This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
At the end of my recent stay in Washington, DC (the AAAS Meeting), I decided to spend the half day I had left on some of the great museums that the city hosts (the Mall area).
In addition to the Air and Space Museum, which I had visited many times, I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where someone had told me there was a special exhibit about human origins (details of the exhibit can be found here). The NMNH is a fantastic museum, and no one should miss it when visiting Washington. I could have spent the whole day there, if not more, but since I had less than 2 hours, I spent most of my time in the special exhibit (and the store).
The exhibit area is not very large, though still of a decent size, and it is very nicely laid out, with great sculptures and reproductions of ancient and modern humans, their tools, their art, and so forth. There were also several video displays and interactive computer programs to help people learn and appreciate various topics, and many museum staff were available to provide explanation and help to everyone, particularly the scores of children who were there with their parents (it was the President Holiday).
Now, the most fascinating feature of the whole display was its emphasis on the theme “What Does it Mean to be Human”, for which you can find a rich website here. Indeed, instead of the usual emphasis on humanity’s evolution being part of the “tree of life” and its commonness with other species, the main trend that seemed to run through most of the exhibit was “human characteristics”, what makes us human. (The biological part was certainly there, like the percentages of genes shared with chimpanzees, gorillas, and even chicken, but that was not the main idea.)
For example, here’s the way the evolution of humans over the last 6 million years is presented:
- 6 M yrs (ago): walking upright on short legs
- 2.5 M yrs: making tools and eating meat from large animals
- 2 M yrs: longer legs; travel to new regions
- 500,000 yrs: rapid increase in brain size
- ~ 350,000 yrs: speech (though it is not known when exactly this emerged)
- 250,000 yrs: communication with symbols
- 160,000 yrs: longer childhood and adolescence
- 130,000 yrs: building social networks
- 100,000 yrs; plant and animal domestication + expressing identity by wearing beads and putting colored materials on faces and bodies
- 65,000 yrs: burying the dead (first in Iraq)
- 60,000 – 30,000 yrs: paintings, sculptures, and music tools
One interactive screen drew my special attention. It asked the big question “what does it mean to be human?” and gave a series of words to choose from: imagine, weep, create, write, beauty, believe, understand, giving, pray, sing, mortality, struggle, become, rituals, altruistic, responsibility, consciousness, empathy, chin, brain. (It was not clear to me whether those words were proposed by the program’s creators or were chosen from the participants’ responses.) The program then asks the participant to give one’s answer either by choosing one of those words or by typing in a new word or complete sentence.
Last but not least, I was very impressed to find out that the exhibit creators had set up a Broader Social Impacts Committee to try to examine and include such issues as the religious viewpoints or sensitivities on the topic of human origins. The committee was made up of 15 scholars and religious figures, including, for the Muslim side, Dr. Mustansir Mir, who is a University Professor of Islamic Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, USA. Here’s the ‘personal statement’ posted by Dr. Mir on the question of human origins:
In the phrase “human origins,” the crucial word is “human” rather than “origins.” A scientific account of human origins is, primarily, biological; a religious account of human origins is, primarily, moral. In Islam, as in the other so-called monotheistic religions, God is the creator of all things—minerals, animals, and humans. From a scientific standpoint, minerals are not immoral, and humans are not more moral than animals—all three being equally worthy subjects of study and investigation. But religion might call a certain type of human being “stone-hearted” or “worse than an animal.” The essential difference between religion and science, then, consists in the different valuation system employed by each. If it can be established beyond a shadow of a doubt that human beings evolved from monkeys, then, Islamically, so be it. But while science might say that monkeys, following a linear and irreversible path of evolutionary development, evolved into humans, who now run no risk of relapsing into monkeyhood, religion might say that human beings may—morally—degenerate back into monkeys, just as, on the flip side, they may—morally—reach sublime heights and become superior to angels. In brief, science looks at human beings with reference to the horizontal axis of history, whereas religion looks at human beings with reference to the vertical axis of morality. If this argument is accepted, then, essentially, no conflict need exist between science and religion on the issue of human origins.
I am sure this interesting statement will bring about a series of comments from the readers of this blog, and I look forward to everyone’s reaction.