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Posts Tagged ‘scurvy’

Did Adam Take a Multivitamin? Islam, Science, and Modernity

November 18, 2012 1 comment

Your ancestors, generation after generation, have believed that thunder is the explosion caused by the angels trying to capture the devil…at school you’re taught that thunder is only the clash of positive and negative clouds…

I believe you can accept these teachings about positive and negative clouds because you need the marks to pass. But be honest, do you believe in the truth of this explanation?

This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Vitamin C — found primarily in citrus fruits, leafy vegetables, and bell peppers — is vital to human health. Most importantly, it is required for the creation of collagen, the protein responsible for sustaining the body’s connective tissue — which binds our muscles, skin, and ligaments together. Therefore, without proper intake of Vitamin C, our bodies begin to slowly break down and fall apart: Teeth become loose, old wounds open, and slowly the human body begins to disintegrate. This condition is known as scurvy, and is famous for claiming the lives of naval sailors who, on account of long ship voyages, did not have proper access to fruits and vegetables. Scurvy is thought to have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives during the last millenium.

However, humans are only one a handful of living species that must consume their Vitamin C through food. Nearly every other animal species — the exceptions being primates, fruit bats, guinea pigs, salmon, and a few others — produce Vitamin C inside of themselves. Indeed, 99.9% of animal species have an in-born mechanism to convert glucose — found in all foods — into ascorbic acid, either in their kidneys, or the liver. Therefore, scurvy is a disease unique to only a handful of species on earth.

Why is this? As such a vital part of the human constitution, for collagen to rely on an external source for its upkeep is extremely risky. However, in the lush African jungles where human ancestors lived — leafy vegetables and citrus fruits made up the majority of the diet. Therefore, the body could afford to quit its internal production of ascorbic acid, and rely on its consumption from outside. This would then free-up energy to pursue other activities (like sex). Therefore, the first individual human ancestor who had a mutation to turn off the GULO gene that produces ascorbic acid had an advantage in some way — came to mate more successfully — and today the result is that all living monkeys and humans have an inactive gene, and must consume Vitamin C themselves.

However, this posed a problem as humans began to migrate out of the jungles and onto the plains, and into colder environments where leafy vegetables and citrus fruits aren’t present. To not die of scurvy, early humans would have had to eat the livers and kidneys of animals (but they would have to eat them raw, like the Inuits do today, as cooking dissipates the Vitamin C), as they were the most concentrated sources of Vitamin C. However, it is natural to assume that many in fact did die due to this mismatch between our evolutionary environment, and modern circumstances. We now know that the human body has been trying to play catchup, and is attempting to more efficiently utilize the ascorbic acid consumed through food.

Does this sound unbelievable? Maybe it is. There are definitely some logical holes in this, especially the mutation part. However, the fact of the matter is that Vitamin C and scurvy — despite science not having the full picture — is living demonstration of that fact that evolution exists. Humans are not the product of Divine engineering — but rather are fatally flawed. We are living outside the circumstances in which we were biologically intended to live, and as a consequence, a lot of people have died of a disease that is largely only found in humans, and monkeys.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time where we have not only discovered this fact of nature (in 1937, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of Vitamin C) and it can inform how we think about the world — but also, through multivitamins, we can lead healthier lives than our ancestors, in spite of our defect.

This condition of humanity seems to be a pretty solid proof against any notion of Divine design, much less Abrahamic religion. Simply, Adam and Eve did not exist, and the existence of scurvy today serves as living proof of that. In fact, even if we want to claim that God exists, we have to question the logic of a design where we must consume a certain food to survive, that is clearly limited in nature. Allah did not even put Vitamin C in the beloved date palms of the Muslims — nature’s “perfect food,” along with honey and black seeds — if Muslims had their way.

But, this gets to more serious questions. The existence of scurvy, and knowledge of Vitamin C, clearly does not vouch for a Divine Creator. Would a Muslim general practitioner understand this when recommending a patient take a multivitamin? Would a pharmacist or biomedical researcher?

Like Minke — the fictitious Indonesian native educated in the Dutch colonial school, in the beginning quote — Muslims often appear to have the same contentions. They want the best of science and modern healing, without acknowledging that medical and scientific innovation (in many facets) is the product of worldviews and processes diametrically opposed to Islam and Islamic principles. They might be able to mimic and copy what is in a textbook, and keep up-to-date with the latest developments. But being confined to their worldview, the daily processes of Islamic worship, and the usual concerns that occupy Muslims on a day-to-day basis — they are limited in their minds, and will never possess the ability to be the ones to innovate in medicine, science, and technology — and if a Muslim does, then we can be assured of their level of religiosity and psychological connection to their religious heritage.

Nonetheless, science is serving to slowly erode traditional religious belief. Barring economic meltdown, it will be successful. Just wanted to share that. Not many websites seem to connect scurvy to theology. So, I had to do my part.

I have to share one hadith for the road, though. I haven’t seen it (accurately) translated into English before (or mentioned on Arabic websites):

عبد الرزاق عن بن جريج قال أخبرني ابو الزبير قال سمعت جابر بن عبد الله يقول أتي النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم بضب فأبى أن يأكله وقال إني لا أدري لعله من القرون الأولى التي مسخت قال عبد الرزاق فحدثت به إبراهيم بن يزيد فقال سمعت أبا الزبير والوليد بن عبد الله فحدثناه عن جابر

Jabir ibn Abdallah said: The Prophet was brought a lizard, but refused to eat it. He said, “I do not know, perhaps it is from the first ages that were transformed (musikhat).”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-MusannafSahih MuslimSunan al-Bayhaqi

The concept of animals that were “transformed” also features prominently in Twelver Shia hadith collections — for instance, spiders, pigs, and elephants are all former humans who committed a certain sin, and were changed into animals. For Shias, these explanations serve as reasoning for why such animals are haram to eat. However, Sunni hadith collections tend to lack this reasoning — with the exception of this hadith, which is found in Sahih Muslim. Independently speaking, it does not seem to have problematic isnad. It is likely that some early Muslims truly believed that some animals had been transformed, in one way or another, in “the first ages.” Whatever that is. How this fact is going to be reconciled by Muslim scientists is anyone’s guess. My guess is that it will just be ignored or compartmentalized (or probably not even known about), as is the modus operandi for most scientists of faith today. And even if they do accept the premise of evolution (some Muslim scientists do, many do not), rarely would they connect the dots to cases like scurvy and see that evolution dictates that the world is an undesigned, chaotic place.

There is much more to be said, but it’s all in the details (and hence will matter to very few people). I think disproving Adam and Eve’s existence is broad enough for this post.

But, if you are still interested in more, over the past few years I have been bookmarking websites in a folder called, “Ironic Life Stuff.” Stuff that, when you read it, basically makes it seem logically improbable for God to exist. Not that they disprove God in and of themselves (some do), but just the logic for a Creator to exist, and to make such things. I am sure there are many, many more.

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