An ape gradually evolves into a man
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A Thousand Years Before Darwin, Islamic Scholars Were Writing About Natural Selection

Professors are starting to orient Charles Darwin within a rich history of people from all cultures who have grappled with the mechanisms of life.
October 5, 2020, 4:30pm

In the summer of 1837, Charles Darwin drew a rudimentary sketch in his notebook, lines of ink that branched out from another. This tree-like doodle would come to represent his theory of evolution by natural selection, a way to visualize how plants and animals adapt in response to their environments. On the top of the page, Darwin scrawled the words, "I think."

When many students are taught about evolution they learn about Darwin, how he observed bird beaks on the Galápagos Islands, and pieced together one of history's most significant biological puzzles.

But this narrative, focusing on a singular person's "I think," omits a long history of humans contemplating how organisms change over time. Evolutionary musings have existed before Darwin, and some professors and museums are now striving to include that neglected history in curriculums and exhibitions.

Recently, New York University professor James Higham tweeted about how he updated the lectures of his class on primate behavioral ecology, geared to upper-level undergraduates. They now "properly acknowledge Islamic scholarship in this area—especially that of Al-Jahiz (781-869 CE)," Higham wrote. "It seems clear that something like evolution by natural selection was proposed a thousand years before Darwin/Wallace." (The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace independently proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection around the same time as Darwin.)

Higham told VICE News he wasn’t taught about Al-Jahiz in his own training; he knew of Al-Jahiz vaguely as a theologian, writer, and scholar, but not a biologist.

“I was struck by the extent to which Al-Jahiz appears to have had not just evolutionary ideas, but many ideas that could be said to be related specifically to the process of evolution by natural selection,” Higham said in an email. “This seems to have included ideas such as competition over finite resources, adaptation in response to the environment, and speciation over time as an outcome.”

His tweet referenced a graph of eight pre-Darwin Muslim scholars who wrote about evolutionary ideas, from "An untold story in biology: the historical continuity of evolutionary ideas of Muslim scholars from the 8th century to Darwin’s time," a 2017 paper by senior author Rui Diogo, an assistant professor at Howard University. Higham plans to include Al-Jahiz and other pre-Darwin scholars in his large intro class on human origins as well. Other academics replied to Higham's tweet, saying they were taking similar action. Like Andy Higginson, an ecologist and Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter who responded, "I did the same for a lecture last week!"

There is no evidence that Darwin knew of Islamic scholars from the 9th or 10th centuries, said Salman Hameed, the director of the Centre for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts—but the purpose of including mention of past scholars isn't to say that Darwin copied them, or drew from them, or to in any way diminish his legacy.

“I think it's good for students to know that other societies have thought about these things," Hameed said. "I think it enriches our story of science. The story of science in some sense should be a story of humans, not a story of a couple of individuals coming up with these great things—but a human endeavor."

Noting the history of evolution-like ideas throughout history and cultures can broaden our understanding of how ideas themselves evolve—in waves, needing refinement, and inevitably influenced by the cultures and historical contexts they exist in. Rather than downplaying the accomplishments of figures like Darwin, including pre-Darwinian scholars can orient him within a rich legacy of people who have grappled with the mechanisms of life, while also serving as an opportunity to assess which historical ideas we consider to be significant and "scientific," and which ones we don't.

The history of science is “notorious for ‘great men,’” said Sarah Qidwai, a graduate student in the history of science at the University of Toronto. She thinks we should be critical about who those men are, and who isn't included. While evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr wrote in his influential 1982 book_The Growth of Biological Thought_ that “The Arabs, so far I can determine, made no important contributions to biology," Qidwai said there are many Muslim scholars that often get passed over.

Qidwai is writing her dissertation on one of them: Sayyid Ahmad Khan, a 19th-century Muslim scholar in India who wrote in support of Darwin's ideas and had evolutionary beliefs of his own. Khan wrote that humans are part of the animal kingdom and have developed over time through a long process. Importantly, he didn’t think that evolution conflicted with Islamic beliefs and the Quran, because he thought this process was guided by a divine figure.

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In Rui Diogo's 2017 paper, Diogo and his colleagues presented work from other Muslim scholars, like Al-Jahiz. Al-Jahiz was an eighth-century Muslim zoologist from Iraq known for Kitab Al-Hayawan, or The Book of Animals, a seven-volume tome based on his extensive observation of different organisms. From his many years of studying animals and their characteristics, Al-Jahiz surmised that environmental conditions were a driving factor in organisms differing from one another, as they developed new traits to survive in their environments. Al-Jahiz also believed that animals evolved with the help of God, and that God wanted to keep nature in order.

