The Father of the Theory of Evolution: Al-Jahiz and His Book of Animals

Abu Uthman ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri, or also known as Al-Jahiz, was a Muslim writer and thinker of Ethiopian descent. He was born in 776 in Basra, the second biggest city in Iraq. Even though his family was very poor, it did not stop Al-Jahiz of seeking knowledge and attending lectures on different topics like Arabic poetry, philology and lexicography. The gained knowledge and his desire for studying would later result in more than two hundred books, though unfortunately only thirty of them survived.

The most famous book written by Al-Jahiz is Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals). This multi-volume book does not only describe more than 350 varieties of animals, but also consists of pre-Islamic poetry, personal observations, humor, storytelling and influences of Aristotle’s zoological texts. Although the Book of Animals consists of a wide range of subjects, the great amount of scientific information given is of great value. Al-Jahiz introduces the concept of biological evolution in this book. After observing animals and insects, al-Jahiz came to the conclusion that there must be some mechanisms which have influence on the evolution of animals, and this 1000 years before Darwin did. Al-Jahiz writes about three main mechanisms; the struggle for existence, the transformation of species into each other, and the environmental factors.

Al-Jahiz wrote “Animals engage in a struggle for existing, and for resources, to avoid being eaten, and to breed.” and continued, “Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring”.

It was clear to him that there is always one species stronger than the other, and that in order to survive, species had to develop new characteristics. These new characteristics helped species to adapt to environmental conditions and created new species.

Although the mechanisms are scientific, Al-Jahiz added a spiritual aspect to it. The reader had to appreciate the complexity and wonders of God’s creation:

“The rat goes out for collecting his food, and it searches and seizes them. It eats some other inferior animals, like small animals and small birds…it hides its babies in disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself against the attack of the snakes and of the birds. Snakes like eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter frightens all the animals which are inferior to it. This is the law that some existences are the food for others…All small animals eat smaller ones; and all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are like animals…God makes cause of some bodies life…”

Masterpieces of al-Jahiz

But the Book of Animals is not the only great work written by al-Jahiz. The Book of Misers, for example is also very popular. It is a social, literary and historical encyclopedia. He also wrote books on human psychology, language and grammar. They are all written in a language very accessible for the common person. He sometimes added funny anecdotes and amusing comments in his scientific works.

In 868 the poor fish-seller’s son died in Basra and left an impressive oeuvre behind him. It is not clear how he died, but there is no doubt that his works were and still are indeed revolutionary. Sometimes he is referred to as the “father of the theory of evolution”. – – - –