Pharyngula

Islamic embryology: overblown balderdash

I have read the entirety of Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ paper, Embryology in the Qur’an: A scientific-linguistic analysis of chapter 23: With responses to historical, scientific & popular contentions, all 58 pages of it (although, admittedly, it does use very large print). It is quite possibly the most overwrought, absurdly contrived, pretentious expansion of feeble post hoc rationalizations I’ve ever read. As an exercise in agonizing data fitting, it’s a masterpiece.

Here, let me give you the short version…and I do mean short. This is a paper that focuses with obsessive detail on all of two verses from the Quran. You heard me right: the entirety of the embryology in that book, the subject of this lengthy paper, is two goddamned sentences, once translated into English.

We created man from an essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place. Then We made that drop of fluid into a clinging form, and then We made that form into a lump of flesh, and We made that lump into bones, and We clothed those bones with flesh, and later We made him into other forms. Glory be to God the best of creators.

Seriously, that’s it. You have just mastered all of developmental biology, as taught by Mohammed.

Tzortzis bloats this scrap into a long, tedious potboiler by doing a phrase by phrase analysis, and by comparing it to the work of Aristotle and Galen, who got lots of things wrong. How, he wonders many times, could Mohammed have written down only the correct parts of the Greek and Roman embryological tradition, and avoided their errors, if he weren’t divinely inspired? My answer is easy: because Mohammed only made a vague and fleeting reference to the science of the time, boiling down Aristotle’s key concept of an epigenetic transformation into a few non-specific lines of poetry. Aristotle and Galen got a lot wrong because they tried to be specific and wrote whole books on the subject; you can read the entirety of Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals. Galen was prolific and left us about 20,000 pages on physiology and medicine.

So, yes, you can find lots of examples in their work where they got the biology completely wrong, and it’s harder to do that in the Quran…because 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.

I’ll go through his argument piece by piece, but at nowhere near the length. It’s hard to believe anyone is using this feeble fragment to claim proof of divinity, but then, Christians do exactly the same thing.

  1. “essence of clay”. Tzortzis happily announces that clay contains “Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Chlorine, Sodium, Magnesium and Silicon; all of which are required for human functioning and development”. These are irrelevant factlets. Clay is a fine-grained hydrous aluminum phyllosilicate; carbon, which is the element to consider in organic chemistry, is present as a contaminant, but the primary elements are aluminum and silicon. It’s nothing like the composition of the human body. This part of Tzortzis case is simply a lie.

  2. “drop of fluid”. Tzortzis tells us that the Arabic word here is “nutfah”, which has a number of meanings, but he likes the interpretation that it implies mingled fluids. Then he babbles on about oocytes and spermatazoa and secretions of the oviduct, none of which are mentioned in the Quran and are completely irrelevant. Bottom line: Arabs noticed long ago that sex involves a mingling of fluids. Brilliant. I think most of us could figure that out without divine inspiration.

    He spends a fair amount of time pointing out that both Aristotle and Galen had a male-centric view of procreation, where the man’s contribution was the dynamic agent and the woman was a passive vessel. They were wrong. In order to rescue the Quran, though, Tzortzis has to bring in Ibn Qayyim, a 13th century Islamic scholar, who pointed out that women have to provide a significant contribution to inheritance, since their traits are also present in the children. This, again, is an obvious and observable property, and the Greeks also argued over the relative contributions of male and female. There is nothing in the Quran that is beyond casual observation or non-existent in the scholarly works of the time.

  3. “in a safe place”. Tzortzis quotes modern embryologists and throws around the terms endometrium, syntrophoblast, implantation, uterine mucosa, proteolytic enzymes, etc., etc., etc. I ask you, is any of that in the quoted verse from the Quran? No. Total bullshit from the apologists. That the embryo grows in a “safe place” — the woman’s belly — is another obvious property.

  4. “a clinging form”. It seems that the word used here means just about anything.

