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Page last edited on 05 April, 2003

Biological Origins


Chapters in this essay

Biological Origins

At the heart of the Abrahamic tradition is the notion of one God Who created everything with a purpose and for a fixed duration. This religious tradition holds a very clearly expressed view of Man:[1] Formed from clay, brought to life through the infusion of Divine Breath and placed in the Garden of Eden, Man thus arrives in the universe through a special act of creation. A temporary forgetfulness leads to disobedience of God and brings the first couple down on earth where they and, by extension, their children are to live until an appointed term.

Of course, there are the familiar differences in details about this special act of creation in the three Abrahamic traditions but the essential act of creation of Man by God is common to all three traditions. This view of creation of humans forms part of the broader “Creation Story” in all three traditions and comes at the end of the story in which the cosmos is created in six days.

Since the focus of this paper is biological origins, and not the cosmological origins, we will proceed directly to the main subject at hand but let us note in passing that right at the inception, we are dealing with the biological origins within a cosmological scheme; a fact that is central to the main thesis of this paper. Thus, in all three religious traditions, narrations of human creation are intimately bound with the cosmic creation and it is within the context of that larger creation that the narratives about the creation of humans make their fuller expression.

This divinely revealed view of creation has always been opposed by man-made notions ranging from the eternal, ever-present existence to creation being the work of gods or time (dahr). However, in various ancient man-made cosmological schemes, biological origins remain a rather ambiguous area. To ascribe the origin of lifeless matter to Nature, time or gods is one thing, but to construct plausible theories of biological origins is altogether a different matter. Even the neo-Platonic Great Chain of Being, extensive and detailed as it is in its description of the subsequent spheres, can only claim its own limitations in describing the “One”, “the Good”, the sources of all perfections and the ultimate goal of return; hence the “Supreme principle” of neo-Platonism, from which all beings derive their existence, is only describe-able as the simplest undetermined Being (totally devoid of specific traits which would limit it).

However, approximately eighteen hundred and fifty-eight years after the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, this ancient riddle was “solved” for many humans on the afternoon of the first of July, 1958, when Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), two friends of a man who had lost faith in the Book of Genesis as it was understood in the nineteenth century evangelical England, presented a paper entitled “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” written by their friend, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London.

To be sure, the riddle was not “solved” for anyone just like that; this paper was just the beginning of what would gradually come to be known as Darwinianism[2] which would, over the course of a century and a half, give birth to our contemporary notions of biological origins. To be historically correct, let us also mention that it was not until the publication of his second major work, The Descent of Man, in 1871 that Darwin presented his “evidence” of the descent of Man from some lower form (ch.I) along with a complete “mechanism” of the “manner of development of man from some lower form” (ch. III) that the roots of contemporary notions of human origins were firmly planted in a receptive soil.



Before we proceed, let us clarify a few problems that generally stand in the way of a clear discourse on biological origins.

 (i) Confusion in Terminology

Added to the inherent difficulties of inquiry into the nature of Origins¾enormously long time spans, millions of fossil records, billions of cells and enzymes¾are problems of our own making: there are no shared concepts; the same terms are used differently by proponents of different positions and all kinds of fine tunings have been applied to various basic models so that we now have an unintelligibly vast range of concepts scattered between the two extremes of the Creation-Evolution spectrum in the case of biological origins and a vast number of theories for cosmological origins including various models of Big Bang and steady-state theories.[3]

Thus even the basic terms mean different things to different people. For example, the term evolution may refer to teleological evolution (a purposeful and designed process) or a dysteleological evolution (a process devoid of purpose and driven by chance only), that is, the basic molecules to humans theory. Likewise, the term Creation can be understood to mean a whole range of concepts, from literal Biblical understanding to progressive creation to young earth creationism. The end result of this proliferation of terms and concepts in the Evolution/Creation discussion is that the discourse has become unintelligible.

