Darwin and Me

This year Darwin was everywhere. New books came out, workshops were held, conferences organized; all in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of his birth.

This will be the year, I thought. This year I’m going to finally understand what evolution is all about and why so many people are against it. This year I’ll make up my own mind whether evolutionism in some of its aspects runs contrary to some aspects of my own faith as a Muslim. This will be the year.

It wasn’t.

At least I don’t think it was.

Or was it?

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m your average sort of person who has a semi-decent education and reads a book or two here and there. I received most of my pre-university education in the U.S.; all the way up to the 10th grade. I have a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery from Cairo University and a master’s in mass communication from the American University in Cairo.

If you ask me when I was taught evolution I can give you no clear answer. I know that somewhere in the course of my education I have been taught about natural selection and adaptation. I’ve also learned about genes, mutations, and Mendelian inheritance. But I truly cannot tell you if anywhere in my education I’ve been taught about Darwin and his work, speciation, and human evolution.

I’ve watched television programs where these have been mentioned. I’ve read a few articles and books as well. Nothing too complicated or too detailed. I can also now add that I’ve attended one seminar on evolutionism and one international conference on Darwin.

And after all that, I can honestly say that I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around it all. Or maybe I have but I just don’t see what the problem is. Or…and just maybe…I do see what the problem is very clearly and I’m not liking what I see.

What do I see?

I see scientific method used for hundreds of years giving clear evidence that species adapt, change, and evolve.

I see scientists telling us that all living organisms have much of their DNA in common; humans and worms have 60% of their DNA in common. I see scientists telling us that humans and chimpanzees have most of their DNA in common. Those scientists say that humans and apes have a common ancestor but they emphasize that they are not saying humans descend from apes. I’ve never truly understood the difference and I’ve never truly understood why scientists make a point of saying in the same sentence: “Darwin never said humans descended from apes; he said we have a common ancestor” but then not going on to tell us what this means exactly.

From Islamic scriptures I see that we are told that there were creatures and living things on the Earth when Adam was created. I see that God says that He created Adam from clay and Eve from Adam’s rib.

I see A LOT of people voicing their concerns about how the implications of the theory of evolution might have encouraged racism, eugenics, and ethnic cleansing.

But this is what I don’t see.

I don’t see how science can be to blame for sick philosophies, ideologies, and practices.

I don’t see how the science can be falsified as a result.

I don’t see anything in the Islamic scriptures that tell me what kind of “Homo” Adam was. Does he have to be the Homo sapiens of today? Could there not have been other “Homos” before him?

I don’t see why we need to read all the stories in the Qur’an literally. What does God mean when He says Adam was created from clay? Anyone who claims he knows what that really means is lying. We can only conjecture and interpret. Basically we are only making a semi-educated guess.

I don’t see scientists making an honest effort to communicate this science in a way that semi-educated people like me can properly grasp.

But I do see a use of language and of metaphors in explaining evolution that seems culturally insensitive and that in some cases could be damaging to the science itself.

I do see some scientists insisting on inserting religion into their dialogue about the science; exactly the same thing most scientists ask religious scholars not to do. I see some scientists saying that evolution means that it is not God who creates, forms and evolves; rather it is the natural processes of evolution that do all this with absolutely no supernatural intervention.

I also see a lot of people talking; most of it gibberish to my ears; most of it not making a lot of sense. I see a lot of people who try to sound like they understand what they are talking about when they support or oppose evolutionism but are not being very successful in the act.

And the conclusion I come to every time is that most people really don’t understand evolution. They are not taught it properly, whether during their education or through other channels such as the media and the public literature. At the same time, most people are receiving confusing messages from multiple, loud sources telling them that this science they do not understand is contrary to their faith. Go anywhere near someone’s faith and you have their attention. I see a lot of people telling themselves: I don’t understand the science, I have no idea what these other guys’ religious arguments are against evolution, but they seem to know what they are talking about and they are talking about it very passionately. There must be some substance to their claims. Maybe I should just back away from this science that might be telling me not to believe in my God.

I see some scientists and many philosophers using science and manipulating it to impose their own ideological convictions.

And, more important than all, I see people, everywhere, unwilling to question their faiths or even their own interpretations of their faiths. And that is what scares me the most.

So, after a year living on and off with Darwin, I’ve decided to keep an open mind. I am going to continue to try to understand the different aspects of evolution. I am going to try to understand what my own religion says or doesn’t say about creation and evolution. I am going to keep an open mind about the meanings of scripts and allow space for different interpretations. I am even going to allow this and other knowledge to get me to question my own faith and understandings. For it is only through this process that I can come to any understanding of truth; whether within what I already know or from somewhere else. And ultimately, isn’t it truth we are searching for, wherever it may be?

And I realize that by doing this, Darwin has rubbed off on me after living with him throughout 2009. Darwin’s genius, after all, was his ability to question conventional wisdom, keep an open-mind and to think out of the box.

Happy Birthday, Darwin.


  1. Nice post. Two quick comments:

    1) ” … humans and apes have a common ancestor but they emphasize that they are not saying humans descend from apes. I’ve never truly understood the difference ..”

    If I understand it correctly, I think the point is that _currently_ existing species have common ancestors –just like me and some other surviving Semite have a common ancestor (and neither of us descends from the other), me and Koko have a common ancestor, albeit a little deeper in our history–

    (You might feel that this is an obvious point, but my experience is that scientists usually preempt some questions based on prior experiences; so sometimes, quite inexplicably, they might hasten to affirm a somewhat obvious point without an apparent need. This might be one of those cases.)

    2) “…I don’t see anything in the Islamic scriptures that tell me what kind of “Homo” Adam was. Does he have to be the Homo sapiens of today? Could there not have been other “Homos” before him?..”

    One attempt, that I know of, towards that interpretation is the one alluded to in this comment. (Still awaiting more scholarly work; Perhaps once the aversion you mentioned in your post subsides, we’ll get to see more serious attempts.)

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