An Evolving Conversation on Theory of Evolution – By S. Shafqat
Friends have a way of talking things over in the most unfettered and unadorned way. As we shall see in this conversation about biological evolution between two educated friends, the usual burdensome conceptual hurdles can often become crystal clear in such a dialogue. Omar and Kamran have a close friendship going back to their school days. They are now in their early 30s. Omar is a scientist at Karachi University?s Institute of Genetics; Kamran is a chartered accountant. Both men have long shared a mutual interest in science. They are also both practicing and believing Muslims and identify themselves as orthodox Sunnis.
The play opens with Kamran paying a social visit to Omar?s house on a weekend afternoon. It is a typical Karachi setting. The two men are seated across from each other in an unassuming but comfortable drawing room. Distant voices of children playing in the street are heard from outside. Kamran is sipping a glass of Rooh Afza. He has come to enjoy his friend?s company but there is also something else on his mind. An article on biological evolution written by Omar has appeared in the latest Dawn Magazine and it has left Kamran, who is skeptical of evolution, feeling a bit contentious. They exchange pleasantries, then Kamran pops the question.
Kamran: Whatever made you air your views so prominently on a controversial topic like evolution ? It is only going to get you grief.
Omar: I know, yaar. I have already heard from my neighbors and my in-laws. And there are probably going to be a lot of angry letters to the editor. My motive was simply to put across what I regard as a rational introduction to this topic. Don?t you think every educated person should know about this ?
Kamran: Of course. But did you have to be so one-sided in your article ? I think the viewpoint opposing evolution should also be given a fair hearing in any discussion of this topic. After all, evolution is just a theory – and there?s at least one other equally plausible competing theory that I?m aware of.
Omar: Oh, no. Not you, too! Well, let me tell you. The nature of scientific evidence is such that it can only approach absolute proof, never really attain it. So, technically, you?re right that evolution is just ?a theory?. But the fact is that within the realm of science the debate over evolution has been settled for over a century. Nobody is writing papers any more to provide any more evidence for evolution. There is no longer the need. The question has long been decided based on an overwhelming weight of the evidence. Evolution is now considered one of the two most fundamental underpinnings of biology – the other being that there is a mechanistic basis to all biological processes. So evolution is ?a theory? only in the sense that the helicocentric solar system, the roundness of the Earth, and gravity – to give but a few examples – are just ?theories?. As I said, evolution is really the conceptual bedrock of all biology.
Kamran: Please yaar. I really find that hard to believe. That may be what scientists think, but they?re not the only ones with an opinion on this subject.
Omar: In all fairness, Kamran, you have to see why scientists think this way. It is not a conspiracy. In fact, the social dynamic of science does not allow any kind of conspiracy to be sustained. Science is rooted in competition. You know how hard it has been for me to get to where I am. You remember when I had that ?Nature? paper published during my post-doc ? I had sent you this email full of smileys and exclamation marks, you thought I had gone crazy. Well, I had really worked hard on that project and I wanted to be rewarded for it. That paper made it to ?Nature?, which is probably the most prestigious scientific journal, because of the compelling data I had managed to collect challenging the conventional wisdom in my field of yeast genetics. In a sense, I was a credible whistle-blower, and science really rewards people like that. I can assure you, if anyone can come up with credible scientific evidence against evolution today, their career is going to sky-rocket.
Kamran: Give me a break, Einstein. If someone really came up with credible evidence against evolution, it would be so embarrassing for scientists that the establishment would completely suppress it. Indeed, for all I know, the evidence is probably there already but the powerful people of science are keeping it from coming out.
Omar: Boy, you really are becoming a conspiracy buff aren?t you ? And what, may I ask, is your favorite explanation for all the world?s problems ? The Jewish Lobby, or the White Man and his Gun ?
Kamran: Don?t be cute with me, Omar. You know as well as I do that the world?s problems are too complex to be explained by one single factor. But I?m making a serious point here. Are you trying to avoid it ?
