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Page last edited on 05 April, 2003

Biological Origins

Origins of Darwinism

Chapters in this essay

Biological Origins

Darwin, according to the legend, had pondered hard over this theory for several years before making it public. Shortly after his return from a five-year-long voyage abroad H.M.S. Beagle in 1836, he had started writing his secret notebooks on “Transmutation of Species”. He had come back with, what the legend describes, “an enormous store of material from South America” where he had found fossils of extinct armadillos that were similar but not identical to the living animals. In Argentina he had seen species vary geographically; for example, the giant ostriches (rheas) on the pampas that were replaced to the south in Patagonia by much smaller species, both of which were akin to but different from the African ostrich. He had also observed and had been disturbed by the fact that the birds and tortoises of the Galapagos Islands off the western coast of Ecuador tended to resemble species found on the nearby continent, while inhabitants of similar neighbouring islands in the Galapagos had quite different animal populations.

But let us also note that according to his own account, he had left England little disposed to question the literal truth of Genesis and he had come back with little left of that belief. Thus, when upon his return, Darwin learned that the finches he had brought from the Galapagos belonged to different species, not merely different varieties, as he had originally believed and that the mockingbirds were of three distinct species and that the Galapagos tortoises represented at least two species and that, like many of the specimens from the archipelago, they were native to the islands but to neither of the American continents, his doubts about the fixity of species quickly crystallized into a belief in transmutation.

Within a short span of a few months after his return, March 1837 to be exact, he confided in his notebook that species changed from one place to another or from one era to the next. In October 1838, when Darwin read Thomas Malthus’ “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in which Malthus argued that population growth is geometric, while the food supply increases only arithmetically, and thus that population increase is always checked by a limited food supply, Darwin hit on the exact term he had been struggling for. Later, he noted in his Autobiography, that “favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed...The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory —the principle of Natural Selection—by which to work.”[1]

To be sure, this was not the first time that someone had noted the savagery of the natural world, the brutality of species against species; lions have always been devouring  lambs. What Darwin saw was competition between individuals of a single species. He recognized that within a local population the individual with, for example, the sharper beak, the longer horn, or the brighter feather might have a better chance to survive and reproduce than other individuals. And if such advantageous traits were passed on to new generations, they would eventually be predominant in future populations. Darwin thus shifted the focus of evolutionary analysis from between to within species. He saw natural selection as the mechanism by which advantageous variations passed on to succeeding generations and by which the traits of individuals that were less competitive gradually disappeared from populations.[2]

Darwin had realized that the data he had collected during his voyage abroad H.M.S. Beagle and since his return fit so well with the idea of natural selection. This realization, which was perhaps a result of a fever-stimulated brain as much as it was the product of more than thirty years of mulling over an impressive range of observations, produced The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection[3] which was to add a novel and transforming idea to the repository of concepts of Origins that humanity had formulated.

It is interesting to note that Darwin himself had initiated the tradition of providing a cursory “historical background” to his theory by starting off with a passage from Aristotle’s Physicae Auscultationes[4] with a stinging remark (“but how little Aristotle fully comprehended the principle, is shown by his remarks on the formation of the teeth”). Note that this reference to Aristotle is immediately followed by a mention of the “first author who in modern times has treated it in a scientific spirit”—Buffon who is also dismissed with a cursory remark. Then Darwin goes on to state that “Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention. This justly celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801.”[5] Between Aristotle (384-322) and Lamarck (1744-1829) lie two thousand years of human endeavours to understand the enigma of creation! But this summary rejection of two thousand years of history to understand the mysteries of the origin of life is not specific to Darwin alone; it was characteristic of the nineteenth century science, which was remarkable in gathering an unprecedented amount of data about the natural world. But it suffered from the snobbery of self-conceit.

A direct result of this historical reductionism is that the contemporary discourse on Intelligent Design is simply unintelligible to a vast majority of humanity. As a result, this discourse has remained limited to a small part of the planet. This myopia, which not only restricts but also distorts the very nature of the discourse, has serious consequences for the very nature of inquiry.

It may be argued that those non-western scientific traditions have nothing to add to the contemporary discourse; that modern science is a universal phenomenon and that the parameters of the discourse are entrenched in non-cultural, non-religious soil. But all of these assumptions have been shown to arise from the same epistemological frame that has produced the myopic vision we just described. It is illogical to assume that the real nature of Creation would only become intelligible to us after centuries of human existence just because we have refined our tools of measurements and have been able to penetrate the vast uncharted realms of sea and space, which no previous generation has done. It is illogical because here the extent of quantification is taken as a measure of the knowledge of Reality. The knowledge of Reality does not increase or decrease with quantification: a drop of water can provide as much knowledge about the reality of water as an ocean.

