About a month ago, I was challenged by colleagues in the DISKURSUS group at the Salman Mosque ITB to explore what I had learned in college about the theory of evolution. Feeling no longer competent to discuss it from a biological perspective, I tried to write a review of the theory of evolution as a social academic. In discussing Darwin, I used Thomas Kuhn’s sociology of knowledge framework. This paper was presented at the bi-weekly Science and Spirituality Discussion at Salman Mosque. So the paper goes like this…
Introduction: ‘Tearing down’ the theory of evolution
In the early 21st century, the world’s biological scientists were intrigued by the publication of Harun Yahya’s book The Demise of the Theory of Evolution, followed by several more books in his Atlas of Creationism series. The reaction of scientists was mixed. Some scoffed, some praised, and others were too stunned to comment. One article in The New York Times saw it as perhaps the largest and most beautiful creationist challenge yet to Darwin’s theory. Pundits, of course, dismissed this as mere mockery, arguing that there was no fundamental evidence presented by Harun Yahya in refuting the theory of evolution.
Challenges to the theory of evolution are, of course, nothing new. The conflict between the institutionalized creationist view of the Church and the scientific world has existed ever since the theory was offered by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Not long after, caricatures of Darwin in ape form were circulated in print, as a form of mockery of his views. Arguably, creationism and anti-evolutionary theory developed out of Christianity, given the many contradictions between the two, such as how the earth was created 10,000 years ago in the Christian view, which is fundamentally at odds with the millions of years it takes for living things to evolve in the evolutionary theory. A 2014 Gallup survey found that 42% of Americans, especially those who are religious, less educated, and older generations, believe that humans were created by God in perfect form less than 10,000 years ago, or in other words, do not accept the theory of evolution. Interestingly, 31% believe that humans were indeed created by God, but by evolution. I will come back to this later.
The wave of Christian creationism allegedly spread to Islam in a structured way in Turkey, through cooperation between the Turkish government and an American institute called the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in the 1980s. Adnan Oktar, later known by the pen name Harun Yahya, became one of the drivers of Islamic creationism in Turkey, blaming the theory of evolution for the development of materialism, atheism and communism. His campaign to ‘demolish’ the theory of evolution is perhaps worthy of praise. His books, printed on more than 800 pages with beautiful high-resolution images, are distributed to schools and universities around the world, especially Europe and the US, free of charge. High-image quality videos can be easily accessed and downloaded on the internet. No doubt, the book The Demise of the Theory of Evolution, although derided by academics, has received a warm welcome from the general public. In the United States, many schools require the teaching of creationism as part of the curriculum. In Indonesia, anecdotally I found that some schools have made Harun Yahya’s works compulsory reading. One of the biology textbooks I read even presented a rebuttal to the theory of evolution with the argument that God created every living creature in its perfect form, and humans are not descended from apes!
Understanding the development of evolutionary views
The above narrative illustrates at least two things: that the conflict between creationism and evolutionism is endless, and that biological scientists seem to be too stubborn to accept challenges to their grand theory. I may have been one of those who challenged the theory of evolution. When I was a Biology student a dozen years ago, I was a translator for one of the books in Harun Yahya’s Collapse of the Theory of Evolution series. I didn’t think much of it at the time, nor did I hate the theory of evolution – after all, I had learned about evolution in college. What I did consider at the time, besides the extra pocket money, was that it would be interesting to challenge the ivory tower of this grand theory of biology. I didn’t realize at the time that the theory of evolution was not built by Charles Darwin alone, nor was it built without opposition.
The view of evolution, like creationism, existed long before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. The view that nature was not created ‘on purpose’ and that living things were created in a perfect state dates back to the time of Greek and Roman philosophy. While Aristotle saw that every material is the actualization of its ideal image, or forma (species in Latin), Lucretius in his poem De rarum natura describes how living things are derived from other living things, and everything happens by chance (fortuna). This is likely the basis for the development of life science in the realm of modern scientific methods. One scientist who promoted this was Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who proposed that all large living things could have originated from microorganisms. In contrast, other scientists such as William Paley, a philosopher and Christian, argued that living things have existed in their perfect form from the beginning, and that the similarities that exist between living things (e.g. bird wings and bat wings) are not the basis of evolution, but are merely design similarities based on the same function. He further developed that the variations and adaptations in living organisms were a marvelous divine design from God, through the laws of nature, for them to function properly in nature.
Charles Darwin, though a great admirer of Paley, ultimately refuted his arguments. Darwin was more inclined to accept the view that evolution occurred and caused variations in the bodies of various organisms on earth, such as the transmutation theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a naturalist, although he did not fully accept the theory either. Lamarck’s theory was perhaps the most developed and comprehensive theory of evolution at the time. The transmutation theory raised two postulates, that every organism changes slowly and over time from simpler to more complex, and that every organism adapts to its local environment in order to survive. It is implied in Lamarck’s theory that living things evolve towards perfection, and therefore Lamarck also believed in the existence of a God who drives this evolutionary process, although in it all goes according to its laws/postulates. One thing that Lamarck’s theory disproves is that the changes that occur in the body of one individual living being are then passed on to its children. A classic illustration of Lamarck’s theory is that of a giraffe trying to reach the top of a leaf on a tall tree, which due to its efforts will lengthen its neck over time. This gradually lengthening neck will be passed on to its offspring, so that in each generation there will be a giraffe with a longer neck. This, of course, did not happen.
