My Struggle to Teach Evolution in Bangladesh
On this auspicious occasion of 150th year of publication of The Origin of Species, I would like to pay my personal respect and homage to the memory of its great writer, the immortal Charles Robert Darwin, who by his writings laid the foundation of the Science of Evolution. I wholeheartedly believe in what Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. One can go even further – nothing in human knowledge makes any sense except in the light of the doctrine of evolution and that, for this realization, we are all indebted to Charles Darwin. I fervently believe that Darwin has provided us with the most rational and scientific worldview, which no religion or even philosophy could provide.
It was not easy for me to arrive at this conviction. There were many obstacles and hurdles that I had to overcome on the way. Besides, it took quite some time – many years indeed. For the benefit of the future Evolutionists of my country, Bangladesh, let me briefly narrate this sojourn.
My first obstacle was the conservative worldview of a Muslim rural society of Bengal where I was born in 1933. Almost all the villagers were illiterate (presently almost 60%). They were deeply religious and largely ignorant. One or two boys before me went to Madrasah. One of my father’s cousins and me were lucky to be sent to High English Schools which were apparently secular institutions. Uncle became a Physician and I, a Botanist – Plant Cytogeneticist.
At school I never even heard about Evolution. The Intermediate College Biology textbook had a very small chapter, Evidences of Evolution, incidentally the last one, which our teachers never even touched. I took Pure Botany instead of Biology at this level. Botany textbooks did not mention a word about Evolution. “Elements of Evolution” was taught at the Bachelor level but only as part of Zoology. Even at the Masters level, courses in Botany had nothing about Evolution. The prevailing view was that Evolution is a concern of Zoology since Darwin was a Zoologist. The innately conservative, Islamic creationist mind-set of our teachers and students remain the greatest obstacle in acquiring proper knowledge about Evolution even now.
Later on, when I was a Postgraduate student of Notre Dame University, USA (late 1962 to early 1967), I found that a course on Evolution was being offered at my Department of Biology. I took this course with great expectations. The course teacher, a good specialist on Amphibian evolution, discussed mostly Population Dynamics, seemingly avoiding ‘controversial’ topics which I was more eager to learn like Historical development of the concept of evolution, Darwinism, Evidences for Evolution, Synthetic Theory of Evolution, Speciation, Origin of Life, Origin of Man etc.
Naturally one may wonder, under the circumstances, how I came to have so much interest in Evolution. I owe this initially to my acquaintance during school days with some revolutionaries who fought for Independence of India from British rule. Incidentally, they were all from the Hindu community which was educationally and culturally more advanced in those days. All of them were imprisoned by the British Raj for several years or for life in the Andaman Islands. With their education being interrupted at school or college levels they continued their self-study inside the prisons which was encouraged by the British rulers in the hope that it may induce them to give up their dangerous ideas of armed struggle. Eventually, nearly all the prisoners turned out to be self-educated persons, well versed on diverse subjects. Almost all of them became Marxists in outlook. I got acquainted with some of them after their release when I was a student of High School. Through long discussions and study under their guidance, I came to learn, precociously for my age, some things which I would not have known otherwise. The most important thing was that I began to cherish rationality, secularism, and scientific objectivity by discarding religious dogmatic worldview. Definitely this helped me to gradually acquire the Evolutionary Worldview. I hope to reminisce more about this aspect of my learning on some other occasion.
The Idea of Evolution, including others like Secularism, was obviously considered anti-Islamic and potentially Anti-State in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, established in 1947 on the basis of religion. Hardly anybody in Pakistan felt encouraged to teach such “subversive” subjects like Evolution. Even among the university teachers there were some who would weed out potential “anti-state and subversive elements” from among students and make sure that such elements did not get good enough grades to qualify as teachers. It was not surprising that I did not come across a convinced evolutionist among my teachers in this socio-political atmosphere.
I returned from the States in 1967 and joined the department of Botany of Dhaka University. In those days there was practically no academic freedom in Pakistan’s educational institutions. By enacting the infamous “Black Act”, the Dhaka University Order 1951, the Pakistan Government had done away with whatever Academic freedom was available in this University during the British Rule. The Vice Chancellor could unilaterally remove any teacher from his position without assigning any reason. Teachers had to take his prior permission before publishing anything or even giving interviews to Radio and TV. This was part of a system designed to suppress the so-called Anti-State and Subversive Elements. Persons suspected of such activities could be removed from jobs and even put behind bars for indefinite periods without trial. No one could be appointed without verification of antecedent by the political police.
Under these circumstances I concentrated on teaching and guiding research in Plant Cytogenetics. I also began to teach and modernize courses of Cytology and Genetics, which are important to understand the modern concept of Evolution. I wrote textbooks on all these subjects in Bangla since I believe that Science at all levels must be taught in the mother tongue. The fact that Bangla is one of the richest languages of the world strengthened my determination enormously. All these I was doing as preparation in the hope that sometime in the future I may be able to present a course on Evolution.
With the victory of our liberation struggle on 16thDecember, 1971, the situation changed drastically in newly independent Bangladesh. The 1972 Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh declared Democracy, Secularism, Nationalism and Socialism as the four basic state principles. Through the enactment of 1973 Dhaka University Ordinance, later ratified by the parliament as 1973 Order, Dhaka University got full autonomy. Later the remaining three Public Universities got similar acts. Teachers and Officers of these Universities were allowed to hold and propagate any political view. They could even be members of any legal Political Party. Teachers could be elected to the Senate and the Syndicate, the policy making and the executive wings, respectively, of the University. The Vice Chancellor was an elected person, mostly from among the university teachers. The Departmental Academic Committee consisting of all the teachers could propose any course, get approval of the concerned Faculty and finally, of the Academic Council.
