Muslims, Christians, and shifting from scientific to cultural arguments regarding evolution

Nadia Yassine is a Muslim intellectual/activist from Morocco. She doesn’t embody the sort of “above the fray” intellectual, detached from untidy personal connections and political motives. Instead, her combination of roles reflects a recent trend in Islamic thought aiming to rehabilitate a religious tradition through local and international activism. In the US we’re more likely to hear about “radical” Muslims who might train with al-Qaeda than about people like Yassine. Such folks make for better newscopy than intellectuals, after all. But she offers much food for thought in her book Full Sails Ahead by taking aim at the West, and critiquing elements of Islamic culture, modernization, and globalization. In a disenchanted modern/post-modern world she hopes Islam can provide a moral compass to guide humanity’s great ship, the sail of which is represented by hijab, or the veil worn by many Muslim women. She’s an eminently snappy author, and while the book is a translation from her French original, I don’t believe much of her sarcasm, wit, puns, or jokes were lost in translation. Is this a common French intellectual style? It felt very Nietzschean to me. Fun, thought-provoking, and aggravating by turns.

What I find particularly interesting for discussion here is the similar way she shifts discussion of Darwin away from scientific claims toward cultural assertions–a move also made by certain Young Earth Creationist Christians in the US. Mormons aren’t the only ones who’ve sadly outsourced views on evolution to fundamentalist Christians.

One of Yassine’s epigraphs suggests her certain for an ethic of dialog: ‘“To comprehend the Other you must not commandeer him but rather become his guest” –Louise Massignon’ (91, page numbers in parenthesis are from Nadia Yassine, Full Sails Ahead [Iowa City: Justice and Spirituality Publishing, 2006]). Such an approach seems to concern her most when the subject being studied is Islam, as elsewhere she says “Finicky academism is sent to the devil when Islam is the subject of study” (130). It’s also sent to the devil when she discusses evolution, which she calls “modern man’s new religion” (35). In chapter 1.3, “The Soul’s Ruin,” she presents Darwin as “inventing the myth of the Superfish.”

Rather than taking things seriously from the outset she insults Darwin by complimenting his ability to convince people that the fables he created were true and scientific (35). She includes a silly poem about “Mr. Fish with legs, tired of his pond” (it must be better in the original French) and calls Darwinism a “poisonous philosophy”; a “pseudoscience founded on a bestial premise,” and says only “modern idiocy” could swallow such a “bitter harvest” (36-7). It makes for fun reading, but as the old saying goes, it tends to generate much more heat than light. We still don’t really know, based on the opening sections, what evolution actually is.

“Every God-given day,” Yassine asserts, “honest men of science disprove the deception and revile the fraud of Darwinian verbiage[?] –in vain!” Such confidence. Moreover, “others not short of competence and valid arguments” have refuted Darwin (37). She doesn’t bother to cite a single one of these “honest men” who daily disprove the “grinning-monkey theory”. In fact, Yassine decides to forgo getting bogged down in the murky swamp (soup?) of scientific research and studies. Instead, “We will content ourselves here with observing Darwinism from the cultural angle—the only one of interest to us, anyway, since even the exact sciences are culturally based” (37). This is an intriguing rhetorical move, especially considering how it parallels religious responses to Darwinism by certain fundamentalist Christians in the West.

Young Earth Creationism developed in the early decades of the 1900s as a counter to Darwinism. Figures like hydraulics engineer Henry Morris tried to prove the viability of a literal global flood.1 Various attempts to initiate actual academic research institutions failed as scientists nearly universally grew to believe the initial creationist research was entirely flawed. But anti-evolutionism did not go away; it became more widespread particularly among evangelical fundamentalists even as it became academically disrespectable.2 As two evangelical Christian scholars explain:

Creationism’s popular appeal derived largely from a powerful social argument, namely, that America’s worrisome slide into immorality, liberalism, and unbelief was caused by the widespread acceptance of evolution and its pernicious influence in areas like education, law, sexual mores, politics, and so on.3

Everything from hippies to drug use to rock music and disobedience to parents could be chalked up to the natural outcome of teaching children they came from apes. The spread of simplistic notions of “survival of the fittest,” a social Darwinism not crafted by Darwin himself and largely abandoned in the academy today, would explain evil in the world for fundamentalists looking for a false gospel to blame.

