بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
A subject that has received significant attention and discussion in the modern and post-modern era is that of Darwinian Evolution, and the consequences it has for our religious, philosophical, or metaphysical beliefs. I want to address this topic from an Islamic point of view. Of course, I do not claim to represent Islam or Muslims in any way; these views only represent one person and that’s me. I hope to follow up on this with another post that addresses human evolution specifically, In Sha Allah.
Since this is a highly contentious topic, it’s probably worth getting some definitions out of the way in order to avoid confusion. I’ll define evolution as life forms changing over time, agnostic to the cause of that change. Darwinian Evolution is the theory that life started from very simple forms and then evolved to what it is now, through a process of unguided random mutations causing variation, and natural selection acting upon that variation.
Naturalism is the belief that all that exists is the observable natural world. Methodological naturalism is the belief that scientists should adopt naturalism as their belief when doing science and rule out any hypotheses whose implications might contradict it. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that naturalism is a correct description of the universe. Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the only way to discover truth.
“Evolution is a Fact, Not a Theory”
This statement gets repeated many times in university lecture halls, high school classrooms, public speeches, TV, the radio, newspapers, etc. The people who say it need a primer on philosophy of science. And also, it’s one of those tricks where they’re talking about evidence that supports change-over-time evolution but they make it sound like irrefutably proves Darwinian Evolution. Darwinian Evolution, like many other theories, has evidence going both for it and against it.
The Case of Gravity
Take, for example, gravity. Whenever you question Darwinian Evolution, its proponents often quip, “why don’t you question gravity? We have as much evidence for evolution as we do for gravity!” It’s quite interesting that they say this. Even ignoring Newtonian physics entirely and focusing entirely on Einstein’s theories, it’s clear that our current knowledge about gravity is completely wrong. First of all, it’s incompatible with quantum mechanics, which is a scientific theory used to understand how particles behave at a small scale. Secondly, it’s irreconcilable with our observations of the galaxies, which the theory predicts should disintegrate due to their high rotational velocities.
Despite decades of active research, there haven’t been any serious proposed solutions to the first problem, but to get over the second, scientists have invented the concept of “dark matter” to basically correct for the disparities. This alleged entity has not been directly observed even once in nature, but magically, there is just enough of it to make up for the problems in Einstein’s theory – any less and the galaxies would come apart just the same, any more and they would collapse in on themselves. (Note: this is extremely over-simplified but the general point stands.) “Dark energy” is somewhat similar to dark matter in that it hasn’t been directly observed, but it’s been postulated as an answer to why the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, despite no theory of ours predicting that.
As you can see, we’ve been studying gravity for hundreds of years, and the best theory we’ve been able to come up with neither scales up nor down. This shows how fragile of an endeavor science is, because of its inductive and probabilistic nature, and how often it can lead us to wrong and/or contradictory conclusions. The point I want to make is: we could be undergoing the same process when it comes to Darwinian Evolution. Even if the theory was sound from a scientific point of view based on our current observations in biology, that doesn’t mean it’s a fact. And as I’ll mention, there are many, many problems with Darwinian Evolution from a scientific point of view also.
Not Enough Time
The first problem I’d like to address is the too-short timeline. Darwinian Evolution says that there are random mutations in the genetic code, these mutations cause variation in the physical forms of species, and then natural selection acts upon these forms and causes change over time. Yes, there are other sources of variation such as genetic drift, but the main source of variation by which new phenotypes allegedly emerge is random mutation.
However, recent discoveries about DNA have called this account into question. The genetic code is large, complex, interconnected, and nonlinear in the way genes are mapped to phenotypes. Mutations can cause certain enzymes to increase or decrease, but using mutations to add a new phenotype or significantly alter an existing one is not straightforward at all. If it’s a trial-and-error process, you’re going to need a whole lot of error.
In essence, Darwinian Evolution says that natural selection got lucky, because the mutations happened in just the right spot to produce/alter phenotypes in a way that allowed natural selection to act usefully upon them – again, and again, and again. In other words: it was random chance.
There have been some efforts to quantify the probability of this happening, and they’ve found that it’s less probable than randomly picking a particular atom from among all the atoms in the universe many times in a row, or something crazy like that.
