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Controversy: Caste and science

HOT AIR AND COLD FUSION

  Beleaguered academics threatened by “publish or perish” syndrome have jumped on the Aryan invasion bandwagon, claiming to use genetics to prove it.

 

N.S. Rajaram

 

Genetics of the Aryan invasion

            In an article titled “Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations,” eighteen authors, mainly from Utah in the U.S. and Vishakapatnam in India, led by Michael Bamshad of the Department of Pediatrics from the University of Utah make the claim that there were several waves of immigration into India, the last of which (from Europe) was responsible for the caste system. In their words:

            “In the most recent of these waves [of immigration], Indo-European speaking people from West Eurasia entered India from the Northwest and diffused throughout the subcontinent. They purportedly admixed with or displaced Dravidic-speaking populations. Subsequently, they may have established the Hindu caste system and placed themselves in castes of higher rank.”

            In his press statements, Bamshad has gone much further claiming “we are able to demonstrate unequivocally that the upper castes are more similar to Europeans than lower castes..." This finding, they claim to be based on genetics.

To a scientifically informed person knowledgeable about the field, it is apparent even at first glance that it is the Aryan invasion theory all over again, along with its associated Aryan-Dravidian conflicts. This is now presented as the product of ‘genetics research’, protected from scrutiny by opaque jargon-filled language. Genetics of course cannot tell if some people living thousands of years ago were Aryan speaking or ‘Dravidic-speakers’. What Bamshad & co are presenting is simply their presumption, which they are trying to pass off as ‘scientific findings’ using some samples — all from near Vishakapatnam — and some numerical measures, which they claim indicates the nearness of Indian population groups to the people of Europe. Their specific claim is that upper caste Hindus are genetically closer to Europeans whereas lower and middle castes are Asiatics.

            All this of course is part of the Marxist claim— that ‘class’ became ‘caste’ in India, imposed by the Aryan invaders. And now all this is ‘proved’ by the magic of science! So at one stroke, this Utah pediatrician and his Dravidian colleagues, aided by samples from Vishakapatnam, have shown that both the colonial-imposed Aryan invasion — part of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ but now adopted by Indian Marxists — and the class-to-caste transition propounded Indian Marxists (and Dravidian politicians) are supported by genetics!

 

Contradictions

            But the sheen was off the claim almost immediately after it was made. The same week, Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford University, made exactly the opposite claim: the British white population carries African and Asian genes. (The same must hold for other European populations.) But unlike the Utah researchers, he made no claims about their relationship to upper and lower class Britishers and their ancestry.  So what does all this mean? It means that over tens of thousands of years, human populations have moved over large areas, and it is impossible reduce it to simplistic models favored by invasionists (successors to the ‘White Man’s Burden’) and Marxists. Further, it is misleading to use terms like ‘European’ and ‘West Eurasian’ to people so long ago, when they may not yet have moved into Europe or Eurasia from their original home in Africa— or even possibly India as Indian records indicate. (So Europeans could be carrying Indian traces rather than vice versa.)

            There is also a fundamental scientific fallacy in the Utah study. Caste and language — like religion — is a man-made classification, not a law of nature. It is absurd to assign laws of nature to them, although Marxists believe that their classification is also a scientific law of history. Actually, Sir Julian Huxley warned against it long ago: “In 1848 the young German scholar Friedrich Max Müller (1823 – 1900) settled in Oxford. …About 1853, he introduced into English usage the unlucky term Aryan as applied to a large group of languages. …Moreover, Max Müller threw another apple of discord. He introduced a proposition that is demonstrably false. He spoke not only of a definite Aryan language and its descendants, but also of a corresponding ‘Aryan race’. The idea was rapidly taken up both in Germany and in England.”

Now, thanks to Bamshad & co, this discredited notion as well as the Marxist Class-to-Caste Law become scientific! If their theory (based on a sample from Vishakapatnam) has any validity at al, then Brahmins and Kshatriyas all over India must have some common physical features indicating their European ancestry. But they do not. For example, Brahmins and Kshatriyas in Kerala look like Keralites, those from Assam look like Assamese and those from Kashmir look like Kashmiris. This diversity goes to show that the Indian population is ancient, having lived in the same region long enough to have adapted to the environment by natural selection. What they have in common are certain cultural traits modified by regional factors like language, dress and food. These are acquired characteristics that have nothing to do with genetics.

