Reflections on the theory of evolution as a cultural dogma
By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford
The theory of evolution of all species from a common ancestor, with no special distinction for humankind, spills over from the domain and concern of specialists in biology. It does so because the theory is often promoted as something we have to believe. This upsets religious believers who have a quite different understanding of the origin of humankind. The difference on this point should not lead to mutually intolerant hostility and rejection if the believers’ account of the origin of humankind is understood in relation to its religious purpose, and the scientists’ account of it is understood in relation to its purpose as science. The obvious implication of that is that there is no common purpose between the two accounts, and to some extent that is the case. But in fact at some point there has to be an encounter, because the purpose of religion and the purpose of science are both alike burdens that are carried by the same human creature, and the encounter must result either in some accommodation between these two accounts of the origin of humankind or one account must yield the field to the other.
I am not a specialist in biology, and therefore I am not qualified to comment on the merit of the theory of evolution as a scientific theory. I speak strictly from the perspective of a believing Muslim, and more specifically, from the perspective of what I learn about human curiosity from the Qur’anic narratives which focus on the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), `alay-hi s-salam. The curiosity of Ibrahim is a religious curiosity, a hunger to know the whole truth and to know it, not as hypothesis or speculation, as wishful conjecture, but to know it with a full, lived certainty. Before I explain what that means and its relevance for how as Muslims we respond to the truth-claims made for the theory of evolution, I need to define the terms of the discussion.
As I understand the word truth, it means something which requires that you believe it. Now a scientific theory is not, or should not be promoted as, a matter susceptible to believing or not believing it. Ideally, a scientific theory is a tool of human thought which helps us to perceive, understand and explain elements and features of the natural world (including our bodily selves) that, otherwise, we could not even perceive clearly, let alone understand or explain. Like any tool a theory does its job for a while, and then is re-designed or an altogether different theory does the job more efficiently, more elegantly, more comprehensively. A theory can be of use, for scientific purposes, if it accurately explains something in part, or in some aspect of it, even if, in respect of other aspects of the same thing, it is useless, inaccurate, and leads to a dead end. The worth of a scientific theory, ideally, is dependent on its capacity to understand and explain the natural world in a way that opens up reality to continued effort to understand and explain it.
That is how it is ideally, how it is in principle. In the historical reality, scientific theorising and practice are subject to the time and cultural space in which they occur. The cultural conditions set boundaries on human curiosity, on what elements or aspects of the natural world are investigated, and they set boundaries on human imagination, on the kind of theories that are appealing enough to be considered worth testing. At the time of the first clear utterance of the theory of evolution, the dominant conditions were an explosive growth in the economic and miltary reach of European peoples coupled with a pseudo-religious conviction that because they now could, they therefore should, take control of the economic and cultural life of all the other peoples of the world. As a matter of convenience this project was presented as a mission to civilise or modernise, as a moral imperative, but it was in fact simply naked aggression, without pity or scruple. If it was constrained at all it was constrained only by what was necessary to limit the resistance of the peoples thus cut off from their past and future, or by what was necessary to check interference by other European powers competing for the same territory and the human and natural resources it contained.
The theory of evolution was neither inspired by nor gave rise to European imperialism, but it was perfectly adapted to it. Very soon, and quite irrelevantly for the theory, the phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined and passed into everyday language. Very soon, learned people were able to claim, and to their own complete satisfaction prove, that everything just evolved – including religious principles, moral principles, political principles, economic principles – everything evolved and it evolved in the direction that was being led by European culture and civilisation. Belief in evolution became as necessary a part of being modern, of being the fittest, as believing in a round earth going round the sun. Only an idiot would dare to think otherwise. Everything not modern was classed as “ancient” or “medieval” or “primitive” or in some other way “exotic” and became the material of museums or other forms of cultural vacationing.
It is important to understand that this spillage of the theory of evolution into the cultural space to which it was so well adapted is NOT part of the theory itself, which is strictly concerned with biological (not cultural) adaptation. Religious believers make the same error. Because they are fixed in their determination to reject the suggestion that human beings were not specifically and specially created by God, they miss what is at the heart of the theory of evolution in its classical form: namely, that the mechanism of adaptation, the engine that drives evolution, is random mutation of genetic material; the process is absolutely directionless and purposeless. According to the classical theory, no organism whatever has adapted or evolved deliberately in response to conditions outside itself. Rather, a chance mutation of its genetic material favoured its survival in certain conditions and therefore it was able to reproduce itself with the mutation more successfully than without the mutation. Over vast stretches of time, the mutations led to differentiation of species.