The claim that the question isn’t worth asking because if it hadn’t happened we wouldn’t be here to ask it is silly. One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence. And the hypothesis that all possible universes exist, therefore any minutely probable event will happen in some universe, is a cop-out and dispenses with the attempt to explain anything.
The Fossil Record
Darwinian Evolution predicts that there’s gradual change over time. But the fossil record is saying something completely different: it shows that species appear seemingly out of nowhere, stay pretty much exactly the same for millions of years, then disappear. And for many of the species that exist today, we have fossils of them from up to 10s of millions of years ago, and there are no major changes.
For most of the species that existed in the past, it’s unclear which species they evolved from, since there are no transitional forms in the record. When you go to a natural history museum and you see arrows drawn from one species to another, those arrows are wild guesses at best, and evidence for them has not been found in nature. We do have evidence for natural selection acting upon already-existing variation, which is what happened with peppered moths for example. But that’s much, much different from random mutation and natural selection producing entirely new phenotypes.
Note: the fact that species stay the same for millions of years confirms what I stated above, about how using mutations to add a new phenotype or significantly alter an existing one is not straightforward. If it was, there would be evidence for it in the fossil record.
To get around this problem, biologists have proposed the theory of Punctuated Equilibria. In essence, this theory states that instead of constant gradual change, you have long periods of equilibrium, “punctuated” by short periods of rapid change. But in many cases, the gap between a species appearing and its supposed ancestor species disappearing is long enough that we would expect there to be fossils of the transitional forms, but they don’t exist. Furthermore, the theory of Punctuated Equilibria compresses the timeline of mutations + natural selection developing new phenotypes even more than it already was, compounding Darwinian Evolution’s existing problems.
The theory of Punctuated Equilibria can been seen as an attempt to impose a form of Darwinian Evolution onto the fossil record despite the latter not supporting it. Instead of looking at the evidence and trying to come up with a theory, in this case the theory is being presupposed, and then the evidence is being juggled to try to find a way to make it fit. This has the unintended effect of making Darwinian Evolution look even worse, exposing its problems for all the world to see.
Then there’s the problem of the Cambrian Explosion, a sudden rise in complexity in which the first animals appeared. The speed at which new types of species appear in the record completely defies what we know about probability: there’s simply no way that could have happened in such a short period of time, unless it was guided or intended somehow.
Mutually Dependent Components
Another problem with Darwinian Evolution is that it proposes that everything came about via blind incremental changes, when there are certain biological forms that have interdependent parts and thus could not have come about via undirected gradual change over time. A fancy term to describe this is “irreducible complexity” – the biological system is made up of mutually dependent components, and removing any one component breaks the whole thing. You’d need to have a functional, useful thing at every step of the process, so it’s inconceivable how it could have happened via Darwinism.
The classic example is the flagellum, which is quite literally a motor found in some bacteria. There are many other examples found inside me, you, and other living things. It should be noted that Charles Darwin himself admitted that if a biological system was discovered that could not be formed by successive slight modifications, his entire theory would break down! We have many examples that fit this exact description.
The concept of biology being reducible down to chemistry and physics is at the heart of Darwinian Evolution, and by extension methodological naturalism itself. This is where the problem of consciousness comes in.
If life is reducible down to chemistry and physics, then our thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc are all just chemical reactions. But it’s conceivable that the chemical reactions should exist without the experience that comes along with them. Imagine a living thing that was a robot, a lump of molecules essentially, that went around eating, drinking, reproducing, etc simply because it was following what the physical/chemical reactions inside it made it do. Such a robot would not have any consciousness or subjective inner experience, and this is what Darwinian Evolution predicts.
Yet the opposite is true in reality. We’re not just lumps of molecules reacting with each other and with our environment. We have an inner experience, a consciousness, a feeling of being alive. There’s no reason for the motion of molecules inside of us to produce this experience. Yet it exists. Furthermore, consciousness is a core feature of life: any attempt to explain how living things came about must also explain how consciousness came about, otherwise it’s inadequate by definition.
What about adaptedness, vestigial organs, DNA similarity, etc?
