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November 09, 2020 | Murtaza Ahmad Shah

Muslims and the theory of evolution

Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, once famously quoted, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. This statement not only tries to appreciate the enormous explanatory power of the theory of evolution in the biological realm, but also gives us an idea of the acceptance and importance of the theory among the mainstream scientific community.

This theory, like all scientific theories, has been arrived at by following, what is known as the “scientific method” which, in simple terms, is: (1) observing some phenomenon/phenomena, (2) developing a “hypothesis” which actually is a model to explain those phenomena, (3) making predictions (if possible) based on the model (4) and lastly, testing the hypothesis by experimentation (evidence). If even a single evidence is found against the model, or its predictions are proven wrong, the model (hypothesis or theory) is discarded and a new one is developed. This too is then subjected to the same scientific method until a model is developed which, most correctly, explains the occurrence of the observed phenomena or makes accurate predictions. This will be the “working model” or “theory” which will explain the phenomena and answer some of the questions like: why does the event occur, how does it occur, the circumstances under which it will or won’t occur, etc. A scientific theory loses its validity i.e., ceases to be a “working model”, when even a single observation is found to contradict the theory. For instance, Newtonian classical mechanics appropriately explains the physical events at large scales of our size and even makes precise predictions about the orbits of celestial bodies, but it couldn’t explain or predict the phenomena at the subatomic level, which is why a whole new model, the Quantum Mechanics, was developed.

Now the theory of evolution, as it is called, is currently a “working model” in biology as it explains and answers many of the intriguing questions about the living world. For example, the progression of life forms from simple to complex organisms, from prokaryotes to eukaryotes and in the animal kingdom from poriferans and cnidarians to platy-helminths and nematodes to arthropods and then to vertebrates is such smooth, subtle and splendid that the only explanation one could think of, is evolutionary gradual change over millions of years. Similarly, the occurrence of fossils of these organisms in their respective layers of the crest, as predicted by the theory, is a bonus point to the theory. Now one wrong fossil in the wrong layer is sufficient to make the theory invalid. Same point was highlighted by the eminent biologist J. B. S. Haldane. When asked what would disprove evolution, Haldane famously growled: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” But neither fossils of rabbits have been found in the Precambrian era nor any other fossil has been found ‘misplaced’ anywhere! And hence the theory continues to be a valid theory, just like all other working models continue to be “working”. I have given here the example of smooth progression from simple to complex organisms and of fossils only. This doesn’t mean evolution explains these two phenomena only. It, of course, explains thousands of events across the biological world, all of which can’t be described here.

Initially the theory was mainly Darwinian, but later the discovery of DNA as a genetic material and several other developments in genetics (Mendelian as well as post-Mendelian) lead to modification of the original theory to become what is today known as the “modern synthesis”. But the crux of the theory remained the same i.e., “descent with modification”. And the answer to the question of “How did all this diversity and complexity among living organisms come about?” always remained the same, which is “through gradual accumulation of minute, subtle variations over millions and millions of years.”

The theory of evolution is a valid theory, accepted by the mainstream scientific community just like the theory of relativity or of Quantum mechanics, because there is no reason to reject it on scientific grounds. As years pass by, more and more data seems to correlate with the theory; for example, the development of antibiotic resistance in microbes demonstrates the evolution of microbes in response to selection pressure which we subject them to. Therefore, even if evolution, like any scientific theory, is susceptible to becoming invalid (if evidence will be found against it), still the past and current accumulating evidence in its favour makes it more and more established than ever before. Therefore, in the mainstream evolutionary biology, the theory is accepted as valid and working like any other valid scientific theory.

Having said this, the theory has been opposed so vehemently that never has any theory in science met such opposition. This opposition is actually directed against its basic tenets of “descent with modification” and “natural selection”. But it comes not from the scientific community, but from purely religious circles, which in our case is Islam. And the arguments that are given against the theory are so scientifically naive and ignorant that one is left embarrassed. One of the arguments from some Islamic scholars, notably Dr ZakirNaik, is that “it is just a theory, and not a law.” This so-called argument emanates from the ignorance one carries about how the scientific method works (which I have explained at the beginning of this article). There is no such dichotomy between “theory” and “law” in science as has been understood. A “scientific theory” explains and answers the “why, how-questions” of an observed phenomenon. A theory is not hierarchically inferior to a “law” in science simply because: one, there is no such hierarchy in science, and two, a “law” is a statement describing a phenomenon; whereas, a “scientific theory” is the explanation of such a description as to why and how this phenomenon occurs. For example, “Water extinguishes fire” is a law; but “It extinguishes fire because...so and so forth” is its scientific theory.

