Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Didn't Darwin Come To India?

Mauritius is the closest he got but he did use examples from India's biodiversity to bolster his case for evolution. Vikram Doctor writes an excellent article in the Times of India on Darwin's India connection.

That connection was Edward Blyth - self taught zoologist and curator of the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society Calcutta - who maintained a long and fruitful correspondence with Darwin about the animals and plants native to India.

Darwin acknowledges this contribution as

"his large and varied stores of knowledge , I should value more than that of almost any one."

This is the second impressive intellectual conversation about evolution I have come across in India via outreach and media over the last few weeks. Earlier in November at the British Library in Pune, biologist Madhav Gadgil talked about early evolutionary thinking, Darwin's contributions and recent advances in evolutionary theory.

Doctor's article too covers a lot of ground. He gives us a sense of the work and social environment struggling scientists had to face in India. I read and posted on David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj recently. It describes the day to day lives of British civil servants in 1800's India. Their lives were hard but Blyth faced an additional problem. He stood outside the administrative hierarchy and was on a weaker social standing than other officers of the civil services. Self taught scientists from poor backgrounds were looked down upon by the Raj officers who during the mid 1800's mostly came from Britain's upper classes. There is a lot packed in the article on the difficulties and tribulations Blyth faced during his career in India.

Doctor's article also clarifies the controversy on whether Darwin really deserved the credit for his work or whether as some say he plagiarized Alfred Russel Wallace's ideas who had coincidentally discovered natural selection around the same time. That Wallace proposed a theory of evolution through natural selection is undeniable,  but both Wallace and Blyth recognized that just presenting an idea is half the work in science. Backing it up with evidence is harder. Darwin besides proposing a theory also did the hard work of compiling the evidence for evolution through natural selection. He can rightly claim most of the credit.

As an aside and something Doctor does not get into is that Wallace too has been painted in extremes. For some, he should be placed on a higher pedestal than Darwin. Others say - unkindly - that his only real contribution was that he hastened Darwin into publishing a shorter, streamlined and more accessible version of his theory. Darwin's earlier plan to publish a tome running into several thousand pages was shelved in fear of being scooped upon receipt of Wallace's theory. Still others point to the latter part of Wallace's career when he doubted that the human brain could be a product of evolution and use that to discredit him.

That is in my opinion just...well unkind. Wallace did discover natural selection independently and contributed valuable insights into other fields like biodiversity, natural variability of populations and bio-geography. That he could not compile evidence like Darwin did or that he leaned towards mysticism later in his life does not diminish the originality and importance of his earlier work.

Having said that, convincing people that evolution had occurred required evidence. And there is no doubt that Darwin made a better case for it than anyone else in his times with a little help from friends and colleagues like Edward Blyth.

Vikram Doctor's article is a pleasure to read. And...yes he does offer an answer to why Darwin didn't come to India.  Don't miss it.

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