            These Utah researchers should perhaps next apply their methodology to Christians. They can then discover Catholic genes and Protestant genes. And among Protestants they may further find Anglican genes, Lutheran genes, Methodist genes, Baptist genes— all the way down to Mormon genes in the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City, Utah. Their methodology is the kind of numerology that can be used to prove anything anywhere. In plain English, their science is just so much hot air.

 

Academic prestige: image and reality

            At the heart of this approach is a belief that academic prestige can overcome unsound scholarship. The goal of some of these academics, especially in the West, is not so much to make or present true scientific discoveries, but use the prestige that goes with their position to bluff and bulldoze Indians, in the hope no one will dare question them. This was also the thinking behind a recent propaganda campaign launched by a couple of ‘Indologists’ that tried to bluff their way with assertions like “No horse at Harappa, and any evidence to the contrary must be faked.” To some extent, their faith in the servility of the Indian intelligentsia is justified: Indian journalists in particular rarely question any statement by a Western scholar. They believe that anything coming from the West must be true, and it is not for any Indian to question it.

As a former U.S. academic I have the unhappy duty to point out that the University of Utah and many others in the U.S. are by no means distinguished for research excellence. Some may recall that more than ten years ago a couple of electrochemists from the University of Utah (Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman) claimed that they had created ‘Cold Fusion’ in a bottle. This amounted to the claim that they could create and control an unlimited energy source like a hydrogen bomb in a bottle, which would eventually solve the world’s energy problems. It hasn’t turned out that way. Calfornia is having daily blackouts. The work reported by Michael Bamshad and his colleagues — also from the University of Utah of Cold Fusion fame — falls in the same category.

The message of all this is that any claim should be subjected to critical scrutiny and not accepted simply because it happens to come from a person and/or institution that enjoys prestige. To take an example from the other extreme, the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam was working as a clerk in the Madras Port Trust when he made some of the greatest discoveries in modern mathematics. And Albert Einstein was himself a ‘Clerk, Third Class’ at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern when he discovered the Special Theory of Relativity. Yielding to prestige is the response of an illiterate.

 

Institutional problems

            What is happening in academia that such extravagant claims that fail to stand scientific scrutiny should be becoming increasingly more frequent? One might almost say, the less substantial the research, the more extravagant the claim made for it. It is a complex issue, but may be summarized as deriving from polarization of academic life in the U.S. There is a severe shortage of technically qualified people. As a result, U.S. is forced to import scientists and engineers in large numbers. Soon, teachers will be in short supply. This shows that American universities, especially research universities, are just not graduating enough scientists and engineers— or even science teachers. The feeling is widespread in America — among the public as well as in official circles — that universities are neglecting the educational needs of the country in the name of research. This has reduced the flow of money into universities, forcing them increasingly to seek funding from outside for their research: all they have to sell is their ‘research’, not their usefulness to society or meeting its educational needs. The demand for such funds is always greater than the supply. As a result, these researchers have also to be salesmen.

This has resulted in an explosion of journals and other publications, recently supplemented by electronic journals (web sites). To be heard in this cacophony of claims and demands, one is forced to make more and more extravagant claims. Quality becomes secondary and quantity becomes all-important. This is called ‘publish or perish’; it is not entirely new, but now it has assumed unmanageable proportions. In such an environment, survival takes precedence over concern for quality or even truth. So almost anything is published as long as it adds to the researcher’s biodata. This is what is behind publications like the one authored by Bamshad & co.

            At the same time, it is nobody’s argument that there have been no migrations into India or that the Indian population has always been racially pure. But the Marxist and Western Indological (colonial) claim is that the Indian civilization is mainly of foreign origin. This simply has no support. It does not matter even if all Indians are of foreign origin, sometime in the remote past: but the claim that the Vedas and everything that the Hindu civilization produced is a product of invasion— is massively contradicted by evidence. We cannot ignore all this evidence — from archaeology, river systems, literature and so forth — and accept some theories based on preconceptions. The same people who insist that we must acknowledge the contribution of Europe or Eurasia also insist that the Vedic and Harappan civilizations must be kept separated— even though the two flourished in the same geographic region and used similar symbolism. (For a description of this see http://sathyavaadi.tripod.com/truthisgod/id10.html)

            In the final analysis, what we are witnessing is a struggle for survival by a disenfranchised academic priesthood that will resort to any means to ensure its survival. And this includes hot air and Cold Fusion.