Given the fact that the evolutionary theory is such an accepted and valid theory among the mainstream scientific academia, and evolutionary biology is scintillating with more evidence than ever before, a natural question arises when Islam comes to the desk. Human origin, as Quran describes it, seems to be in disagreement with the evolutionary theory as Quran in 15:28-29 says,

“And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “I will create a human being out of clay from an altered black mud. And when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration.”

My purpose of writing this article is not to try to explain the possible solution to this apparent lack of consensus between the Islamic and Evolutionary narrative of the origin of humans, but rather to impress on the need, for the Muslims in general and the Islamic scholars and scientists in particular, to change the approach that they have towards an accepted scientific theory (evolution). If you can somehow make the evolutionary and Islamic narrative agree with each other, or if you have to counter the theory of evolution altogether, whatever you want to do, do it on scientific grounds with valid arguments and evidence, not just try to evade the situation by “just-a-theory type of argument”. If your criticism or any other position vis-à-visthe evolutionary theory can be accepted by a reputed scientific journal as a scientific research paper, then only you will be taken seriously. Otherwise, passing lame comments on evolutionary theory out of religious emotion will do nothing to the general consensus among the scientific community about the theory.

The famous Islamic scholar YasirQadhi also guages the importance of this issue, as he says:

“We, as muslims, need to understand that the theory of evolution pretty much has been accepted as much of a scientific fact as any other scientific theory. We need to stop deluding ourselves by saying that “Oh, it is only a theory”. That is not a very academic way to phrase this...We need to educate ourselves in this point”.

Therefore, we definitely need to educate ourselves about the theory of evolution and we need to relook into and change our ignoring approach towards the theory. Our replies, responses, criticism or acknowledgements about this scientific theory should be on academic levels, in scientific journals, on those platforms which this theory is being debated on. And in doing this, we first need to acknowledge the validity and scientific basis of this theory.

Author is a medical student pursuing MBBS from SKIMS Medical College, Srinagar

smurtaza396@gmail.com

 

Archive
November 09, 2020 | Murtaza Ahmad Shah

Muslims and the theory of evolution

              

Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, once famously quoted, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. This statement not only tries to appreciate the enormous explanatory power of the theory of evolution in the biological realm, but also gives us an idea of the acceptance and importance of the theory among the mainstream scientific community.

This theory, like all scientific theories, has been arrived at by following, what is known as the “scientific method” which, in simple terms, is: (1) observing some phenomenon/phenomena, (2) developing a “hypothesis” which actually is a model to explain those phenomena, (3) making predictions (if possible) based on the model (4) and lastly, testing the hypothesis by experimentation (evidence). If even a single evidence is found against the model, or its predictions are proven wrong, the model (hypothesis or theory) is discarded and a new one is developed. This too is then subjected to the same scientific method until a model is developed which, most correctly, explains the occurrence of the observed phenomena or makes accurate predictions. This will be the “working model” or “theory” which will explain the phenomena and answer some of the questions like: why does the event occur, how does it occur, the circumstances under which it will or won’t occur, etc. A scientific theory loses its validity i.e., ceases to be a “working model”, when even a single observation is found to contradict the theory. For instance, Newtonian classical mechanics appropriately explains the physical events at large scales of our size and even makes precise predictions about the orbits of celestial bodies, but it couldn’t explain or predict the phenomena at the subatomic level, which is why a whole new model, the Quantum Mechanics, was developed.

Now the theory of evolution, as it is called, is currently a “working model” in biology as it explains and answers many of the intriguing questions about the living world. For example, the progression of life forms from simple to complex organisms, from prokaryotes to eukaryotes and in the animal kingdom from poriferans and cnidarians to platy-helminths and nematodes to arthropods and then to vertebrates is such smooth, subtle and splendid that the only explanation one could think of, is evolutionary gradual change over millions of years. Similarly, the occurrence of fossils of these organisms in their respective layers of the crest, as predicted by the theory, is a bonus point to the theory. Now one wrong fossil in the wrong layer is sufficient to make the theory invalid. Same point was highlighted by the eminent biologist J. B. S. Haldane. When asked what would disprove evolution, Haldane famously growled: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” But neither fossils of rabbits have been found in the Precambrian era nor any other fossil has been found ‘misplaced’ anywhere! And hence the theory continues to be a valid theory, just like all other working models continue to be “working”. I have given here the example of smooth progression from simple to complex organisms and of fossils only. This doesn’t mean evolution explains these two phenomena only. It, of course, explains thousands of events across the biological world, all of which can’t be described here.

