Egypt & evolution & the Muslim world

By Razib Khan | November 26, 2009 3:31 am

Last week I pointed to numbers on evolution and the Muslim world. The New York Times has an article up about the conference which inspired my investigation into that topic. The reporter focuses on the rote learning and creativity as the factors behind a lack of knowledge or understanding of evolutionary theory. Plausible, but really unlikely. East Asian nations have the same issues (which they are trying to reform), but acceptance of evolution is high there. In fact, even in non-developed nations such as the Philippines acceptance of evolution can be high. It is higher than in the United States! In Russia there is surprisingly low level of acceptance of evolution, though that might be the aftereffect of the Lysenko interlude, when conventional evolutionary biology was rejected. In other words, the reasons for skepticism of evolution are somewhat diverse, though rote learning and lack of creativity are surely neither necessary nor sufficient.
I suspect that the best analogy for what’s going on with Muslims, even elite Muslims (the samples I pointed to last week were elites), is what occurred with conservative Protestants as they faced the forces of modernism in the 20th century. Some aspects of the modern world they accepted, and others they rejected. The historical sciences, and in particular those which bear upon human nature and origins, they reject with particular vehemence. Despite the pleas of a minority, such as Francis Collins, most American Evangelicals seem to believe that rejection of evolutionary theory is necessarily entailed by their religion. Similarly, most Muslims seem to feel the same way. Even American Muslims seem to have this attitude, though not as much as American Evangelicals. While 33% of American Evangelicals accept that evolution as the best explanation for the origin of human life, 45% of Muslims do (vs. 48% of all Americans). Yet 80% of Hindu accept evolution as the best explanation for the origin of life. In any case, the citizens of Muslim nations seem to assert that religion is very important in their lives, so naturally they would be skeptical of ideas which they believe contravene the precepts of their religion.
Below the fold are results where individuals were asked how important religion was in their life from the World Values Survey 2005 by country….

Very Important Rather Important Not Very Important Not Important
Iraq 96.10% 3.30% 0.40% 0.20%
Egypt 95.40% 4.20% 0.20% 0.20%
Indonesia 94.70% 4.10% 0.90% 0.30%
Jordan 94.50% 5.20% 0.20% 0.20%
Morocco 90.60% 7.90% 1.30% 0.30%
Ghana 90.40% 7.50% 1.70% 0.40%
Mali 90.20% 8.60% 0.90% 0.30%
Burkina Faso 84.30% 12.20% 2.70% 0.70%
Guatemala 83.30% 12.10% 3.40% 1.20%
Ethiopia 81.00% 13.20% 3.80% 2.00%
Malaysia 80.50% 15.50% 3.30% 0.70%
Georgia 80.20% 17.00% 1.90% 0.90%
Iran 78.50% 16.20% 3.90% 1.50%
Zambia 77.50% 16.70% 4.60% 1.20%
Trinidad and Tobago 76.80% 13.00% 7.90% 2.30%
Turkey 74.70% 16.60% 6.20% 2.50%
South Africa 70.30% 20.20% 6.50% 3.00%
Mexico 59.00% 26.10% 11.50% 3.40%
Romania 58.00% 32.50% 7.20% 2.40%
Thailand 56.30% 37.90% 5.40% 0.40%
Cyprus 54.10% 27.20% 12.10% 6.60%
India 51.40% 29.30% 13.90% 5.50%
Brazil 50.60% 40.40% 6.20% 2.70%
Peru 49.60% 26.70% 18.90% 4.80%
Poland 47.80% 39.00% 10.40% 2.80%
United States 47.40% 24.20% 19.70% 8.70%
Chile 39.90% 33.50% 18.40% 8.20%
Rwanda 38.90% 56.90% 4.10% 0.10%
Italy 34.40% 41.70% 17.00% 6.80%
Argentina 33.40% 32.00% 24.00% 10.60%
Canada 32.00% 27.10% 25.30% 15.60%
Moldova 31.80% 41.20% 20.40% 6.60%
Serbia 25.70% 40.90% 26.80% 6.60%
Uruguay 22.80% 23.20% 27.80% 26.20%
South Korea 21.20% 25.80% 34.50% 18.60%
Great Britain 21.00% 19.70% 33.90% 25.40%
Australia 19.50% 19.70% 31.40% 29.30%
Bulgaria 18.90% 31.90% 32.20% 17.00%
Ukraine 18.30% 38.80% 27.70% 15.20%
Finland 17.60% 27.50% 40.60% 14.30%
New Zealand 17.30% 18.50% 30.70% 33.60%
Switzerland 17.20% 28.30% 31.70% 22.80%
Slovenia 15.30% 27.60% 31.00% 26.10%
Spain 14.90% 24.20% 31.10% 29.80%
Russian Federation 13.70% 35.10% 32.50% 18.70%
France 13.00% 27.90% 30.70% 28.40%
Netherlands 12.50% 19.00% 28.40% 40.20%
Taiwan 12.40% 39.30% 35.80% 12.50%
Germany 11.20% 22.70% 29.00% 37.00%
Norway 10.50% 22.20% 41.30% 26.00%
Sweden 9.30% 20.10% 40.90% 29.80%
Andorra 8.00% 21.20% 31.30% 39.50%
Viet Nam 7.20% 25.60% 47.60% 19.60%
China 6.70% 15.20% 31.00% 47.10%
Japan 6.50% 13.10% 35.70% 44.80%
Hong Kong 5.30% 22.60% 62.10% 10.10%
  • http://Http:// EMJ

