Evolution – Survival Without Direction?

© Bennyartist | shutterstock.com
© Bennyartist | shutterstock.com

Introduction

The theory of evolution by natural selection was brought to us by Charles Darwin in the mid 19th centenary and is unquestionably one of mankind’s most important scientific discoveries. For many, evolution not only explains how life came into being but also holds promise of unlocking the meaning of life itself. It is perhaps for this reason that evolution appears to be at the forefront of the conflict between science and religion. On the one hand, there are those who believe in the supernatural creation of man carved out of clay in the image of God. At the other extreme, there are those that believe that creation is an automated accumulation of slow change that needs only the vastness of time rather than a God. In the 150 years since Darwin first published his theory, some of his key ideas have been cemented as scientific fact. However, the exact details of three and a half billion years of evolution remains very much a work in progress and closer inspection of almost any aspect of evolutionary science will raise as many questions as answers, as this article will explore.

Charles Darwin. © Nicku | Shutterstock.com
Charles Darwin. © Nicku | Shutterstock.com

Darwinian Natural Selection

The key principle of Darwinian natural selection is best summarised by the man himself:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”[1]

In other words, those siblings that have characteristics that make them more likely to survive (such as being physically stronger) will go on to have more children than their siblings. Consequently, by having more children, that same characteristic will become more apparent in that population over time. With multiple repetitions of this process, the species will evolve from a basic to a more complex being. Many scientists (perhaps most notably, Professor Richard Dawkins) believe that this gradual automated process explains the origin of species without the need of a Conscious Creator.

To demonstrate the creative power of this process, Professor Richard Dawkins famously created a simple computer model in his best selling book, The Blind Watchmaker.[2] The principle of this program was to show how random variation followed by non-random selection can lead to the evolution of complex forms. The program generated a simple shape based on computer code (that represented genes).

This code was then altered very slightly but randomly, generating new shapes, which were designated as the offspring of the original (akin to the variation that all children have from their parents). Dawkins then looked at these new shapes and selected only those shapes that had distinct and interesting new features. Using these distinct chosen shapes only, the whole process was then repeated where their code would again be randomly altered resulting in a new array of offspring. This modeled natural selection where the fittest (in terms of survival) reproduce preferentially to others. Within a few cycles of this process, extraordinary complex and wonderfully shaped computer generated shapes evolved (Dawkins even named these new shapes as ‘biomorphs’ to depict a new type of creation). The purpose of this exercise was for Dawkins to demonstrate how small changes over time can accumulate to create complex beings – akin to evolution by natural selection, where subtle random change followed by natural selection is thought to have occurred over the 3.5 billion years since the inception of life on earth. It is this process that is proposed to have resulted in the variety and complexity of life that exists today. It is a process, so simple and yet so powerful, that Dawkins believes that it negates the need for the guiding hand of a Conscious Creator. The impact of Darwinian natural selection on the God theory was summarised in a speech Professor Dawkins delivered to the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference in 2002:

“Darwinian natural selection is so stunningly elegant because it solves the problem of explaining complexity in terms of nothing but simplicity. Essentially it does this by providing a small gradual ramp of step-by-step increment. The elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion precisely because it is so elegant, so parsimonious, so economically powerful. It has the sinewy economy of a beautiful suspension bridge. The God theory is not just a bad theory; it turns out to be in principle incapable of doing the job required of it.”[3]

This tree diagram, used to show the divergence of species, is the only illustration in On the Origin of Species.
This tree diagram, used to show the divergence of species, is the only illustration in On the Origin of Species.

Thus, Dawkins believes that the automated process of natural selection is sufficient to explain the wonder of creation without the need for God’s intervention. This incapacity to contribute, claims Dawkins, is the reason why Darwinian natural selection undermines the very concept of God. If time and natural selection can create mankind, what power is then left for God to be worthy of worship? In fact, what evidence can be found of His existence at all?

An immediate objection to Dawkins’ viewpoint arises in the question of why studying evolution would lead to any proof regarding the existence or non-existence of God? Would accepting the modern interpretation of Darwinian natural selection (also known as Neo Darwinism) in any way confirm that God does not exist? Could God not have created the process of natural selection as a mechanism of His creation? The Islamic viewpoint on this issue is quite clear, as it states that God is indeed actively involved in creation:

“Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things;

Who has created death and life that He might try you—which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving.

Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw?

