Tree of Life
Two hundred years after his birth, and 150 years after the publication of his bombshell On the Origins of the Species, Darwin's genius remains decisive in contemporary biology, medicine and society. Gamal Nkrumah
journeys to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to appraise his controversial legacy in the Arab world
Tree of Knowledge or Tree of Life? That is a Christian versus atheist, or secular, discourse. As far as Islam was concerned, the tree that Adam and Eve tasted its fruit was haram (forbidden). The Muslim ancestral Family Tree, alluded to in the writings of mediaeval Muslim scholars such as Ibn Khaldoun, has nothing to do with either the Christian or the Darwinist tradition. A coterie of Muslim scholars participated in Darwin Living Legacy conference -- a three-day international event on evolution and contemporary society, that was held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, earlier this week (14-16 November). Islamic scholar and Chairman of the Committee of Scientific Notions in the Quran, Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, Zaghloul El-Naggar, was a key participant at the Alexandria conference. El-Naggar is a leading proponent of Muslim perspectives on evolution and science. He subscribes to the theory that the Quran anticipated scientific theories and discoveries, including the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe.
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Charles Darwin and the most controversial of his theories. "Animals engage in a struggle for existence. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species"AL-Jahiz
Not awaiting the sesquicentennial of Darwin's time bomb, Muslim scholars have been heatedly debating its merits for some time. One of Islam's most charismatic clerics and TV celebrities, Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi denied that Islam had any problem with Darwin in his interview on the pan-Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera last March: "The controversy surrounding Darwinism is fuelled by Christian creationists. Muslims have no fundamental problem with evolution." However, most Muslims draw a line when it comes to Man's origins, which are considered to be the work of the Creator, Allah, and not a chance improvement on man's distant cousins in the natural order.
Mediaeval Muslim scientists developed theories on evolution and the transmutation of species, chief among these being Abu Osman Amr Ibn Bahr Al-Kamini (776-869 AD), better known as Al-Jahiz, whose work included the seminal Book of Animals and The Superiority of the Blacks Over the Whites. "Animals engage in a struggle for existence. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species," Al-Jahiz wrote. Ibn Miskawayh also hypothesised similar theories on evolution that possibly influenced Darwin. The 12th century Al-Khazini likewise elaborated on the transmutation of species.
Darwin Now's legacy culminated in the Darwin Living Legacy conference convened in Alexandria. The plenary session commenced with a heated debate entitled Evolution and Faith in the 21st century. The chairperson was none other than the Diplomatic Correspondent of the BBC Bridget Kendall. Eastern and Western scholars, medically trained practitioners, journalists and scientists have long objected to aspects of Charles Darwin's Evolution theory. Physicists and psychoanalysts have long been preoccupied by the constant amendment of the original theory of Charles Darwin.
There is little agreement about what Darwin got right and what he got wrong. However, at least at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina conference, there was a modicum of consensus about the obvious -- that Darwin was bound to get something right.
"This is about how we learn about and learn from each other," Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council told Al-Ahram Weekly. "There is no fundamental conflict between the theory of Evolution and religious belief," Davidson explained. "The starting point is to have open debate. We don't pretend that a three-day conference will reconcile all the differences, but it can be a starting point for exploring the relationship between two views -- not sources of conflict, but rather sources of difference that needn't be antagonistic."
The organisers of the conference in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina desired to emphasise that the meeting was not just another gloom-and-doom opportunity to fret about the plethora of global crises, or the death and decline of Darwin's theory of Evolution. The resurrection of Darwin as a viable methodology for scientists, a celebration that is long overdue and was happily announced this year, inspires a wandering through sometimes tantalising, and sometimes bizarre, margins of science.
The Darwin anniversary, however, must be considered from beginning to end, by both critics and admirers, not selectively, skipping through the minefield in order to relish the celebration in their own seemingly innocent fashion. Misreading and blatant falsification of Darwin abound. The Alexandria conference provided a golden opportunity for non-dogmatic thinkers to reflect on what they identify as their most cherished truths concerning their identities.
"Darwin's Theory of Evolution and religious belief are not necessarily incompatible," Davidson explained. The lapse of two centuries has not only given us an opportunity to re-read Darwin's work with the benefit of distance, but to turn that distance into a truly recuperating experience, to learn from and even laugh at the vagaries of existential wonders.
"The conference, as part of our broader Darwin Now programme, aims to promote serious, informed and unprejudiced debate. The cultural relations work of the British Council is dependent on honest, open dialogue as we seek to build understanding and trust between people of all backgrounds. I hope that this will be an opportunity for thinkers from all perspectives to work together in a shared quest for greater knowledge and understanding."
Prophetic, albeit general words masking perhaps a more serious strategy, pushing the envelop of Western secularism into the Arab world, steeped in religion and fundamentally hostile to acceptance of the Godless world of genetic engineering and human hubris
It is in this context that 140 multidisciplinary speakers from over 30 countries converged at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, "an established beacon for curating and disseminating knowledge". Participants included theologians, historians, psychologists, sociologists as well as natural scientists. A wide range of academicians concerned with Darwinism and Evolution were in attendance. "Our aim is twofold. First, the scientific import that Evolution is not an esoteric theory. Rather, it is a key building block," said Davidson in his introductory remarks.