It’s been pointed out that some features of life are evidence for evolution. For example, certain organs or features of some species are adapted to their environment – e.g. the shapes of birds’ beaks are adapted to the kind of food they eat. Another example is that some animals have vestigial organs, which would have been useful to their alleged evolutionary ancestors, but are no longer useful to their current owners. And another common example is the DNA shared between species.
As for adaptedness: this isn’t really evidence for Darwinian Evolution. It could be the product of lower-case “e” evolution, but it certainly does not prove that the evolution took place through a process of random mutation and natural selection. The same goes for vestigial organs and shared DNA. To actually be evidence for Darwinian Evolution, it would need to be demonstrated how it’s possible that these changes came about via Darwinian mechanisms, which the evidence argues against.
Another example brought forward to support Darwinian Evolution is the small amount of microevolution we do observe in nature, such as moths changing color over time or the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. As for moths changing color: these changes are the result of natural selection acting upon already-existing genes; the different colors of moths already existed in nature before the Industrial Revolution happened and natural selection began to favor the dark ones. Bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics is both the result of natural selection acting upon already-existing genes, and because of tiny “point” mutations in the genetic code, which are well within what random chance is able to accomplish, given the sheer number of bacteria and the speed at which they reproduce.
Again: the main point is that it is impossible for blind mutations and selection to produce/alter the phenotypes necessary to evolve from one species to another to another, along the course of the alleged evolutionary history. This does not mean that no evolution at all occurred, and it doesn’t mean that natural selection doesn’t work at certain scales. It just means that Darwinian Evolution, as commonly articulated by evolutionary biologists, is false.
What’s the Alternative?
It might be enough for many people to simply recognize that Darwinian Evolution is false and a new naturalistic theory needs to be developed. Indeed, many scientists in private admit this, though in public they will continue to support and advocate for Darwinian Evolution, because they’re afraid of what the alternatives might be. The main issue is that no naturalistic alternative to Darwinian Evolution exists right now, and it doesn’t look like any new theory is about to be developed, because we’ve researched a lot of this stuff to death.
Recognizing the problems with Darwinian Evolution doesn’t require one to drop methodological naturalism or even metaphysical naturalism. But it requires intellectual honesty, which many people today lack, in our strange post-truth environment where there are no more rules and anyone can do whatever they want.
If one were to relax the restrictions of methodological naturalism somewhat, there are some other possible theories of how the current life forms came about:
I’ll admit that I don’t quite fully understand this topic, but as far as I know, a teleological account of the evolution of life would state that there are impersonal laws in the universe which “guide” life forms to acquire new phenotypes through a process of mutation and natural selection. So the mutations aren’t random and undirected, but rather biased towards where they need to be, in order to allow natural selection to do its thing. One explanation for why this happens is that conscious, rational beings is how the universe “recognizes itself” or something like that, so it’s inevitable that physical/chemical interactions will be driven towards producing those beings.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel entertained this idea, but besides that it doesn’t seem to have gotten any mainstream backing so far. The nature of the teleological forces, and how they affect matter, is the main issue. Unless we can measure and interact with them, or directly observe them in nature, many scientists will reject this concept as being against naturalism. Its proponents maintain that there are plenty of things in nature which are indirectly observed, like the effects of quantum mechanics, and this is similar.
The design hypothesis states that the best explanation for life is that it was designed by an intelligent being. Contrary to some misconceptions, the design hypothesis does not state who the designer is, rather the argument is given in the passive form and the identity of the designer is left out.
Of course, if you’re going to list out possible identities of the designer, the God of Abraham is at the top of the list. This is why the idea is often rejected by people who have a prior commitment to materialism or atheism. Another idea which has been put forward is that some intelligent alien species designed life on Earth, but the problem with that is that you’d have to ask where that alien species came from. At some point there needs to be an undesigned designer, or you’ll have an infinite regress.
The proponents of intelligent design have formalized the design hypothesis, comparing it to the tools and methods used by forensic scientists in detecting intelligent activity at a scene. Their arguments are quite convincing, but they’ve been unable to crack the nut of secular academia, because it would put the standard worldview in academia (materialist atheism) into serious doubt. Indeed, the response to the books and arguments of the intelligent design proponents has been freakish at times.