Omar: I?m not avoiding anything. I?m just surprised that you think it would be possible to suppress such significant scientific data. Look, scientists are indeed passionate about their positions and I will grant you that any paper presenting evidence against evolution will be met with a lot of skepticism. But if the data are compelling and reproducible, a lot of people will see career advancement in it, not to mention fame and glory, and a whole line of investigation will be triggered that could overthrow conventional wisdom. Moreover, scientific data are articulated on an international scale, in meetings with colleagues and in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. It would simply not be possible to suppress important data. Think of it like this. Imagine if the Earth, when viewed from outer space, turned out to be flat, or that someone found a 5-mile stretch on Greenland where gravity was absent, or that the dead could be brought back to life, would it be possible to keep these observations quiet ? Each of these findings would single-handedly dethrone accepted scientific dictum, but there is just no way one could keep them from becoming public knowledge. Finding credible evidence against evolution would be just as significant. The point is, science embraces views that are supported by observations analyzed through logic. As I?m sure you?ll agree, evolution is not the most palatable idea, but scientists have accepted it based on the burden of evidence. Whatever the evidence points to, that?s the scientific position.
Kamran: Well, all right. But if the scientific evidence favoring evolution is so strong, how come it is still such a controversial topic ?
Omar: Evolution is controversial amongst lay people, not with biologists. It really has to do with what evolutionary biology implies about our own origins as humans, you know, that we have descended from apes. It is natural to feel repulsed by such a possibility because we all value our heritage so highly. But I would submit to you that this sensitivity about parentage is really a completely man-made construct. We choose to take personal affront to evolution because it hits us in our ego. But biology doesn?t know anything about ego. Honestly, when you really see how much we are like other animals, I fail to see what all the fuss is about.
Kamran: What do you mean ?
Omar: Well, everyone agrees that our bodies are made from the same material as apes, gorillas and other animals – the same carbon and hydrogen atoms, the same salts and sugars. If you look at the different tissues of the body under a microscope, you can?t tell tissues of monkey origin from tissues of human origin. The point is, if people so readily accept the obvious similarity of our bodies to the flesh of lower animals, it is sometimes hard for me to see why they would get so wound up about similarity in genetic descent. It is our consciousness that makes us special, not our bodies.
Kamran: Wow, I never really saw it like that. But I see what you?re saying. In fact, isn?t it true that there is a carbon cycle that recycles carbon atoms throughout nature ? Why, a carbon atom in my heart or brain could actually have been part of cow or goat excrement at some point.
Omar: Exactly. You get the point. Now, despite this knowledge, you don?t go about feeling insulted at the possibility that you may be made out of bullshit, do you ?
[Kamran laughs, then looks at his watch and gets up to prepare for namaz-e-asr. Omar joins him.] End Scene I
The scene opens with Omar re-entering his drawing room. Kamran is already there and is reading the newspaper. Both men are wearing crocheted skull caps; it appears that they have just finished with their prayers. Omar?s wife, Laila, has laid out a sumptuous tea and is getting ready to play hostess. As Omar sits down, Kamran takes off his skull cap and, while still looking at the newspaper, restarts the conversation.
Kamran: Omar, yaar, your arguments are starting to make some sense to me but I?ve got to tell you, my real difficulty with evolution is that it seems so … un-Islamic.
[Laila rolls her eyes up and looks away, as if to say, boy, you?re really going to hear about it now.]
Omar: An educated man like you should know better than to fall into that trap, Kamran.
Kamran: What do you mean ?trap? ? I?m talking about the Quran and Hadees, sir ji. It disturbs me that evolutionary science cannot be reconciled with Islamic teachings.
Omar: Kamran, let me ask you a question. Let?s say I give you a movie to watch on a PAL system video tape. You put the tape into an NTSC VCR and see only TV noise. Now, would you be justified in concluding that there is no movie on that tape ?
Kamran: No, of course not. I obviously haven?t used the right system to view the tape. But what are you really trying to say ?
Omar: Here?s the point, my friend. Science is based on physical observation analyzed through logic. Using one’s interpretation of religious belief to counter-argue scientific evidence is like trying to play a PAL tape in your NTSC VCR. It doesn’t work. The two systems don?t speak the same language. Let me give you an example. [Gets up and pulls a book from the top shelf of a bookcase]
This is the Ahmed Ali translation of the Quran. Take a look at verses 13 and 14 in Surah Nuh, the 71st Surah: “What has come upon you that you do not fear the majesty of God, Knowing that He has created you by various stages ?”