This democratic atmosphere enabled me to avail the opportunity to materialize my longtime dream of offering a course in Evolution. I found it not too difficult to convince my colleagues about introducing a course in Evolution provided it dealt with Plant Evolution only. But the real difficulty was in convincing a few who were bent upon excluding animal evolution, particularly Human Evolution. Their opposition was mainly a reflection of their religious and political viewpoint. But I did not concede and got the course approved by all the relevant academic authorities.
Thus I began to teach a course of Evolution carrying 100 marks, i.e., a full paper of the final year of M.Sc. class. Like the rest of the papers, it was a compulsory one for all students. I divided the course into four parts – (i) the origin and evolution of Species or Speciation – pre-Darwinian, Darwinian and post-Darwinian ideas, (ii) the origin and evolution of Humankind, (iii) the origin and evolution of Life and (iv) the origin and evolution of the Non-living world or the Cosmos. I emphasized upon the fact that evolution of the living world is inseparable from that of the non-living world. I began to teach this course in 1974 and continued till December, 2008 with addition and alteration of the contents.
Soon three other public universities introduced more or less the same course content of Evolution. When the Bangladesh National University was established to affiliate all the degree Colleges formerly affiliated to Dhaka and three other Universities, the course I was teaching at Dhaka University was made a compulsory full paper of 100 marks in M.Sc. final year class.
This democratic atmosphere was unfortunately, short lived. The coup de tat which took place in 1975 initiated developments which turned Bangladesh into a semi-theocratic state due to changes brought about in the constitution by the military regimes. Bismillah (in the name of Allah) was made a part of the constitution. Islam was declared as the state religion. As a consequence, teaching evolution became as difficult as in the Pakistani days. In Chittagong University, the Islamic fundamentalist students forced cancellation of this course. The National University drastically reduced the course content. The single topic of Evidences of Evolution was finally removed from the Intermediate Biology around 2001.
I found it not easy to continue teaching this course among the students having unquestioned faith in creationism and practically no earlier exposure to the concept of evolution. Therefore, right from the start I tried to help the students to differentiate between Creationism and Evolutionism by citing concrete examples. I tried to explain that Creationism is merely a faith, not supported by logic or evidence, whereas Evolution is a Science, supported both by logic and evidence, and above all by Scientific methods. Indeed Darwin’s success in discovering the first Law of Biology, the law of Evolution, was due to his ability to use the Scientific method in full for the first time in the history of Biology.
I had to handle softly so as not to hurt the feelings of students. That’s why I discussed practically all versions of creationism except the Islamic one. This was the main reason as to why I did not write anything about it in my book Evolution (Bibortanbidhya). I also had an apprehension that the book may be prohibited. However, I gave references for the students to read. But these were too costly and not easily available. Even The Origin of Species fell under this category. I, therefore, translated into Bangla (for the first time) The Origin of Species. My other books mentioned earlier were oriented towards this goal.
Things improved as a result. Even then there were always a few students in the class who were not ready to accept in full the idea of evolution. They believed, like A. R. Wallace, that humans were created whereas all other organisms may have evolved. There were some who would accept evolution as a whole but being guided by the Creator. Therefore, I had to devote more and more time to the Evidences of Evolution. I tried to convince my students not to fall prey the concept of Teleology. I urged them not to use the Bangla word “shrishti” (creation) in place of “utpotti” (origin), a bad habit of almost all Bangalees, because “shrishti” (creation) has no place in Evolution.
Being encouraged by the ideological opponents of evolution at home and abroad, a powerful, anti-evolutionist propaganda has begun to operate in Bangladesh also. Various TV channels and NGO’s are devoted to this task. The academic world in Bangladesh is being influenced by this force. There is a great need for concerted action by the evolutionists to counteract this. They should try to reach the vast majority who do not understand English or has no access to internet. We need to have books in Bangla written in popular style like those of Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and Mark Parekh. To begin with we could start translating their books, if possible, with exemption from royalty payments. Here I would like to cite one of my experiences. Some years ago after reading Steve Jones’ The Languages of the Genes, I wanted to make it available to our people in Bangla to give them some idea about heredity. I translated this book into Bangla as Gener Bhasha (জিনের ভাষা). I sought permission of the author to publish on gratis. He kindly gave his permission but its publisher asked for a nominal fee of 500 pounds, for the first print. Even this was too much for any publisher here, including Bangla Academy. The rules and regulations of this Academy do not allow any payment to be made for foreign books. Finally, Dhaka University agreed to pay and Gener Bhasha was published. Somehow if such obstacles can be overcome we may get the above mentioned authors’ books translated and published and expect that good original books in Bangla will come out soon.
We must urgently re-introduce in our SSC and HSC Syllabi some simple topics about Evolution such as Darwinism. It is amazing that in the 21st century millions of our school and college graduates will never know anything about Darwin or Darwinism. Moreover, the same topics should be taught in our Government sponsored Madrasahs. The huge number of privately sponsored, but actually foreign funded, Qaomi Madrasahs, accused of being the breeding ground of Islamic Fundamentalism, must be brought under Government regulations and made to teach the same basic courses, besides the Islamic subjects, as in the schools. The Awami League, under whose leadership the secular Bangladesh state was established in 1971, has come to power last month after a long interval with more than 2/3rd majority seats in the parliament. The secular forces of Bangladesh have great hopes that the Government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will bring about the desired changes soon.
February 1, 2009
Prof. M Akhtaruzzaman is a Rtd. Professor of Dhaka University. He is the author of several books including Evolution, Cytogenetics and Genetics.