"The second aim is to challenge controversy. We aim to get discussions out. Our view stems from scientific method."
Davidson emphasised that an important objective of the conference was "to celebrate an extraordinary man and his remarkable legacy". He noted that Evolution through natural selection explained why species were so well adapted to their environment and demonstrated the process by which new species were formed. He stressed that Evolution was not just relevant to the past, but that it is also important in the present and the future. He also suggested that the conference facilitated "the chance to explore these issues with people of differing understandings, cultures and societies."
Survival is not simply meant for the fittest. That is a widely held misconception of Darwin's theory. Herbert Spencer coined the term the "survival of the fittest", not Darwin. It was a gross distortion of Darwin's theory, used to justify racism and inequality in the brutal 19th century capitalism of England. Here is the scientific method versus a Victorian religious truth, long since discredited by sensible people of all ideological and dubious religious hues.
"A conference of this kind is not for people to shout at each other. We realise that people hold strong and sharply differing views on the respective roles of science and religion," said Davidson.
More than most, the religious scholars -- Christian Fundamentalists in America and several prominent Muslim scholars -- have drawn the sorts of unflattering conclusions about Darwin that others have politely and judiciously avoided. "There is a cross-section of opinion at this conference," Davidson conceded politely.
And so what about the venue that is Alexandria, once the pulsating heart of the Mediterranean Sea Basin? "The venue is of particular importance. Alexandria was always at the crossroads, a great cosmopolitan city. The library itself connects us back to philosophy and radical thought. It is the right venue for such a conference of freethinkers. We were delighted that [Bibliotheca director Ismail] Serageldin welcomed the idea of hosting this conference," said Davidson.
"Alexandria is one of the great global cities, a beacon for open thinking." So what about the assassination of Hepatia in 415 AD. Was not Alexandria the city where Hepatia, the embodiment of free-thing and freedom of expression, was murdered in a most brutish manner by Christian fundamentalists? "I would reject the notion that religion is closed thinking," Davidson asserted, slightly taken-aback. "What the British Council stands for is open dialogue."
"What is undesirable and wrong is the refusal to engage." Darwinism encourages the recall of memories that are patently false -- often patently so.
"There are fundamentalist scientists, atheists, just as there are fundamentalist religious bigots." So much for Evolution theory, I mulled. "In looking at the world, you look at it from different perspectives. You cannot run scientific life from a religious perspective, nor can you run a religious life from a scientific perspective," said Davidson, revealing perhaps more than he intended where he was coming from.
He noted that, "150 years on from the first appearance of the On the Origins of the Species, you do not have to agree with Charles Darwin to know that the impact of what he said in 1859 is still felt in 2009. The relevance of Darwin's work on the challenges we face together today can and does help us in the face of the challenges created by climate change, pandemic illness, food security and the loss of biodiversity."
"In the history of every one of our countries there are ups and downs in scientific enquiry, in the very notion of freedom of thought," notes Davidson.
"Darwin noticed that even within a species there was variation, and that new varieties arose from time to time. Some of this variation was passed from parent to offspring, with the new generation closely resembling their parents. The mechanism through which this happened was not understood at the time," Davidson elucidated. "Darwin also recognised that organisms produce many more offspring than survive to reproduce. He postulated that this would inevitably result in a struggle for existence -- a competition for food and resources -- whereby those most suited to their environment would survive in favour of those with less favourable characteristics. Over many generations the differential survival of those with favourable characteristics would lead to the development of new forms, and ultimately of new species. He called this process natural selection."
Darwin discovered how evolution works through the process of natural selection -- he did not invent the idea of Evolution per se. Darwin's revolutionary ideas changed scientific thought forever, but it was the synthesis of his ideas with genetics that explained how inherited characteristics are passed down through the generations that generated a widespread acceptance of his theory.
Darwin laid out the tremendous diversity of living organisms and described the equally impressive variation within single species. The critical evidence of Darwin's theory of Evolution came from close comparisons. Comparing fossils from different periods showed gradual change over time and showed how different species were related to one another -- and that includes humans. This particular last point is the most controversial as far as many religious people are concerned. The notion that humans are most closely related to the great apes, for instance, is offensive to many people.
Interest in the Arab world with regards to the ideas and works of Charles Darwin was first enhanced in 1911 when Sheble Shemile published an exposé of the Darwinian theory of Evolution. Subsequently, in 1918, Ismail Mazhar posthumously published the first five chapters of On the Origins of the Species from the original English into Arabic.
Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Ismail Serageldin was explicit about Darwin's legacy. Professor Magdi El-Meligui of Ain Shams University lectured on the early translations of Darwin from English into Arabic, noting some of the semantic shortcomings and pitfalls of the process.
The British Council's Davidson explained that the conference was arranged around three strands: Cutting Edge Evolutionary Science; Applications of Evolutionary Science; and Social and Cultural Impacts of Darwinism and Evolution. It is, on the other hand, unlikely that true-believers will be convinced by the assessment of irreligious Darwinists.
