A 9th century Arab Darwin?

A 9th century Arab Darwin? January 29, 2008

Published today in the Telegraph: an article on Islam’s forgotten geniuses by Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey. It’s a really nice survey of some of the key contributions to early science made in the Islamic world.

He has a couple of paragraphs on a particularly interesting guy, one Abu ‘Uthman Amr bin Bahr al-Fukaymi al-Basri (known to his friends as al-Jahiz: “the goggle-eyed”!), who lived 776-869 AD. al-Jahiz was a prolific author, but his most famous work, the Book of Animals, is remarkable for putting forward something that looks not a lot unlike a theory of evolution by Natural Selection:

“Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.”

Now al-Jahiz was apparently not only a prolific writer, but also a rambling, meandering one (for a biography see here and here). He covered a lot of topics, so this one-liner in no way compares to The Origin of the Species.But the Book of Animals does, apparently, delve in some detail into the idea that animals (and people) have forms that are adapted as a result of environmental pressures, and he even attempts a linear classification of life – a key step in the theory of evolution;. Most of his work hasn’t survived (maybe it was just too impenetrable!).

So it’s remarkable that he isn’t more widely known. Many people know about the faltering steps towards a theory of evolution made by the ancient Greeks, for example. But al-Jahiz seems to be ignored by western-centric histories. There isn’t even an English translation of his book…

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