Evolution in the Quran – Lecture at UCT
It is indeed a privilege to have been granted the opportunity to deliver a talk on a subject of my choice. I have decided on evolution.
Basically, there are two opposing models which attempt to describe the mechanism of creation, evolution and the creationist’s vision.
Creationists believe in the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, one of the Books in the Bible. According to creationists, some six to ten thousand years ago, depending on which sources you consult, God gave the command and everything – the stars, planets, galaxies and all living things came into being instantaneously. God created Adam and Eve. They were the first humans and the progenitors of the entire human race.
Evolutionists on the other hand propose that creation happened in stages. Man, for example, developed over extended periods of time in a series of steps from primitive ancestors.
The lecture is a brief extract of my book entitled Document X, Direct Evidence of God Existence- the culmination of 30 years of research which has just been released.
So what exactly is evolution? In a general sense, evolution means gradual change in living things between generations. Over a few generations these changes are imperceptible. They are too slow to be observed in terms of human time scales. However, over hundreds of thousands of years these changes accumulate giving rise to dramatic transformations. Is there proof of such transformations?
Fortunately, there is a recorded history in the form of fossils, archaeological tools, and a library of genetic information in our cells, a vast body of evidence reflecting change over a geological time. It is like the aging process. Our bodies age all the time, but we cannot observe any changes associated with aging over the course of a day. However, we have a history and one only has to page through a photo album to realize the stages of one’s past.
If you observe the natural world, there is an astonishing variety of living organisms. If you look closer, a hierarchical arrangement becomes apparent. At the low end of the spectrum are the primitive, simple creatures, such as worms, crabs, spiders and fish. In the middle you find the more developed amphibians and reptiles, and at the top of the ladder, the very advanced mammals. The primitive creatures are the most ancient – we know this since we can date their fossilized remains using various dating techniques. Reptilian fossils have an intermediate age, while mammalian fossils are the youngest.
The earth’s crust is highly structured. (I know it seems we are jumping around, but we will soon see the bigger picture.) The crust consists of geological layers. The oldest layers are the deepest, while the youngest layer the shallowest. As expected, the fossilized remains of primitive creatures are found mainly in the deep old layers, amphibians and reptiles in between and mammals in the top sedimentary layer – at the surface are the remains of human ancestors.
Now according to evolution, ancient forms of life such as certain fish, gave rise to amphibians; some amphibians evolved into reptiles and a particular class of reptilian stock changed into mammals.
The mammals divided into the major groups we are familiar with today. A specific mammalian line gave rise to an advanced animal, a primate, the ancestor of the great apes and of man. If this is true, then one should find transitional forms in the fossil record, specimens revealing a combination of features, indicative of one species transforming into another.
In the past few decades scientists have indeed uncovered a stream of examples of fish evolving limbs and lungs, dinosaurs sprouting wings giving rise to birds and reptiles transforming into mammals. Scientists can even predict when such intermediate forms should appear in the fossil record.
The question arises, what triggered these changes, why for instance did certain fish transform into amphibians. The answer in part, lies within the environment. The environment is one of the most potent inducers of evolutionary change.
To illustrate… some three hundred and ninety million years ago, lung – fish flourished. Then conditions changed. A dry climate followed, marked by dwindling water sources and a drastic drop in water level in rivers and lakes, which threatened the very existence of these fish. In response, they evolved limb-like fins and a primitive lung, which enabled them to crawl onto the land and breathe the air. The age of the amphibians had begun.
But what body processes lead to these changes? To answer this question we have to journey to the heart of the cell where a crucial molecule resides, the DNA molecule. DNA is a unified chemical thread, which connects all forms of life. It is basically a set of instructions written in chemical form on how to build an animal from scratch.
DNA consists of segments called genes, which contain the information on how to construct an eye, build muscle and sculpt a nail. It specifies the features of the particular animal and hence the species type. You are human because you have human DNA, chimps have chimp DNA, dogs have dog DNA and plants, plant DNA. DNA may be compared to a building plan – although it is much more complex, the logic is the same. The building plan is a set of instructions on what the design of the building should be. If you change the plan, you change the design of the building.
This brings us to the next important point, mutations. Mutations are essentially changes in the genetic instructions, in other words in the DNA. We know they occur from time to time since we can identify and even date them. Most mutations are harmful. However, occasionally a mutation translates into a beneficial trait. Example if the fin of a fish changes to a limb-like structure in a dry climate (refer previous example), the animal will become better adapted to its surroundings; it will tend to outlive its unchanged counterparts.