    The Qur’an describes the next stage of the developing human embryo with the word `alaqah. This word carries various meanings including: to hang, to be suspended, to be dangled, to stick, to cling, to cleave and to adhere. It can also mean to catch, to get caught, to be affixed or subjoined. Other connotations of the word `alaqah include a leech-like substance, having the resemblance of a worm; or being of a ‘creeping’ disposition inclined to the sucking of blood. Finally, its meaning includes clay that clings to the hand and thick, clotted blood – because of its clinging together.

    I could call the embryo a sticky blob, too, and stretch and twist the words to match it in the vaguest possible way to a technical description, too…but it doesn’t make it a technical description, and it doesn’t make it informative.

    This section concludes by claiming that the “leech” interpretation of ‘alaqah is accurate, because later in development it looks, he claims, like a leech. Only to a blind man. And further, he applies this term “like a leech” to every stage in the first month of development; the accuracy of the comparison seems irrelevant.

  5. “a lump of flesh”. More of the same. Take the Arabic word (“mudghah”), throw out a bunch of definitions for the word, then force-fit them all into the actual science.

    The next stage of human development defined in the Qur’an is mudghah. This term means to chew, mastication, chewing, to be chewed, and a small piece of meat. It also describes the embryo after it passes to another stage and becomes flesh. Other meanings include something that teeth have chewed and left visible marks on; and marks that change in the process of chewing due to the repetitive act.

    No. I refuse. I’m sorry, but this is patently ridiculous. You do not get to quote the Quran talking about a chawed on scrap o’ meat, and then go on with four pages of windy exegesis claiming that corresponds to the 4th week of human development, the pharyngula stage, as if it is an insightful and detailed and specific description of an embryo. It is not. It is the incomprehending grunt of an ignorant philistine.

  6. “into bones”. Yeah. There is a mingling of fluids in sex, and at birth you have a baby with bones. Somewhere in between, bones must have formed. You do not get credit for noting the obvious without any specifics. Furthermore, turning the phrase “into bones” (‘idhaam) into this:

    There are clear parallels between the qur’anic `idhaam stage and the view modern embryology takes i.e. the development of the axial, limb and appendicular skeleton.

    is pure hyperbole and bunkum. But then, that’s all we get from Tzortzis.

  7. “clothed the bones with flesh”. Tzortzis now talks about myoblasts aggretating and migrating distally, formation of dorsal and ventral muscle masses, innervation of the tissue, and specification of muscle groups. Good god, just stop. The Quran says nothing about any of this. And then to complain that This level of detail is not, however, included in Aristotle’s description, is absurd and ironic. It’s not in Mohammed’s description, either.

    It must be noted that the migration of the myoblasts surrounding the bones cannot be seen with the naked eye. This fact creates an impression of the Divine nature of the Qur’an and reiterates its role as a signpost to the transcendent.

    Crap. The Quran doesn’t describe myoblast migration. There isn’t even a hint that Mohammed saw something you need a microscope to see.

  8. “made him into other forms”. Then Allah did all the other stuff that he needed to do to turn a chunk of chewed meat made of bone and flesh into a person. Presto, alakazam, abracadabra. Oooh, I am dazzled with the scrupulous particularity of that scientific description.

There’s absolutely nothing novel or unexplainable in the Quran’s account of development. It is a vague and poetic pair of verses about progressive development, expressed in the most general terms, so nebulous that there is very little opportunity for disproof, and they can be made to fit just about any reasonable observation. They can be entirely derived from Aristotle’s well-known statement about epigenesis, “Why not admit straight away that the semen…is such that out of it blood and flesh can be formed, instead of maintaining that semen is both blood and flesh?”, which is also a very broad statement about the gradual emergence of differentiated tissues from an amorphous fluid.

Only a blinkered fanatic could turn that mush into an overwrought, overextended, overblown, strained comparison with legitimate modern science. Tzortzis’s paper is risible crackpottery.

(Also on FtB)