In sum, directly contrary to what our religion teaches, there is nothing special about human beings. The ancestors of humans survived by mere chance and then, by an accumulation of random mutations over a vast expanse of time, they survived because their brains grew big enough to learn to adapt their environment, culturally, rather than adapting their bodies organically. This view, neatly enough, leads to the conclusion that cultural evolution is uniquely deliberate, purposed. Then, the dogma of “survival of the fittest” means that those most culturally adaptive are the most fit to survive. I call this a dogma, not a scientific theory, because it is uninformative. It is circular and tells us nothing: who or what survives? The fittest. How do we know they are the fittest? Because they survive. Translated into the language of morality, the formula means only “might is always right”.
The prolific variety of human cultures, the languages and arts, the crafts and sciences, the rites and religions and philosophies, must then all be explained as the price human beings pay for being culturally adaptive. If as individuals we get contentment from beauty or knowledge or meaning, it is only the human organism’s way of encouraging the accumulation, by the species, of the necessary skills to remain efficiently social animals. If the sheer super-abundance of human cultural production seems by a huge measure more than is needed for this lowly purpose, it is because, at the species level, cultural production is randomly excessive; the species does not know when some particular human idea or human skill may be the means, in unforeseen and unforeseeable conditions, to secure an advantage for survival. There are no values as such, no virtues as such. If we believe that there are, it is because our evolution has conditioned us to need to believe that.
The theory of evolution as a cultural dogma, that is, as a thing to be believed as truth – and not as a tool of thought to help investigate and explain aspects of the natural world – is utterly dismal and depressing. It must lead, as seems to be happening, to the establishment of social and economic systems that are life-destructive. It must lead to the hegemony of attitudes and behaviours that will so exhaust the self-restoring powers of the natural world – the equivalent in human religious life of repentance and self-reform – that the natural world will become uninhabitable by human beings. Everybody knows that “might is right’ is a falsehood. To think so is, in Quranic terms, to think like Pharaoh. In reality no-one, individually or collectively, now or in the past, has enough might to make it true. Eventually every merely human desire is defeated; every merely human achievement is annulled. The natural world, existence as a whole, precedes us always as a given; and it survives us always and is a given for the others who succeed us – just as the Qur’an says. It is only our human vanity that allows us to suppose that in our absence there is no reality, no world, worth speaking of.
The Qur’an does not project or promote any particular scientific theory about the natural world. It teaches very clearly that the world is perfectly fitted to us, and presented to us as habitable and intelligible – we can live in it, study it and learn from it. It is also useful, serviceable, and beautiful, even ravishing. But ultimately it is not our home. The homecoming is elsewhere through the gateway of death. We cannot draw benefit from the teaching of the Qur’an without religious belief in it. Now, as I said earlier, according to the dogma of evolution theory as it spills out of science proper into the wider cultural space, religious belief is simply a particular variety of cultural habits and dogmas, a hardened body of ideas and behaviours designed to keep a community in cohesive good-order, which is the organism’s way of preparing the species for survival. I want now to explain why that is sometimes true of degenerated forms of religious life but is a thoroughly inadequate way to understand religious belief proper.
Belief in general is what corresponds to something being true. Make-believe is when you pretend something is true for some temporary purpose, as children do when they are playing made-up games. Belief proper is different; it means accepting that what is said as true is true. Religious belief is different again, it is belief as just described with the addition of a compelling sense of obligation to live one’s life in demonstration of what we affirm or assent to be true. In the incidents involving the Prophet Ibrahim, `alayhi s-salam, as reported in the Qur’an, there is a moving account of what religious belief is, of how it differs and must escape from religion as cultural habit, and of the costs and benefits of living a life that demonstrates religious belief. (Now I should mention here that the incidents are told in the Qur’an piecemeal, and there is no sequential narrative arangement of them – of the kind we find in, for example, the telling of the story of Yusuf (Joseph) ‘alay-hi s-salam. The order of incidents that follows is an arrangement that helps me to make the points I wish to make. I have not departed from the traditional understanding of the order, but I wish to make clear that this order is not found in the Qur’anic text itself.)
Ibrahim’s father is a maker of idols. His people are idol-worshippers. Presumably they hold these idols in reverence because they represent supernatural powers whose favours they seek, and upon whom they depend. Ibrahim is repelled by this notion. His sense and experience tell him that the idols obviously do not do anything; they are powerless. If they represent powers, then the powers should invest the idols somehow and they do not. Ibrahim knows that the universe is present to him and he did not make it; knows he has life and he did not give it himself; knows he is fed and he did not make the means by which he is provided; knows he is healed when sick and the means, again, are not of his providing; in sum, he knows that innumerable needs, not only his own, are being met in abundant or straitened measure across the whole realm of visible existence. His response is deeper curiosity. He needs to know how the world is as it is with him in it, and what is the proper response to its being so. This is a religious curiosity because it is not a desire for knowledge that will lead to technological mastery in the world, but knowledge that will direct him to worship the power and being worthy of worship, to whom he owes all that he is or ever can be.
