.

Darwin and his great work provided a revolutionary break from the past by placing humans as part of the evolving flux of life, not as special creation. He did what Copernicus managed in the 16th century by displacing Earth from its central position in the universe to being a mere planet moving around a rather ordinary star obeying physical laws that were formalized later by Newton. It should have taught us modesty.

Darwin is right up there with Newton in the greatness league. He, unlike his fellow Englishman, was a wise, modest gentleman. This year of Darwin should be when his ideas become better understood in this country, leading to revolutionary changes in our thinking.

An edited version appeared in Dawn