“Al-Jahiz described a ‘natural selection’ process resulting from an animal’s innate desire to live, stating that biological fitness is essential to this phenomenon,” according to the 2017 paper. “He observed that individuals of the same species struggle against each other and that the stronger, more adapted species prevail with lesser mortality rates.”

Al-Jahiz was not the only pre-Darwin work Diogo and his colleagues uncovered:

Abu Alraihan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al-Beruni, who lived 800 years before Darwin, believed that “man ‘migrated’ through the ‘kingdoms’ of minerals, plants and animals ‘in order to reach perfection and therefore contains within himself the nature of the creatures of the other realms.’” He thought that monkeys were the creature that man had migrated from, before becoming human.

Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century North African Muslim thinker, wrote, “It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals … the animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect." Diogo and his colleagues wrote that Ibn Khaldun rejected the belief that dark skin was a “a curse inflicted upon sinful human beings” and that there was “a causal relationship between hot southern climates and dark pigmentation, an idea now known to be correct.”

Ibn Miskawayh, a 10th-century Persian Muslim philosopher, wrote about how he believed humans evolved from other animals—but that God had granted intellect to humans alone.

These accounts of natural selection-like ideas, from thousands of years ago, reveal a rich history, Diogo said. “People sometimes say, ‘Yeah, that is kind of Darwin, but not really Darwin,’” Diogo said. “And of course it’s not, because only Darwin is Darwin. But these are clearly evolutionary ideas. Some of them even said that humans came from monkeys. There is nothing more evolutionary than that.”

"Darwin had never heard of Jahiz and he could not have plagiarized his ideas," wrote Rebecca Stott in the 2013 book Darwin's Ghosts. ""But had he been able to read Arabic he would no doubt have been enthralled by Jahiz's book."

In the field of astronomy, there is another untold connection between Islam scholars and Western ones—one with an even more direct lineage than that of evolutionary biology. Today, when most students learn about the history of science, they learn about the scholarship of the Greeks and Romans, the “Dark Ages”—when there was little scientific or cultural advancement—and then the boom of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. But during these Dark Ages in Western Europe, it was the Golden Age of Islam.

The commonly taught narrative goes, Hameed said, that what the Muslims did during this “golden era” was translate and preserve materials from the Greeks and Romans, “basically preserving it to give it to the Europeans so they can make progress later on.” While Islamic scholars did do this, they also made modifications to the work they were translating, observing the skies and trying to make them more accurate.

Work from George Saliba, a historian of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University, has found that Copernicus—credited for the discovery that the sun is at the center of our solar system, not Earth—was using astronomical materials had been modified and worked on by Muslim scholars. In similar research, Diogo and his colleagues have published on Muslim contributions to anatomy during the Dark Ages in Western Europe. His students found that scholars made countless new discoveries about the inner workings of the body, adding them to the texts they were preserving and translating.

“It is more interesting for students to know how science really happens in the sense that we keep on tweaking, modifying,” Hameed said. “Sometimes we go on tangents. Some of them end up being dead ends.”

When education about science only focuses only on one culture or time period, it can imply that everyone thought about life in one way and that a single text or person changed their minds, said Lauren Sumner-Rooney, a research fellow at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Sumner-Rooney and others are in the midst of revamping their permanent exhibition on evolution to alter that impression. The history of evolution theory goes much farther back than 1859—and Sumner-Rooney is hoping the new display reflects that. “We’re still developing the exhibition content, but we’re currently exploring the understanding of natural selection in Chinese, Islamic, Native American and Australasian civilizations, among others,” she said. “Many of the central principles of Darwin’s work feature in scholarly writings, oral history and folklore from around the world.”

Many big ideas take time to develop fully, or pop up in different eras, cultures, and contexts. Even Darwin didn't operate in a silo—he was greatly influenced by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the geologist Charles Lyell, and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Further, when Darwin published On the Origins of Species, he didn’t have it all figured out yet. He didn’t know the mechanism for heredity. That was fleshed out later on, building on and complementing his theories.

Until now, the history of scholarship from other cultures has largely been regarded more as philosophical or religious in nature, Diogo said, rather than scientific. And it's true that the Muslim pre-Darwin scholars all included God in their theories. Does this inclusion of God, though, categorize these past theories as religious musings, rather than science?

In September, in response to a tweet on decolonizing science curriculums, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis tweeted that "In an effort to be inclusive, let’s start teaching myths in science? Surely someone somewhere anticipated Galileo, Bohr, Einstein? I get that there may have been indigenous theories resembling such ideas. But they were not science."

