Friday, November 30, 2012

A report about the Boston Evolution and Islam panel

by Salman Hameed

Last month I presented at a lively panel session on Islam and Evolution in Boston. It was organized by American Islamic Congress and its Project Nur. Now John Farrell has provided a summary of the session and a highlight video from the panel on his Progressive Download blog at Forbes. By the way, John is the author of a fantastic book about Belgian cosmologist and priest, Georges Lemaitre.

Here is John Farrell talking about Ehab Abouheif, his cutting edge research in evolutionary biology, and his faith:
So, it was fascinating to hear from evolutionary biologists like Ehab Abouheif, who runs his own lab at McGill, that doing science and practicing the family’s ancestral faith does not prompt any contradiction. 
Abouheif and his team made a splash earlier this year with the discovery that many species of ants retain dormant genes that can be reactivated to generate an entire caste of ‘super-soldiers.’ [His team's paper was published in the January 6 2012 issue of Science.] 
When he came to Boston University last month at the request of Project Nur and the American Islamic Congress, Abouheif not only shared his personal thoughts on religion as a scientist and a practicing Muslim, but he also shared his concerns about the consequences for Islamic countries that fail to embrace the scientific tradition. 
“There’s a lot at stake here,” he said, “because it’s well beyond evolution. If it’s not about the evidence, if you reject science, if you reject evolution as a science and you’re not willing to listen to evidence, then that means that for all of science, when it comes into contact with sociological, political conflicts, then you won’t believe it either.”
But ultimately he asks the question:
What’s interesting from my perspective is –whatever the immediate difficulties facing Muslim countries as they grapple with democracy and technology– in the broader intellectual scheme, I think science does not pose as many challenges to doctrine in Islam as it seems to pose to traditional Christianity. 
Or is it soon to tell?
I think it is too early to tell. If issues like the rejection of evolution become a matter of Muslim identity for most Muslims, as young earth creationism has become for many Evangelicals in the US, then we are going to see a conflicts with biology. But at present, there seems to be enough flexibility for many Muslims  to accept not just microbial evolution, but also animal evolution, including that of humans.

Here is the highlight video from the panel prepared by John Farrell:

Perspectives on Islam and Evolution from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.


Ali said...

Salman, the article says "While they differed on how certain passages of the Qur’an should be interpreted in light of science ... "

Just curious. Which passages are these? And what were the different interpretations made?

Larrry Gilman said...

You're right on the money, I think, in that whether evolution becomes a question of _identity_ for Muslims -- or how many Muslims -- will determine how widespread Muslim creationism becomes. In Christian creationism, it's clearly identity that sets the terms of belief, with questions of evidence treated in a secondary, predetermined fashion (often sincerely). Ditto for climate change. So far, based on the limited survey data, doesn't it look like a global Muslim majority may already be embracing creationism, in identity-driven reaction to the association of Darwin with a Western-manufactured, hostile modernity? Perhaps this would leave science-accepting Muslims, much like science-accepting Christians, in something of a minority? Or are they there already?

Salman Hameed said...

"Just curious. Which passages are these? And what were the different interpretations made?"

I don't remember the individual passages, but I think one of the differences was on whether we should use Qur'anic verses to argue any scientific idea. As you know, I fall in the category of a separation of science and religion (as much as possible).

It is not there yet in most countries. There is a difference if you ask the question: Do you accept of reject Darwin's theory. The response to that question will mostly be negative. However, if you ask them about microbial evolution or animal evolution (without Darwin's name), them often times the reactions are relatively positive. Many still have an issue with human evolution - but then we also find acceptance in many instances. This is mixed bag. We have couple of papers coming out on this topic. So please stay tuned.

Larry Gilman said...


Tuned I shall stay.

Human exceptionalism is an interesting problem -- a problem because there is no difference in the sort of evidence and reasoning that illuminates human evolution from at the kind that scientists use to study any other sort, so one cannot unplug human origins from evolution as a whole without overruling the scientific approach as such. One can "believe" in non-human animal evolution while not believing that humans evolved by identical processes -- but it not possible to have a consistent cognitive basis underly the compartmentalization. Which does not bode well for one's participation in working science. But perhaps the human-exception compromise will serve for some as a bridge, a less-stressful halfway point to a fully science-accepting mindset.

Re. John Farrell's remark that "in the broader intellectual scheme, I think science does not pose as many challenges to doctrine in Islam as it seems to pose to traditional Christianity":

This seems to me to conflate or confuse "traditional" Christianity with _conservative_ (e.g., Biblical-literalist) Christianity. It is the latter, e.g. the evangelical and fundamental Protestantisms, that most strongly correlates with Creationism. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the Anglican/Episcopalian churches, and non-conservative Protestant churches (e.g., Methodist) have long since made their official peace with evolution without, in many cases, ceasing to be "traditional" at all. Catholicism alone has over a billion nominal adherents and should not be left out of account . . . In any case, the (admittedly fragmentary) survey data do not seem to me to support the idea of some sort of built-in theological immunity to Creationism in Islam. Would that it were so, but the evidence so far indicates a vulnerability as great, overall, as in the Christianities. (Full disclosure: I'm a Christian myself, theologically "traditional" but science-loving and radically un-"conservative".)