"It is wrong to equate science with atheism," Davidson stresses. "You cannot use science as a proof of the absence of God," he adds. "You cannot run scientific life from a religious perspective, nor can you run a religious life from a scientific perspective."
It is important to note that Darwin had no knowledge of the mechanism of genetics. DNA not only confirms the scientific basis of evolution but it shows how it varies an organism's characteristics. Examining closely DNA reveals evidence as to how different species are related, because many important genes are shared across the animal kingdom.
The divergence of humans and chimpanzees from a common ancestor, according to recent scientific research, is believed to have occurred around six million years ago, with our direct ancestors evolving in Africa some 200,000 years ago.
Ramez Malouf of the Lebanese American University, argued that there is insignificant and insufficient debate about the Darwinian theory of Evolution in the Arab world. "The tension that currently exists between biblical creationism and secular evolution in the West, especially in the US, is barely noticeable in the Arab world," Malouf insisted, "in spite of recent incursions, from the West, in favour of the argument by intelligent design."
Professor Nidhal Guessoum of the American University of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, insisted that Darwin's theory of Evolution does not necessarily clash with core Islamic beliefs, "unless one adopts a literalistic reading of the sacred texts of Islam -- the Quran and the hadith."
Guessoum argued that there is a misunderstanding of the theory of Evolution in particular and science in general. "The serious lack of understanding of the nature and philosophy of science (its methodology, its principles, and its mechanisms for discovering, checking, and ascertaining the uncovered truths) in the Arab and Muslim worlds hinders the proper understanding of Darwin's theory of Evolution," he stresses. "Even though Arab and Muslim scholars from the mediaeval Golden Age of Islam often adopted an evolutionary worldview -- in sharp contrast to the prevailing animosity towards and misrepresentation of Evolution by attempting to counter the materialistic connotation so tightly bundled with the scientific theory," Guessoum concludes.
So what makes us human? This most controversial question was raised by a number of participants. "Darwin considered human beings as any other living creature, without any kind of reference to God," pointed out Professor Eugénia Cunha of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. "Darwin was determined to demonstrate that every single human trait, such as language, morals, had an animal origin."
"Simultaneously, we have to recognise that we are much more than genes. The old phrase 'we are what we eat' is more actual and valid than ever and the secret of our brain increase, a real energy consumer, seems to have been balanced by a concomitant decrease of our guts which, in turn, was possible because of a change in diet," Cunha extrapolates.
"Professor Marwa El-Shakry of Harvard and Columbia universities was unequivocal on the subject of science and religion. "Although Darwin's name is now often connected to religious scepticism, this was not always the case," El-Shakry insists." Darwin's ideas were used across the world to reinforce particular local traditions of belief. Far from signalling the inevitability of a rift between religious belief and unbelief, therefore, these examples show how the encounter between evolution and religion was far less antagonistic than many think today or that the late 20th century rise of global Creationism might suggest."
El-Shakry's views were corroborated by Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore, professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, co-chair with Professor Toshisada Nishida, of the Great Ape World Heritage Species Project and Patron of the Great Ape Survival Project. Wrangham is author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. His intriguing theory of the pivotal importance of controlling fire and its use in processing and cooking raw meat, grains and vegetables as the defining characteristic of the evolution of human beings was both engaging and fascinating.
"The impact of Darwin's theory of Evolution is enormous. So powerful is it, whether proposed in gentle advances (as by Dawkins and others) or sudden jumps (the 'punctuated equilibrium' suggested by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge) it remains the overarching theory of biology. It explains how insects gain immunity to pesticides and how bacteria can become resistant to anti-biotics. Combined with Mendelian heredity, it explains all our domestication of plants and animals. It changed our perception of the living organisms with which we share the world," noted Director of the Bibliotheca Serageldin.
Meanwhile, the BBC Debate: Evolution and Faith in the 21st century ran concurrently on the BBC World Service's English- language programming as well as on the BBC's Arabic debate programme Agenda Maftouha (Open Agenda). Hossam El-Sokkari, head of the BBC Arabic Network, hosted the latter debate. A panel including Nidhal Guessoum, Ramez Malouf and Zaghloul El-Naggar, the highly esteemed Egyptian Islamist thinker and preacher who emphasised that he also was a geologist, joined El-Sokkari.
Agenda Maftouha, a weekly programme offering in-depth exploration of a particular theme or issue, "delving beneath the headlines to examine the undercurrents behind the headlines" as El-Sokkari put it, focussed on the impact of Darwin's seminal work On the Origins of the Species.
The Chihuahua, Pekinese and Great Dane are all members of the same species, with its origins in the grey wolf, which was first domesticated around 15,000 years ago. However, the huge diversity in body shape and form in these breeds has been achieved through selective breeding over the last few centuries. These are some of the prickly topics debated. Darwin clarified why mammals have two sexes, New Science states that it is all in the brain. The evolutionary war between man and viruses continues unabated. El-Naggar waxed philosophical. He put forward the notion that similarities between species only prove that "God is the sole Creator of every living being."