Don’t play theological games with the scientific evidence

Aron Ra got into an online debate with an Islamic apologist, Nadir Ahmed, on the science of the Qur’an. No offense, Aron, but you got suckered. It’s a total waste of time. They got into a whole bunch of goofy details, which Ahmed just oozed around slimily.

Islamic apologist, Nadir Ahmad insisted there were no scientific errors in the Qur’an. So we decided to do a series of videos listing them for him. In this episode, we talked about:
1. Sūrah 105 Birds bombing elephants with stones? Seriously?
2. Sūrah 54 The Moon (being broken in half) Didn’t happen.
3. Sperm becomes blood
4. Sex is determined later
5. Sperm = Human. We are made only of sperm, not sperm + egg.
6. Sperm comes from backbone and ribs
7. Flesh forms after bones

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but Aron let me know I was mentioned 1 hour 44 minutes in (Gah! It’s interminable!), when they’re discussing that last question, does flesh form after bones in embryonic development?

Ahmed practices expert theology. First he questions my knowledge of human embryology, trying to undercut anything I might have said. Then he begins splitting hairs: does “clothed with flesh” mean that Allah created muscles at that moment? Could he have created it first, and then draped it over the bones? Everything was word games, trying to rationalize the words of the Qur’an to fit a chronology worked out now with a body of scientific evidence that he apparently just heard for the first time right there, and I’m sorry, but Aron and his other guest got played right into that meaningless ad hoc argument, and they’re all sitting there playing the interpretation dance on screen.

Cut through the shit, guys. The verse in question is one paragraph long in English translation, just two short sentences. It’s vague and general, and it’s merely summarizing Aristotle’s view of development, part of the common currency of scholarly knowledge of the Prophet Mohammed’s time. It’s derivative and not specific enough to be a test of secret, divine knowledge bestowed upon the Prophet or the infallibility of the sacred text — and it’s a disgrace that Muslim zealots insist that it is, and that anti-Islamic atheists argue that its errors are proof that it isn’t God’s word. The former are embarrassingly ignorant, and the latter should know better. God, or rather his interpreters, lie all the time.

I’ve made this point before:

…the Quran contains negligible embryological content, and what there is is so sketchy and hazy that it allows his defenders to make spectacular leaps of interpretation. Mohammed avoided the trap of being caught in an overt error here by blathering generalized bullshit, and saying next to nothing. This is neither an accomplishment nor a miracle.

We can say the same thing about the book of Genesis. It’s like half a page! It’s clearly a poetic parable that uses guesses about how life came about, written by people who had no clue, to make some currently incomprehensible point about Hebrew destiny, and all the fine-toothed combing of the story is only obscuring the meaning. People who stack it up against all the scientific observations of the complex history of geology and biology are ludicrous, and that’s the point we should be making, not dissecting what happened on what day and how it fits the science.

Unfortunately, I commented on that video, which meant Ahmed was prepared to pounce with more irrelevancies.

He wants to debate me? No. Not ever going to happen. Hamza Tzortzis wanted to fly me to London to debate him — the prospect of a free trip to England was tempting, but no, I didn’t debate him, either, and Adnan Oktar once invited me to Istanbul for a conference on Islamic creationism, even more tempting, and I turned him down. Ahmed didn’t tantalize me with anything, and his performance with Aron told me he was just a know-nothing word parser who practices motivated reasoning blatantly. To engage with him is to elevate his importance far too much, as it would have been with Tzortzis and Oktar (Oktar has since vanished into a Turkish prison, so I can safely say that association with him would not have looked great on my CV).

Then he’s desperately reduced to questioning my credentials. What can I say? As an undergraduate, I did research on development with Jenny Lund and Johnny Palka at the University of Washington; I moved on to do graduate work at the University of Oregon on zebrafish development; I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani at the University of Utah studying early development in the grasshopper; I was hired to teach developmental biology at Temple University; I took a position as a developmental biologist and geneticist here at the University of Minnesota Morris. I’ve taught human embryology, developmental biology of both invertebrates and vertebrates, developmental neurobiology, and ecological development. Anybody could look at what I’ve been doing for over 40 years now and see that yeah, I’m about as qualified in developmental biology as you can get.

