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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 First Web Papers On Serendip

From Mineral to Man

Ghazal Zekavat

Rumi, a Sufi poet of the 13th century and Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist of the 20th century are having a conversation over dinner. "I find your full name, Jalâlu 'd-deen Muhammad bin Husayn al-Balkhî (1) cumbersome. How did your name evolve into Rumi?" Mayr asks. Patiently, as if having recounted his story myriad times, Rumi replies,"I became known as Rumi after having spent the latter portion of my life in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the former base of the Eastern Roman Empire. My name is Rumi because I was laid to rest in "Rome."" (2) Mayr and Rumi lay silent for a moment as they pondered the ephemeral nature of life. Each has his own conception of what life is and how it came to be, but what is really striking is that their stories hold as many similarities as they do differences. How might Mayr react to a seven hundred year old version of the story of evolution? Is Mayr's story of evolution necessarily more useful?

Rumi's story of evolution will tell us: I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e'er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, 'To Him we shall return' -Translated by A. J. Arberry

Rumi makes several important inferences. First, he is not claiming God to have constructed mankind in his own image. He is not claiming that man was put on earth in his current form. He is essentially saying, "I died as mineral and rose to man." This is in stark contrast to the teachings of the Qur'an, and Bible and consequently puts Rumi on unstable grounds with creationists (3) Ernst Mayr views proponents of creationism on unstable grounds, so how may he perceive Rumi's idea? Initially, Mayr may categorize it under the finalistic, or teleological way of thinking. Finalism assumes a general trend toward complexity and eventual perfection. (4, p. 75) It is however not certain when Rumi asks, "When was I less by dying" that he is speaking of progression, much less perfection. Mayr poses a similar question, "doesn't the series from bacterium to man indeed document progress? (4, p. 214) Mayr answers his own question, "for the modern Darwininan [progress] is not a value judgement, but "higher" means more recent in geological time, or higher on the phylogenetic tree." (4, p. 214) Perhaps one cannot definitively place Rumi in the finalism school of thought, afterall.

Mayr may next categorize Rumi's poem as a transmutationalistic view. The transmutationalist viewpoint suggests that evolution occurs through the genesis of new species brought about by mutation or saltation (4, pp. 77-78). Taking Rumi's poem literally, one may read it as suggesting that new species arise rather spontaneously through the departure of others. However, Rumi does not speak of sudden genetic mutation or saltation, but instead implies a metaphorical transformation into a new species. Had Rumi implied a gradual change into each new species, then the traditional transformationalistic views may have seemed most appropriate, however, no ultimate word on timeframe is given.

Mayr may come to reject Rumi's appraisal of evolution because it does not blatantly include doctrines of Darwinian (and thus Mayrian) evolution. Mayr's brand of evolution encompasses above all, three concepts: heritability, random variation, and differential reproductive success. To Mayr, "evolution is best understood as the genetic turnover of the individuals of every population from generation to generation." (4, p. 76) Can this definition of evolution not be read as a modern version of Rumi's? Certainly, a lot can be read into Rumi's short poem, so when he speaks of rising as a new group of species after a generation, can we not read pre-Darwinian Darwinism into it as well?

While Rumi palpably speaks of returning to God, Mayr is hesitant to discuss the role of a creator. His mention of God is generally followed by a discussion of Creationism (and how it falls short as a theory). In effect, Darwin and Mayr purport that life evolves without any particular or predestined design. Hence it makes sense when they shy away from a possible God's role in evolution for fear that it will lace their theory with religious overtones.

Perhaps Rumi's verse can stand for so many different things because of Rumi's conception of reality. "The nature of reality is this: It is hidden, and it is hidden, and it is hidden." (5) A "hidden reality" is of course evocative of yet another theory: M-Theory, a theory in which the materials and dimensions of the universe are hidden to us. Before M-theory, there were five "string" theories which basically maintained that the fundamental unit of the universe was composed of 2-D "strings." M-theory (a.k.a. Mother of all theories, Membrane theory, or Mystery theory (6) combined each string theory as well as 11-dementional supergravity (7) into one unified theory of "everything." While M-theory remains an esoteric field in that it explores the evolution of physics past Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity, one can still look to Rumi's poem for some insight. Another reading of Rumi's poem might instill in us the notion of unity. We are metaphorically described as rocks and plants and animals because we are all connected through the same fabric. This belief coincides with the belief of many Rumi Scholars including William Chittick who assert that Rumi's poem was written with the specific intent to discuss not evolution, but the progression of the human soul (8)).

Finally, what conclusions can be drawn about Mayr and Rumi? Mayr and Rumi have both devoted their lives to the discovery of Truths. While Ernst Mayr deliberately sought to uncover the mechanisms behind biological evolution, Rumi's works primarily focused on unity. While Mayr's story of evolution is useful in that it provides a detailed explanation of his story of evolution, Rumi's story of evolution is useful in that it provides comfort and urges that we not fear death. Furthemore, if the strength of a theory is marked by its usefulness, then Rumi's account of evolution is just as strong as Mayr's.


1)About Rumi

2)Rumi's Message of Balanced Spirituality

3)Evolution and Creationism

4) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York. Basic Books. 2001.

5)The Universe is Obsolete

6)M-theory, the theory formerly known as Strings

7)Wikipedia: M-Theory

8)About the Masnavi

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