Diogo feels it's an important reflection: When thinking about what we include in the historical narrative, we should ask what we deem “myth” or “religious” or “philosophical,” and whether we tend to use those words more for certain, non-Western, populations.

Religious belief dominates the past, in almost every culture. Darwin too grappled with religion and whether it conflicted or could co-exist with the theory of natural selection. From his correspondence, we know that he felt the question of God was one that science could not address. In a letter from 1879, he wrote, “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Other famous scientists—that we look back on as true scientists—were very religious, like Isaac Newton. From his correspondence, we know that while formulating his gravitational law, he considered the role of God in the placement of the planets.

Even using the word “scientist” to decide whose work is legitimate and whose is not entails a view of the past colored with a modern perspective. The word "scientist" wasn't used until the 1830s, Hameed said. Before then, those who studied nature or biology were called natural historians or natural philosophers. Newton certainly would not have called himself a scientist, Hameed noted.

“We should not dismiss work as unscientific simply because it is in the framework of God working through it," Hameed said. "It doesn't mean that people weren't trying to figure out how things work. Otherwise you would have to throw away everything we learned before the 19th century, when for various cultural and political and social reasons, science and religion got separated.”

Al-Jahiz, though he believed that at a higher level, the will of God was at play, was ultimately noticing patterns in the natural world around him, and coming up with hypotheses to explain it. “You look at the world and see, 'Hey, some things look similar. Why are they similar? Maybe it’s because of the environment that they live in,'" Hameed said. "I would consider that a 'scientific way' of thinking.”

“Science is all about observing and explaining the natural world in a logical way—that’s precisely what these people were doing,” Sumner-Rooney agreed.

Diogo and Hameed said they are not suggesting that educators present the ideas these scholars had about God as if they were scientific, or use them to justify teaching creationism in schools today. Instead, the presence of God could lead to discussions about differences between Darwin's methods and those of past scholars, and a comparison to present-day knowledge of evolution, including genetics. It’s also an opportunity to scrutinize the ways in which religion and observation of the natural world have intersected, in all cultures. These insights are often still relevant today.

Including more diverse sources of evolution scholarship could make the study of evolution more accessible in places where it is currently a taboo subject, which can include Muslim countries. It might help for students to see these are ideas that people from their own cultures have been thinking about for thousands of years too.

The first author on Diogo’s evolution paper is Muslim, and Diogo said that she arrived at his lab with doubts about natural selection and its apparent clash with her religious beliefs. But after working on the paper, and seeing the lineage of Muslim scholars, she was able to embrace the ideas of evolution.

In 2015, in Nature, a professor at a university in Jordan, Rana Dajani, wrote an editorial about teaching evolution to Muslim students. She teaches about the Muslim scholars who supported evolution, and “I point out that the apparent controversy over evolution and Islam arose only in the twentieth century, when Darwin’s ideas became associated with colonialism, imperialism, the West, atheism, materialism and racism,” Dajani wrote. When this lineage of evolutionary thought is included, her students can see how their culture is part of the interrogation into the origin of life.

We should not assume that all Muslims hold the same beliefs about evolution. “We can not treat Muslims as a monolithic entity,” Hameed said. “If somebody asked me, because I work in this area, 'What do Muslims think about evolution?' My answer to that is, I don't know. It depends upon who you are talking to.”

But for those who think evolution is synonymous with the "West" or atheism, then there might be a level of hesitance that is unnecessary. “If you think that these ideas are only coming from a Victorian era of noblemen, actually that is not the case,” Hameed said.

It can have a lot of impact as well for young people of color to see themselves represented in the dialogue of scientific ideas throughout history, said Qidwai.

And even for those not of Arab descent, the inclusion fosters a view of science that is iterative and collaborative, rather than individual. “Multiple people are involved,” Qidwai said. “Different players are contributing in certain ways. It really shows that it's much more interconnected than, you know, a brilliant person had this idea.”

Diogo said that by recognizing thinkers who were also considering where life came from, it makes Darwin’s accomplishments more impressive. “It makes him bigger,” he said. “Not smaller.” Darwin and Wallace were able to synthesize, provide evidence for, and publicize ideas that had been circulating for thousands of years.

"Darwin is certainly one of the great contributors to science," Hameed said. "One of the greatest perhaps. I don't think there is no question about that, but it doesn't mean that we say that nobody else was there before him. "

Higham said it’s important to teach not only our current knowledge, but how that knowledge came to be, and the history of different ideas surrounding it—“ideally in different parts of the world.”

“This empowers students," he said, "to understand not only where ideas are coming from, but also where they might be headed."

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