I want you to focus on the second line, which in the original Arabic reads “Vaqad khalaqakum atvaar.” In all the five English translations of the Quran that I have – Pickthall, N. J. Dawood, Ahmed Ali, Daryabadi, and Yusuf Ali – the Arabic ?atvaar? has been translated as ?stages?. What do you think ‘stages’ refers to here ? Is it embryonic development of the fetus, or is it human evolution ? Perhaps it refers to the steps of psychological maturation during mental development. Or could it, perhaps, symbolize the epochs of human civilization ? The answer to these questions cannot be analyzed by the scientific method.
Kamran: Why not ? Science is just a process of logical reasoning. Why can?t we also use logical reasoning to properly infer the meaning of ?stages? ?
Omar: Science acquires knowledge about ourselves and our world through physical observation analyzed through reasoning and logic. Because different people can interpret the same evidence differently, disagreements are common. Science resolves disputes by making more physical observations, collecting more evidence. This is where the scientific method diverges from any approach based on interpreting fixed text. In the example we are discussing, except for asking people for their subjective interpretations of the term, we cannot collect any new evidence to get at the true meaning of ‘stages’. We could go to the most learned of scholars, but we would still be limited to dealing with subjective human interpretations. No new ?evidence? can be collected because no one can speak to Allah. It is true that Allah spoke to our Prophet, who did say many things by way of explanation, but even those sayings are now immutable text limited to individual interpretations because no one can speak with the Prophet anymore either. This inability to collect more evidence with respect to an intellectual position is where this whole approach diverges from the scientific method 180 degrees.
Kamran: I find this a little frustrating, frankly. I see your point about scientific method versus religious analysis, but with regards to evolution there is still a contradiction between the two, isn?t there ? So who?s right ? Which do we choose, science or religion ?
Omar: They are both right. What may seem like a contradiction at first glance, may not turn out to be so with the benefit of more knowledge. Humans have limited intellect and knowledge. We recognize our faith as the ultimate truth, but our ability to access it depends on our own intellectual capacities. Science is the best system we have so far developed to acquire more knowledge starting from limited intellect and limited knowledge. If we see a contradiction between our faith and science on a particular point, we are not properly understanding one of them. Based on a review of the scientific evidence, it is my contention that on the issue of biological evolution we are not properly understanding our faith.
Kamran: Boy, you sound almost arrogant. Science is something completely man-made. It seems really arrogant to presume that mankind can figure out the universe all by itself. We must never forget our humility. We are nothing.
Omar: Kamran, please give me some credit, yaar. I am a Muslim like yourself. Like you, I believe that there is no deity but Allah and that Muhammad is the last and final in a long line of His messengers. Many Muslims are scientists. In fact, I should say that many good Muslims are good scientists. There is nothing un-Islamic about the pursuit of science. Science is devoted to gaining more knowledge. How can the desire to become knowledgeable be against Islam ? I?ll tell you what?s really arrogant. The refusal to believe in our subhuman evolutionary origins, that is what?s really arrogant. It hits us in our ego and we retract into our shell of complexes. It makes us the intellectual equivalent of the summun, bukmun, umyun – the deaf, dumb and blind. Ego is pride, my friend, and pride is arrogance and arrogance is really a kind of shirk. I cannot imagine a bigger sin.
[Laila has been sitting quietly, intently listening to the two men. She now speaks up.]
Laila: No need to get all fired up, Omar. You guys are having a really absorbing conversation. But take a break and have some tea and samosas, please. And, anyway, it is getting close to maghrib.
[Laila hands Kamran a cup of tea and a plate of samosas. Omar serves himself.] End Scene II
It is dark. Kamran and Omar are standing in the driveway of Omar?s house. Kamran is getting ready to leave and fumbling for his car keys.
Omar: Thanks for a nice chat, Kamran. I hope I didn?t mortally offend you.
Kamran: Not any worse than you?ve done before [laughs]. Actually, I really enjoyed myself. You are quite persuasive. I do have to tell you, though, Omar, that I still have reservations about evolution. After all, nobody?s ever really seen evolution happen, have they ?