But all Mr Ahmed, the wibbly-weebly twister of words, can do is squint and try to pretend I’m less informed about embryology than he is. That’s a taste of what any debate with him would be like, and no thanks.


  1. robro says

    Well done, PZ, although “Strunk and White” might suggest you went overboard on his first question with 14 words when no reply would do.

  2. doubtthat says

    What really turned me on the value of having this conversation was that video of PZ talking to Tzortzis outside of a convention. I don’t remember the details, but it was an argument about embryology, and first the Muslim apologists are bombarding PZ with these “what do you know about it?” attacks until PZ says, “…I’m an embryologist.” Doesn’t even slow them down, they just keep going.
    But there’s a part where they’re arguing some nonsense in Qu’ran – bones before flesh or something – and PZ says, “You know, it actually happens exactly opposite to what you say the Qu’ran claims.”
    Then they say, “YES! That proves our point. The Qu’ran translation means that, too.”
    And it’s just…what are we doing at this point? They say A, you say not A, and they say, that proves what we were saying all along, not A.
    Ignoring these conversations is the best approach.
    Here’s the video:

  3. says

    Stepping back one level (my knowledge of embrylogy is about thirty years old and I defer entirely to Our Gracious Host), there’s also an obvious linguistic problem here that demonstrates the linguistic incompetence of these loons:

    {sarcasm} Gee, guys, is there any difference between classical and contemporary Arabic, such that imposing contemporary Arabic understandings on a classical Arabic text starts to look like explaining that “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” to ninth-graders strapped into chairs has nothing to do with the concept of “place”? And that’s before getting into the political underpinnings of Modern Standard Arabic versus even contemporary dialects, and how some of the vocabulary has been warped for reasons unrelated to scientific expression? {/sarcasm}

    It’s very much like trying to understand Chaucer with only a King James Bible handy to help with the vocabulary. And I seriously doubt that Ahmed and/or any of his allies have gone even that far in their studies. In short, they’re not even getting the “original meaning” from which they’re arguing right! (In particular, they’re not getting “clothed in” right, not even given poetic license.)

  4. Allison says

    The thing is, these literalists are trying to use their texts (the Bible, the Qu’ran) in ways they were never intended to be used. The book of Genesis is clearly presenting a mythology for the Hebrew people (probably post-Egypt), that is, a model for how they should view themselves and the world in story form. They might as well use James Joyce’s Ulysses as an authority on astrophysics, or read the Beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg for insights on biochemistry.

    Until very recently, it would never have occurred to anyone to use either to provide detailed astronomical or biological knowledge. I’m not an expert, but my impression is that it only became an issue (in Western society) when capital-S Science began to be seen as having an Authority comperable with that of the Church. IIRC, Galileo was punished for disobedience — saying what he had been told not to — not because what he had found out was necessarily a threat to the Church.

    Actually, the muslim world was at one time on the leading edge of scientific inquiry, and science (as we would call it) was seen as entirely compatible with Islam. But then the muslim societies became conservative (I’ll leave it to historians to speculate why) and regarded any insights that weren’t what everyone had always believed as heresy, and they stagnated. Add to that the colonialization of the muslim heartland (the mid-East) by Western, “Sciencist” states, and the desire to counter Western ideas, whether social or scientific, becomes more understandable.

  5. Jazzlet says

    This attempting to prove their religious texts are consistent with Science, and in fact told it before the west discovered whatever fact is being talked about is something some Hindus do too. I’ve not yet encountered a Buddhist doing it, but I would be surprised if they weren’t out there.

  6. davidrichardson says

    I worked in Kuwait once, teaching English to the Kuwaiti Armed Forces (long story). At the end of one morning, I showed some Kuwaiti fighter pilots a film about the US moon landing … and they started tutting and muttering ‘haram’, which told me they thought it was blasphemous.