It is fascinating to note that Yassine’s cultural arguments don’t follow this exact path, but rather focus on perceived weaknesses of Catholicism and Christianity in general in the face of Darwinism. If anything, Christianity set the stage for the acceptance of Darwinism in Yassine’s view. An “unnatural vexation intrinsic to its precepts” gradually wore away at the faith until “Darwinism takes its place in the onslaught against a suffocating and hypocritical church” (38-9). Fundamentalists tied their faith to a Bible “fraught with nonsense,” with outdated stories of origin, global floods, and other scientific embarrassments are forced to perform “mental gymnastics” to try and salvage things (41). According to Yassine’s story, dogmatic atheistic Darwinists on one side are pitted against religious fools clinging to their silly book, soon to give way completely to an atheistic doom.

Thus, some evangelical critics thus employ Darwinism as evidence of wider cultural decadence; their Christian faith standing as the true bulwark against it. Yassine employs Darwinism as evidence of the weaknesses of Christianity and the pathetic capitulation on the part of some Christians who are compelled to act academically respectable even while clinging to an outdated and flawed Bible, or simply abandoning the Bible to its fate by making “a pact with the devil” (45). This is a stark either/or proposition, and one which she would ostensibly apply to Islam: Darwin or Allah, she might offer as the only possible choices. It is strange to see her simultaneously dismissing Fundamentalist Christians while using some of their same rhetorical techniques–dodging discussion of actual scientific claims in lieu of vague bald assertions about the cultural impact of a particular scientific enterprise.

Why attack Darwin? “My precise objective” she says, “is to destroy the barriers that stand between [a] person and his primordial right to know the secret of his existence by recognizing God” (4). She sees in Darwin an uncompromising dogmatism which eliminates God and confines the known world to the empirically observed. God created the earth and we need not know how, but evolutionists certainly do not. In the past, such views were thought to be peculiarly American. Stephen J. Gould, a controversial paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science (whom Yassine actually quotes elsewhere) reported: “as insidious as [evolution denial] is, at least it’s not a worldwide movement…I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” But Gould was wrong, as Yassine’s work suggests.

In fact, perhaps some Muslims like Yassine aren’t incidentally paralleling arguments of Western fundamentalists. In the 1980s a Muslim minister of education in Turkey contacted a fundamentalist Christian group in the United States requesting anti-evolution literature which was subsequently translated into Turkish. An imam named Harun Yahya in Istanbul has produced nearly 200 books in languages ranging “from Arabic to Urdu” claiming that evolution denies the existence of Allah, destroys moral values, and promotes naturalism, the same claims of the Fundamentalist Christians and Yassine.4 Like these authors, Yassine produces works with the trappings of scholarship (footnotes, bibliography, citations) but presents an essentially anti-intellectual argument against evolution.

Why should this concern Mormons? Missing in Yassine’s critique are all of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who profess faith in God as well as respect for and interest in Darwinian evolution. Missing are the ongoing discussions attempting to reconcile religious and scientific outlooks on the origin of the human species. I’ve reviewed books discussing such things here, here, and here. Belief in God and belief in evolution are not mutually exclusive options.

 

Footnotes:

1. Randall J. Stephens, Karl W. Giberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard, 2012), 31-2. I review the book here.

2. Yassine mistakenly attributes the initial “Fundamentals” publication to William Jennings Bryan’s article of 1923. The Fundamentals were actually a series of pamphlets first published in 1909 and they didn’t initially reject evolution outright, although the author felt “repugnance to the idea” of having an ape as ancestor. Still, he would “accept the humiliating fact, if proved.” See Stephens and Giberson, Ibid., 46.

3. Stephens and Giberson, Ibid., 35.

4. Ronald L. Numbers, “Myth 24: That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon,” in Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215.

Comments

  1. Blair this is fascinating at several levels. I think Nadia Yassine is being heavily influenced by the likes of Harun Yahya who run one of the most well funded creationist institutes in the world. He creates these massive cloth, beautifully bound coffee table-sized books hundreds of pages long with some of the truly most beautiful photographs of fossils, animals, all sorts of things. Called the Atlas to Creation and there have been several volumes. They are high quality works of art. He gives them free to scientists, hoping to convert one. Just a guess I would say that each is in the 20lb range. They are big and heavy. I discovered I could get one free, so one late Friday afternoon I popped off an email asking for one. It was on my desk Monday morning delivered express DHL from Turkey (which must have cost 100s of dollars). The text however is confused common creationist drivel. Uninformed scientifically, and silly. But the package! Oh My.

