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A Thousand Years Before Darwin, Islamic Scholars Were Writing About Natural Selection

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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 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,” she 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.”

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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