Although Darwin has managed to whip up a frenzy for unleashing a ‘dangerous idea’ that supposedly undercuts religious beliefs about creationism- that all species were concurrently created in their present form by God a couple of thousand years ago- the fact is that in his magnum opus ‘The Origin of Species’, based on his painstaking practical observations during his extensive scientific forays in and around South America, the Galápagos Islands in particular, Darwin just shows how one species gradually changes into another, without really exploring in detail the origin of life. His basic premise, that all life forms evolved from a single cell organism, came in later articles. The one thing the Catholic Church latched on to, about apes being man’s immediate forefather, earned him a great deal of scorn for not only belittling man, but also belittling the word of God.
Geologists of the early 19th century, by virtue of observing the erosion patterns in mountains/rocks, had already realised that it must have taken an exceedingly long period of time to reach this state. The fact that species continue to change was also apparent much earlier. Darwin can however be credited for explaining precisely how and why it happens. His theory that evolution occurred through a natural process of selection proved highly detrimental to religious beliefs as it presupposes that even the most complex of things can be automatically designed through a sequential process of cumulative natural selection.
The ubiquitous face behind the theory of evolution is indeed that of Charles Darwin and thus it comes as no surprise that most of us have never come across the name of a multi-faceted Persian genius named Nasir al-Din Tusi. Almost 600 years before Darwin was born, Tusi had laid out the broad contours of the evolution of species in his epic work Akhlaq-i-Nasri. He painstakingly explained how the universe, which once consisted of equal and similar elements, began experiencing internal changes, leading to their evolution from minerals to plants to animals and finally humans. He had also talked about mutations, adaptability and hereditary variability, all pillars of the evolutionary process. Being a master theologian also, who attained the highest grade of Marja Taqleed, Tusi couldn’t resist adding that man can only really achieve higher developmental standards if it learns to suppress the basic bestiality embedded in its nature through willpower and perseverance. For the record, Tusi, apart from being a biologist and a theologian, was also an architect, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, chemist, physician, philosopher and a prolific writer.
Since Darwin’s time, however, science has progressed beyond the constraints of environment, competition and cooperation to factor in ‘heredity’ and ‘genes’ into the theory of evolution to clarify for instance why children resemble their parents and why, during the process of grooming into a fully formed adult, the right kinds of cells are generated in the right order. Any new gene which develops, a mutation to be precise, is generally due to a copying error which, in the long term, helps it to survive by being more adaptive to its environment. Science has also established the existence of something called ‘random drift’, owing to which genes can also change for reasons other than their impact on survival and reproduction, which forms the basis of natural selection. These two aspects however increase the chances for a mutation to get passed on to the next generation. It is now a well-established fact that genes do affect behaviour in some way.
Briefly, as per the Evolution theory, the first simple cells appeared around 3.5 billion years ago, more than a billion years after the formation of the earth. These cells evolved into more complex ones(with a nucleus) about 1.3 billion years later. The first multi-cellular life forms, jellyfish and worms, took another 1.2 billion years to evolve, followed by fish and plants a hundred million years later. It was only around 370 million years ago that animals, both vertebrates and invertebrates, began to colonise the land, with the various types of dinosaurs proving to be a formidable and forbidding presence.
It is believed that at least five really huge mass extinctions have taken place on earth, the last one happening about 65 million years ago, when all dinosaurs and upto 75% of all marine species perished. With the dinosaurs becoming history, the early mammals, which had been relegated to the periphery, now began to flourish, with the first primates, monkeys and apes, making their appearance some 30 million years later.
Linus Pauling, winner of a Nobel prize in chemistry, had showed(in 1961) that humans had diverged from gorillas about 11 million years ago, much earlier than previously suspected. Homo Erectus, man’s ancestor in a way, arose around 2.9 million years ago, but were wiped out before the Homo Sapiens(modern humans) made their appearance. It is now believed that many human species, such as the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the Homo Floresiencis( a dimunitive hobbit-like people which used to inhabit present day Indonesia) and Homo Sapiens flourished around a hundred thousand years ago.