[Omar breathes a big sigh and sits down on the front steps of his house. Across from him, Kamran leans on the hood of his car.]
Omar: If you mean to ask whether scientists have actually witnessed the emergence of a new animal species, the answer is no, of course not. Although emergent new species can be observed in plants, the time-scale of evolution is typically measured in geological time, not human time. Based on the fossil evidence, it seems to take between 1 million and 3 million years for a new species to emerge. This is rather more than a scientist?s career span, don?t you think ?
Kamran: Well, then, how can you really be sure that evolution has happened ? If you don?t actually see something, how can you really be sure of it ?
Omar: Yes, you can, Kamran. You have to look at the evidence and use your intelligence to make inferences. We have been through this before, yaar, but you are forcing me to repeat myself. The evidence for evolution includes the hierarchical organization of life, the structural homology of different anatomic parts, the similarities in embryos of diverse species, the presence of vestigial organs, the geographic distribution of many species in the higher taxonomic groups and, of course, the remarkable correspondence of DNA sequences across all life forms. Evolution is the unifying theory of life that explains a great diversity of observations in biology.
Kamran: Wait a minute. I thought that the idea of similarity of embryos and vestigial organs has been completely discredited. Even evolutionists don?t use those arguments any more. You should know that.
Omar: You?re mistaken, Kamran. Both these notions are bona fide components of the canonical body of evidence supporting evolution and are echoed in contemporary textbooks on evolutionary biology. Like any piece of scientific evidence, people with opposing views interpret it differently, but the totality of the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution. Opponents of evolution either fail to appreciate or deliberately ignore the subtleties. They try to keep concepts simple and black-and-white, presumably hoping it would be easier to destroy them. The flaw in this approach is obvious: evidence doesn?t go away simply by ignoring it. This is especially true of the question of embryology and evolution. The issue is not that embryos recapitulate the evolutionary history of their species, but that embryos in species as diverse as frogs and humans go through the same early stages of structure and function. The important thing is the similarity despite the diversity. Why don?t you borrow my copy of Gould?s “Ontogeny and Phylogeny” ? You?ll see what I?m trying to get at.
Kamran: Oh, please. I have no time for Gould. He?s a fanatic. I don?t want to get bogged down in embryology. It?s all the different pieces of evidence you guys keep coming up with. Every piece just seems a little hard to swallow, you know. Take the fossil record, for example. Many people say that the fossil record does not show gradual changes but rather many sudden changes, without the intermediate varieties of animals that would be predicted by evolution.
Omar: This is true. The fossil record suffers from all the weaknesses of what scientists call ?retrospective data?. Information in the fossil record wasn?t recorded for research purposes. The fossil record developed at the mercy of geological and biological events. Most fossils, for example, are in sedimentary rock with virtually none in igneous rock, and animals with certain kinds of skeletons have been preferentially preserved over other kinds. Despite these limitations, the fossil record provide examples of gradual and continuous change in organisms.
Kamran: Such as … ?
Omar: Well, I don?t want to burden you with technicalities, but since you ask, examples include species from the protozoan genus Globorotalia which exhibit a gradual change in their outer shell over 10 million years, straddling the Miocene/Pliocene boundary. Ordovician trilobites are another good example, with a gradual increase in the number of ribs over 3 million years. Even so, it must be recognized that there are indeed some prominent gaps between several groups of animals and plants. The explanations for these observations continue to be an area of intense debate in evolutionary biology and some of the hypotheses, such as the idea of punctuated equilibrium put forward by Gould at Harvard, are quite controversial.
Kamran: Aha! So the gaps in the fossil record do argue against evolution!
Omar [groans]: No, it doesn?t, baba. The debate is about how evolution has happened, not whether it has. The fact of evolution is no longer in question. I mean, just look at the cellular and molecular evidence. How can that not be enough to convince anyone ?
Kamran: OK, let?s talk about that for a bit. You keep bringing up molecular data like some kind of elegant confirmation of evolution. But I?ve heard people say that these data are also controversial.