The Historical Background

This was not a totally unfounded conceit. After all, behind the nineteenth century science lay the unshakable belief that reality is made of nothing but the physical world which can be perceived, measured, explained and mathematized with the help of sciences. By the time Darwin appeared on the scene, this idea, which has its origins in the Cartesian dualism, had solidified into a firm belief. Already in the fifteenth century, mathematics had regained its position as the queen of sciences. It was this zeal for mathematics that enormously affected young Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) when he was a student at Bologna and the later, the triumph of his astronomical theory added fuel to the process of mathematization of the physical universe. Kepler (1571-1630) wavered between the transcendental Platonism and a flattened universe made up of mathematical equations but Galileo (1564-1642) had no qualms about turning his attention downward, to the forces which bring down moving objects and to mechanics, which had already become a craze in the fourteenth century when every European community was bent upon having gigantic astronomical clocks. “No European community felt able to hold up its head unless in its midst the planets wheeled in cycles and epicycles, while angels trumpeted, cocks crew, and apostles, kings and prophets marched and countermarched at the booming of the hours.”[6] By the seventeenth century, a clockwork universe was very much in the final stages of transforming the intellectual landscape of Europe, as Professor Smith has noted in his perceptive[7] Cosmos & Transcendence. However, it was left to Descartes (1596-1650) to articulate the signs of times. But “we need not attempt to follow Descartes in his solitary meditations, wherein he sought to touch the bedrock of human knowledge. Suffice it to say that he emerged from his garden retreat fully convinced that the universe is precisely what it must in fact be, if it is to submit to mechanical description.”[8]

A detailed discussion of the rise of a mechanistic worldview would take us away from the topic at hand. But let us just mention that the mechanical world thus perceived, constituted as it was entirely of res extensa (which, later, became Newtonian “matter”), had an independent entity, matter, that was subjected to mechanical laws and everything else had to be relegated to res cogitans, the thinking substance. This Cartesian duality was not without its own problems as Descartes himself knew and spent the rest of his life in attempts to extricate himself from the web of his own postulates. He fluctuated a great deal, sometimes being left with no recourse but to invoke Deity to solve philosophical problems. Nevertheless, what he gave to the scientific world was a revolutionary idea which, in the hands of subsequent English materialists, went through further mutations until “by a curious reversal of Cartesian logic, the res extensa gained precedence over the res cogitans, or as one might almost say: the conjecture swallowed up the dream.”[9]

One of the most striking metaphors of the seventeenth century—the century of “mechanical philosophy”—was the clock but in general, the main thrust of the mechanical philosophy was to explain everything in terms of matter and motion. Descartes’ main contribution in rise of mechanical philosophy was his conception of the whole cosmos in terms of matter and motion. In his cosmos, humans differed from animals because they posses rational souls, had capacity to think rationally and articulate intelligibly. In order to clearly differentiate humans from animilas, Descartes tried to formulate their existence on a separate plane. He thought that animals “have souls of an entirely different nature from ours... [The] fact is that they have no intelligence at all.[10]

Thus in spite of the emerging mechanical and materialist worldview, Kant (1724-1804) was to re-affirm at the end of the eighteenth century that “as the single being upon earth that possesses understanding, and, consequently, a capacity for setting before himself ends of his deliberate choice, he [human being] is certainly titular lord of nature, and, supposing we regard nature as a teleological system, he is born to be its ultimate end.[11]

The eighteenth century was also a century in which most naturalists were obsessed with the idea of finding the “ultimate system” that would explain all variety. A young student of medicine, Carl von Linné (1707-1778), better known as Carolus Linnaeus, had undertaken an extensive expedition into northern Sweden to study the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. At the young age of 28, he published his Systema Naturae (1735); this was followed by a stream of other publications, the last one being Systema Vegetabilium, published in 1774, four years before his death.[12] He spent the better part of his life teaching natural history at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and inspired a whole generation of students who would travel in other parts of the world to collect data which would feed into the taxonomic systems conceived by their mentor. The whole nature was divided into three kingdoms, each kingdom had successive classes, genera and species, all of which were presented in the form of a table.

Linnaeus’ was a biblical cosmos. His taxonomies were attempts to discover the order of God’s design, his tidy tabular ordering of the taxonomic systems kept the three kingdoms of animals, plants and vegetables in separate categories. His animal kingdom, limited as it was to a small number, was ordered in a natural, rather than an artificial way: Quadrupeds, Birds, Amphibia, Fish, Insects, Worms.[13] His plant kingdom, likewise, was restricted to the flora of northern Europe and he could classify plants on the basis of number of stamens and carpels in the flowers. The number of stamens determined the classes (Monandria, Diandria, Triandria, etc.) and the number of carpels determined the orders (Monogynia, Digynia, Trigynia, etc.) More importantly, note that Linnaeus’ was atemporal world. As a firm believer in the Biblical account of Creation, Linnaeus was looking for the Divine order, not creating a human order. His obsession with order was also at work behind the redesigning of the botanical gardens at Uppsala on the basis of his plant taxonomy. He sowed plants of his taxa in separate beds, thereby reproducing the original plant creation. In 1909, these Linnaeus’ gardens were restored to their eighteenth century condition and visitors to Uppsala now have the opportunity to walk back into the botanical plan of the world.

