Darwin showed interest in Indian biodiversity: Book

Darwin showed interest in Indian biodiversity: Book


Charles Darwin

However, Darwin, who showed a keen interest in biodiversity of the subcontinent, sourced study materials from his contacts in India, according to a recent book on Darwin by eminent writer and Marxist ideologue P Govinda Pillai.

On returning to England after his legendary five-year-long voyage around the world on 'HMS Beagle' in 1836, Darwin made enquiries on Indian flora and fauna from British scholars and officials posted in India at that time.

His Indian sources varied from scholars connected to Royal Asiatic Society in Kolkota to British political residents in the princely state of Travancore - Gen William Kallan, Pillai says in his book "Charles Darwin—Jeevithavum Kalavum" (Charles Dawrin—life and time), brought out this year to mark the 200th birth anniversary of Darwin and 150th year of publication of his work "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection".

His theory that all life species have evolved over time from common ancestors also figured in intellectual debates sparked by pioneers of Indian renaissance like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo in late 19th century and early 20th century.

It was through his friend John Grant Malcolm, a physician and geologist, that Darwin contacted Kallan and from whom he obtained some accounts of the biodiversity of not only Kerala, but also other areas in the southern peninsula like the Godavari Basin, the book says.

Though Kallan is not a popular figure in local history, being an ardent imperialist, he had a rational outlook and was a keen science enthusiast. He collected samples of fossils from places he visited, Pillai says in his book.

On coming to know about this from his friend, Darwin contacted Kallan to source some samples, including biological samples like shells of marine lives from the Bay of Bengal, Pillai notes,citing correspondence between Malcolm and Darwin.
Kallan died in 1862 in Alappuzha in Kerala and he was buried in a Protestant church there.

Besides carrying out his official duties,Kallan used to explore the ecosystem of Kerala and its natural resources. He prepared notes on them and forwarded them to his higher ups, Pillai says.

According to experts on Darwin, his "Origin of species.." and its sequel "The Descent of Man" have many references to India that he gathered from various sources, including the Curator of Asiatic Society, Edward Blyth, a multi-faceted scholar.

While Vivekananda approached "Darwinism" with a constructive but critical outlook, Aurobindo was a trenchant critic of the scientist’s theory of evolution,Pillai observes.

Once on a visit to the zoological park in Calcutta with a disciple, Vivekananda observed a python with circular skin patches. He said "the turtle might have evolved from this reptile over time. The snake might have remained static in the same place for long with its skin getting harder like that of a turtle", he noted, recalling the discovery of Darwin.

In the conversation that followed, Vivekananda, however, said it was difficult for him to accept Darwin’s theory as the final word on evolution and said ancient Indian sages had discussed the subject in their works like the "Samkhya darshan" of Kapila, Pillai said in his book.

However, Aurobindo was persistent in his criticism of Darwinism, which he saw as a stepping stone to "crass materialism" and socialism, it said.

"The aim of both Vivekananda and Aurobindo could have been to establish that the concept of evolution was nothing new to ancient Indian philosophers. But it is clear that both of them had studied Darwin deeply and thought about the far-reaching impact of his theory", Pillai noted.

Darwinism had its references not only in the works of the torch-bearers of Indian renaissance, but also in the 19th century literary works, Pillai points out.

For instance, the first Malayalam novel “Indulekha” by O Chandu Menon had a reference to Darwinism in the form of a lengthy conversation among some of the leading characters.

Indulekha was published in 1889, seven years after Darwin’s death. A judicial officer in the British service, the novel’s focus is transformation of the traditional Kerala society under the influence of men who had the benefit of English education introduced by British rule since the 19th century.

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