A famous passage tells how he looks to the moon, stars and sun in turn as potential objects of worship, because they are remote and awe-inspiring, but their transience as he views them disappoints him. Their disappearance from his view is a mark of their disappearance from his attention. All natural phenomena without exception eventually disappear from human attention. Ibrahim realises that, by contrast, the God whom he would worship is always present to him, albeit invisible. At the same time, evidently, he himself remains always in God’s attention since the world as a whole and what he needs in it are to hand and provided in some measure, and also he is always self-aware.
The intuition about God developing in Ibrahim is far removed from any notion that his God is only his exclusively or privately; it is rather that only God is exclusively God, which means that even for idol-worshippers or atheists His attributes as God obtain: God does not cease to be God because people do not worship Him. Ibrahim demonstrates this by destroying the idols of his people, one by one, except the biggest. He tells his enraged people to question the idol as to what happened. The people know they will not get any answer from the idol. They are bound by their religion which has degenerated into habit and convention and do not have the intellectual or moral courage to change their ways. From other narratives in the Qur’an we know that the people insolently demand of the prophets and messengers sent to them what wealth they have, what gardens and treasures they dispose and can offer as inducements to change their allegiance; or they accuse the prophets and messengers of wanting to displace their existing figures of authority and the ways of their forefathers. They seem to confound religious authority with wealth, status or other elements of mastery in the world; they do not understand that ultimately religious belief is about how to become detached from the desire for mastery in the world.
Ibrahim does not opt to abandon his people; he wants to teach them. However, his people are not curious to learn from him. Rather, they abhor him and strive to burn him. He emerges from their fire unscathed, and (the detail is not given) we suppose that the people are so awed by this they do not know what to do with him. (The people of Pharoah are similarly helpless.) Ibrahim’s father rejects him and he then leaves his people. Note that Ibrahim prays for his father’s well-being, as later He will pray to God for him to be forgiven. The prayer for his father is not accepted; rather, it is rejected. But the one praying is accepted and his need acknowledged: God praises Ibrahim as gentle of heart, tender, soft. These are attributes of character that accompany humility, which we recognise as the first and most necessary condition of religious belief.
What is reported thus far about Ibrahim is direct personal experience, and personal reflection on that experience. Ibrahim’s need is for a personal God, of whom he is aware as listening to him idividually, as attentive and responsive. And indeed, the Qur’an calls Ibrahim al-Khalil, the Friend. There is no report, up to this point, of a revelation to Ibrahim, or other expressly supernatural event that would confirm for him the being of God or directly disclose to him the nature of God. Rather, his own being at all, and the being of the world as it is, lead him to acknowledge the being of God.
A great deal of the appeal of Islam (which claims to be restoration of the religion of Ibrahim) rests on its naturalness, the absence of doctrinal complexity. Left to themsleves, without the mutilating distortions of human society, humans would naturally believe and behave as Ibrahim does. A famous Prophetic hadith affirms this. And the idea has been philosophically elaborated in the allegory by Ibn Tufayl called Hayy bin Yaqzan, in which (unlike Robinson Crusoe, which is a celebration of the spirit of capitalist enterprise) a castaway on an unihabited island by dint of his own study and reflection eventually becomes a believer and worshipper of God. He comes to know the attributes of God without formal instruction in those attributes.
On the matter of life after death Ibrahim asks for heart’s certainty about it, and is granted that. In the Qur’an, this certainty is not presented as an alternative to the effort of belief or as a substitute for it, but is, instead, presented as an extension and deepening of belief, and a special favour to Ibrahim, unique to him.