Aye, look again, and yet again, thy sight will only return unto thee confused and fatigued.”[4]

“And in your own creation and in that of all the creatures which He scatters in the earth are Signs for a people who possess firm faith.”[5]

Thus from an Islamic perspective, Dawkins is correct in his view that the absence of God’s Hand in evolutionary science would indeed be corrosive to Islam as a religion. In the study of evolution according to the Holy Qur’an, believers will be rewarded with further evidence to bolster their faith. Therefore, the challenge raised by Professor Dawkins is one which Muslims at least cannot ignore.

The scientific counter movement to the Godless principles of Neo Darwinism (loosely termed ‘Intelligent Design’) holds a belief that simple random mutation and natural selection on its own cannot explain the staggering variety of complexity that exists in the living world. The incremental progress to complexity as proposed by Darwinian natural selection, is the key argument against Intelligent Design. The key principle of step-by-step incremental evolution is the non-random selection of random genetic variation. The criteria for this non-random selection is, of course the selection of those that have a survival advantage over others. This natural selection provides a constant non-random direction to evolution.

This non-randomness is simulated by Dawkins’ in his computer program by the non-random selection of those forms which look interesting to the human being running the program. The human being decides using his intellect which of the randomly mutated computer generated shapes he fancies to preferentially pass on their physical characteristics, and thus it is the human intellect that drives this process forward. The obvious flaw to this approach is that an intellect is providing the non-random element to this artificial model of natural selection. Neo Darwinists are, of course, adamant there is no intellect (like a God) in the process of evolution. This highlights the first major objection to the modern interpretation of Darwinian natural selection. It is assumed that the selection of species on the basis of their fitness to survive is a constant reproducible process – as modelled in Dawkins’ computer program. However, the reality is that the real threats to survival are as varied and random as the random genetic mutation they have to select. This is acknowledged by Darwin himself when he talks about “the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life”.[6]Viruses, bacteria, floods, drought, parasites, meteors, earthquakes, hunger, lack of space, paucity of trace elements, warmth, shelter etc., the list of “threats to survival” is limitless. That which is determined fit for survival at one moment can change within seconds by the complexity of varying conditions on Earth. In fact, simultaneous varied challenges co-exist, pushing fitness from one random direction to the next. Consider a drought that will annihilate a mammalian species, a complex organism with a long and illustrious evolutionary history. Yet, the worm in the earth scavenging dirt and eating the faeces of its ‘evolutionary’ advanced cousins would happily survive, turning progress on its head. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, the Fourth Successor of the Promised Messiahas, writes in his repost of Richard Dawkins, in ‘Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth’:

In every changed context, the principle of the survival of the fittest would favour the survival of different contestants. Every calamity would have its own preferences.[7]

It is only the chance outcome of a given situation which decides the quality of the surviving factors. Blind struggle for existence cannot always aim at the right qualities. Whatever emerges, bad or good, must be accepted as the fittest. A particular species could be adjudged as champion with regards to its potential for survival in a specific situation. The species that becomes extinct could have possessed more advanced qualities and characters in other regards.[8]

Thus, the very first premise of natural selection is based on an assumption, namely that only the fittest will survive. The reality is that only that which is fittest for that particular challenge would survive and even within a generation the direction of evolution will meander aimlessly in one direction then the other. The very least Neo Darwinists would have to admit is that the true direction of evolution, when every challenge to survival is computed into the survival equation, is unknown. However, even the briefest study of any species will demonstrate distinctly unique complex features. For these unique features to have evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations, their environmental conditions would have to have been constant and predictable over that same period. The giraffe’s neck, the elephant’s trunk, the ant’s architectural prowess, the dolphin’s sonar system, the six hundred volt electric eel, the polar bear’s half a mile distant sense of smell – are just a few examples of distinctly unique features selected preferentially by natural selection. According to Neo Darwinism, each of these complex characteristics must have evolved by single incremental steps over countless generations. Furthermore, at every one of these countless steps, the environmental conditions would have to be such that the need (in terms of survival) for the evolving characteristic must predominate over other threats to survival. In addition, these same conditions must prevail for thousands if not millions of years. In the real world, that is simply not the case.

