Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Incoherent theories: Our ancestors were the smartest...

An Indian blogger and respondent named Manjunatha has further comments in his own blog Incoherent theories: Our ancestors were the smartest... about the reasons why evolution was proposed by Europeans and not by the Hindu tradition.

It's an interesting suggestion - Europeans developed a theory of evolution because they thought they were naturally better than everyone else, and the theory supported that. In short, because they were racist.

Manjunatha doesn't make the genetic fallacy error here - he's not doing the usual foolishness of those who dislike evolution (he doesn't, for a start) by thinking it is tainted by its origins. In fact he seems to think this is a matter of social conditions that made it possible to discover not only evolution, but other science.

Is this true? Well, yes, partially. Evolution (the idea that things change over time) was developed by a temporalisation of the Great Chain of Being, which was "progressionist" in that the scale of nature rose from simple and primitive to complex and "civilised", and of course, Europeans were at the top of that ladder in the 18th century, so they thought. So the first kind of evolutionary theory was indeed racist, since it implied that Europeans evolved last, or, in Lamarck's scheme, that their independent lineage began evolving first, and were thus "highest".

But did this mean India could not have developed it themselves? I don't think so. A group of thinkers known as the Charvarkas (or Carvarkas) were as materialistic in their way as the Epicureans. And they lived at the beginning of the Vedic period. I think, though, that the reason India never came up with this idea is pretty obvious - they didn't develop a scientific endeavor. Science evolved once - in Europe. And even so it took another 250 years for a proper theory of evolution to be developed in that tradition. In short, while being racist may have set up the preconditions for science to approach the topic, and even made legitimate a few of the eventually adopted ideas, I don't think that racism is the key - science is the key. Had India developed a full-blown scientific tradition, then they may have come up with it first, or independently.

And I don't think Europe was any more "racist" than any other ethnic group in political and military ascendancy, and particularly not India, which seems to have fossilized its racism into the Varna caste system.