But this orderly and atemporal world was increasingly being threatened within the life time of Linnaeus. In 1741, an Uppsala student, Magnus Ziöberg, discovered a plant which Linnaeus considered to be a hybrid. But according to his scheme, hybrids were supposed to be sterile (like mules); this plant, now thought to have been produced by a process of gene recombination (Peloria from Linaria), was, however, fertile. This was a sort of crisis for Linnaeus whose orderly world had proven to be less stable than he thought. The solution proposed by Linnaeus was that God originally created the upper levels of the taxonomic hierarchy but genera and species could be regarded as the ‘offsprings of time’:

We may suppose God at the beginning to have proceeded from simple to compound, from few to many; and therefore at the beginning of vegetation to have created just so many different plants, as there are natural orders. That He then so intermixed the plants of these orders by their marriages with each other; that as many plants were produced as there are now distinct genera. That Nature then intermixed these generic plants by reciprocal marriages (which did not change the structure of the flower) and multiplied them into all possible existing species; excluding however, from the number of species the mule plants produced from these marriages, as being barren.[14]

It is also pertinent to note that the neo-Platonic doctrine of Great Chain of Being, which had gone through several modifications at the hand of Muslim thinkers, was still alive in the eighteenth century. G. L.L. de Buffon (1707-1788), the keeper of the Jardin du Roi (the Royal Botanical Gardens) in Paris and the editor of a massive work on natural history¾the celebrated Histoire Naturelle which appeared in forty-four volumes between 1749-1804[15] was one of the champions of this doctrine, though, he shocked many readers with his bold claim that “the first thing that emerges from this thorough examination of nature is something that is perhaps rather humbling for man; it is that he must himself be ranked among the animals,” he wrote in the first volume of the Histoire Naturelle.[16]

Buffon believed that the systems like the one proposed by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae were useless because there was an infinite number of forms shading into one another. He insisted that the Classes, orders and genera existed only in imagination. This anti-Aristotelian, nominalist[17] position could be traced back to John Locke (1632-1704) and further, into the medieval period.

But Buffon’s position went through modifications over the course of years. By the time he published the fourth volume of the Histoire Naturelle in 1753, he was offering a precise definition of the concept of species which was based on the phenomenon of self-replication, rather than general similarities of forms. Note the stress in this latter stance on functionality. Species could be defined on the basis of functional observables.

Buffon was, however, aware of the problems his theory raised. There was, for example, no way to explain the appearance of fertile hybrids and the whole scheme was far less elegant and orderly than the neat systems of Linnaeus. In 1766, when he published the summary of the natural history of the quadrupeds, Buffon suggested that environmental conditions might cause an initial group to split up into a set of related but distinct species. Thus, it was possible for zebras and asses to appear from a single stock (souche) of horses. It is also important to recall that Buffon referred to this process of splitting of a group into sub-groups as a process of “degeneration” and though he had placed man in the first rank of the animal hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being, Buffon still considered the gap between apes and man an unbridgeable separation owing to the ability of human beings to articulate rationally.

Linnaeus and Buffon thus present two opposite trends of the eighteenth century views on the nature of species. Linnaeus belonged to the Aristotelian tradition, Buffon to the neo-Platonic; Linnaeus constructed orderly systems, Buffon aspired to place everything in the Great Chain of Being, Linnaeus thought in terms of categories and systems. Both were concerned with the outward aspects of the organisms and both were interesting in descriptions, definitions, classifications and nomenclature. And though Buffon dealt with geographical distribution and variation under domestication, he was clearly not thinking in Darwinian terms. We have, thus, a movement toward evolution, but not quite a Darwinian movement yet.

Thus behind Darwin’s bold assertion lay two hundred years of scientific tradition which had seen the emergence of such men as Galileo (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), Carl von Linné (1707-1778), better known as Linnaeus, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), William Herschel (1738-1822), powerful inventions like the telescope and the steam engine and transforming discoveries like the gravitational force and theories of planetary revolutions.

The point we wish to make is that the nineteenth century had inherited the belief in the ability of science to describe everything and Darwin was merely articulating what was already in the air. In other words, the scientific data Darwin was trying to interpret was interpreted in the backdrop of an emerging scientism[18] and in an intellectual climate that  was rapidly working to eradicate belief in a cosmos created by God, a belief that had dominated the intellectual space of Europe for centuries. Thus Darwin’s own firm belief in his discovery was strengthened by the general intellectual trend of the age in which he lived, the age of “scientific certainty”.

