Theory of Evolution forestalled in drama, poetry & symbol

“There are two extremely crucial moments in our modern transformation which both humanists and Muslims and religious people in general have to come to terms with. The first moment which created the greatest upheaval in our thought came about through Darwin and Spencer, namely, the theory of evolution. Let me now make a comment that is going to take us both into the heart of the matter. I totally accept the evidence and the theory built upon that evidence that there is a temporal unfoldment of the material universe, that there is a temporal unfoldment of the various life forms. There is a progress from simple to the complex; there is a mutation, adaptation and survival of the fittest not only in quantitative terms but also in qualitative and functional terms. All this pertains to what I call the collective forms. I would apply even the concept “collective form” to consciousness, language and culture. Therefore, I would go a long way with Spencer when he reiterates the evolutionary principle on the social level, on the cultural level. I would go to the extent of embracing Auguste Comte in his well-known formulation of the stages of human growth arriving at the rational or the positivistic as their highest summit.

However, there is something missing, and that something has been highlighted by those who disagree with the theory of evolution, and who at the same time commit all sorts of mistakes in exaggerating the lacunas in the theory and attempt to rely upon any evidence that might come forth to contradict it. Such a ritual employment of the scientific method to disprove the theory of evolution is to me nonsense – that is not the issue.

The issue is about another mystery which the traditional scientific theory of evolution does not meet. In the absence of any other language I would tentatively suggest that we don’t have a theory of emergence. By emergence I mean the emergence of individuals. We have a theory – sociologically and biologically – of coming into being and unfoldment in evolution of a species, of cultural species, of linguistic species, but we don’t have a theory to explain or help us understand how individuals emerge in history. I am using the word “individual” as applicable not only to those creative geniuses throughout history, but also to those creative configurations of culture – say, Ancient India, Greece, China and Egypt – which are very enigmatic, and very mysterious in terms of symbol, in terms of constructs, and in terms of philosophy. To me these configurations are also “individuals”. “Individuals” are not comparable. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution with all its limitations was one of the first crucial moments in modern thought.

The second great upheaval in our modern transformation was registered by the School of Vienna headed by Sigmund Freud. Here something more spectacular happened because the theory of evolution was forestalled in both metaphor and myth in ancient and medieval times. We have, for example, striking evidence of notions pertaining to evolution in Islamic gnostic philosophy. Both the great Persian poet Rumi (d.1273), and Ibn Miskawa, (d.1030) the first philosopher of ethics in Islam, talked about evolution, and they regarded the philosopher-prophet as the culmination of human evolution. Rumi talks about the development of life, from mineral to plant and from animal to man. In response to the question of what lies behind man Rumi gives us through poetry and parable a fascinating account of the human soul. The ecstasy he expressed through dance was itself a form of evolution.

So the theory of evolution as expressed in the 19th century was not a surprise for those already familiar with the idea running through history. It had already been given in drama, in poetry and also in different symbols. Even the myth of creation was a foretelling of that theory in a very succinct and symbolic manner.”

Hasan Askari : extract from Towards A Spiritual Humanism

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