    It is sad to see this influence in Islamic circles. I’ve actually spoken to many faithful Muslim biologists, who like me are working out theologies embracing evolution within their traditions. What’s common across both Christian and Mormon fundamentalists (little ‘f’ fundamentalists) is that they tend to be scientifically uninformed and this islamic brand of creationism (which is fairly new) is following that pattern. Sad to see. The “New Atheists” eat it up because it because it is so uninformed, simplistic and silly that they can hold it up for destruction quite easily because these creationisms are their own straw man and since they have no real intellectual heft are easy to be made ridiculous. More nuanced and scientifically informed theologies they don’t need to approach. An age of ignorance approches. Beware.

  2. Beware is right. Interesting about the giant books. It’s quite frustrating to see particular Muslims grabbing hold of anti-evolutionism, and some of that animosity is linked to distrust of western thought and science in general, but YEC’s stuff is becoming a scary export.

  3. Also, it’s good to spread the word about Muslims seeking a theology consistent with their science and their faith. That’s an ongoing project worth working on not only inside various traditions but between them as well.

  4. And–the Arab world continues to remain benighted.
    See, e.g., various UN Human Development reports on the Arab world.
    Why was this book worth reading past page 37?

  5. Why? Because I like to become familiar with different perspectives. Yassine isn’t a complete loss, either. Hr discussion on globalization and mass communication was fascinating to read, a thoughtful Islamic perspective. It was also interesting to read her perspectives on feminism, which were, well, quite feminist. Her chapter on Darwin was largely a weird sidetrack compared with much of the other material in the book. Aside from the Darwin debacle I actually believe it is intellectuals like Yassine who stand a chance at helping to bring about important social changes in the Arab world to increase education, human rights, and improving the overall quality of life.

  6. My understanding is that Islam was the last of the three Abrahamic religions to foster a fundamentalist movement. I suppose it’s only logical that those who are late to the party would ape the arguments of their brethren who arrived decades ago. It is ironic, though, that she would rely on rhetoric invented by Christians.

  7. And turn that rhetoric back on Christians themselves to boot! Not a promising or necessary development for Islam, and I have no idea how widespread it is.

  8. OK, didn’t quite pick up on the other, better parts of the book.
    Thanks.
    I don’t mean to be too negative, but it’s profoundly depressing
    to me when someone who thinks “the exact sciences are culturally based” is viewed as an “intellectual.”
    I hope your more optimistic view is correct, though.

  9. It’s interesting, Tom, she’s somewhat of an intellectual anti-intellectual in many ways. But she’s clearly well-read, has some great thoughts to consider about globalization and popular culture, and I’m telling you, her writing is a lot of fun to read. IF I had more time I would have actually written a review of the whole book to praise some of the bits I really liked, but I just don’t have enough time right now.

  10. “It is ironic, though, that she would rely on rhetoric invented by Christians.” Fundamentalist (with a small ‘f’) Mormons rely heavily on rhetoric invented by Seventh Day Adventists, and by fundamentalist Evangelicals who think Mormonism a cult. Not such a surprise that fundamentalist Muslims are using the same ideas.

    What annoyed me the most was her focus on Darwin. Darwin was important, but he’s just one scientist out of thousands who has studied evolution. It’s like attacking physics by attacking Newton. It shows a total ignorance of an enormous field of study.

  11. Exactly, Tim. It was clear she doesn’t actually understand evolution at all and seems to think it simply means that humans used to be monkeys and thus not created by God in any way. We see this exact problem in certain Mormon writings.

  12. What if she’s right about society’s reaction to Darwin. I don’t mean that she is right on scientific inquiry, not right on evolution, or the age of the earth, or any of that. But right, or at least somewhere in the vicinity of right, about what the collective psychological effect has been of being reduced in the way most rationalists have reduced us. Not just that we are descended from animals, the idea is we are ‘only animals.’ Without any purpose other than those we invent, living only to survive on an insignificant ball of dust spinning mindlessly in the midst of nothing.

    It has interested me to think of how we once thought that we might mean something to God. After all, we were the dominant life form living on the thing that was at the center of everything. God might take notice of that. But if we are just one infinitesimal thing, sitting on our haunches insignificantly above the other things with which we share everything, why would God take any more notice of us than he does of apes, or dogs, or ants? Why take any notice of us, at all?