This is not to say that this emerging scientism was unchecked. There were scores of dissenting voices that spoke against these trends and attempted to check the flow. But they were drowned, ignored or silenced. A case in point is that of William F. Warren, the first president of Boston University. As early as 1883, he wrote in his Paradise Found, the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole, a Study of the Prehistoric World:

As to the primeval condition of our race, a truly scientific mind will wish to base its conception not on the air-hung speculations of mere theorists, but on an immovable foundation of fact, attested and confirmed by the widest, oldest, and most incontestable of all concurrences of divine and human testimony. According hereto, as in its beginning light was light, and water water, and the Spirit spirit, so in his beginning Man was Man. It says that the first men could not have been men without a human consciousness, and that they could not have had a human consciousness without rationality and freedom. It says that they could not have possessed conscious rationality and freedom without the perception of ethical qualities and the personal taste of moral experience. It boldly asserts that, according to every principle of just analogy, the notion that it took the earliest men one hundred thousand years to get an idea of the conditions of normal intellectual, and ethical, and social living is as incredible as that it took the first-born mammal one hundred thousand years to find it’s mother’s milk.[19]

But Warren’s clear affirmation that

primeval human life, while progressive in everything which accumulating human experience would of necessity improve, was almost god-like intelligences, as daring ultimately in evil as potent originally for good was lost on the champions of the new humanism. His passionate defense of the moral authority was also a voice out of tune with the currents of its times: “It holds on the same authority that after centuries and possibly millenniums of such history as great natures undisciplined by virtue are ever reproducing, the social organism was incurably corrupted, and the moral world-order itself defied. As Plato’s Egyptian priests told Solon, ‘the divine portion in human nature faded out;’ the purely human ‘gained the upper hand,’ and, spoiled by the very excellence of their fortune, ‘men became unseemly...’[20]

One can cite more examples of this nature from the nineteenth century but suffice it to say that the prevalent trend of the 19th century was to look back at history with contempt. This attitude was based on the unshakable belief in progress.[21] Since everything was evolving, so was human knowledge and one day this progress hoped to find out all that there was to be found, and the only sure vehicle to this quest was science. This belief was furthered strengthened by the inventions of ever-more sophisticated instruments and discoveries which created the illusion of quantum jumps in human knowledge by generating a process which churns out information at an alarming rate.

What was forgotten in this intoxication with the idea of progress was a vertical axis which had pivoted human consciousness in a primordial metaphysical realm that had made Man, as well as everything else that existed in the cosmos, an integral part of an orderly whole that rested on a metaphysical foundation which is the fundamental essence of all ancient traditions.

The Descent of Man

For the sake of clarity, let us mention in passing certain revisionists theories which try to rehabilitate Darwin’s theism/teleology.[22] These recent trends in rehabilitation of Darwin as someone who did not really try to “throw God out the picture” have no solid basis and merely cloud the debate. This is a strange but not unexpected trend in modern scholarship on Darwin. These attempts at rehabilitation are not only against Darwin’s stated position, they also go against the well-established historical realities of the nineteenth century science to which we have briefly referred above. What is missing in the Origin of Species can easily be found in The Descent of Man.[23]

In the introduction of this work, a triumphant Darwin declared:

During many years I collected notes on the origin or descent of man, without any intention of publishing on the subject, but rather with the determination not to publish, as I thought that I should thus only add the prejudices against my views. It seemed to me sufficient to indicate, in the first edition of my ‘Origin of Species,’ that by this work light would be thrown ‘on the origin of man and his history;’ and this implies that man must be included with other organic beings in any general conclusion respecting his manner of appearance on this earth. Now the case wears a wholly different aspect. When a naturalist like Carl Vogt ventures to say in his address as President of the National Institution of Geneva (1869), ‘personne, en Europe au moins, n’ose plus suoutenir la creation indépendante et de toutes pi èces, des esp èces,’ it is manifest that at least a large number of naturalists must admit that species are the modified descendants of other species; and this especially holds good with the younger and rising naturalists. (p. 2) The first chapter, “Rudiments”, ends with the assertion: “Thus we can understand how it has come to pass that man and all other vertebrate animals have been constructed on the same general model, why they pass through the same early stages of development, and why they retain certain rudiments in common. Consequently we ought frankly to admit their community of descent; to take any other view, is to admit that our own structure, and that of all the animals around us, is a mere snare laid to entrap our judgment... It is only our natural prejudice, and that arrogance which made our forefathers declare that they were descended from demi-gods, which leads us to demur to this conclusion.” (P. 36-37) In any case, I use the term Darwinism to mean exactly what Darwin himself meant: a dysteleological evolution based on random selection.

If there is any doubt left about Darwin’s construction of Origin hypothesis, consider the following passage from The Descent:[24]

The early progenitors of man must have been once covered with hair, both sexes having beards; their ears were probably pointed, and capable of movement; and their bodies were provided with a tail, having the proper muscles. Their limbs and bodies were also acted on by many muscles which now only occasionally reappear, but are normally present in the Quardrunmana.[25] At this or some earlier period, the great artery and nerve of the humerus ran through a supracondyloid foramen.[26] The intestine gave forth a much larger diverticulum or cæcum[27] than that now existing. The foot was then prehensile,[28] judging from the condition of the great toe in the foetus; and our progenitors, no doubt, were arboreal[29] in their habits, and frequented some warm, forest-clad land. The males had great canine teeth, which served them as formidable weapons. At a much earlier period the uterus was double; the excreta were voided through a cloaca;[30] and the eye was protected by a third eyelid or nictitating membrane. At a still earlier stage the progenitors of man must have been aquatic in their habits; for morphology plainly tells us that our lungs consist of a modified swim-bladder, which once served as a float. The clefts on the neck in the embryo of man show where the branchiæ[31] once existed. In the lunar or weekly recurrent periods of some of our functions we apparently still retain traces of our primordial birthplace, a shore washed by the tides. At about this same early period the true kidneys were replaced by the corpora wolffiana.[32] The heart existed as a simple pulsating vessel; and the chorda dorsalis[33] took the place of a vertebral column. These early ancestors of man, thus seen in the dim recesses of time, must have been as simply, or even still more simply organized than the lancelet or amphioxus.[34]

