Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday Video: Frans de Waal on Morality without Religion

by Salman Hameed

The issue of morality often gets entangled with religion. But the origins of certain behaviors that we term 'moral' can be traced in our evolutionary pasts. Of course, one can argue that those characteristics are part of the natural world because of the laws put in place by God. At the same time, the search for the origins of those laws (like any other scientific question) falls under the purview of science, and the following talk is about that. Here is primatologist Frans de Waal talking about Morality without Religion. By the way, if you haven't read his books, you should definitely check those out. He is an excellent writer. I was hooked on to his books after reading The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist.

Here is the Tedx talk by Frans de Waal. Also note the fascinating videos of chimps from the Yerkes Archive.


Saif said...

Hello Salman and readers,

I'm subscribed to your blog and just got a chance to watch your interview with Al-Jazeera. Great interview!

I seriously cannot understand how Evolution is compatible with Islam. Can anyone enlighten me?

Evolution contradicts Islam. The story of Adam and Eve (the first humans created by Allah is in the Quran) and we know Adam and Eve do not fit into Evolution, and there are many verses in the Quran contradicting evolution as well.

Evolution is only compatible with Science, but not with Islam. And I would love to see anyone prove me wrong.

Anonymous said...

The very phenomenon called 'life' as we know (or try to 'define') it itself contradicts science. Unless we admit that 'life' per se has no physical existence and is just a byproduct of the special molecular arrangement and processes. For example Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time just came into being as a continuum and byproduct the special molecular arrangement that happened in hot organic sludge some 3.5 billion years arrangement that tells other aggregates of molecules (i.e. you and me) how universe and its laws work. Doesn't t make much sense, or does it?

Anonymous said...

Evolution indeed seems to contradict religion. I personally don't believe in religion as such yet it is hard for me to deny a creator, but not as any religion would normally define it. While we on Earth are such an insignificant speck in this huge, very huge universe, most of the religions only have a geocentric outlook. With the discovery of 500 or so very 'discoverable' planets just in our immediate neighborhood, there would be many times more ordinary ones like Earth immediately around us. And while galaxy is big...universe is even bigger. While I fail to comprehend the absence of a creator of this universe and its laws, it seems highly unlikely that that it is the same one we talk about in religion, unless some religion does speak of an omnipotent creator on a massive scale. But then why should such a creator even care to be bothered by our presence on this tiny speck of dust in an insignificant corner of the Universe. My understanding is that different religions tried to implement this basic instinct of human beings called morality through ordinance and at the same time tried to explain the basis of creation through description of a creator embellished by contemporary cultural overtones.

Salman Hameed said...


Couple of quick things:
a) First there is an empirical question: Do all Muslims believe that evolution contradicts Islam? The answer is no. There are many who find it totally compatible with Islam. It may not work for everyone (and may be you are one such individual), but there are clearly ways in which Muslims find it compatible.

b) What is meant by evolution: Obviously, there is a big range: microbial evolution, macro-evolution excluding humans, common descent of all species. Often times, people mean different things when they say evolution. However, again there are many Muslims who accept human evolution alongside with common descent.

c) Does evolution fundamentally contradict Islam? It depends on your definition of how God works. If one thinks that God works through secondary causes, then there is not much difference in saying that God created the Earth (and used gravity to form the planet via natural processes) to saying that God created humans (and used the process of evolution via natural processes). Yes, it contradicts if one thinks that humans simply appeared on the planet as is. So is there a generic answer to: Does evolution contradicts Islam? No. It depends on your definition of Islam.

d) There is a huge difference in how science is presented versus religious texts. The primary purpose of religious texts is for moral guidance on how to lead one's life. The story of the creation of Adam falls in that category. I think it will be a mistake to draw scientific details out of such stories.

e) I think it is a mistake when people use science to credit or discredit Islam. In both instances it is a misunderstanding of science as well as religion.

f) To anon: The theory of evolution doesn't say anything about the origin of life. But the question of the origin of life is also in the domain of science. It is a naturalistic event.

Asad M said...