Nonetheless, Lamarck’s theory, along with other theories about biodiversity of his day, became a source of inspiration for Charles Darwin in developing his theory of natural selection. Let me tell you a bit about Darwin to give you some context. Charles Darwin was born in England on February 12, 1809 to a prominent family in England. His father was a doctor and his mother a financial expert. Charles Darwin was born into a family of Unitarian and Anglican Christians. Nonetheless, he grew up in a family that was open-minded and concerned about the environment. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, apart from being a scientist, was also a slave liberator. Darwin studied medicine at the best medical school at the time at the University of Edinburgh. Early in his studies, he learned a lot about taxidermy (the art of preserving animals) from a former slave who had traveled to the tropical rainforests of South America. Presumably, this shaped his love for life science. In his second year, he joined the Plinian Society, a student organization that challenged orthodox religious concepts of science. It was during this time that Darwin became increasingly interested in the biological sciences, particularly those promoted by his grandfather and Lamarck. He learned a lot about the Linnean classification system of plants, and learned from his colleagues about the collection of beetle and insect species. Feeling bored and not serious about his medical studies, his father then transferred Darwin to theological school so that he could become an Anglican. It seems that life science was indeed his path, because at his new college at Christ’s College, Darwin learned a lot about the works of William Paley. At this point, Darwin increasingly showed his interest in exploring the biological world more widely, especially in the tropics.
Perhaps the high point of Charles Darwin’s life in his interaction with empirical evidence of life was when he had the opportunity to circumnavigate the globe for five years aboard HMS Beagle, through Latin America, Australia and Africa, as a naturalist. Darwin did not waste this opportunity. During his travels, he recorded all his findings and collected many living things, especially insects and marine invertebrates. In the lands he visited, Darwin found fossils of extinct species, various types of animals that he had just encountered, various types of birds with a variety of beak shapes, and many more. He recorded them all, collected some specimens, and later published his writings. Darwin also encountered many things that saddened him, such as slavery in South America and the response of inland communities far from civilization. This made him realize that humans are basically the same because we come from the same ancestral origin, even with animals. Unlike Lamarck who saw that living things evolve towards perfection, Darwin believed that no one is higher or more perfect than another. Presumably this is what shaped his views on evolution.
Charles Darwin was known to be a very cautious man. He probably reflected the ideal portrait of a scientist of the era, unhurried in drawing conclusions, collecting as much empirical data as possible, and applying rigorous scientific principles. In each of his speculations on new theories, he always affixed the words ‘I think’ or ‘would’ to avoid being careless and arrogant. It took him 23 years from his return from his voyage aboard the Beagle to finally publish On the Origin of Species. Nonetheless, his writings on his empirical findings of the different types of creatures living on the lands he visited raised his name among naturalists. This allowed Darwin to interact with many other naturalists, one of whom shaped his thoughts on speciation – that species are not stable and changes can occur that lead to the formation of new species. He learned this from his findings of different species of finches and rhea birds in far-flung locations, even though the physical differences were simply differences in beak and/or feather color. His correspondence with Alfred Russell Wallace who developed the theory and conducted similar explorations in the archipelago reinforced his views on natural selection, in addition to encouraging him to publish his writings soon. His in-depth reading of Malthusian population theory also cemented his theory of adaptation and survival within populations. That populations will always grow beyond their carrying capacity, and therefore the ability to survive amidst limited resources and variation within the population, became the basis of his theory of evolution.
The book On the Origin of Species is the result of Charles Darwin’s deep and dense thinking, summarizing many of his empirical writings in a theoretical framework. Darwin’s theory of evolution promotes natural selection within populations. In contrast to Lamarck who argued that physical change occurs slowly within individuals and populations, Darwin argued that within populations there has been variation from the beginning, both small and large variations among individuals of the species. As population size increases and resources are limited, some individuals with small variations may be better able to adapt and survive than others. As changes to natural conditions occur over time and slowly, the variation within the population will be selected, with those that are able to adapt surviving. This is where the term ‘survival of the fittest’ comes from. This gradual change, followed by geographical, morphological or behavioral isolation of one group within the population from another, creates new species, a process known as speciation. Darwin discussed the theory of evolution in depth and breadth, covering a wide range of living taxa, from insects, plants, birds, mammals to humans. However, what Darwin offered in his theory was a framework, within which the findings of later scientists might be able to fill in the holes that he could not yet answer.