The case for Darwinism and neo-Darwinism has always been helped by interpretation of scientific data and not on data per se, for data does not speak. But even that data¾the so-called “biological facts”¾which were the bedrock of the “transformist illusion”, a telling term used by Douglas Dewar as the title of his book,[35] is eroding. Before I treat the question of evolution from cosmological perspective, let me briefly mention some recent studies from a number of scientific disciplines that have eroded the bedrock of Darwinism.

Let us also us recall what he wrote at the beginning of the third chapter of The Descent of Man:

We have seen in the last two chapters that man bears in his bodily structure clear traces of his descent from some lower form; but it may be urged that, as man differs so greatly in his mental power from all other animals, there must be some error in his conclusion. No doubt the difference in this respect is enormous, even if we compare the mind of one of the lowest savages, who has no words to express any number higher than four, and who uses hardly any abstract terms for common objects or for the affections, with that of the most highly organised ape. The difference would, no doubt, still remain immense, even if one of the higher apes had been improved or civilised as much as a dog has been in comparison with its present-form, the wolf or jackal. The Fuegians rank amongst the lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three natives on board H.M.S. Beagle, who had lived some years in England, and could talk a little English, resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties. If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed. But it can be shown that there is no fundamental difference of this kind. We must also admit that there is a much wider interval in mental power between an ape and man; yet this interval is filled up by numberless gradations.[36]

Darwin’s doctrine, presented in the Descent of Man, was eagerly taken up by Ernst Haeckel in Germany who had flair for graphic representations. He prepared a schematic “history of man’s slow progress to the present” which shows how man evolved from the lower forms [Fig.1]. Note that number 23 in the evolutionary chain, is obviously human and black.[37]

Figure 1 : Ernst Haeckel’s representation of the Descent of Man

Thus taken as a whole, the central tenet of the Darwinian gospel claims that evolution is a gradual, undirected process and it is the result of natural selection acting on small heritable differences. In other words, living organisms evolve through continuous tiny changes and without leaps, through a process that is opportunistic. Variations arise by chance and are selected on the basis of the demands of the environment. In its modern version, the evolutionism considers genes as the determinants of the traits selected by the environment, defined as “heritable units of information governing structures, development and function.”[38]

Neo-Darwinism: Scientific Evolution of Evolutionism

During the last one hundred and fifty years, Darwin’s ideas have gone through several changes and mutations. Since the mid 1930’s, there has been a dramatic increase in literature that attempts to prove these notions on the basis of biological sciences. The modern synthesis, often referred to as “neo-Darwinism”, has tremendously changed the original notions of Darwin’s theory and there now exist a vast amount of data on mechanisms of evolution in various disciplines such as genetics, microbiology and molecular biology, the central idea of Darwinism has not been superseded by any new theoretical framework. This synthetic theory of evolution has numerous fine tunings. For example, in one of its modern versions, evolutionism considers genes as the determinants of the traits selected by the environment, defined as heritable units of information governing structures, development and function.

During the early twentieth century, many young scientists who had been influenced by Darwin’s bold assertion produced mountains of “scientific data” to support theory of evolution. During the first two decades of the century, there were several variations of Darwin’s theory. For example, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) claimed that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, that is to say that there existed a parallel between embryological development (ontogeny) and evolutionary history of the species (phylogeny) such that the embryo passed through certain “lower” evolutionary stages. Haeckel’s embryology arose from a combination of Darwinism and Lamarckian notions of inheritance—the idea that traits acquired in an organism’s lifetime could be inherited and become the basis for progressive evolutionary change (Fig. 2).[39]


Figure 2 : Picture of Evolutionary Tree by Ernst Haeckel

August Weismann (1834-1914), on the other hand defended natural selection and opposed any synthesis of Lamarckian theses and Darwinism. Interested in microscopic studies, Weismann was convinced that there is no force other than natural selection that controls evolution.

Thus at the dawn of the twentieth century, scientific research followed certain clearly discernable lines: biometry (statistical analysis of variations), cytology (studies of chromosomes during cell division and fertilization), analysis of embryological development and regeneration and the analysis of the inheritance by means of controlled breeding experiments (Mendelism and mutation theory).

