Writing about Natural Selection, a Thousand Years before Darwin

Professors are starting to orient Charles Darwin within a rich history of people from all cultures who have grappled with the mechanisms of life.

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.”

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