— Debjyoti Bardhan
Thoughts entered a whole new regime on the 24th of November, 1859. There were earlier suspicions that this dark dungeon of thought might exist, but no one was really searching for it. It was a start of a revolution; it was a change of old ideas; it would definitely be a gargantuan clash.
Exceptions make or break explanations; there were too many errant facts that the theory of creation couldn’t fix. God Almighty had fallen short. By the 24th of November, Thomas Huxley had “sharpened his claws and beak in readiness”. On the 24th of November, Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published. After the 24th of November, exceptions told tales of reality.
The process of building up of genetic information often involves errors and bad designs. Perfection is the problem; it can be explained away by anything. Imperfections are special. The question is whether we can deduce the pathways to a conclusion after seeing the modern results. Imperfections are remnants. Exceptions, often hidden in plain sight, are demonstrative.
— I —
The scientific discussion was heated, and the hall awash with emotions. Taking the side of the evolutionists was the sharp witted and acerbic Huxley, whom we have already met. The champion of the creationist side was William Wilberforce, bishop in the Church of England, called ‘Soapy Sam’ for his slippery nature during debates, a great public speaker and about to be enshrined in history. Tempers flared when God was denied and natural explanations sought. Soapy Sam struck the lowest blow. He asked Huxley whether it was from the side of his grandmother or his grandfather that he claimed descent from a monkey. Huxley replied that he would “not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth”.
Darwin could now die peacefully!
— II —
What can the breeding habits of the green turtles, Chelonia mydas, tell us about them, or, as we shall find out, about the earth itself? The Chelonia breed on the Atlantic island of Ascension, far away from their native place on the Brazilian coast. They travel 2,000 miles to converge on this tiny island just to breed! Chelonia feed and breed on different land environments – feeding on swampy, half-submerged lands where sea grasses grow, but breeding on exposed shores with little danger from predators. But surely there will be such breeding grounds much closer than 2,000 miles from their feeding areas. A quick look at the map reveals that there are indeed suitable stretches; then why such a lengthy journey?
Evolutionists think that early on, when the Chelonia used to undertake such a journey, Ascension was close to the Brazilian coast, since the continents of South America and Africa were much closer than they are now. They were separated by, at most, a narrow stream of water. Continental drift has taken them apart and now they are as far as 2,000 miles away! However, the Chelonia had been genetically hard-wired to follow this path. Evolution, working with whatever it has, and without the option of going back to the drawing board to start all over again, worked on the Chelonia, hardening them so that they can undertake this increasingly long journey, growing inch-by-inch over millions of years! They are just keeping their traditions alive.
— III —
So, while the humble Chelonia and their breeding habits reveal the very history of the surface of the Earth, underlining one of the greatest theories of geology – that of continental drift – certain constructions on the face of India reveal her history. Imagine that you know nothing about the history of the Mughal rule in India. However, you understand monuments and different types of architecture. What would you conclude from seeing so many monuments which have minarets and arches, while the older constructions have nothing of this form?
The logical conclusion would be that Muslim rulers ruled this land for quite some time and that they were invaders. There was a long time of peace, since they built not only forts, but also monuments of beauty! Probably, some old documents can tell you the time of construction – maybe you need to date them using radiocarbon dating techniques. How about distinctly Indian features, like intricate Hindu carvings, on the walls of the Islamic buildings? That tells you that the Islamic rule in India was much less expansionist than in other parts of the world. They had spent time making allies, especially the major indigenous kings of India. But then what of the distinctly European buildings, made of bricks, devoid of arches and minarets, but having flat roofs, perpendicular walls and definitely built for a purpose? Ah, an exception!
The only way to fit this in is to factor in a European invasion. Coinage from this later era will reveal British roots. It is clear that they did not come here to spread their religion or to make peace with the local kings. Probably, they just annihilated them – the innumerable forts and cannons will bear silent testimony to that fact. The British…
I can continue, but I think I have rammed in the point enough. Exceptions tell the story!
— IV —
The old Huxley-Wilberforce drama is still being played out! Now, it is no longer a war of words, but legal battles that seem to decide the veracity of scientific truth. Fortunately, the creationist side has never won! The best chance they had was the Dover Trial (year: 2006), when some parents sued the Dover Area school board over its decision to teach “Intelligent Design” (a form of creationism) in the classroom as a valid scientific theory. Kenneth Miller, biology professor at Brown University, spent three days demolishing arguments from the creationist side. Getting their claims blown away, especially just before Christmas that year, must have hurt.
— V —
While this battle was being fought –and won– in the courtroom, an ancient artifact sitting inside cells was quietly reassuring the scientific community of the truth. We know that DNA changes – that is one of its greatest properties! But that’s just nuclear DNA – what about mitochondrial DNA? Mitochondria has DNA, unlike other cell organelle, and that itself tells us something – it was an independent cell a long time ago, probably before the rise of eukaryotic cells, which then got inextricably associated with them. But there’s more! Since mitochondrial DNA doesn’t change and is inherited into an individual only from the maternal side, we can trace back the entire lineage, looking at mitochondrial DNA matches through the length of time. We can even hope to get back to that single female individual from whom we all sprang – Eve! Again exceptions – and this time, the exception of constancy of DNA – tell the story!
It turns out that there wasn’t just one Eve, but eight Eves! All of us sprang forth from one of eight ‘Mitochondrial Eves’! Science continues to deny the Bible, this time unintentionally!
— VI —
Very close to the home of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, lie the villages of the tribals called the Santhals. Till a few years ago, the Santhals were largely isolated and it was partly due to the work of the great poet himself that they gained widespread exposure. It might be true that they weren’t even aware of the existence of the poet, who was constantly updating himself with the knowledge of the world. Just like the mitochondrial DNA, they were sitting quietly, managing to keep their traditions alive, while the world outside changed drastically! Again these exceptional tribes will provide more clues to the evolution of modern societies – and civilization – than the societies themselves, taking us back to the earliest ones.
— VII —
Evolution has an extraordinary story to tell and that is told via those numerous faint traces of things which just don’t fit in! Remarkably, even language and society as a whole speak in this tongue of anomalies. Evolution has taught the Chelonia to swim towards a dot in the middle of the sea, relying on faith that the dot exists! It has taught the nuclear DNA to mutate and hasn’t forced the mitochondrial DNA to follow suit. Resistance to change has helped the Santhals keep their traditions, and anomalies in the architectural landscape can help one chart out the history of a country.
And while the sands of Time have relentlessly denuded or constructed terrestrial features, the story is still being told to us. Softly, silently and through those clues that just don’t seem to make ordinary sense.
1. “The Panda’s Thumb” – by Stephen Jay Gould
2. Documentary: BBC Series on Darwin, hosted by Richard Dawkins
3. “The Blind Watchmaker” – by Richard Dawkins
4. Presentations by Kenneth Miller – for the part on the Dover Trial
Thanks to my senior Sayan Chakraborti for discussions on mitochondrial DNA.