During the first three years of the century, Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) came up with The Mutation Theory, which sought to revise Darwin’s ideas. de Vries argued that slow, cumulative selection of minute variations was not the way of evolution of new species; rather novelty in population was the result of discrete discontinuous changes, which he called “mutations”. He tried to show how his theory could account for the appearance of a “genuinely new” species in one step. Basing his theory on his knowledge of agricultural breeding practices and controlled experiments designed to trace the appearance of mutations, de Vries argued that natural selection, acting on these small populations or “elementary species” merely determines which ones would survive.[40]

Hugo de Vries was influential in creating enthusiasm among American biologists who studied a large variety of plants and claimed discoveries of mutations at an astonishing rate. The interest in the theory of discontinuous variations and the possibility of controlling that discrete and abrupt change which produces new species was influential in reviving interest in Mendelism.[41]

In 1906, William Bateson of the University of Cambridge launched the term “genetic” at a scientific conference and revived interest in Mendel’s work. But within three years —the centenary of Darwin’s birth—Bateson was under attack by the supporters of Darwin. The notions of continuity of species were re-emphasized and Batesonians and Mendelians were accused of exaggerating the prevalence of discontinuous variability in nature.

The publication of Genetics and the Origin of Species by the Russian naturalist Theodosius Dobzhnaksy (1937)[42] who came to New York in 1927 and remained in the United States for the rest of his life, established the field of genetics on experimental footings. Dobzhansky, a trained entomologist, cooperated with experimental geneticist Alfred H. Sturtevant in the 1930s and focused on wild populations of fruit flies for the study of evolution in nature. Dobzhansky argued that microevolution (genetic processes that produce small evolutionary changes) and macroevolution (broader patterns of evolution observable in the fossil record) were part of a single continuum and thus all evolutionary patterns could be explained by the ordering of small genetic changes by natural selection.

Dobzhansky’s work was further supported by others who focused on causal mechanisms¾the how and why of evolution¾rather than on simple description of the evolutionary record. Thus “C.D. Darlington’s The Evolution of Genetic Systems (1939), Ernst Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), George Gaylord Simposon’s Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) and G. Ledyard Stebbins’ Variation and Evolution in Plants (1950) refocused attention on the detailed study of evolution as a process, with an emphasis on how natural selection operated and what its effects were.”[43]

In the 1940s, the “hopeful monster” theory of geneticist Richard Goldschmidt became famous. It basically proposed that occasionally large, coordinated changes might occur just by chance. In 1958, when J. C. Kendrew determined the structure of myoglobin using X-ray crystallography, it came to light that proteins were not a simple and regular structure like salt crystals; they were extremely complex. With the advancement of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), it became even easier to determine the structure of complex proteins but one thing these instruments could not do: they could not produce evidence for even a single new species formed by the accumulation of mutations.

With the development of more sophisticated instruments, computers, and through investment of millions of dollars of research funding, evolutionism became the mantra of post World War western science. The postwar decades also saw the reemergence of interest in the mathematical approaches. Population geneticists and population ecologists joined hands with biologists and mathematicians to produce an enormous body of literature in which flew all kinds of theoretical constructions, theological and philosophical baggages along with such theories as game and information theories. Von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the winners of 1973 Nobel Prize for their work in ethology focused on the experimental analysis of behaviour. Von Firsch published his renowned work on the “dance language” of bees, revealing the complexity of behaviour of “lower organism” and Lorenz’s pioneering work on birds demonstrated how experiments could cast light on instinctive behaviour. This renewed interest in ethology stimulated research in the field of behavioral ecology and in the study of genetics in relation to behaviour, opening up new areas of research in evolutionary biology.

But before fading into history, these debates produced another controversy. In 1975, a Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The book claimed to open a new field of sociobiology at a time when Francis Crick and James Watson were riding the wave of popularity following their discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA. Wilson’s emphasizes on the biological basis of behaviour over cultural and historical causes and his extrapolation of results from zoology to humans were considered to be highly speculative. Social behaviour was seen as adaptive traits molded by natural selection and genetic reductionism was considered a valid methodology. Richard Dawkins’ best selling book The Selfish Gene (1976) created further uproar on the question of genetic determinism.

There were surely voices against these trends. Those who found the methodology of sociobiology speculative and unsound were, however, not always successful and the evolutionary and genetic study of behaviour arched over to such fields as anthropology and psychology; it also revived interest in primatology. The use of primates for research into the questions of origins was nothing new but new primatology became a tool for feminine approaches to science and other studies which focused on sexual selection.

The early 1970s also saw the rise of the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”. First proposed by the American paleontologist Niles Eldredge and then developed and aggressively promoted  by Stephen Jay Gould. This non-gradualistic model, proposed by Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge, postulates that for long periods most species undergo little observable change, then a rapid change occurs in small, isolated populations and this explains why no fossil intermediates have been found.[44] Punctuationists emphasized speciation over phyletic evolution. This model contradicted views of gradual, linear, slow evolutionary change. The model itself was not totally new. Mayr, for example, had proposed years ago that evolution might proceed rapidly in small, isolated populations. Punctuational model emphasized the abruptness with which the new forms appeared, including the sudden appearance of humans. It suggested an episodic sequence of events and not the gradual directional change. It gathered strength from the discoveries in the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, which cast doubts on the earlier assumptions of a graded morphological series. Dating of the African fossils had pushed the age of hominides back to between three and four million years; thus raising new controversies about the relations of the fossil forms to each other and to modern humans.