Saif, evolution seems to contradict the Quran only if one takes the Adam & Eve story ‘word for word’. It is itself mentioned in the Quran that not every story therein is to be taken literally and that allegories and metaphors are widely used. The Quran is not a book of history or science but a book of guidance where there’s a moral lesson to be learned in each of its parables.

Over the past 150 years archaeology in the Near-East (esp. Iraq) has shown that many of the stories in the Quran and Bible have parallels in ancient Mesopotamian mythologies which predate the Bible by over a thousand years. For e.g. the Creation story and that of Noah’s flood have uncanny resemblance to mythologies in Enuma Elish (Babylonian) and the Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian) which shows that many of Quranic/Biblical stories have ancient Mesopotamian roots. In the Bible and Quran, these same stories were narrated in such a way that their ancient audiences could relate to stories that they already somehow knew. However, they were told with a huge a Monotheistic twist; instead of multiple gods & goddess it was now One God who created the world and is controlling it.

When it comes to science we do not have to see it through the prism of Quran or any other religious text. The scientific evidence for Evolution (including evolution of modern human from ape ancestors) is incontrovertible and we don’t need to put it through a Quranic test to validate it.

Saif said...

Salman, thanks for replying to my post. I'm not Muslim but I used to be a follower of Islam and prayed 5 times a day and fasted every Ramadan. After doing my own research I slowly came to a realization that I don't believe in Islam. I'm an agnostic atheist now. I respect Muslims and people of other faiths, but I wish people wouldn't put such a literal meaning on Quran and Islam as most Muslims do. I hope Muslim parents also accept their children regardless of whatever religion they follow or lack of religion. My parents have kicked me out of the house simply due to me not believing in Islam, but I'm living off my own money from my own business, and life is good. I still love my parents, and even though I'm not a Muslim I have good morals and values, but it's unfortunate that my parents had to kick me out due to religion. I know it's not my parents fault they were born into Islam, but I hope one day they will accept me.

The reason I posted here was because I was just curious as to how a Muslim could accept evolution, as it is clear that it is incompatible with Islam (at least to Orthodox Muslims) due to the Adam and Eve story and other verses in the Quran.

Asad, you made a good point. Science and religion should be kept separate, but Islam does make certain scientific claims which I find not to be compatible with science, at least from a literal view. I guess it all blends down to how one interprets the Quran.

Anonymous said...

From 'life' I didn't mean its origin but the very phenomenon of 'life' itself. Does it have a physical existence and parameters like gravity or energy or is it just an inference we draw by looking at this complicated wonderful process of interactions of organic molecules. Bizarre because this very process is beginning to 'understand' its origins and dynamics, so unusual for an 'inanimate' biochemical process through usual physics and its laws. (I am lost seriously)

However couldn't agree more when you say it depends how we 'define' Islam. And it is better to keep things where these are meant to be. Let science explain nature and its laws and religion to govern moral values in contemporary scenarios.

Salman Hameed said...


Thanks for your comments. This is heavy stuff and I'm sorry about your relations with your parents. I think it takes a lot of guts to change one's position like that. We are also dealing with fast changing times. Religion, for many, has become (as it should) a matter a personal choice, but others have not come to accept that. And I hope your parents come around to seeing you as a moral person - as individual morality has no bearing on one's religion.

All that said, I can see your interpretation of Islam as being incompatible with evolution. However, I wanted to point out that there are many others who do not share this view. And that is okay too. You may have a disagreement from a personal perspective, but there are others who consider the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. I want to highlight this - as the interpretations of Islam are quite diverse (and I'm including your interpretation as one of the many...).

Anonymous said...

Said bro:
I am also an atheist but I pray and fast at will...just in case

Faisal Irshad said...

Another good discussion. What i am unable to understand is the criterion for cherry picking the quranic verses that are to be taken literally and those to be considered allegorically. It is not just evolution that is at odds with Quran but also many other scientific facts. e.g. How can you reconcile (literally or allegorically) that earth was created before the universe in six days and Allah's throne was on waters before that and finally the placement of mountains on earth?