Omar: That?s just not correct, Kamran. Molecular data are as uncontroversial as data can get. We are talking about comparing similarities between sequences of chemicals – symbolized by the letters A, T, G and C – in the chain of DNA from different species. The essential evidence is this. The sequences of all genes that have so far been looked at share a remarkable similarity across diverse species. Moreover, the more closely two species seem to be related, the closer is the similarity in their genes. For example, for my Ph.D. thesis I studied a molecule that transports neurotransmitters into brain cells. I studied the human gene for this molecule, which has a protein-coding sequence of nearly 1600 bases. The corresponding gene in monkeys is 95% similar to the human sequence, that in frogs is about 70% similar, and that in bacteria is about 50% similar. There is no ambiguity about this. Sequencing methods allow us to know the sequence of any given piece with 100% accuracy. And that?s complete 100 per-cent, not ?close to? or ?approximately? 100 percent. This kind of relationship stands for any human gene that has so far been examined in this way, I guess probably a few thousand or so by now, of the total 100,000 genes that exist in human cells.
Kamran: So how does all the sequence similarity prove evolution ?
Omar: The pattern of relationships amongst DNA sequences, based on sequence similarities, points to a common origin for all forms of life on Earth.
Kamran: My head is spinning from all that biology lesson. You know how much I enjoy science, but am I glad I didn?t go into it! I could never keep it straight. [Looks at his watch.] Well, it?s really getting late and I must get going. But one final question. How does evolution explain the origin of life ? I mean, what good is a theory of life if it can?t tell us how it all began ?
Omar: Those are really two questions. The answer to your first question is that evolution doesn?t explain the origin of life, it explains the diversity of life. No one knows how life began. Whatever the process, it clearly happened against immense odds. The laws of thermodynamics are set firmly against the spontaneous generation of self-replicating assemblies of chemicals in the universe as we know it. Origin-of-life debates remain very much the province of speculation. As I said, no one really knows. As for your second question, evolution?s inability to address the origin of life doesn?t weaken the theory one bit. It would be like saying that the theory of gravity is useless because it doesn?t explain the origin of matter. Evolution doesn?t address the origin of life, it merely addresses one of the properties of life, namely the ability of life to generate such astounding variation, with close to 30 million species, of which the vast majority have not yet been even described.
Kamran: All right, all right. I see what you?re saying. I really admire you for your passion about your subject and your knowledge. We?ve known each other a long time and you know that I?ve never quite seen eye-to-eye with you on evolution. I really enjoyed our conversation today, Omar, but I have to tell you I?m still not convinced, my friend. I have collected a large number of quotations from eminent scientists and thinkers who don?t believe in the theory of evolution. All these great minds speaking out against evolution, they can?t all be wrong.
Omar: Dishing out peoples? opinions for or against evolution is silly. If you can come up with quotes from anti-evolutionists, someone else can just as easily come up with opinions from pro-evolutionists that are going to be more numerous and more intense. This is a poor method of exchanging ideas. The currency of scientific debate is not opinions but evidence. But anyhow, the way you choose to frame your position is obviously your prerogative, Kamran. I don?t expect to convince you of anything, I know you?re too stubborn for that. I just want to make you think. I just hope you?ll think, Kamran. That?s all I ask.
[Omar offers his hand and Kamran shakes it warmly. Kamran sits in his car, cranks the engine, and starts backing out of the driveway. Laila steps out to join Omar.]
Laila: Do you have any idea how much time you spent with Kamran ? You were supposed to mend the washing machine today.
Omar: Relax, love of my life. Tomorrow?s a holiday. I?ll do it in the morning. It just got really interesting with Kamran. He asks good questions.
Laila: We have go to Tariq Road in the morning to buy shoes for Samia. And later there?s a birthday party invitation at Bushra?s husband?s niece?s house. No, you won?t have time tomorrow, better fix it tonight.
Omar: Okay, woman of my dreams. I?ll take a look at the machine. Where?s the toolbox ?
Laila: It?s where it always is. And please clean up in the drawing room first. You left the place in a real mess.
[Laila walks out. Omar scratches his head and looks around blankly. Curtain falls.]
The Author has a PhD in Neuroscience from Duke University. Published with compliments and special thanks.