However, all of these mutations of the original theory need the same blind force that produced the original: chance and necessity; they merely differ in detail. The so-called Cambrian explosion, which rests on the findings that only a small number of fossils of multicellular creatures are found in rocks older than about 600 million years whereas rocks of slightly younger age have a profusion of fossilized animals, demanded that a new explanation has to be advanced. The estimated time over which this explosion is thought to have occurred is 10 million years. This prompted Stephen Jay Gould to argue for mechanisms other than natural selection. Once hailed as biological Big Bang, the Cambrian explosion has, however, also passed into history as further evidence was piled up for more detailed theories.

These theories come by the dozens. For each theory, there exists another refuting it. A case in point is the famous exchange between Francis Hitching, the author of The Neck of the Giraffe,[45] and Richard Dawkins, the author of The Blind Watchmaker.[46] Hitching had described the remarkable defensive system of the bombardier beetle as proof against blind chance. This somewhat inaccurately described passage from The Neck of the Giraffe states:

Brachinus, commonly known as the Bombardier Beetle, squirts a lethal mixture of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide into the face of its enemy. These two chemicals, when mixed together, literally explode. So in order to store them inside its body, the Bombardier Beetle has evolved a chemical inhibitor to make them harmless. At the moment the beetle squirts the liquid out of its tail, an anti-inhibitor is added to make the mixture explosive once again. The chain of events that could have led to the evolution of such a complex, coordinated and subtle process is beyond biological explanation on a simple step-by-step basis. The slightest alternation in the chemical balance would result immediately in a race of exploded beetles (p. 68).

Dawkins, in turn, proceeds to show the basic flaw of this statement by mixing the two chemicals in question. After describing the case from Hitching, Dawkins writes with relish:

A biochemist colleague has kindly provided me with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and enough hydroquinone for 50 bombardier beetles. I am now about to mix the two together. According to the above, they will explode in my face. Here goes... well, I’m still here. I poured the hydrogen peroxide into the hydroquinone, and absolutely nothing happened. It didn’t even get warm...  (p. 87).

Dawkins then goes on to explain that though the bombardier beetle does squirts a scalding hot mixture of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone at enemies, these two chemicals do not react until a catalyst is added. And he makes the point that these chemicals were present in the body for other reasons and the ancestors of the bombardier beetle just evolved the mechanism of using these chemicals for defence—chemicals which “happened to be around”. And he finishes his case by making the statement: “That’s often how evolution works.” (p. 87)

With the discovery of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the battleground was shifted to even smaller scales. Evolutionary processes had to be placed in the DNA of a reproductive cell. Here too, we have a plethora of theories, each claiming to solve the ultimate problem of Origins. But each, with its antithetic. Thus from DNA, the hope of neo-Darwinists shifted to RNA (ribonucleic acid), a single-strand molecule which was thought to be an integral collaborator of DNA in protein synthesis.

Through these successive failures, what has become obvious is the fact that there exists an irreducible complexity at the beginning and this irreducible complexity could not have arisen out of chance.


[1] Darwin has left two early versions of his theory of evolution by natural selection, one a “Sketch” of 35 manuscript pages (1842) and the second an “Essay” of some 230 manuscript pages (1844). These were edited and printed by his son, Sir Francis Darwin as The Foundations of the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (Cambridge: University Press, 1909); these have been re-edited by Sir Gavin de Beer, Evolution by Natural Selection, (Cambridge; Published for the XV International Congress of Zoology and the Linnean Society of London at the University Press, 1958. Quoted by Jones and Cohen, op. cit., p. 341.

[2]  Subsequent variations of this theme would include theories that understand variations within a species as variations in the genes of its individual members, and they explained evolution as the action of natural selection upon genes responsible for advantageous traits.

[3] First published on November 24,1859 by John Murray, London. All references to this work are from Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, New York: Mentor Books, 1958.

[4] Cf. “An Historical Sketch” in Darwin, Charles Op. cit. p. 17

[5] ibid, p. 17

[6] Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1962), p. 124, quoted by Smith, Wolfgang, Cosmos & Transcendence, Peru: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1984, p. 27

[7] Ibid, p. 27, Professor Smith also notes in passing that with the advent of this mechanical view of the universe, there was a phenomenal change in the way science was utilized. As soon as Galileo’s mechanical discoveries were made public, they were put to use, for example in the pendulum clock, invented by Huygens in 1656. ibid, p. 27-28

[8] Cosmos & Transcendence, op. cit., p.29

[9] ibid, p. 30

[10] Descartes, R, Discourse on Method and other Writings, tr. with an introduction by Arthur Wollaston, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 81

[11] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, tr. with analytical indexes by James Creed Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, p. 94

[12] Linnaeus, C., Systema Naturae 1735: Facsimile of the First Edition with an introduction and a first English translation of the “Observations” by Engel-Ledeboer, M.S.J, Dr. and Engel, H. Dr. de Graaf, Nieuwkoop, 1964; Systema Vegetabilium, Göttingen & Gotha, 1774

[13] Animal Kingdom according to Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, op. cit.