This diversity of conflicting views is not only characteristic of different religious traditions; it is also present within single religious traditions, often cutting through the metaphysical fabric of tradition, leaving behind a debris of divisions in the communities of faith. This is obvious in each religious tradition.[4]

(ii) The Profound Personal Nature of the Subject Matter

In addition to the confusion in terminology, we have a further component in this discourse that is neither related to the methodology nor to the scientific facts of the discourse; we are referring to the profound spiritual and moral consequences implicit in the very nature of choices we make between intelligent design and its lack, between a teleological universe and a dysteleological one. It is because of this intimate, personal and profoundly human nature of this discourse that instead of rational, objective and scientific discussion, bitter debates mark the boundary lines — debates which “shed heat, not light”, to use Rabbi Goldberg’s phrase.[5]

Because of this intensely personal impact of the belief in one or the other theory, the subject matter of this discourse has always remained open, not just since Darwin but throughout human history—from the most ancient available records to the most recent documented case. And, we believe, it will always remain open, not because of any lack of scientific evidence for or against a particular theory but because, ultimately, the choice one makes is not entirely dependent on science.[6]

(iii) Historical Myopia

Another difficulty in an intelligent and comprehensible discussion on the nature and origin of life is the historical myopia that has restricted most of the current mainstream discussion to a period that does not span more than two hundred years. Most of the contemporary works on Evolution/Creation take a certain event of 1858 as their point of departure, thus ignoring a long tradition of formidable scholarship that existed prior to that defining year. To be sure, many of these books do start with an oblique reference to Cicero (106-43 B.C.) or Aristotle (b. 384 BC, Stagira, Chalcidice, Greece, d. 322 BC, Chalcis), but that is precisely the extent of their historicity.

One can cite hundreds of examples of this brevity. Sometimes it is mixed with arrogance, sometimes it is simply lack of awareness of what has been accomplished by other civilizations. Sometimes, it is done in the name of “drawing  boundary”, however arbitrarily. Consider, for example, this statement in Michael Ruse’s The Darwinian Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979: “Where precisely is one to set the time limits? In the Darwinian case answers are by no means obvious. If we take the broadest view and think our subject ought to be the whole of man’s quest for the causes of organic origins, with Darwin no more than a  link in the chain, we can easily go back to the Greeks and forward to the present time. Indeed, we will have a story without end, for many aspects of the causes of origins are still highly controversial (Lewontin 1974). But if we want to draw our boundaries more closely and consider the main question to be the theory of evolution—When and how did people get converted to the idea of evolution?—we can narrow our study to about a twenty-five year span. Consider: In 1851, when Cambridge University first offered examinations in science, one question was as follows: ‘Reviewing the whole fossil evidence, show that it does not lead to a theory of natural development through a natural transmutation of species’.” (pp. xi-xii).

Obviously, Ruse has never heard of Ibn Sina (Avicena in Latin), al-Beruni and the theory of emanation, in which the whole cosmos evolves, albeit at a metaphysical level, leading to the organic matter. Another example is that of Michael B. Behe’s otherwise fine book, Darwin’s Black Box, New York: The Free Press, 1996, wherein he states unabashedly: “Only a few significant biological investigations lived during the millennium following Aristotle. One of them was Galen, a second-century A.D. physicican in Rome... it was not until the seventeenth century that an Englishman, William Harvey, introduced the theory that blood flows continuously in one direction, making a complete circuit and returning to the heart.” (p. 7-8)

It is not only the historical brevity that is disturbing, it is also the conceit, the perpetuation of unsound scholarship with so much unabashed ignorance that distorts plain historical facts that is the most disturbing element in these “scholarly” studies.

In short, beyond a cursory glance at history, one finds nothing. Neither the intricate accounts about the origin of life found in the ancient Chinese civilization, nor the rich records of the now extinct civilization of the Indus Valley. One does not find any substantial account of the theories of generation and corruption which are an integral part of the scientific tradition that emerged from the interaction of the ancient Persian and Indian sciences, in the eighth century and that over the course of next eight centuries extended from the Arabian heartland to the steppe of Central Asia.