    When I asked, they told me that there’s a sura somewhere in the Koran that says that a man may no more do X than he may walk on the moon … so the moon landing is fake …

    Dr Ben Goldacre: you can’t reason people out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into …

  7. DonDueed says

    davidrichardson, I would have been tempted to counter that by pointing out that technically, they never actually walked directly on the moon — those boots had pretty thick soles!

  8. aziraphale says

    davidrichardson, I cannot find anything like that in the Qur’an. Embarrassingly, however, I did find this:

    36:40 It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Allison @ # 7: … the Hebrew people (probably post-Egypt)…

    The whole Exodus story appears also to have been concocted, centuries after its purported time – see The Bible Unearthed, by archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, for the best fact-based introduction I’ve found so far.

    The original Ibaru (one of multiple spellings) were a cluster of outlaws, escaped slaves, and other riff-raff on the western edge of the language group we now call Semites, their culture mostly scraps from their more highly developed cousins from the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, such as the Babylonians. Their priests loved making up dramatic histories and monumental ancestor-patriarchs (Abraham, Moses), re-framing minor historical figures (David), and hijacking contemporary mythology (Noah, Esther) to reinforce tribal identity as needed for the circumstances of their times. Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? fills in much of the history of these texts and their redactions and mergings.

    Archaeologists have only found a few coins and potshards of Hebraic design in Egypt, indicating the occasional presence of traders, mercenaries, etc, but not nearly enough to support the idea of a large population there for generations.

    I suspect everything our esteemed host says about debating True Believers™ about biology applies just as well to history; haven’t tried it much myself.

  10. nomdeplume says

    I spent a few minutes of my life I will never get back watching the start of this. The “birds dropping stones” was “explained” by Ahmad saying that “god” could create any miracle he wanted to, and if modern birds couldn’t lift stones big enough or high enough (leaving aside the question of bird motivation) then “god” had just made it happen back then. I could see the rest of it was going to be along the same lines. I don’t know why Aron thought it would be any different. What was he expecting Ahmad to say – “Oh, yes, I see it now Aron, the Koran is fill of scientific gibberish so I will stop believing every word of it was divinely inspired”. Not going to happen, any more than it will happen with Ken Ham’s tame “geneticist”, who would argue that we come only from sperm if the Bible also said so.

  11. Rich Woods says

    @aziraphael #11:

    36:40 It is not for the sun to overtake the moon

    I’d love to hear an apologist’s explanation of how a solar eclipse works.

    No, scratch that, I wouldn’t.

  12. chrislawson says

    Minor correction: the Book of Genesis is quite long at 50 chapters and 1533 verses. The introductory cosmological creation story is short. (And is immediately followed by another short creation story that contradicts some of the first.)

  13. chrislawson says


    I’m not sure we can say that the original writings were not intended to be taken literally. Neither the Old Testament nor the Koran seem to be written with a view to tolerating alternative views. The New Testament is only very slightly better (there is that verse about not speaking ignorant rubbish if you want to convert people). There’s certainly no indication that these stories were meant to be taken as metaphors except for those labelled as parables.

    What I think we can say in favour of the earliest writers of the various books is they they described their best understanding of the world at the time while modern creationists are actively hostile to the best understanding of the world.

  14. leerudolph says

    Oh, but PZ… are you an expert on HUMAN embryology???!!??

    I believe it’s on record that he’s personally shared the work of creating more than one human embryo!

  15. KG says

    The verse in question is one paragraph long in English translation, just two short sentences. It’s vague and general, and it’s merely summarizing Aristotle’s view of development, part of the common currency of scholarly knowledge of the Prophet Mohammed’s time.

    Part of the problem is that Aron Ra is utterly, embarrassingly, Dunning-Krugerly ignorant concerning the history of science. I’d bet he has no idea what Aristotle said about embryology, or that his views would have been known to the authors of the Quran (the text we have post-dates Mohammed by some decades at least).