Islamic Scholars Were Writing About Human Evolution in 800 AD

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.)

“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.”

“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.”

An untold story in biology: the historical continuity of evolutionary ideas of Muslim scholars from the 8th century to Darwin’s time

Textbooks on the history of biology and evolutionary thought do not mention the evolutionary ideas of Muslim scholars before Darwin’s time. This is part of a trend in the West to minimise the contributions of non-Western scientists to biology, human anatomy and evolutionary biology. Therefore, this paper focuses on the contributions of pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars to the history of evolutionary thought. Our review of texts from a wide range of historical times, and written in various languages, reveals that there were in fact several Muslim scholars who postulated evolutionary ideas, some with remarkable similarities to Darwin’s theory. These ideas included the adaptation and survival of the fittest, a specific origin of humans from apes/monkeys, the notion of evolutionary constraints, the occurrence of extinctions within taxa and hereditary variability. Moreover, while both the scientific community and the broader public generally base their knowledge on Western textbooks, several parts of the Muslim world have indicated an overall rejection of biological–including human–evolution. Therefore, to improve historical accuracy and create a better understanding of scientific history, the world’s diverse civilisations and their philosophies, this untold story should be widely disseminated to the scientific community and the general public.

This is pretty interesting. Notably Islamic evolution seems to have included human evolution, and I’m not sure they got the idea of common descent…a lot to dig into here…

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This makes one wonder why Harun Yahya (Adnan Oktar) objects to evolution.

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It makes me wonder many many things.

Fascinating. One wonders why it didn’t grow to be more popular in the Islamic world.

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The actual paper is paywalled.

A PDF is available on RG: (PDF) An untold story in biology: the historical continuity of evolutionary ideas of Muslim scholars from the 8th century to Darwin’s time

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I think we have to remember that Islam isn’t monolithic in its views, and that various schools of Islam have had waxing and waning influence.

I’m not nearly well enough read on Islam to offer even a half-baked interpretation of the full list of historic figures given in the paper, however the first on the list sprung out at me:

Al-Jahiz, who was a member of the Mu’tazili school of Islam, which rose to prominence under the Abbasid Caliphate in Basra and Baghdad during the 8th to the 10th centuries, and was known for its speculative ideas.

One, rather chilling, sentence from the Wikipedia article caught my eye (and may partially explain why such ideas don’t have widespread prominence today):

In contemporary Salafi jihadism, the epithet or supposed allegations of being a Muʿtazilite have sometimes been used between rival groups as a means of denouncing their credibility.

I think one can go back even farther and find ancient Greeks such as Empedocles saying similar things. What non of these precursors until Lamarck did was pass on their ideas to enough followers to make traditions. The Islamic scholars came close but their tradition died out.

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Memetic drift?


I’d be really interested to see some of these older quotes. Do you know of a good review article on this?

This is fairly remarkable to me. I suppose one of the large advances of modern science is actually social, in that the scientific community has been able to grow beyond borders, political affiliations, particular languages, and sects, to outlast governments and quite a bit else. Science is still embedded in local contexts and countries, but it transcends them.

Now, as an institution, scientific knowledge may be much harder to “forget” than in the past.

Practical applications of importance to the society, or to its rulers, may help keep a scientific tradition from dying out.

Anyway, to find out more, good sources include the Wikipedia article on “History of evolutionary thought”

and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Evolutionary Thought Before Darwin (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Rebecca Stott’s book “Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists” is a good popularization, though of course it is selective – popularizations are always attracted to the more colorful figures.

There is of course Peter Bowler’s well-known 1989 work “Evolution – The history of an idea”. I was particularly fascinated by John Greene’s 1959 book “The Death of Adam” which covers mostly European work from the Renaissance on, but does a fine job of pointing out the ways that advances in astronomy and geology and discoveries in exploration and conquest prepared people for evolutionary thinking. (I suppose that, given its inflammatory title, this might not have been appropriate to cite here!)

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What do you think @Roels_Major?

Yes, there are many branches of Islamic thought that glorify freedom of thought, in the early days it was not prohibited, now it is different, problems that can interfere with the belief of the people in God Almighty (tauhid), should not be discussed by the common people. The State of Saudi Arabia, in particular, strictly forbids and combats this theory of evolution, and everything that goes against their thinking.

The Quran does not mention anything against or supporting evolution. But the Quran clearly states that everything was created by God Almighty. Regarding Adam, Allah SWT (Almighty God) created him as the heir of the earth from other pre-existing God’s creatures. Evolution in living things, according to many Muslim circles is commonplace, but not as many people think, such as the conclusion that “lucy” is our ancestor, but creatures like us were created variously before. Humans are then mentioned by God Almighty as one of the best creations, because of “knowledge”.

Regarding when Prophet Adam was created and sent down to Earth, the Quran does not mention a specific time, in some hadiths (oral traditions) that are not so strong in the level of truth, it is said that Prophet Adam was a farmer, and some sources say he could build buildings.

That’s my opinion. I am not an expert, not a researcher. Only has a medical education background.


Have you read the GAE yet? What do you think of it?

Yes I have read it but only in part 1 on google and haven’t bought it yet. I hope it will be available in an Indonesian edition (local publisher) so that I can understand it better.

GAE is a good point of view, a different point of view in science that is a means of reconciliation between Abrahamic religion and human evolution, about the possibility of Adam and Eve being created by God Almighty through several scenarios that science can understand today. Dr. Shaber Ali in his video some time ago also mentioned this.

GAE is still too specific in terms of Christianity or Judaism. Maybe it can be added to the point of view of Islam and several other religions.

Then the two starting points assumptions are still difficult to accept. We (say the last human species) arise genetically from a single couple origin (Adam and Eve). The issue of breeding with other species such as Neanderthals or Denisovans is still acceptable.