Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Need For An Indian National Natural History Museum

G.V.R. Prasad calls it a prehistory museum in a correspondence (open access) to Current Science and points to the many outstanding natural history museums in western cities as examples to be emulated by India.  We don't have such a museum which fills a double role of a public repository of the geological and biological history of India as well as a research center.

Something Dr. Prasad wrote caught my attention:

The importance of these fossils has been fully understood by the Western geoscientists. As a consequence, a large number of geoscientists, palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists from Europe,USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand visit various high-altitude areas in the Himalaya such as Zanskar, Spiti, Ladakh and Kargil to study the life forms that existed prior to and after the origin of the Himalayan mountain chain.

On the other hand, even after 65 years of independence, we have not realized the potential of the above-cited areas for the recovery of diversified fossil groups and their importance in understanding evolution and the geological, chemical and physical processes that led to the formation of the Himalayan mountain chain.

I am going to go on a tangent here because I want to share an observation with you. Paleontology in India has by and large not been applied to understanding evolution. Most geology programs in India don't cover evolution in any detail. Geologists here are not well versed in the theory of evolution. Interdisciplinary projects with biology departments are rare. As a result, we don't have paleontologists in India with the kind of career profiles like John Sepkoski Jr., Elizabeth Vrba, Stephen Jay Gould, Leigh Van Valen, Simon Conway Morris, to name just a few luminaries among the many evolutionary paleontologists working in western Universities and research museums. 

These palaeontologists collect and analyze fossil assemblages with the specific intent of understanding patterns of evolution and have made important and original contributions to evolutionary theory. Over here, paleontological studies focus on biostratigraphy i.e. organizing geological strata and correlating geographically disparate geological sections based on their fossils and on interpreting ancient ecologic conditions.

Its funny that Dr. Prasad mentions that large number of western geologists visit the Himalayan region to collect fossils. That western attraction towards the Himalayas goes well beyond fossils. A graduate student I was talking to some time back pointed out that virtually all "synthesis" papers in big journals published on  Himalayan tectonics, metamorphism and structure i.e. papers that deal with reconstructing histories of large litho-tectonic Himalayan belts have an all western authorship with maybe one Indian collaborator.

Is it money problems that is hindering Indian geologists from attempting such studies?

Anyways, coming back to the museum issue, I support Dr. Prasad's view of the need for a national natural history museum. Why stop at one? We should have many of them.

We have a very utilitarian perception of geology here in India. Geologists are looked upon as people who find stuff.. water, minerals, oil and fossils. People don't look at us as historians. And if we don't study history, then why do we need a museum?  But ultimately that is what we are. Geologists reconstruct the most important history there is.. that of our planet. Fragments of that history are hidden away in rocks, minerals, structures, fossils and in elemental ratios. We study these alphabets and piece together the grandest story of all, how our planet originated and evolved and changed over time.

That rich, inspiring and outlook changing story deserves to be told in our very own national natural history museum.


  1. What is the typical educational route to becoming a geologist in India? It is difficult to believe that with the race for engineering and medicine, there would be many people dreaming to be geologists. What is the quality of students entering the stream?

  2. the typical route is a BSc and then a MSc or Mtech in geology.

    you are right.. in general the brightest don't dream of a career in science and geology suffers amongst the sciences :) .. so the quality of students is not that great by and large..we do need a change in public perception of a career in geology aided partly by a more visible outreach by scientists coupled with attractive economic incentives to be a geologist..the latter is happening in the private sector with the energy sector offering attractive careers opportunites..