Marine world fossils, Ordovician biodiversification, and the cultural hostility to evolution

Along comes an article, which evokes two responses; a) it’s what I have been trying to convey for a long time, and b) I am glad someone finally said it. For a few years now, I have written about the pseudoscientific and ultranationalist ideology of Hindutva, the ideology underpinning the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. It is a curious amalgam of Hindu fanaticism and hostility to scientific inquiry.

Binoy Kampmark, in an article published in Dissident Voice, highlights an acidic implication of Hindutva ideology – the scrapping of evolutionary biology from high schools. The anti-science undercurrents of the BJP are nothing new; for a few years, BJP government representatives have attacked the work and findings of Einstein, substituting in their place Hindu supremacist religious beliefs.

Hindutva ideologues have claimed that Lord Vishnu and Hindu gods had aircraft, guided missiles, and that the Vedas render Einstein’s theories of relativity incorrect and irrelevant. Now, Darwin’s elaboration of evolutionary biology is about to be cancelled. The body that governs the Indian school curriculum decided, in pursuit of a Hindu supremacist agenda, that Darwin’s body of work would be removed from high schools.

The BJP has long regarded the non-Hindu population, such as Muslims, as foreign interlopers (cue outrage over the Mughals). However, the anti-scientific vitriol has never been far from the surface. Ancient holy texts supersede scientific inquiry and evidentiary findings. We should point out that India is not the only place where faith-based holy books are attempting to encroach upon areas of science.

In Kentucky, USA, the Creation Museum, owned and operated by Australian expatriate Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organisation, promotes the pseudoscience of creationism. Preferring models of Noah’s Ark, along with humans coexisting with dinosaurs, the putative museum promotes a view of natural history based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Ham’s museum is only one example of a widespread creationism/Intelligent Design cultural movement in the United States.

The US, and to a lesser extent the other Anglophone nations, have witnessed their fair share of the the evolution culture wars. Since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – and especially his later book The Descent of Man – religious authorities have waged a relentless culture war against the removal of supernatural forces from natural history. A materialist approach to questions of the origin and changeability of species was perceived, especially by Protestant fundamentalism in the US, as an attack on divine authority.

Once Biblical inerrancy is dethroned, and a scientific understanding of human-natural origins is adopted, religious institutions lose their sanctity as repositories of eternal wisdom and societal guidance. Ken Ham and his museum are having their own problems.

The Indian government’s announcement regarding the intended abolition of Darwin from school curricula stands in stark contrast to a significant science story covered by Scientific American magazine, among other outlets. In Wales, a team of palaeontologists and researchers have uncovered the well-preserved fossils – mostly soft-tissued organisms – of a marine ecosystem. It is rare to find such exquisitely preserved nonbiomineralising fossil organisms. On miniature scales, ranging from 1mm to 5 mm, these organisms are the fossilised remains of a Middle Ordovician ‘marine dwarf’ ecosystem.

Located in Central Bank Quarry, central Wales, this trove of 462 million year old marine life is a window into the world of the Great Ordovician biodiversification event. This fossil discovery represents marine life during the Ordovician, a geologic period spanning about 42 million years; from the end of the Cambrian period (485 million years ago) to the beginning of the Silurian (443 million years ago). Biota in the Ordovician was characterised by marine genera, including new species of sponges, arthropods, trilobites, and the first jawless, prehistoric fish.

The Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE) is less well known than the misleadingly named Cambrian ‘explosion’, but nevertheless crucial in understanding the evolution of life. The GOBE was an evolutionary radiation of life forms, rapid on the geological time scale, but occurring over millions of years. It involved a spectacular increase in marine biodiversity, largely filling in the prominent phyla established during the Cambrian period.

What has all this got to do with the culture wars? For every advance in the philosophically materialist approach, based on scientific evidence, we can expect a culturally motivated attack on the philosophical foundations of science. The Intelligent Design movement, having witnessed the ascendancy of the natural sciences, portray themselves as purely scientific advocates, denying or downplaying the theological bases of their teleological world view.

Should the entirety of the geological and biological sciences be thrown out because it contradicts the literal interpretation of holy texts? Scriptural inerrancy is antithetical to a scientific and evidentiary approach. In India, the BJP authorities have openly denounced relativity, quantum mechanics, and now evolutionary biology and geology. As Kampmark states with regard to the Hindutva ideology, ignorance is being garlanded with claims of scientific expertise.

Those geology classes which I took in high school – decades ago – have certainly come in handy until today.

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