[14] Systema Naturae, 13th ed., vol.2, part 1, op. cit. (note 8), p. 297

[15] de Buffon, G.L.L., Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulièr, avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi, 44 vol. plus Atlas, Paris:1949-1804. Only 35 volumes appeared in Buffon’s lifetime; the remaining were the work of Comte de Lacépède (1756-1825).

[16] op.cit, (note 23), pp.12-13

[17] John Locke based his anti-Aristotelian view on the objection that if the correct essential definitions of kinds could be found, one could determine the properties of those kinds deductively from their definitions. He pointed out that one could never find out new empirical facts, simply by ratiocinations from verbal definitions. A definition, according to him, could tell how names were to be used (by conventional agreement or customary usage), but it could never be a source of new factual information. Even the best definitions merely gave the nominal essences of things, never the real essences. The names of things simply indicated the classes of things for which, by general usage, the names were deemed appropriate. And conventions about word usage were susceptible to change. Likewise, the categories by which objects were grouped and named were in no way God-given or fixed according to certain essential criteria. Thus nominalism considered it perfectly possible to group objects in unconventional ways and allot new names or redistribute the old names.

[18] The belief that science alone leads to sure knowledge.

[19] Warren, William F, Paradise Found, the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole, a Study of the Prehistoric World, London: Sampson Lw, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1885, pp. 418-19. Emphasis in the original.

[20] ibid, p. 419

[21] There are several excellent critiques of this idea of “Progress”; one of the best is by Lord Northbourne, Lord, Looking Back on Progress, Ghent: Sophia Perennis Et Universalis, 1995

[22] Denis O. Lamoureux has an interesting “historical” note on the use of the term Darwinism in Darwinism Defeated? (op. cit, p. 11). He points out that “the term is used by some Christians in the origins debate to refer to a dysteleological evolution, but also by a number of non-Christian popularizers and philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Michael Ruse… historical studies on the life of Charles Darwin have made it abundantly clear that his view of evolution was not dysteleological, though he considered that possibility” Lamoureux supports this assertion on the basis of revisionists theories which try to rehabilitate Darwin’s theism/teleology, such as Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, (New York: Warner, 1991); Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation,  (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979) etc.

[23] Darwin’s second major work, first published in 1871 in which Darwin presents the “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). The book went through three reprints between February and December of 1871, its second edition was printed in one volume in November 1874. All references are from the November 1913 edition.

[24]  Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, op. cit. p. 248-49


[25] The mammalian group that includes monkeys, apes, baboons and lemur.

[26]  A hole through the humerus just above the elbow joint, found in reptiles and human embryos.

[27] A cul-de-sac of the alimentary canal, branching off at the junction of the small and large intestines.

[28] Meaning capable of grasping or taking hold of something.

[29]  Pertaining to trees; treelike.

[30] i.e. the common passage by which alimentary and urinary excretion occurs in birds, reptiles, fish and monotremes (egg-laying mammals.)

[31] Gills

[32] A primitive kidney, as it appears in the intermediate embryonic states of development.


[33] A cartilaginous rod found in vertegbrate embryos, running between the primitive vertebrates such as the lancelet or Amphioxus.

[34] Darwin, C, The Descent, op. cit., pp. 248-49

[35] Douglas Dewar, The Transformist Illusion, New York: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1996

[36] The Descent of Man, Op. cit. p. 99

[37] Figure taken from Williams, Pearce L, Album of Science: The Nineteenth Century, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978, p. 292; wherein the picture has been reproduced courtesy of American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. from Walter Karp, Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species, New York, 1968, 140.

[38] G. Ledyard Stebbins and F. J. Ayala, “The Evolution of Darwinism,” Scientific American, 253, July 1985, p. 54. Also see, McMullin, Ernan, Evolution and Creation, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, pp. 59-90 and Stebbins, G. Ledyard, Darwin to DNA, molecules to humanity, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1982

[39] Haeckel, Ernst, The Evolution of Man: A Popular Scientific Study, 5th ed. vol. 2, London: Watts, 1910.

[40] Hugo de Vries, The Mutation Theory, tr. J.B. Farmer and A.D. Darbishire, v.1, Chicago: Open Court Trade and Academic Books, Carus Publishing, Peru, 1909.

[41] See, Mayr, Ernst, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982, also, Ernst Mayr and Provine, William B. (eds.) The Evolutionary Synthesis: perspectives on the Unification of Biology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

[42] Also see Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962, Heredity and the Nature of Man, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

[43] Sharon Kingsland, “Neo-Darwinism and Nature History,” in Krige John and Pestre Dominique (eds.) Science in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997, pp. 417-437

[44] Gould, S. J. and Eldredge, N. “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism” in Schopf, T, (ed.) Models in Paleobiology, San Francisco: Freeman Cooper and Co. 1973, pp. 82-115

[45] New York: Meridan, 1982

[46] Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986

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