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Steve Connor: You think others got there before Darwin?

Science Notebook

Soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin was inundated with correspondence from people claiming that they too had come up with the idea of evolution, and long before him. None of them had, of course, but when people read his wonderfully clear exposition of evolution by natural selection, many readers fell into the reverie that it is such a simple idea that anyone – including themselves – could have come up with it.

But the crucial point about Darwin's rightful claim to priority is that he eruditely laid out an astonishing amount of evidence in support of his theory – a lifetime of observations. Only one other person came close to achieving this, and Darwin – ever the gentleman – made sure that Alfred Russel Wallace got the credit that he deserved.

Now another contender for the "he-beat-Darwin-to-the-punch" medal has come on the scene in the form of Abu Uthman al-Jahith, an Islamic intellectual of East African descent who died in AD 869. Al-Jahith wrote a Book of Animals in which he talked about animals engaging in a "struggle for existence", and this has been taken as evidence that he came up with evolution by natural selection a thousand years before Darwin.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist at Surrey University, has been a vocal supporter of al-Jahith, and will no doubt be bringing him in to his rather good series Science and Islam on BBC 4.

"Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival," al-Jahith wrote. "Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."

Al-Khalili says that this qualifies as a theory of natural selection, but any scholar of Darwinism will point out that this could just as easily describe another, discredited evolutionary mechanism, known as Lamarckism. Sorry Jim, from what little we know of al-Jahith and his ideas on evolution, he can't hold a candle to Darwin and Wallace.

Let's keep religion out of it

Science flourished in the Islamic world between the 8th and 11th centuries, and certainly in optics and mathematics it produced wonderful insights and inventions, as Al-Khalili's series describes. But I wonder why some scholars persist in calling this "Islamic science"? Science is science wherever it is practised, and its strength is its universality. It certainly shouldn't be linked with a religion. The Renaissance period in Italy produced an amazing rebirth of science, but to describe it as "Roman Catholic science" would be an unjust misnomer.

It is good that we celebrate the science of the Islamic world, but we should also ask why it failed to flourish beyond the 14th century. Could it have something to do with the growing influence and anti-science attitude of medieval Islamic clerics, who even prohibited the mechanical printing of the Koran until the 19th century? Political correctness dictates that we shouldn't even mention this, but it would be wise to understand that, in the past, religion has been no friend of science.