Reject zero-sum game on Darwin

Salman Hameed

Posted Jan 8, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Reject zero-sum game on Darwin

by Salman Hameed

IT IS PERHAPS fitting, if unfortunate, that 2009, which marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his landmark On the Origin of Species — began with headlines documenting yet another clash between science and religion. The latest involves the Texas Board of Education’s decision to require students to evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, a move critics say dilutes science education.

Once again, the argument is framed as a zero-sum game — choose science or faith, but you can’t have both. Interestingly, while Bible-centered Christianity gets all the media coverage, a similar clash is emerging in the Muslim world.

Recent sociological research on religiosity in the Muslim world indicates that only 14 percent of Pakistanis accept the validity of evolutionary theory — a fraction much lower than the much-maligned U.S., where roughly 40 percent accept evolution. Other Muslim states reveal similar numbers — only 22 percent of Turks, 11 percent of Malaysians and 8 percent of Egyptians believe that the theory of evolution is true or probably true.

One reason for such low numbers is that many in the Muslim world equate evolution with atheism and Western values. Former Pakistani cricketer and Oxford-educated politician Imran Khan recently blamed Darwin and his “half-baked theory of evolution” for replacing religion with science. Saudi Arabia once banned the Japanese children’s game Pokemon — one of the reasons being that its characters are based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.

At the same time, there are some positive developments. The idea that the world is only 10,000 years old, known as young-earth creationism, is virtually absent in the Muslim world. Similarly, while the Texas board is debating whether to include “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in the curriculum, the 12th-grade biology textbooks in Pakistan present evolution as a fact of science. Sure enough, the epigraph of the chapter is a verse from the Qur’an, but the remaining chapter is free of any religious content. Human evolution, though, is still absent. The follow-up chapters to evolution, instead, deal with ecology, biotechnology and other applications of the theory.

The pursuit of applied biological sciences is also flourishing in many Muslim countries. Stem-cell research, an issue considered controversial in the United States, is continuing in Iran, Egypt and Malaysia. In fact, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly supported human-embryo research and recently issued a Fatwa that Iran’s goal should be to become the Mideast “leader of science” in the next 20 years.

One of the reasons for this peaceful co-existence of science and religion is that the debate has not yet pitted the two against each other as exclusionary choices. However, this is a crucial time in the Muslim world, as the route to becoming a leader in biological sciences will surely go through evolutionary biology. Biological evolution is still a relatively new concept for a majority of Muslims and a serious debate over its compatibility with Islam has not yet taken place. Different constituencies are jockeying for position on who gets to shape the Muslim perspective on evolution. Rising education levels and the increasing importance of biological sciences mean that public opinion on this issue will be shaped in the near future.

Islamic creationists represent some of the loudest and most well-financed voices on this topic. Like their creationist counterparts in the U.S., their main strategy is to link an acceptance of evolution to a rejection of religion. If this link is established, the dialogue over evolution in the Muslim world would be cut short and a vast majority of Muslims will choose religion over evolution.

And yet this is a false connection, as attested by countless religious scientists and even the Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolutionary theory.

Educators and scientists in the Muslim world can learn from the fallacious way the debate has taken shape in the U.S., as a false choice between science and religion. They must forcefully advocate for evolution by natural selection as a scientific explanation for the diversity of form and species, and yet respect that many religious beliefs can peacefully co-exist with scientific fact. Likewise, American scientists and educators can look at the emerging debate in the Muslim world and recognize that the false clash between science and religion will ultimately be a losing battle.

Darwin would surely have been delighted at some of the recent fossil discoveries in the Muslim world: Just this month, new evidence surfaced from Pakistan that early whales gave birth on land. Pakicetus, a transitional fossil between extinct land mammals and modern whales, was discovered in 2001 in northern Pakistan and was included by the journal Nature as one of the 15 gems from the last decade that “illustrate the breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking.” And yet, in the country where the fossil was discovered, people remain unconvinced.

These discoveries are overwhelming evidence in favor of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and yet they don’t have to threaten one’s belief. In fact, we should take a cue from Darwin himself. In a letter to John Fordyce dated May 7, 1879, Darwin wrote, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.”

Happy birthday, Charles.

Salman Hameed is an assistant professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.  He also has an excellent site on science and religion - Irtiqa at