Sunday, 4 January 2015

Embryology and the Qur'an

The internet provides a vehicle for many to communicate their beliefs.  Muslims have also taken to social media (like twitter) to proselytize for their religion. A popular tactic is to claim that the qur'an is filled with modern scientific knowledge.  This seems to be a bizarre tactic.  The Islamic world has not really been at the forefront of scientific discovery since, well, Copernicus worked out that the solar system was heliocentric before Muslim astronomers.  Despite studying an ancient book that provides apparently, all kinds of useful pointers on modern science, the Islamic world is deeply under-represented in science Nobel prizes etc.

One of the claims does interest me as a biologist, and also as an atheist who gets this ploy used on me a lot.  This is the claim that the qur'an anticipates modern (human) embryology.  This could only have a divine origin (despite its erstwhile similarities to Galen, for whom no such divine inspiration is attributed).
Human Embryo



The relevant verses are 23:12-14.  So I just want to look at these quickly.
We created man from an extract of clay. Then We made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into an alaqah (leech, suspended thing, and blood clot), then We made the alaqah into a mudghah (chewed-like substance)...
[Noble Quran 23:12-14]  

Clay

23:12 claims that humans are made from clay.   Now because clay is mostly aluminum and silicon and contain little of the organic material this is clearly not the case (the 6 macro-elements we look for as life's basic building blocks are Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Carbon and Sulphur). It is perhaps more likely this is meant in an allegorical rather than scientific sense.  But if we accept this is not being scientific, then well, it is not clear why the remaining verses are supposed to be scientific. 


Nutfah

23:13 introduces the drop (nutfah) which also presents problems. It doesn't take divine inspiration to realise that the ejaculate from a male can be a liquid drop.  It would be impressive if the qur'an mentioned sperm and eggs.  But it doesn't. In fact, eggs (baydeh) are nowhere mentioned.  It strikes me that as a guide to modern embryology, omitting any mention of eggs is well, astonishing. Parenthetically, sperm isn't mentioned either. Sometimes special pleading is used to infer that the nutfah means a human gamete. But there is nothing here that hints at the microscopic world. 

The claim of a safe lodging would also contradict ectopic pregnancies, where the gamete might settle in the fallopian tube or abdomen. This unsafe location causes miscarriages or at worst, painful pregnancies fatal to mother and child.


Alqahah

23:14 then gets very complicated as many words gets vaguer. The first stages of  embryology (blastula, gastrula) don't involve any blood vessels, so a clot isn't a good description.  It seems more plausible that the spotting that sometimes occurs in early pregnancies- or even miscarriages- would cause a 'blood clot' deduction.  

Alternatively, alaqah could be a metaphor based on a leech.  If so, it is not a very good one.  Leeches are protostomes whilst humans are deuterostomes. We haven't been alike for about 600my. Leeches lack a notochord, they lack limb buds, they lack pharyngeal arches.  A human embryo doesn't digest its host's blood. It doesn't use its mouth-parts to interact with its host.  

Even if we want to go with a leech-like interpretation over the blood-clot for alaqah, then this does not imply divine insight.  For a people familiar with butchering animals (and dare I say, people on occasion), it wouldn't take much powers of observation to notice small embryos attached to the uterus of pregnant mammals.  For ancient peoples, these likely resembled leeches.


Bones

The text above omits the last part of 23:14.  Here are two translations of it:

Muhsin Khan Then We made the Nutfah into a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood), then We made the clot into a little lump of flesh, then We made out of that little lump of flesh bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then We brought it forth as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators.

Pickthall Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!
The issue here is simply the order bones appear. It appears to describe two stages. First, the mudghah becomes bones, then the bones are covered in flesh. This is likely a deduction of people used to butchering animals, and had no way of conceiving how muscles and flesh could be attached to bones without the skeleton being formed first.

The problem is that bones form last. Reduced to the basic steps, mesenchymal cells within the embryo first differentiate into cartilage lines. Later this cartilage is replaced by bone. At no point would we say that the bones are later covered in flesh. 

Conclusion

 It is obvious that the qur'an does not describe human embryology at any useful level.  Rather the argument depends on some very heroic special pleading. Modern scientific discoveries are retrofitted to vague language to make claims that go far beyond the verses.  It also depends on poor knowledge of embryology.  No quantity of Youtube videos or webpages can hide the fact that the Qur'an simply does not describe human embryology.  Rather than being special advanced knowledge, the qur'an seems entirely consistent with knowledge of the era. I'm reluctant to believe that the "creator of the universe" sic would know as little biology as the typical 6th C Arab.



20 comments:

  1. A fair assessment of the claims.

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    1. thanks- was trying to keep it short and to the (main) points

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_Dllu42eEA
    Have you heard this before?
    What do you think about professor Moore?

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    1. Yes, Muslims who believe the qur'an foretold embryology frequently appeal to Moore.

      The problems are first, scientists don't believe claims on authority but evidence. It doesn't matter what Moore's qualifications are. It is the quality of his argument.

      In this regard the quality is lacking. I am not the first biologist to note his cherry-picking (i.e. ignoring elements of the qur'an that contradict embryology). Nor am I the first to note his special pleading (the mudghah looks like an embryo if we imagine something chewed could resemble one).

      For these reasons, his argument has been rejected and he has not been able to defend his views in the scientific literature.

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    2. I use to be a Muslim, one of the first things I tell people about my experience as a Muslim woman is that I left Islam, because I got sick of being lied to all the time.It wasn't just one Muslim, who lied to me, all of them, or at least all of those I've ever known, which is a lot. I've already provided those verses to someone else today, I'm not looking for them again.

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    3. @Rosie

      Yes, I've become very used to being lied to by Muslims, especially after I've taken some through embryology. I had one Saudi who kept claiming flesh was covering bones when I used a photo of an embryo with cartilage lines only. I cannot see how Islam can be a good thing, when it warps people's minds this badly

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  3. Unswerving, direct and consequently easily digested my moi - a scientific layman.

    Feel free to check out my blog entry on a similar subject if you feel so inclined:

    http://pursuitoffreethought.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/a-laymans-reflections-on-holy-koran_32.html?m=1

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  4. Thank you for thorough replies to the claim. Just if it's still possible, could you add a picture to this blog, so I could save it to my 'Atheism and Religions' board on Pinterest? So far I found it as the easiest tool to organize and easily access any info I want to keep for further reference. ~ Olga L.

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    1. Hi- thanks for your comments. I've added a 6 day old embryo to the blog-post.

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    2. I have updated embryo pic with something older

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    3. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/clay

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    4. Your dictionary definition just confirms my point. Clay is a compound composed of mostly aluminium and silicates. It does not have the concentrations of molecules we expect to find in living organisms

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  5. http://www.academia.edu/1360747/Embryology_in_the_Quran_A_description_of_the_Alaqah_stage

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    1. If you cannot provide even a rudimentary precis on why your link is relevant, please do not expect anyone to read or respond to it.

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  7. Great job here. Think I'm going to have to bookmark this page for future reference, so that I have somewhere I can direct any Muslims who try to pull this malarkey on me again!

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    1. Thanks- it does come up rather often. That's why I decided to write up this blog piece.

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  8. This video answers all of your questions

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d16CpWp-ok

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    1. Hi, I don't follow links that provide no explanation of their content. You are welcome to use the comments on this blog to make your point. Thank you.

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