Such a mutation will also tend to spread through the population. If the mutation is harmful, they produce misfits, which will be weeded out by the selection process and become extinct. In this way bad mutations are eliminated from the species.
Now for a key insight – if one or two mutations can cause a slight change in the structure of the animal, it becomes conceivable that a series of related beneficial mutations over immense time intervals can cause major changes within the design of the animal. It is the steady accumulation of mutations chosen by the forces of selection that underlie such dramatic transformations from fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to mammals and finally to man. This is evolution in a nutshell.
It is important to realise that evolution did not take place in a linear fashion – lower animals did not directly transform into higher animals. Apes for example did not become human. Apes and humans share a common ancestor. Similarly, lions and tigers, although a separate species today, can be traced back to a common ancestor. The same principle applies to all the other species. This means evolution took place in a tree-like fashion. The so-called tree of life depicts the rise and development of life. It has been constructed using a large body of evidence derived from anatomical data, fossils studies and embryology. Its accuracy has been confirmed by the more reliable genetic science (see sketch of the tree of life below)
Sketch of the tree of life
All organisms are related through the innumerable branches of the tree and through descent from a universal ancestor, the first living cells represented by the main trunk of the tree.
The tree does not only illustrate that all living things are related, but specifies the degree of relatedness. For example it explains why humans are closer to chimps, compared to mice. This is based on the molecular clock theory. Applying this idea allows one to determine the time when two species emerged from a single ancestral population.
It has been calculated that chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor 7 million years ago. Humans and chimps share a staggering 98,5 % of their DNA. This makes perfect sense; since they are descendent from a recent ancestor (7 million is a relatively short time in terms of evolutionary standards) and there has not been sufficient time for differences to build up, hence the 98,5 % DNA similarity.
Humans and mice share only 90 % of their DNA. This indicates that these two species have a more remote common ancestor. Enough time has elapsed to build up this 10 % DNA difference.
The more distant the common ancestor, the further back in time the split, and the more pronounced the differences.
All living things that ever lived can be traced back to a universal common ancestor with a basic body plan. The tremendous variety of life forms is the result of endless variation of this basic plan.
Despite mutations, which you will recall are changes in the genetic structure which occur over the ages, the utmost precision with which the genetic message has been transmitted has insured that a significant part of the original DNA sequence in ancient cells has been preserved in all subsequent life forms. We may not look like a banana and may view the world differently, but we share about 30 to 40 % of its DNA. This vital fact, i.e. the faithful transmission of DNA right from the first stirrings of life throughout the living world accounts for the remarkable similarity in DNA, protein chemistry and design between different species.
Living things also use the same DNA language, the identical code system. A particular set of codes that specifies a particular set of protein has the same meaning to a human, moth or bacterium. The chance that millions of species hit upon the same genetic code by an immense stroke of luck is wildly improbable. However, there is perfectly rational explanation. Living organisms have inherited the same code from a grand ancestor. The presence of DNA in all living things and the universal nature of the genetic code are near conclusive evidence of evolution.
THE QURAN AND EVOLUTION
With this background knowledge of evolution, we can now turn our attention to the Quran. Before we start, we must define two key Arabic words in the Quran. The first one is Rabb. Rabb does not only mean Lord or superior being. It also refers to the one who nourishes and guides or provides a thing with the potential that allows it to move from one stage to the other until it reaches its goal of relative perfection. In short, Rabb refers to the one who determines the evolutionary path of things. Evolver would be a better translation.
The second word is Khalq. It does not only mean to bring something into existence from nothing, but has the additional meaning of fashioning and shaping a thing over extended periods. It includes the idea of something fitting into a scheme of things, in other words to adapt. These meanings – to fashion, shape and adapt are essential components of evolution. Kahlq therefore also means to evolve. What is immediately clear from these definitions is that things, including living organisms, begin or originate in a state of imperfection, pass through various stages to relative perfection. It follows that the Quran speaks of a creator that creates and an evolver that evolves.
What does the Quran say about evolution? The book lays down the fundamental principles of evolution in a number of verses. When discussing the tree of life, it was shown that countless species preceded man. The branching pattern of evolution, beginning with humble chemicals in the earth, their conspiring to produce the first living cells, from primitive fish to amphibians, to reptiles, mammals ultimately culminating into man, is expressed into the following verse:
“God has raised you up from the earth in a form of a tree” (71-17).