Many of the discussions surrounding the design hypothesis have gotten dragged into a discussion of what is and what isn’t science. The proponents claim that since they are not giving an identity for the designer, the theory that “life is designed” is well within the limits of empiricism and methodological naturalism. Opponents reject this and accuse the design hypothesis of being another form of crude young-earth creationism. An important point: if one doesn’t believe in scientism, it’s possible to accept design as being true, while not getting involved into a huge debate about the definition of science. However, since academia generally views scientism as true, many proponents of design have seen value in that debate.
To be fair, there are a few critics of design who have tried to actually engage the arguments. One point that often gets brought up is that the design of life is imperfect: we get awful diseases, there are mutations, birth defects, etc. Would God, who is perfect, design life this way? The proponents of design point out that they never attributed an identity to the designer of life as part of the theory anyway, and this objection is philosophical and theological in nature. One possible answer is that perhaps this world wasn’t created to be perfect – but again, that’s a theological discussion, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that life is designed even if the design is “imperfect.”
So Now What? An Islamic Perspective
From an Islamic point of view, we reject scientism anyway, so these debates aren’t relevant to a lot of Muslims. Plenty of Muslims will read this and say “this is a waste of time,” and that’s OK. We accept Islam by reading the Qur’an and by learning about the life of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, not by analyzing whether life evolved via Darwinian Evolution or whether it was designed or whether there are teleological forces in the universe. And to many theists, explaining life via physical or chemical processes doesn’t matter, because God created this universe is controlling the physical/chemical laws that govern it anyway.
However, there’s no doubt that these theories do have serious metaphysical implications. While in the past, proponents of Darwinian Evolution stated that it was not “overlapping” with religion and that religion was a separate sphere, with the appearance of the New Atheist movement the masks came off and it became apparent that many of these people were engaged in a culture war against religion all along.
As the political, cultural, and social divisions in modern society have gotten worse and worse, “science” has become part of the culture war. Many teachers, professors, etc will use “science” as a tool to try to expound their personal views to their students, even if all the actual evidence says the opposite. So if you’re a Muslim parent in the West, you should know that if your child goes to high school or college, they will be taught things like “evolution is a fact, not a theory” and “science has been able to explain everything and disprove religion.” Just something to keep in mind.
What Should We Do?
Secular academia, far from being a place of honest research, has become a place where peer review and discussion is used to enforce ideological red lines rather than promote free inquiry. It doesn’t look like that is going to change any time soon. I think the best way forward for those interested in this topic is to go outside of academia and the classroom, and to read books which examine the topic directly.
I tried forming a book club with my MSA when I was in university. Despite the hundreds of Muslim students on campus, no one besides me was interested in reading. We had 7 people come to the introductory meeting, then the next meeting 2 people showed up including me, and the other guy hadn’t even read the assigned portion, which was just 30 pages. People are more interested in socializing, sharing memes, and browsing Facebook than in engaging the intellectual questions of our time. This is an unfortunate result of the rise of social media and “sound bite” culture where reading a book becomes an impossible task. I think this is why such intellectually lazy and dishonest movements such as Right-Wing Nationalism and New Atheism became popular, taking advantage of the ignorance of the masses.
In any case, I’ll end this post with a suggested reading list, which includes various sides of the above arguments, which you can examine for yourself. I was too lazy to cite sources for every single above statement exactly (maybe I’ll edit this post later and add the sources), but it should be noted that nearly all of the above material came from or was inspired by these below books.
- Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne
- The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
- Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton
- Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel
- Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe
- Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer
Perhaps it’s best to view Darwinian Evolution as naturalistic science’s “best effort” to understand how life came about. And maybe it won’t ever be able to do better, because it simply can’t. Who knows. All we know for sure is: these debates will continue to have a large impact on society. So it might just be worth being up-to-date with the latest trends and developments.
If I made any error in this post, I apologize. Feel free to correct me in the comments below. Please leave any questions, comments, concerns etc below. And remember to follow this blog and follow me on Twitter (@604yousuf).
9 November 2017