Category Archives: Evolution
I am published in Muslim Heritage.
Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution (full article here).
Gloriously illustrated by the Muslim Heritage editorial team; so much for the common impression that Islam forbids representational art.
I briefly describe present-day evolution science, and why the evidence for this is considered overwhelming, having earned endorsements from national academies worldwide, including the academies of several predominantly Muslim countries.
I show how Muslim thinkers (especially Al Biruni and Ibn Sina) went beyond Aristotle’s mere assertion that the Earth is old (for Aristotle, infinitely old), by observing and discussing fossils and sediments in an unmistakably scientific manner. I also discuss widespread claims that Islamic scholars had anticipated modern evolutionary thought, and come to the sad conclusion that these are not warranted. What is being described, by sources as diverse as the poet Rumi, the Ikhwan al-SafaI (Brethren of Purity, 8 – 10 C CE), and the pioneer social scientist Ibn Khaldun in 1377 CE, is the Great Chain of Being, derived from Aristotelian thought, and represents stages of development, but does not imply common descent, or change over time. I also look at the claims made on behalf of al Tusi, but fear that these will not stand examination.
The one clear example that I do find of anticipation of the central ideas of mutability of species and common descent comes from al Jahiz’s delightful Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Living Things, 9 C CE), where among much other interesting material (though the story of birds cleaning crocodiles’ teeth is, alas, suspect) he correctly suggests common ancestry for wolves, dogs, and foxes.
I would be delighted to hear of other examples, provided these are accompanied by links to reliable translations (I regret that I cannot read Arabic or Persian) of the original material. I am of course aware of a great deal of twentieth and twentyfirst century literature that makes such claims, but on examination I have so far found these to be simply back-projection. We must also remember that earlier thinkers must be judge in the context of their own times, that they were unaware of the significance that observations would require at a later stage, and that to judge them according to how well they happen to agree with us, with our vastly expanded knowledge base, is unhistorical and, indeed, patronising.
On the relationship between evolution and Islam, I have this to say:
It is not my place to discuss this. I will merely point out that debate between those who accept and those who reject evolution can be found within all the Abrahamic religions, with discussion hingeing on the ways in which the ancient sacred text should be interpreted by a modern reader (Marwa Elshakry, of Columbia University History Department gives a scholarly account1). There are those who protect traditional interpretations by rejecting evolution, but such rejection carries a high cost since it creates a conflict between faith and worldly knowledge. And there are those who attempt to evade this conflict by denying the plain scientific facts; here the cost is even higher. There was a recent vigorous discussion of these topics organized by the Deen Institute,2 and the scientific academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey and Uzbekistan have joined others worldwide in affirming evolution.3
On the Muslim Heritage Facebook page, my article has received over 2000 “likes”. I am grateful to the editorial staff of Muslim Heritage for inviting me to contribute this article, and to Ehab Abouheif, Jim Al-Khalili, Glenn Branch, J. E. Montgomery, Cem Nizamoglu, Rebecca Stott, and Douglas Theobald for helpful discussions.
I will be posting a fuller summary of my rather lengthy article in due course.
1] Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
2] OmarShahid.co.uk: “Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory” by Omar Shahid
3] interacademies.net: IAP on the Teaching of Evolution
“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated. Read the rest of this entry
An excellent survey from The Logic of Science, with striking examples. At every level of detail, the family trees inferred from morphology match the trees established by molecular biology.
Many people are under the false impression that evolution is just a guess or a belief, when in reality, it is one of the most well-supported concepts in all of science. The evidence for it is overwhelming and comes from many different disciplines such as paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and perhaps most significantly, genetics. Indeed, modern genetic tools have allowed us to repeatedly test evolution’s predictions, and those predictions have consistently come true. Therefore, I am going to explain in simple terms what the genetic evidence is and why it is so compelling. As I will show, the evidence perfectly matches the predictions that the theory of evolution made decades before we could test those predictions. Further, the patterns do not make sense if our modern organisms were specially created, because there is no reason why a creator would have had to make life with these patterns. In other…
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Evolution has nothing to do with progress. Most evolution doesn’t even have anything to do with adaptation, and it is perfectly possible for a change that is worse than useless to spread through a population. Paradoxically, however, such non-adaptive change may be a necessary prelude for major adaptations.