    I don’t know, she’s clearly wrong … men were beasts before they thought they were beasts. They were drug addicts and rapists and genocidal maniacs every bit as much before as after. There is more than enough proof that we are apes, or less than apes, without the idea of evolution. But has there been an effect, a withdrawal from some element of reality? I think about Nietzsche’s Last Men, beings without a feeling for glory, living to satisfy animal needs, even the animal need for belonging and happiness – but only that. It is something to rebel against, even if on more truthful grounds than what this author and others resort to.

  13. My first thought about Yassine’s kneejerk reaction to Darwinism was that evolution is simply an unfolding of creation. Both sides are right in their own way, so no need to fuss. But on a deeper level, Darwinism has robbed us of our birthright as humans. In particular, Social Darwinism grew out of it and “Survival of the fittest” became the natural order of society.

    Whether or not Darwin was right is much less important than how we apply or mis-apply his theories. Maybe Yassine is focusing on the latter.

  14. Drug addicts doesn’t belong in the same sentence with rapists and genocidal maniacs. Sorry about that. I was watching an episode of Breaking Bad, and ruminating on how low people can go.

  15. TP, that’s a great comment. Our theologies need to catch up with evolution and fast.

  16. themormonbrit says:

    I think there may be some merit in what she says. I don’t mean her denial of evolution, but what she says about evolution being a cultural thing as much as a scientific issue. A strongly held view on a controversial issue, especially in the face of widespread opposition, can create a strong sense of identity and solidarity. Just look at how the claims of joseph smith led to the creation of an incredibly tight-knit global community – the lds church. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the beliefs of a community from the community itself – if you love the community and culture, you are more likely to accept the beliefs.

  17. Bradley: But on a deeper level, Darwinism has robbed us of our birthright as humans.

    How do you figure? Perhaps our birthright as humans is to be a part of God’s overall creation with responsibilities to the whole. Thomas notes the worry that people are “only animals” according to many people. If that’s the case, why isn’t it an elevation of animals as opposed to a simple lowering of humans?

    In particular, Social Darwinism grew out of it and “Survival of the fittest” became the natural order of society.
    Whether or not Darwin was right is much less important than how we apply or mis-apply his theories.

    And the Crusades grew out of Christianity. As you note, misapplication is the problem, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is the last thing we need to do.

  18. mormonbrit: I think there may be some merit in what she says. I don’t mean her denial of evolution, but what she says about evolution being a cultural thing as much as a scientific issue.

    It’s undoubtedly become a cultural issue, but for all the wrong reasons and to the overall detriment of the scientific community who are, on the whole, making efforts to improve not only the human condition but the overall condition of the created world itself. Study of the creation itself can tell us about God just as study of the scriptures can. The “Book of Nature” and the Book of Scripture have served as two records God has given us to better understand our condition here. Believers need not surrender truths discovered by the sciences simply on the basis that some scientists aren’t themselves believers. So there’s nothing in principle wrong with trying to untangle cultural implications of evolution, as you say, but any merit otherwise possible in such an endeavor is lost in Yassine’s work by her outright rejection of the entire scientific enterprise and her selective examination of the potential cultural impact.

  19. themormonbrit says:

    BHodges, I agree with you in the sense that her work doesn’t recognise the necessity of removing cultural and community ties to the pursuit of truth – her work is obviously influenced by her own religous and cultural ties to a community largely (though not exclusively) opposed to evolution. I do think her work is lacking in the sense that she doesn’t advocate the untangling of cultural values and scientific endeavours – but I think she raises an important aspect of the evolution debate, and recognises that there is a very large cultural dimension to the whole issue.

  20. Suppose a person wants to warn against the health hazards of cigarette smoking. But instead of referring to any legitimate research she argues that tobacco harbors microscopic evil space aliens who are inhaled into a smokers lungs where they implant cancer cells. And suppose she adds that the aliens also take over the brains of physicians and cancer researchers as well, who should then not be trusted because they actually promote the agenda of the evil cancer aliens. The good done by the warning (smoking is bad) is entirely offset by the actual form that the warning takes. That’s essentially how I feel about the chapter of this book.

  21. themormonbrit says:

    I agree. Good analogy : )

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,689 other followers