The prevalent view is that human-like lifeforms originated in Africa and later moved out in waves of migrations. Common ancestors of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens probably lived around half a million years ago in parts of Africa and Europe. A few hundred thousand years later, the European and African populations of this hominid, living in genetic isolation, evolved into the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens respectively. About 60,000 years ago, these humans tentatively and gradually moved out of Africa, coming into contact with other hominid species, which it wiped out in due course, with the Neanderthals disappearing about 30,000 years ago.
There have been four major game changers in the history of human evolution: the use of fire, the fashioning of tools, the tilling of the land and finally, the power of speech. The discovery of fire around a million years ago conferred definite advantages in that it enabled the early humans to stay warm, socialise, protect themselves from nighttime predators and to make food more digestible through cooking. Basic bone tools created by the Neanderthals were improved upon by the Homo Sapiens, who began using relatively advanced stone tools such as knife blades, spear points and engraving/drilling implements. Agriculture helped the humans to colonise the land and furnish an alternate means of subsistence. The greatest of them all, which allowed the Homo Sapiens to gain preponderance over all other species, occurred because of two minute changes in a gene that conferred the power of speech on them about a hundred thousand years ago.
More than 160 years after Darwin made his case for the evolution of species through natural selection, a growing body of scientific evidence has strengthened it further. There are various reasons why it fell afoul of the Christian clerical establishment and why it continues to attract severe condemnation. Firstly, the clerics tend to rely completely on a literal interpretation of the religious texts, according to which each of the species were independently created at the beginning of time, remaining unaltered thereafter, and that, based on a genealogy of the prophets of yore, the earth could not be more than 7000 years old, too young in fact for species to evolve naturally. Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, they have instantly though incorrectly concluded that the theory of evolution by natural selection precludes the need for a Creator. Thirdly, they are allergic to the idea of the human species, which they consider to be the crowning glory of God’s creation, having descended from an ape. Fourthly, and perhaps most important, they are at a loss to counter the vast body of scientific evidence through definitive proof of their own.
It is apparent from the Islamic perspective that even if we take the episode of Adam and Eve(PBUT) literally rather than allegorically, the descent of the couple to earth was predestined. Now if Adam(PBUH) was sent down as a Prophet, it is unreasonable to believe that there weren’t any pre-existing intelligent life to preach to and reform. By combining the religious, scientific and traditional narratives, it can be presumed that when Adam and Eve(PBUT) arrived in Africa(via Sri Lanka, which was physically co-located at the time) some 30 thousand years ago(based again on a presupposition), human beings, who could communicate with each other, had already evolved into a separate species, whose DNA did not have much in common with their closest cousins, the Neanderthals. This provides the only possible explanation for Adam and Eve’s direct descendants having multiplied through interaction with the human beings already present there, rather than through incest, which is not permissible in any monotheistic religion. This can also possibly explain as to why more evolutionary changes, in terms of civilisation, have occurred in the past 30,000 years than in the previous 3 billion.
Religious texts also indicate that sometime between Adam’s time and the present, the Earth, after being flooded through incessant rainfall, was reinvigorated by the descendants of Noah(PBUH) and of the species which he carried with him on the Ark(this being gleaned from tradition, not from the Quran itself). If taken literally, it appears implausible that so many different species of flora and fauna can ever be accommodated on a vessel of that size. But if seen in an allegorical context, the DNA of the species could easily have been thus preserved without consuming much space. Scientists have determined that sea levels about 15,000 years ago were 100 meters or so lower than today, which roughly conforms to the time of Noah’s flood. Coincidence? This I leave to the reader to decide. On a similar note, albeit with a maladjusted timeline, two distinguished marine geologists from New York’s Columbia University, proffered scientific proof that a catastrophic flood did engulf the Black Sea region around 7600 years ago(“Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History”, published 1999).
Now since the theory of evolution through natural selection is backed up by a plethora of scientific evidence, I personally feel that we shouldn’t deny the undeniable and focus our attention on reconciling the two world-views. We can perhaps reason, as William Paley did in his 1803 book ‘Natural Theology’ that adaptations couldn’t have happened by chance and are more likely to have been put together by a designer(God) for a purpose.