This post was inspired by a recent opinion piece (open access here1) in BMC Biology, entitled “Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution” (I will explain what “neutral null” means later). The paper itself is in parts highly technical, with 86 references to the original scientific literature, but I will try here to give a general overview of some of the main conclusions, and to place them in context.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution – Dobzhanski, American Biology Teacher, 1973
Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics – Lynch, PNAS, 2007
Darwin and Wallace both thought that evolution was driven by selection. If so, then whenever we find a feature in an organism, Read the rest of this entry
How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders. And when I wrote about this last year, I did not expect to have to add a US Vice-President to their number.
Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we. – Representative (now Vice-President) Mike Pence, 2002, via Forbes
Trump’s Education Secretary Nominee DeVos Should Challenge Darwinism* – David Klinghoffer, CNS, 13 January 2017 
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Don’t say theory when you mean historical fact. And don’t say you believe in evolution, when you mean you accept it on the basis of the evidence.
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, anything about what caused the phenomena they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. Read the rest of this entry
Long but detailed; updated resources include rebuttals to creationist claims, including dinosaur soft tissue, and teaching exercise on Lucy. I have mined this for links. There is also a discussion of bible-basd arguments, for those (like the author) to whom such things are important.
By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.
Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the…
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Relative dating from sedimentology dates back some 200 years, as beautifully explained here by my friend, field geologist and Anglican priest, Michael Roberts, with illustrations from what he has seen himself, while we have now had absolute radiometric dates for over a century. Index fossils are used only to establish that rocks are the same age, and the way creationists manage to forget this fact is indeed miraculous.
This piece gains added interest because of its first-hand accounts, both of geological exploration, and of attempts to persuade creationists to accept the results.
This incredibly duplicitous meme appeared on my twitter feed today. Fri 13th Jan 2017
Evolution is wrong as it is a circular argument from the age of fossils worked out from evolution
Yes, it is the old chestnut of Young Earthers that the age of rocks is based on a circular argument from evolution. It took me back to 1971 when I made the felicitous mistake of going to L’Abri to sit at the feet of the evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer. I arrived ther all bright-eyed and bushy tailed thinking of all the wondrous things I would learn in the next four weeks. I learnt much but not what I had expected.
On my first morning i was sent to Shaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middlemann to discuss what I would study. I explained that I was going into the Anglican ministry and had just returned from 3 years working as an…
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Creationists argue that historical science is different from, and more uncertain than, present-day observational science. But their choice of examples shows that they themselves don’t really believe this.
The difference between what young earth creationists like to term “operational” or “observational” science and historical science doesn’t have the sharp distinction they like to project to their audience. I was reminded of this recently when I had an opportunity to hear Tommy Mitchell speak at a local Answers in Genesis conference a few weeks ago. One particular talk was entitled: Jurassic Prank: A Dinosaur Tale. In it Mitchell presents the young-earth case that dinosaurs lived with man as recently as a few thousand years ago. The “tale” of course is that scientists have been telling us that dinosaurs died out millions of years before man existed. You could say the punchline to the entire talk was that the public has been punked with regards to the truth about dinosaurs.
There are many lessons to be learned from this talk but I want to focus on one seemingly simple observation that Mitchell makes. Below is a YouTube version…
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This by my friend the geologist, historian, and Anglican priest Michael Roberts, reminding us that the acceptance and active participation of clergymen and other believers in the emerging sciences of biology and evolution dates back more than three centuries.
If you read many historical studies of Britain in the 19th century, you will read that a major conflict was over science. That claim is overstated. Here is a brief overview.
Geology (Deep Time) and Evolution?
From reading many books on church history, general history or popular science, it is easy conclude that advances in geology in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then evolution after 1859 had gradually been undermining belief in God as Creator as well as an almost official literal reading of the early part of the book of Genesis. The actuality is rather different.
Genesis 1 from a 1611 copy of the KJV
So often the work of Archbishop James Ussher is cited as the “official” view of the churches. In 1656 he published his Annales Veteris Testamenti (Annals of the Old Testament) which gave the famous date of creation as 4004BC. (Actually, it has…
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