Darwin’s theory and biology today
A scientific paradigm, according to sociologist of science Thomas Kuhn, emerges from agreements within a scientific community. Although in these scientific discussions the process of falsification continues, and thus Karl Popper argued that objectivity and positivity will always be established, the initial scientific paradigm will remain the frame of reference for the construction of a larger body of knowledge. Standing on the shoulders of giants, he said, where in the realm of modern biological science, the giant is ultimately the evolutionary paradigm. After the publication of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin, various findings in various disciplines, including zoology, botany, development, anatomy, paleontology and genetics seemed to be able to fill the empty spaces in the body of evolutionary theory. Gregor Mendel, a priest and naturalist, proposed what is known as the classical theory of genetics in which inherited traits are located in genes. These genes can change with crosses and mutations. Modern genetics, through the Watson-Crick DNA model also corroborates that genes are carried in specific DNA base sequences, and changes in these sequences can be reflected in the expression of different traits. Comparative anatomy brought about by Thomas Henry Huxley also supports that there is kinship between humans and apes, and between one species and another more generally. Today, variations in biodiversity can be explained in a more structured way by seeing that there is a kinship between species and that all can be traced to a common ancestor. New disciplines emerged, such as evolutionary developmental biology, biosystematics and population genetics that explicitly refer to the evolutionary paradigm. Much of this may be why Theodosius Dobzhansky, a biological scientist, wrote in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution”.
However, if this is the case, we might ask, can a biologist in today’s modern scientific era still hold to creationism? The reality is, yes, I think there are still many biological scientists who are also creationists, or at least opposed to the theory of evolution. The evidence in Turkey with Harun Yahya’s campaign shows that some scientists are becoming more comfortable with creationism regardless of their study of various branches of biology. I think that apart from branches of biology that are strongly oriented towards the evolutionary paradigm, such as evolutionist biology, other branches of science can still be explored without an evolutionary view. The evolutionary paradigm does not limit the application of new methods in biology, and therefore, many new discoveries in genetic engineering, physiology, botany and ecology have nothing to do with evolution at all. Perhaps what needs to be underlined is not that biology cannot evolve without evolution, but that, referring back to Thomas Kuhn, there is a large consensus in the biological scientific community that the scientific contributions of biology are theoretically meaningful only if they are linked to the framework of the evolutionary paradigm. So far, there is no counter paradigm in the field of biological science that is able to provide more explanation than the evolutionary paradigm. There is no, in Harun Yahya’s terms, attempt to undermine the theory of evolution from within the existing scientific community. Perhaps that’s why Harun Yahya finally tried a more populist approach in challenging the theory of evolution.
Closing: Evolution, Biology and Morality
That the theory of evolution has a negative impact on humanity’s view of life needs to be seen as a result of the interpretation of evolutionary theory, and not the fault of evolutionary theory itself. As mentioned, even among evolutionists, the debate between spirituality and secularity/materialism is ongoing. Some of these scientists are also devout believers. Despite the Bible’s detailed explanation of the timing of the creation of the earth, which contradicts the view of evolutionary theory, other things can still be interpreted differently. For example, humans are not descended from apes, but come from a common ancestor. Furthermore, all living things also come from the same ancestor, a single-cell organism that floated in the primordial oceans. What if, like Paley, we see that this evolution was God’s Hand in creating humans. I anecdotally found on one website a story about how Prophet Adam was not the first human, but the first human to behave like a divine human. I don’t want to touch on that, and it’s not my place to go into depth. What I want to say is that interpretations can differ.
Another point that is often debated is that evolution leads to materialism, atheism, or justification for social inequality and oppression in human history, what is known as social Darwinism. Regarding the first and second points, I think what science (in this case evolutionary theory) can explain is nothing more than how living things came to be, and not why they exist. Evolutionary theory does imply that there is no ultimate goal, that everything happens by chance, as a combination of variation and natural selection. But we can’t argue that what we think of as fortuna is how God designed the universe. Science can only capture the physical – it cannot prove God exists or does not exist, and the purpose of human creation remains in the realm of metaphysics. In response to the third point, even Darwin’s own moral values in witnessing slavery drove him to develop the theory of evolution – that everyone, and every living thing, is essentially the same. Inequality is a social construct, and cannot be blamed on evolutionary forces. Survival of the fittest doesn’t suggest that the strong are the winners, but that the changes in nature require us to be able to adapt in any form – be it competition or cooperation, being strong or being opportunists hiding from threats. Nature presents many faces, from ruthless predation to delightful symbiosis. We cannot open our eyes to one and turn a blind eye to another. One article in Nature (or some other scientific journal, I forget) points out that in ecology, researchers have found that cooperation/symbiosis is more of a determinant of survival than competition.
Besides, even if man is an animal that kills to live, his ability to self-reflect can certainly prevent him from living on the basis of his instinctive drive. Humans can kill other living beings for the sake of satisfaction, not for survival, so they should also be able to live not only for themselves, but for others and other living beings – for the natural world around them. After all, we have been able to disprove, empirically, the Malthusian population theory (and are now confused by it). That should be the impetus for us to be able to label ourselves as Homo sapiens, wise humans.