As an example, consider the environmental conditions required for the evolution of the giraffe’s neck. It is believed that the giraffe, which can grow up to 6 meters in height, evolved from a deer like animal, which may have only been 1.5 meters in height. The reason the giraffe evolved such a long neck is not entirely clear, but may be due to the advantage it gains in being able to reach vegetation at the tops of trees and bushes that shorter animals cannot. It is clear that the evolution of the giraffe’s neck was a complex process. Not only did the neck need to elongate, but the entire skeleton and physiology of the evolving giraffe changed in order to support the enormous neck. The giant neck has placed such an enormous burden on the giraffe that it has had to evolve stronger bones, a unique neck structure and a completely modified cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and nervous system. Its entire being appears to have evolved in order to maintain and support its giant neck. In fact, the evolution of the giraffe from its deer-like ancestor is so complex, it may have taken several millions of years.[9]

© Pyty | Shutterstock.com
© Pyty | Shutterstock.com

Without these reciprocal changes, there would be no hope for the elongating neck to offer a survival advantage. For instance, consider the first moment the neck began to evolve. Even a few millimeters may have given the animal greater access to food at the tops of bushes and trees. However, that benefit would have to be balanced against the negative impact a longer neck would have on the rest of its body. A longer neck, even by a few millimeters, would put a small but definite strain on the animal’s heart that would have to pump blood a few millimeters further to reach the brain. The extra weight of the longer neck would need to be carried by the animal’s skeleton. A millimeter longer neck would ever so slightly, make the animal less balanced and more prone to falling over (not a good thing if predators are nearby). The degree of disadvantage a longer neck places on a four legged animal can be understood by the uncountable ways the giraffe has had to evolve various parts of its body in order to cope with its giant neck. Yet at every step of its evolution, according to the principles of Neo Darwinism, one key environmental condition must have been constant and dominant over this enormous period of time, namely, a clear survival advantage for any animal that could access food from the tops of trees and bushes. In other words, for millions of years there must have been such a desperate lack of vegetation available for herbivores at 1.5 meters tall, such that any animal tall enough to access vegetation even a few centimeters higher would be at a clear survival advantage. Indeed this advantage would have to be greater than the sum of all the disadvantages that a longer neck would place on the poor animal.

Thus for millennia, bacterial infection, viruses, carnivores, infertility, poisonous snakes, parasites, drought and extremes of cold must all take a back seat in the battle for survival to leave the Neo Darwinian evolutionary stage free for lack of herbage at or below 1.5 metres to take centre stage. This appears of course highly unlikely, not least by the fact that hundreds of species of herbivores shorter than 1.5 metres have evolved in the same savannahs as the giraffe and its giant neck. These species have found simpler and easier ways of surviving than growing a giant neck that would burden every organ of a four-legged herbivore.

The giraffe and its enormous neck is just one of millions of examples in the living world of how evolution must have been driven in a peculiar but definite direction, creating countless problems on the way to solving a single problem. For Neo Darwinists to believe that in each of these examples, the unique and peculiar direction of evolution by coincidence, also happened to yield a clear survival advantage at every single step (regardless of the countless and variable alternatives) is an extraordinary leap of faith. It could be argued that this faith is driven by the real and unspoken backbone of their viewpoint – namely that under no circumstances can the idea of Intelligence or Design enter the science of Evolution.

It is clear to see that mere survival as the sole selection pressure, cannot explain the extraordinary lengths evolutionary paths have taken to reach the variety and complexity witnessed in the animal kingdom today. A clear path and direction of evolution is evident in any study of the living world. How and from where this direction comes requires further open-minded scientific investigation. For believers in the Holy Qur’an, there is clear merit in this investigation with the promise of extraordinary rewards.

“And thy Lord creates whatever He pleases and chooses whomsoever He pleases. It is not for them to choose. Glorified be Allah, and far is He above all that they associate with Him.”[10]

Dr. Adeel Bajwa is training to be a general surgeon in the West Midlands and completed his medical degree in 2003 from the University of London. He has a BSC in Cancer Biology from UCL where he also completed his Doctorate in Medicine. He is senior committee member and adviser for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Research Association UK (AMRA) with an interest in Evolutionary Theory. The AMRA serves to promote science and research based careers to its members as well as highlighting the intrinsic harmony between religious and scientific thought. AMRA is actively involved in scientific research with a focus on its positive impact on Islamic teaching.

 

Endnotes

1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1st ed, (London: John Murray, 1859).

2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (New York: Norton & Company, 1986).

3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Militant Atheism’, Ted.com, February 2002, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/richard_dawkins_on_militant_atheism.html. 2002.

4. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Mulk, Verse 2-5.

5. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Jathiyah, Verse 5.

6. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1st ed, (London: John Murray, 1859).

7. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth, (Tilford: Islam International Publications Limited, 1998).

8. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth, (Tilford: Islam International Publications Limited, 1998).

9. G Mitchell & JD Skinner, On The Origin, Evolution and Phylogeny of the Giraffe Giraffa Camelopardalis, transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa: 58(1), 2003, pp. 51-73.

10. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Qasas, Verse 69.

 

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