Saturday, January 17, 2009

Imran Khan vs Charles Darwin

by Irfan Hussain
(from his weekly column in Dawn)

THIS year will see a large number of celebrations at campuses and scientific institutions around the world to mark the 200th year of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th year of the publication of his seminal work.

Widely regarded as one of the three most influential thinkers of the 19th century, together with Freud and Marx, Darwin has had a stronger impact on our thinking than the other two giants of the era. Since its publication in 1859, his explanation of how life evolved on the planet has been subjected to rigorous criticism and analysis. Generations of scientists have tested it in the field and in the laboratory. And to date, it remains the only scientific explanation of how life on Earth has developed over the millennia.

Many religious people have viewed the Darwinian theory of evolution as an attack on their faith. Others have reconciled belief in a supernatural being controlling events in the universe with a scientific theory that pulls together a vast plethora of evidence. Whatever one’s position on the truth of Darwin’s revolutionary exposition, it would take a foolhardy person to dismiss it as a ‘half-baked theory’ as Imran Khan has done recently.

Titled Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion, the essay is dated Nov 8, 2008, and was sent to me via email by a reader. In this article, the politician and ex-cricketer describes his personal journey from the westernised, secular outlook of his youth to his present faith-based worldview.

In a sense, Imran Khan’s view of Darwin’s life work captures the essence of our backwardness. By rejecting a vast body of scientific research and analysis as ‘half-baked’, he exposes his own ignorance. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion on any subject under the sun. But as he is a role model for many young Pakistanis, he has a duty to choose his words with greater care. He may refuse to accept the consensus behind Darwinian theory in the international scientific community, but to dismiss it out of hand risks influencing impressionable young minds into following him.

As it is, there is not a single world-class university or research institute in the Muslim world. The reason for this is not hard to find. By refusing to accept and internalise the rational method of empirical research and analysis, we discourage and suppress scientific and objective scholarship.

In Imran Khan’s mind, as in many others, reason is a western monopoly. So anyone using rational analysis as a tool is dismissed as ‘western’, a pejorative term deployed to undermine any argument. Unfortunately, this widespread trend has had profound significance over the centuries. By ceding scientific research and progress to the West, Muslims find themselves in their current predicament. By contrast, countries like China, Japan and Korea have made tremendous progress by accepting reason as the basis of their education and public discourse. So when Imran Khan says ‘the East sticks to religion’ in the title of his essay, he is effectively ignoring well over half the East.

I have long admired Imran Khan for his cricketing prowess, as well as for the fine work he has done in creating Pakistan’s first cancer hospital. So as a fan, it has saddened me to see him in the constant company of right-wingers like ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami. On TV talk shows, where he is a frequent guest, he has been voicing the most extreme views. Let me hasten to say that I would defend his right to his opinions, but as a hero to millions of young Pakistanis, I would ask that these views be based on logic and facts.

Imran Khan has complained in his article that Pakistan’s secular elites do not study Islam, and hence they are seduced by ‘western’ thinking. I’m afraid this is based on the arrogant assumption that simply because people dress in a certain way, they are ignorant of their own culture, history and religion. According to him, Pakistan is polarised between this group who “react strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam on society”, and religious extremists. Personally speaking, I don’t want any belief or dogma imposed on society. As a secularist, I think everybody should be free to believe in any faith. And in the distinguished company of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, I feel that religion should have nothing to do with the business of the state.

So why is it that today, only Muslim nations seem to deny the validity of the scientific method? It is true that many evangelical Christians reject Darwinian theory as well, and push creationism as the explanation for the development of life on earth. Recently, this extreme position has been replaced by something called Intelligent Design. But among educated people, it would be difficult to find many who close their eyes to the insights contained in Darwin’s groundbreaking research, even though many of these ideas were developed by Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s.

In his important book Muslims and Science published nearly 20 years ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy made the point that the entire output of scientific papers written in the Muslim world every year did not equal those produced in Israel alone. This remains true two decades later. And the reason for this imbalance lies in the position reflected in Imran Khan’s views about Darwin.

If we do not encourage the young to think and reason for themselves, how can we expect them to discover anything new? The essence of scientific enquiry lies in curiosity about how the world works, how matter was formed, and how life came into being. Perhaps curiosity about the universe is what sets mankind apart from the animal kingdom.

But if, as Darwin was in the Galapagos Isles, we are struck with wonder when we see something for which we have no explanation, then we have taken a step towards discovering more about our universe, and ultimately, about ourselves.

Postscript: I don't usually copy paste other people's writings wholesale on my blog, but I read Hussain's column and found it so refreshingly intelligent, outspoken and relevant that I just had to put it up here. Last month, an article in LiveScience cited a 2007 survey by Riaz Hassan in which he found that only 14% Pakistanis agreed with the statement that Darwin's theory of evolution is probably or certainly true. In such a dire situation, our politicians should not be pandering to ignorance nor should they feed this virulent rejection of rationalism that has become Pakistanis' facile but self-destructive reaction to our beleaguered position in the world today.

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