Darwin in Arabia


From The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century

From The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century

For the Times Literary Review, Robert Irwin writes:  The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918.

Marwa Elshakry
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (Hardback) (and Kindle Edition at Amazon) 448pp. University of Chicago Press. $45.978 0 226 00130 2

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new 9780226001302twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

[Robert Irwin is the author of “Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights” (Studies in the Arcadian Library) and “Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, mystics and the sixties” both available at Amazon]

[The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (The Works of Charles Darwin)]

Theories about evolution had circulated widely in Britain and France from the late eighteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century the work of Georges Cuvier on the reconstruction of creatures from fossil remains and of Charles Lyell on the geological evidence for the great age of the world and its slow transformation had prepared the ground for consideration of Darwinism.

In 1840, “Mad” John Martin produced a mezzotint of “The Great Sea Dragons as They Lived” for Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea Dragons: Ichthyosauri and plesiosauri, and nine years before publication of The Origin of Species Tennyson in his poem “In Memoriam” was brooding on long-term geological change and the survival of species:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.

There had been no such preliminary softening of the ground in the Middle East. In 1882 Edwin Lewis, a professor of geology and chemistry at the Syrian Protestant College (the forerunner of the American University of Beirut), gave a commencement address in which, though he was chiefly concerned to emphasize the limits of scientific knowledge, he referred favourably to Darwin’s achievement “as an example of the transformation of knowledge into science by long and careful examination”. The ensuing uproar was tremendous. After the College’s Board of Managers dismissed Lewis, several other members of the faculty resigned in sympathy with him. In the decades that followed, Protestant missionaries and teachers played an important part in fuelling the Muslim and Christian Arab debates over evolution, natural selection and the descent of man, as they provided arguments and evidence both for and against the new ideas. The Jesuits in the Middle East headed by the great scholar of Arab history and literature, Louis Cheikho, tended to be more uniformly hostile.

The debate was prolonged and bitter, yet, on the showing of Elshakry’s thoroughly researched book, it strikes me as lacking in exhilaration. The vast vistas of time conjured up by Lyell and Darwin, the molten landscapes, the reign of the great monsters, the excitements of the fossil hunts and the quest for the missing link, none of these things seems to have struck an imaginative chord in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon. There is little or nothing in the Arabic literature of the Nahda, or “Renaissance”, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that can be compared to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men and nothing, I think, to parallel the subtler exploration of Darwinian themes in George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, or, for that matter Darwin’s own rhetoric. The Origin of Species had concluded with these words:

 “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.

The embrace of evolutionary ideas was closely bound in with political considerations…Read the rest >>>TLS

Robert Irwin‘s most recent books are  “Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights” (Studies in the Arcadian Library) and “Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, mystics and the sixties” , available at Amazon. He is the Middle East editor of the TLS.

Author Marwa Elshakry is associate professor in the Department of History at Columbia University, where she specializes in the history of science, technology, and medicine in the modern Middle East. She lives in New York.

One Comment on “Darwin in Arabia”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet For the Times Literary Review, Robert Irwin writes: The title Reading Darwin in Arabic […]

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