At the end of his long life, Ibrahim is granted a son. Thereafter, he receives command from God to sacrifice him. In the Qur’anic narrative there is no resistance from either father or son to this command. There have been various interpretations of why this act (rather than some other) is commanded when it is explicitly stated in the Qur’an that the taking of a human life (except as a just legal retribution) is the gravest crime. My understanding is that Ibrahim is asked, not just to accept his son’s death after the fact, but actively, before the fact, to will the death of his son as a trial and proof of his belief that God being God would not will death for His creatures if that were not what is better for them ultimately. The test is not merely to affirm the fact of death or transience in the world – that is obvious – the test is to affirm the necessity of transience as willed by God who has prescribed for Himself mercy. The acceptance of that which God wills as being good, even when in terms of human need and understanding it appears not to be so, is an acceptance that humankind are not in the world as wholly autonomous beings, but as bound creatures, with limited powers of knowledge and action and imperfections of intent and character. The supreme test for Ibrahim and his son is to align their will with the will of God. They must achieve that even though they do not have any direct assurance of any specific good that will be the outcome of this specific ôi8oact, and even though the act itself must be abhorrent to contemplate and perform. Their assurance is in the goodness for them of existence and its outcomes as a whole, not in specific particulars, and not in specific outcomes. That assurance rests not upon what human beings may do in the world that is good or otherwise impressive, but on all existence and all potentiality for good being derivative from God and dependent on Him. The asked for sacrifice is, in short, an affirmation that only God is God, it is an affirmation of the distance between creature and Creator which accepts that that distance must be good because God is God and not man. In the event, the sacrifice is not required, only the will for it or, more precisely, the submission of will it represents – in Arabic: islam.
Viewed overall, through these and other incidents, the relationship between the individual person and the world around him is presented as mutually adaptive. The natural world is both solidly real and solidly other; the person interacts with it and there is an exchange of information and influence, a sort of feedback loop we might call it nowadays; the natural world alters somewhat, and the person alters somewhat. The whole of reality is not in most respects what the person, at any given moment or in the given cultural space, wishes it might be or thinks would make make him feel good. For that to be the case, the person would, in his thinking and wishing, have to have God-like omnipotence, omniscience and goodness. Humans who act from any such pretension about themsleves in practice make their world narrower. They shape the world as seems fitting to their immediate moods, tastes and purposes; in consequence it has less and less of diversity of kinds and forms; the combinations of fragility and solidity, efficiency and complexity, etc., all of which we see in the tenacity of the tiniest living creatures as they embody their life, will be fewer and less rich in the range of what can be combined or coexist. Necessarily, the Qur’an says, if humans were to run the world untended and unrestrained they would corrupt it altogether. God has not willed that outcome, though He may permit it to happen. God has willed the world as it is so that human beings can be tested in it and demonstrate how much of value they can add to it. Value is defined as striving on various human scales for the attributes of humility, kindness, knowledge, mercy, justice, persevering patience, and the like. These are the virtues demonstrated in the lifetime’s search of Ibrahim for strength of belief and character, consistency between belief and action, and a longing to get nearer to God.
For a believer, the story of life has a beginning before birth in God’s purpose and care for it, a middle that is tested by a measure of human freedom of will and action, and a continuation after death that corresponds to how that test is met. There is clear evidence that religious life can, in the absence of the effort to believe, decay into what is virtually make-believe, where people hope or wish that something is true or think it would be nice if it were true, but because they are not compelled by material fact, do not believe so in fact. For sure, they do not convert belief into religious belief, namely, as I said earlier, they do not strive to make their lives a compelling demonstration of what they say they believe, of what they say is true. If that is the inner condition of the believers, the outward forms of their religious life must also decay, quickly or slowly according to the pressures placed upon them, into cultural habits informed by inertia and not by active, informed conscience. All the acts of worship that should enliven and sustain religious life become, instead, burdensome performances that weary both body and mind.
The theory of evolution as a cultural dogma institutes human beings as fully autonomus agents within the natural order, who have accrued through cultural adaptation enormous power. The story for the individual is shorter; it begins with birth and ends with death. In the exercise of their power humans have no responsibility to or for the natural order except as a means that serves their present needs. They answer to one another, not to any higher power. To correct the consequences of their interventions in the natural order, they seek not to draw back and limit those interventions but to increase them in scale and intensity. Ultimately, they cannot exit the natural order as they are a part of it and it sustains them. They are then forced to countenance the possibility of knowingly or unknowingly enabling the destruction of this world as a suitable environment for human life. They find that easier to do than seriously to reflect on and question the assumptions and lifestyles that are leading to that outcome.
Finally, it is important to emphasise that the theory of evolution need not be judged by the cultural dogma that has accrued to it. It can function, and therefore evolve, as a proper scientific theory. In this case, I look forward to a revision of the idea that the mechanism by which adaptation and evolution proceeds must be random, purposeless and directionless. I will not be surprised to learn one day that, in reality, as living organisms interact with other organisms or other elements of their immediate environment, there is a learning process or transfer of information, that potential advantage is perceived and assessed by the individual organism, and this advantage is stored by some means that is heritable. I gladly confess that such a theory has more appeal to me because it fits with more of what I, as a believer, know and experience of the world I live in, and so I think it more likely to be true. But I repeat it is not necessary that a scientific theory be true; it is is necessary only that it explain more and more, and that it keep the field of enquiry into what is intelligible open.