    I agree. The style of education is unlikely to be a significant factor. That’s really strange about Russia though. How far back do the numbers go on this? Lysenko hasn’t been dogma for quite awhile now. It would be surprising if that was the underlying cause. But I’ve been surprised before.

  • razib

    that was from 1991. but similar results today:

  • donshikin

    I don’t agree that Lysenko can still influence minds in Russia. There were about 40 years of fruitful genetics research after him. I’m not sure whether randomly picked schoolboy can even remember who was Lysenko. I’d rather sought the roots of low evolution acceptance somewhere closer to religion – despite the survey results shown above, in last years many people turned to the Orthodox church, and we even got our own unfortunate monkey trial in 2006. Moreover, russian science is de facto struggling and the popularization of evolutionary ideas is far from its top priority. Generally, the level of ignorance in the society is higher (or at least seems to be higher) than it was in USSR.
    Alex (Moscow)

  • Alex Besogonov

    EMJ: I’m Russian, so I have a bit of ‘inside’ knowledge here.
    Acceptance of evolution became too low most probably because Russia has reversed its stance from atheism as a ‘state religion’ to Christian Orthodoxy as a main ‘state religion’ in a matter of years.
    So after a life of unquestioned evolution theory, people were suddenly exposed to a multitude of quack ‘theories’.
    Combine this with non-existence of science TV channels and church’s propaganda.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    I’m continually puzzled by low levels of evolution acceptance in Islamic countries. There’s no creation story in the Koran in the same way that Christians and Jews have Genesis, so there’s not even a deep scriptural problem. Moreover, unlike with Christianity, Islam doesn’t place any emphasis on a prior Fall of man. In Christianity the story of Adam and Eve and their fall is intricately interwoven with the fundamental theology of the crucifixion. Given that, it is really puzzling that there’s so much Islamic opposition.

  • Mike Keesey

    “Yet 80% of Hindu accept evolution as the best explanation for the origin of life.”
    Err, evolution doesn’t explain the origin of life — just its subsequent history.

  • razib

    dude, in the previous sentence i made it clear that the question was about *human life*

  • omar

    Joshua, The Quran does have an account of creation, but like everything else in the quran, its not a straightforward summary of what happened. If the Muslims relied ONLY on the quran, they would have very little of what we know as Islam. The quran is remarkably low on concrete details (sophisticated believers have taken this as evidence of divine foresight; it means the quran has few direct problems with the growth of new knowledge since it avoids the kind of concrete claims that provide employment to armies of Jesuit interpreters and contortionists) but it does mention God creating the heavens and the earth and creating Adam from “earth” and providing him with a companion (no mention of ribs or falls, though he does get sent down from heaven to earth). But this does not mean that “Islam” does not have an elaborate and very concrete story (or several stories) about creation. What the quran leaves out is filled in by the hadith and folk stories. What we know as Islam cannot be derived from the quran alone. Its a tradition that relies very heavily on hadith and seerah literature and on the orthodox consensus that developed using (or inventing) that literature.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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