Coupled with this brevity is what Whitall Perry has called “chronological snobbery”,[7] the illusion that the past was somehow inferior to the present—a particular condescension is associated with this illusion and words like ‘undeveloped’, ‘simplistic’ and ‘naïve’ are used to describe previous eras. It is this ‘chronological snobbery’ that is evident in contemporary discourse on Origins, especially the biological origins.[8] What we have, instead, is a rapid jump from that cursory reference to Cicero or Aristotle to one or two medieval authors and finally a landing at the door steps of the Linnaean Society[9] on that afternoon of July 1, 1858 where Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker are ready to present Darwin’s paper “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection”.[10]

[1] Man, with a capital “M” denotes human race and saves us the awkward construction which specifies both genders or the arbitrary use of man and woman in difference sentences. Perhaps the Arabic word Nas, which denotes humans without specifying gender, is a better substitute for this ongoing dilemma of the English language. If English were to adopt this word, it would solve many vexatious polemics which arise from customary masculine nouns used to denote both genders.

[2] A note on terminology: Darwinism, neo-Darwinism and evolution are three terms which in their strict sense refer to three different but inter-related concepts. However, they are often used inter-changeably, causing confusion. Evolution refers to the general notion of change in and appearance of species, it can be dysteleological or teleological. Teleological evolution introduces God into the scheme of evolution through various ways (such as equating power of God with natural laws and processes). Dysteleological evolution, on the other hand, refers to a process without a defined goal. Darwinism and Darwinian theory refer to one specific theory of evolution and neo-Darwinism refers to the synthetic, modified Darwinism. These differences are not always discernable in contemporary scholarship--a fact that has been pointed out many times by many writers on the subject. See for example, Denton, Michael J. “Comments on Special Creationism” in Johnson, Phillip E. and Lamoureux, Denis O., Darwinism Defeated? Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999.

[3] Many contemporary writers have pointed out this difficulty. For example, see, “Evangelicals Inheriting the Wind: The Phillip E. Johnson Phenomenon”, by Danis O. Lamoureux in Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux et al, Darwinism Defeated? Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999, p. 10

[4] See“Introduction” in Dembski,William (ed.) Mere Creation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 9

[5] Goldberg, Rabbi Hillel, “Genesis, Cosmology and Evolution” in Jewish Action, summer 5769/2000, p. 2


[6] The fact that Creation/Evolution is one of the most intensely debated subjects in America can be gleaned from the number of books being published on the subject as well as from the intensity of discourse on either side of the divide. From Ronald L. Numbers’ 1998 book, Darwinism comes to America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998 to the June 14, 2000 debate in the House of Representatives in which Congressman Souder responded to the letter written by seven members of the biology department and one professor of psychology department from Baylor University. Note the tone of the Congressman: “Mr. Speaker, I am appalled that any university seeking to discover truth, let alone a university that is a Baptist Christian school, could make the kinds of statements that are contained in this letter” Page H4480 of GPO.

[7] Whitall N. Perry, The Widening Breach: Evolutionism in the Mirror of Cosmology, Bartlow: Quinta Essentia, 1995.


[8] Take, for example, the following remarks by Richard Dawkins about the famous treatise by the eighteenth century theologian William Paley from whom he took the title of his book, The Blind Watchmaker, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), 1986: “His Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the ‘Argument from Design’, always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of a God. It is a book that I greatly admire, for in his own time its author succeeded in doing what I am struggling to do now. He had a point to make, he passionately believed in it, and he spared no effort to ram it home clearly. He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong—admittedly quite a big thing!—was the explanation itself. He gave the traditional religious answer to the riddle, but he articulated it more clearly and convincingly than anybody had before. The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin.” (p. 4)

[9] Linnean Society of London, named after the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), had as its members the leading botanists, zoologists and geologists in England.

[10] In fact Lyell and Hooker presented two papers. One by Darwin and the other by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). They appended a letter to the papers by “two indefatigable naturalists” who had “independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet.” Jones, Howard Mumford and Cohen, Bernarad I, Science Before Darwin, London: Andre Deutsch, 1963, p. 338.


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Seek Understanding from Knowledge/ Information
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