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In denial over evolution, in denial over science

Published in The Malaysian Insider

“Malays have no problems embracing science when it supports their pride, but they won’t even acknowledge the theory of evolution,” a friend remarked after reading the news on proto-Malays. It might sound like a broad sweeping statement, but it is obvious that most Malaysians, and by extension most Malays, have strong disagreement with the subject despite being poorly educated on it.

When asked “Did human beings develop from an earlier species of animals?”, slightly over half of Malaysians answered “false”, a mere 17.4 per cent answered “true” and the rest were unsure. This statistic was then published in the most recent report on scientific and technological awareness by the Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre (Mastic) in 2008.

In comparison, almost half of those surveyed back in 2004 answered “true”, 21 per cent answered “false”, and the rest unsure — a complete opposite of 2008’s result.

Suspiciously, Mastic decided that the correct answer to the question is “false”, contrary to the answer in the American and European version of the survey. The decision was, according to them, “for many different reasons not to be mentioned in this report.” By their own admission too, this had eliminated any fair international comparison for the survey.

It is no secret that there are some of our medical students overseas who purposely skip their evolutionary biology lectures “in protest.” Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London, claimed that an increasing number of Muslim students in UK had been boycotting his lectures.

In TV AlHijrah, we have a government-owned (read: taxpayer-backed) Islamic TV channel which freely airs pseudo-scientific and pro-creationism drivel such as the show “Signs of Creator”. This is just one of the many works by cult head Adnan Oktar, more known and idolised in Malaysia by his pen name Harun Yahya. I tried watching it the other day, but lost my patience by the time it got to the “Miracles by Prophets are Proofs that Evolution is Wrong” section.

What in the name of Darwin happened here?

I blame the encroachment of religion into non-religious studies, especially science. If you are a parent, do take some time to go through the syllabus of high school biology supplied by the Ministry of Education. Despite dedicating a chapter for Variation, one section of the chapter suggested the teacher “conduct a sketch to show respect for all God’s creation”, and espouses “being thankful to God” as one of the scientific and noble values to be learnt through the curriculum.

Shouldn’t this be left in religious studies? It is bad enough that the government is letting religion be part of scientific studies in class, out of class they are even letting theologians teach science through channels like TV AlHijrah.

There are two main concerns with those who are in denial over evolution. Most people, especially Muslims, have trouble reconciling their faith with it. Literal interpretation of holy scriptures tell that all humans came from the Adam and Eve pair, who were in turn created from clay — as opposed to a common ancestor from which homo sapiens and apes come from (no, evolution does not say that humans came from monkeys).

I shall not address here how to make this reconciliatory process work, save that I offer this for Muslims to consider. Consider that many medieval Islamic scientists and philosophers — of which people are so fond of reminiscing — have dabbled in primitive evolutionary ideas. Al-Jahiz, famous for his “Kitab al-Hayawan” (Books of Animals) and Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in “The Muqaddimah” (The Introduction) are just some of the names who have pondered on the theory of evolution. Consider that in the modern world, there are numerous Muslims who see no problem in studying and championing the topic without jeopardising their faiths, such as Dr Usama Hasan, vice-chairman of Leyton mosque and a senior lecturer in Middlesex University, UK.

The other main concern with evolution is the insistent that it is only a theory — only an assumption, that is widely accepted by the scientific community for the lack of an alternative theory. This can be put down to a lack of understanding in the scientific method. A theory is not a guess, but rather a framework that ties different ideas. The theory of evolution then describes the different mechanisms with which evolution occurs: natural selection, sexual selection, gene flow are all theories of evolution.

Evolution is not just a shot in the dark, not a lucky guess. Since Charles Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 (that was more than 150 years ago, by the way), evolution has become a robust theory, subjected to rigorous testing and supported with a lot of empirical scientific evidence. To put it simply, evolution is a fact, without which nothing in biology makes sense.

Opponents of the theory of evolution have a big glaring problem: there is not one scientific theory proposed that can explain the origin of humans any better. Without this, proponents of creationism had to resort to the vague concept of Intelligent Design: a divine hand helping and guiding evolution as it goes… something that might not even be testable.

To be fair, it matters not whether evolution was guided or not. The fact stands that it is a scientific fact, and the stubborn denial of it would only impede one’s understanding of the basic building blocks of our universe. It is only when we fully embrace the building blocks, we can move on to the construction of more advanced ideas.

Published inTMI column
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