Initially the theory was mainly Darwinian, but later the discovery of DNA as a genetic material and several other developments in genetics (Mendelian as well as post-Mendelian) lead to modification of the original theory to become what is today known as the “modern synthesis”. But the crux of the theory remained the same i.e., “descent with modification”. And the answer to the question of “How did all this diversity and complexity among living organisms come about?” always remained the same, which is “through gradual accumulation of minute, subtle variations over millions and millions of years.”

The theory of evolution is a valid theory, accepted by the mainstream scientific community just like the theory of relativity or of Quantum mechanics, because there is no reason to reject it on scientific grounds. As years pass by, more and more data seems to correlate with the theory; for example, the development of antibiotic resistance in microbes demonstrates the evolution of microbes in response to selection pressure which we subject them to. Therefore, even if evolution, like any scientific theory, is susceptible to becoming invalid (if evidence will be found against it), still the past and current accumulating evidence in its favour makes it more and more established than ever before. Therefore, in the mainstream evolutionary biology, the theory is accepted as valid and working like any other valid scientific theory.

Having said this, the theory has been opposed so vehemently that never has any theory in science met such opposition. This opposition is actually directed against its basic tenets of “descent with modification” and “natural selection”. But it comes not from the scientific community, but from purely religious circles, which in our case is Islam. And the arguments that are given against the theory are so scientifically naive and ignorant that one is left embarrassed. One of the arguments from some Islamic scholars, notably Dr ZakirNaik, is that “it is just a theory, and not a law.” This so-called argument emanates from the ignorance one carries about how the scientific method works (which I have explained at the beginning of this article). There is no such dichotomy between “theory” and “law” in science as has been understood. A “scientific theory” explains and answers the “why, how-questions” of an observed phenomenon. A theory is not hierarchically inferior to a “law” in science simply because: one, there is no such hierarchy in science, and two, a “law” is a statement describing a phenomenon; whereas, a “scientific theory” is the explanation of such a description as to why and how this phenomenon occurs. For example, “Water extinguishes fire” is a law; but “It extinguishes fire because...so and so forth” is its scientific theory.

Given the fact that the evolutionary theory is such an accepted and valid theory among the mainstream scientific academia, and evolutionary biology is scintillating with more evidence than ever before, a natural question arises when Islam comes to the desk. Human origin, as Quran describes it, seems to be in disagreement with the evolutionary theory as Quran in 15:28-29 says,

“And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “I will create a human being out of clay from an altered black mud. And when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration.”

My purpose of writing this article is not to try to explain the possible solution to this apparent lack of consensus between the Islamic and Evolutionary narrative of the origin of humans, but rather to impress on the need, for the Muslims in general and the Islamic scholars and scientists in particular, to change the approach that they have towards an accepted scientific theory (evolution). If you can somehow make the evolutionary and Islamic narrative agree with each other, or if you have to counter the theory of evolution altogether, whatever you want to do, do it on scientific grounds with valid arguments and evidence, not just try to evade the situation by “just-a-theory type of argument”. If your criticism or any other position vis-à-visthe evolutionary theory can be accepted by a reputed scientific journal as a scientific research paper, then only you will be taken seriously. Otherwise, passing lame comments on evolutionary theory out of religious emotion will do nothing to the general consensus among the scientific community about the theory.

The famous Islamic scholar YasirQadhi also guages the importance of this issue, as he says:

“We, as muslims, need to understand that the theory of evolution pretty much has been accepted as much of a scientific fact as any other scientific theory. We need to stop deluding ourselves by saying that “Oh, it is only a theory”. That is not a very academic way to phrase this...We need to educate ourselves in this point”.

Therefore, we definitely need to educate ourselves about the theory of evolution and we need to relook into and change our ignoring approach towards the theory. Our replies, responses, criticism or acknowledgements about this scientific theory should be on academic levels, in scientific journals, on those platforms which this theory is being debated on. And in doing this, we first need to acknowledge the validity and scientific basis of this theory.

Author is a medical student pursuing MBBS from SKIMS Medical College, Srinagar

smurtaza396@gmail.com

 

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