This is evolution in a nutshell. The Quran expresses here one of the most profound principles of evolution – its tree-like pattern. Since all living things can be traced back to a common ancestor and since we are all connected via the branches of the tree of life, it is not surprising that living organisms share a common chemistry, biology and body design. The Quran reminds us of these shared characteristics in the next verse:
“There is not a creature that walks the Earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings that does not resemble you in structure, behaviour and evolutionary origin” (6-38).
Combining these two verses, captures the essence of the theory of common descent proposed by Darwin in the 19th century, but described by the Quran 13 centuries before Darwin. Note that in many instances my interpretations differ from the traditional translations. I must emphasize that I have not invented or manipulated any meanings. For this reason I have numbered key words in verses in my book Document X and listed the relevant Arabic root words at the bottom of the page with its English meaning. The ambitious reader may of course consult the Arabic lexicon and the Quran to check my translation. The gradual ascent of man on the evolutionary scale is also pointed out in 71-14:
“He evolved you in different stages, forms and appearances and (different) environments”.
This verse alludes to the pre-human evolutionary stages of man. Man has undergone numerous physical transformations before acquiring his modern form. What is the purpose of the word environment in the verse? The environment is a key factor in shaping the course of evolution. We mentioned the warm climate and dried up rivers, which favoured the development of limbs and lungs in certain ancestral fish. It is also no accident that our primate ancestors were tree dwellers. Moving about the trees requires excellent vision and good hand-eye coordination to accurately determine short distances and avoid death leaps. The increased demand on the eyes and the hands required by tree-living stimulated the brain and vastly increased the mental capabilities of these primates. The features that were necessary for tree life laid the foundation for evolution to proceed in the human direction. The environment is therefore a keyword in verse 71:14.
How did evolution work these astonishing transformations? How did lifeless chemicals from the earth produce the spectacular diversity of creation? We mentioned mutation and selection are the primary mechanisms which drive the machine of evolution. Remember that only the beneficial mutations (those which enhance reproductive success and increase the survival of the animal) are selected by the environment. Harmful mutations are eliminated by selection.
The Quran declared fourteen hundred years ago…
“The creative (processes) which are beneficial (for a species) are selected through a (process of) contention for superiority in goodness and excellence and occur according to the law and plan of thy Sustainer. They, (the species) have no choice in the matter.” (26:68).
And in another passage the Quran states…
“Your Sustainer is He who originates every living thing, thereupon shapes and proportions it symmetrically with a just adaptation of its body parts to the performance of its functions. He who has determined the nature of such things and evolved it in accordance with that nature” (87:2 and 3).
Looking at the first verse, the terms law and plan, are significant. They imply that there is an intelligent law operating which governs mutations and selection. Note, since creation embraces every conceivable creative mechanism (mutation is a creative mechanism), mutations must be included in the definition of creation as it appears in the verse. It follows from the verse that only those mutations which are beneficial or useful are selected.
This process proceeds on the basis of striving for superiority, not just in strength, but also as far as goodness, beauty, greater potential and delight are concerned. This has a much broader meaning compared to classical Darwinian principals, going beyond a mere struggle for survival.
There is a sense of direction towards a greater goal. The last part of the first verse states that species have no choice in the matter. Organisms do not choose to grow or evolve in a particular environment. They are forced to adopt a particular lifestyle as a result of the environmental conditions imposed upon them. We mentioned the examples of certain primitive fish that were “forced” to leave the waters, and ape-like creatures that were “forced” to adapt to tree living.
According to the Quran these were not evolutionary accidents, but events geared towards the development of higher life. The second verse speaks about the fashioning and shaping of the animal so that its body parts are consistent with the functions they are meant to perform. In short it refers to the adaptive process, which is fundamental to evolution.
If atheists and non-believing scientists claim that mutation and selection explain the complexity of nature, the Quran declared fourteen hundred years ago that such mechanisms were themselves created by God.
In conclusion, I have summarised some of the principals of evolution as outlined within the Quran.
The Quran upholds the doctrine of evolution. Evolution is a recently developed branch of science; unknown at the time the Quran appeared.
The book refers to modern aspects of the subject, proof not only that it did happen, but also of how it happened.
The book does not subscribe to the idea that life is a result of a miraculous act of a supernatural deity with no explanation given as to how this was achieved, nor does it hold the view that science is the ultimate answer.
It adopts the sensible understanding of a God that creates naturally, the processes of which are accessible to human inspection and reason.
“Do not reject or deny any teaching or wisdom until you fully comprehend its logic” (Quran 10-39).