Meaning of Historical Evolution: Man's Social Evolution and Progress

Learned men maintain that there are two evolutions for man: 1) A natural and biological evolution, with which you have been familiar in biology, considering man as the most perfect animal and the last link in natural evolution. 2) Historical or social evolution.

Meaning of Natural Evolution

Natural evolution is one which is produced by a natural process, without man's interference and without his demand. In this way, there is no difference between man and other animals. It is a natural, forcible and fatalistic process which brings each kind of animal to a certain stage, and it has done the same for man, even though we call him a specific type of animal.

Meaning of Historical Evolution

Historical or social evolution means a new process in which nature plays no part similar to natural evolution. It is an acquired evolution which man secures by his own efforts and transfers it by way of education, and not through heritage.

In natural evolution, there is no option or acquisition, but it is subject to a series of inherited laws carried out stage by stage. In social or historical evolution which is acquired by man himself, its transfer from one generation to another has not been and cannot be accomplished through heritage, but through teaching and learning, and mainly through the art of writing.

The Qur'an, in Chapter "Al-Qalam" (the Pen), Verse 1 swears in the name of the Pen, and say:

"I swear by the Pen and what the Angels write." or in Chapter "Alaq" (the Clot), Verses 1-4:

“Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clot.
Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, Taught man what he knew not."

This shows that God granted man the talent to proceed towards social and historical evolution.

There is no doubt that since his creation, man has advanced towards civilization and evolution, and this progress has been as gradual as that of natural evolution, but with one difference. As time has passed, the momentum of evolution too has increased. There has been no immovability, and no monotony of movement, but like a moving car, the speed has been boosted with the passage of time.

Though progress seems to be an obvious matter yet there have been some learned men who have refrained from calling such changes as progress and evolution. What is the reason for their doubt?

Although we believe that man is moving towards an all-round perfection, there must be a reason for the doubtful attitude of philosophers, and this requires an explanation.

What is Evolution?

Many problems are seemingly obvious, but defining them is not so easy. Some have defined evolution as follows: Evolution is accumulation of parts and then their division, and abandonment of their homogeneity and moving towards heterogeneity and taking an organized form possessing a unified relationship of those parts. For example a cell in the sperm, which is created by the combination of two male and female cells, at first, possessed a simple form, and then it is subdivided into an accumulating shape. Then, the embryo does not only change quantitatively. But also undergoes a qualitative division into different organs such as heart, nerves, digestive system etc. and these separate organs find a unified relationship to produce a human being.

In social matters too, there is a similar process from simplicity of form towards complexity. But is evolution only this process of complication?

Difference between Completeness and Perfection

In Islamic philosophy, there is a fine distinction between complete and perfect. The words "complete n and "perfect" are both used as the antonyms of defective, but complete is different from perfect.

There is a verse in the Qur'an in Chapter Maidah (the Food) verse 3 concerning imamate and guardianship, which says:

“This day have I perfected for you, your religion and completed my favour on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion."

In this way the Quran uses perfection and completion in two different senses, both of which begin with a deficiency to attain their related peak. The difference between these two is this: If something like a building or a car lacks some essential parts, we call it defective, and when those parts are provided for, we call it complete.

But perfection requires different stages. A child, who is born with any physical defect, is defective, not perfect. He must pass through various stages of education in order to move towards perfection.

Difference between Progress and Evolution

Is progress synonymous with evolution and vice versa? No. We say of an ailing person, that he is progressing, but we do not say he is evolving. An army makes progress in capturing enemy territory, but this is not evolution. Why not? Because there is the idea of exaltation and sublimity inherent in evolution, which is an upward movement from one level to a higher level, whereas progress is a horizontal advance at the same level. Military advance is thus progress at the same level.

When we speak of social evolution it implies things beyond progress. Some advances may be called progress for man or society, but would not be exaltation and evolution.

In this sense, those men of learning who have refrained from calling all progress evolution, are somewhat justified in their verdict. Evolution also differs from expansion. Now we can consider the following questions:

1. Has man secured evolution in his social life and during his history?

2. If we assume that he has evolved in the past, will he do so in future, too? Is human society moving towards evolution?

3. If he is moving towards evolution, what form would that ideal society or Plato's Utopia take? What are its characteristics? Is it attainable? Could we say that history proceeds forcibly towards evolution irrespective of our wishes or efforts?

Have human beings in the past had no role as free, independent and responsible beings? Has their role been obligatory and secondary? Or should we say that they have voluntarily and consciously planned their society and started its advance towards evolution? Do we not respect many human beings of the past for the part that they have played as social pioneers?

They are those who could stand against historical evolution or at least offer no aid, and choose personal welfare, but they did not do so. There are also others who are very blameworthy for their hindering efforts. This has been the role of option in past history, and if we do not regard the future and have no plans for it and take no responsibility for making history, the result will be the same.

History is made by man and not man by history. Without a plan and a sense of responsibility for future, this vessel of history cannot, by itself, reach its destination. In Islam and, especially in Shiism, there is no belief in a blind and forcible course for events to happen, and this is one of the highest of Islamic teachings.

Revision of Fate

In Islam and in Shiism, there is a belief that divine fate is subject to revision, meaning that God has not fixed a definite and unchangeable process for human history and for events. It implies that man himself executes this fate or destiny granted by God, and can thus promote or check or delay it, and there is no blind force to rule over history on behalf of God or nature.

Therefore, with such a view, till the time we do not understand evolution or the goal of humanity, can we speak of evolution or progress? Progress towards what goal and in what way?

When we read history, we do so to show us the way to future, otherwise history in itself, would not be of much use. The Qur'an, too, uses history for the same purpose. Knowledge of the past enables us to plan the future.

Man's Technical Evolution

If we study history from two points of view, we would observe there has obviously been progress for man, firstly from the viewpoint of implements and tools. Man, whose tool once constituted rough stones and then hewed stones, has made progress towards present technology. In this technical creativity he has reached amazing stages, particularly in the last two centuries, to an unbelievable extent.

It can be predicted that this advance will continue in future if no calamity occurs to stop it.

Some learned men have predicted such a calamity and think it probable. They say this technical and industrial development has reached a point where there is the probability of the destruction of man by himself, together with the products of all his past efforts including science, technology, books, civilization and all its vestiges.

New human beings may appear who could start the whole process a new. But if no such calamity occurs, there is no doubt that further progress will be made by man to an extent which cannot be imagined. This is the result of human experience, experiments and the evolution of experimental sciences. For, he has gained much knowledge of nature, conquered it, and made it to serve him.
The next point of view is man's social evolution.