Science merely aims to discover and uncover facts based on scientific observations. So scientists normally stay away from a philosophical debate on whether life exists for a purpose. The Quran, by contrast, clearly alludes to this higher purpose by specifying that the heavens and the earth, and everything in between, have not been created for idle sport, but for ascertaining the truth, and goes on to clearly outline what it expects man to do and what not to do.
The major hurdle in effecting some sort of a reconciliation between the two positions is the rigidity of the stances adopted by the scientific community and the religious right. One holds that conclusions can only be reached on the basis of sound scientific observations, though the theories formulated can be tinkered with to adjust to the newer observations which surface. The other is adamant that God created everything in their current forms, which is obviously not true. The trouble is they don’t speak the same language.
Let’s look at the commonalities for a change. Science holds that the first single-celled lifeforms emerged from a stagnant pool of water under propitious conditions. The Quran also clearly mentions that all beasts and men were created from water. The Quran further talks about the formation of an adult in stages, commencing with the fusion of two cells, the only difference being that science gives a specific name to the process: cumulative natural selection. The same logic can be extended I suppose to the origin and evolution of life in general. But when science refers to the creation of life occurring under the right conditions and being accentuated by chemical processes, the question which organised religion should be asking is who created these conditions in the first place and set into motion the required chemical processes almost 10 billion years after the Big Bang.
The Quran again talks about creating man from nothing but clay(a non-living matter found in the earth’s outer crust) and also about creating life, then repeating the process, both of which are in conformity with the theory of evolution in vogue. It is also striking that the first organisms to evolve on earth were all asexual. Adam(PBUH) who though created fully formed, was again fashioned from a non-living matter, clay. When the Quran talks about creating everything from a single source, most Muslims take that to mean Adam, though it could very well refer to the first common ancestor of all living things.
Researchers dabbling in Artificial Intelligence have been using these evolutionary ideas to simulate life within a computer by randomly generating a few initial programs and allowing them to compete rather than writing the program themselves. Why can’t computer simulations, they reasoned, duplicate the evolutionary process in real life, and proceeded to prove just that. Thomas Ray, in the early 1990s, stretched this approach a bit further and designed a virtual world, Tierra, which he proceeded to populate with a single genetic algorithm and then watched it make copies of itself, replicating life, without any further input from his side. Proponents of lifeforms evolving on their own need to be reminded that just as the initial computer program has to be generated by an human expert, real life too needs a Creator to evolve in the way it did in a solitary minuscule planet surrounded by billions of galaxies. If the evolutionary process can be compared to ‘raw’ nature, it is the will of Allah that drives it and gives it a sense of purpose.
If we delve a bit deeper into the Quran, we find that it talks of the creation of man from dust, prior scattering the species far and wide, as one of His wondrous signs. When the Quran talks about the sun, the moon and the stars being all governed by the laws devised by him, why can’t we extend this reasoning to encompass the laws governing the evolution process? The Quran exhorts man to think from what he has been created from. When scientists endeavour to do so, why should they be so assailed by the religious right? The Quran also expresses surprise at man not celebrating His praises when he knows about the first form of creation. Is the latter a reference to Adam(PBUH) or to the discoveries made by the biologists? All this should furnish us with sufficient food for thought that the Quran, if not supportive of the Evolution Theory in clear terms(as much as the sceptics would like), does not negate it either.
I think we inadvertently tend to demean the Creator we worship when instead of appreciating the beauty of the creation which He has patiently fashioned out of virtually nothing(remember the Big Bang) and the wonderful balance He has struck on earth and in the vast spaces beyond, through laws devised by him, we expect Him to think like us impatient mortals, and to use magic for generating instant creation. Since the evolutionary process by whatever name we chose to call it , is still going on, and being governed by the laws of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, as devised by the Creator, isn’t it unreasonable to assume that the process had not been initiated by the same laws? The Almighty works in mysterious ways, the only problem being that those who claim to represent His interests on earth expect Him to behave as they think He should.
Note: This article was published in the August 2017 edition of the ‘Global Age’ monthly magazine.