Infographic history of evolutionary thought

Most of you are probably familiar with some variant of George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The quote is common to the point of cliche for a reason, in fact if we look at cliodynamics then we can even mathematically demonstrate the cyclic nature of history. This is especially true with the history of thought, and an even easier mistake to make when I am working in an interdisciplinary setting. To avoid interdisciplinitis as I delve deeper into models of evolution, I am always eager to learn more about the progress of evolutionary thought. As such, I was happy to see this new infographic from Tania Jenkins, Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec for the European Society for Evolutionary Biology:


PosterZoomYou can click the above image for a zoomable pdf version, but I wanted to highlight the yellow-ish column. It was interesting to see a trace of evolutionary thought to Muslim scholarship before Darwin. In particular, they attribute to Al-Jahiz’s (781-869) Book of Animals:

Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.

However, I have not been able to trace this quote beyond an interview with Gary Dargan on Intelligent Design and Islam for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program Encounter. At best, I think this is a modern paraphrasing and re-interpretation of Al-Jahiz’s text, and leaves me unconvinced because it is extremely easy to attribute much deeper meaning to old texts with hindsight. This is famously done with ideas like Democritus’ automism which was not influential on ancient Greek thought, and its resemblence to modern atomic theory is coincidental at best. Do any readers known of more convincing sources for Al-Jahiz preempting natural selection?

The poster’s attribution of the idea of ‘monkey ancestors’ to Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406) seems more grounded, with the Arab historian and father of sociology having written (emphasis mine, translation by Franz Rosenthal):

[Creation] started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants … The last stage of plants … is connected with the first stage of 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. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys

This view is rather progressive for the 14th century, but still rooted in Aristotle’s Ladder of Life. However, even today we haven’t gotten Aristotle’s monkey off our backs, with the study of biological complexity sneaking in the ladder with their often vague treatment of the evolution of complexity. I guess this is a particularly hard historic cycle to break.

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About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the ivory tower of the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My specific interests are in quantum computing, evolutionary game theory, modern evolutionary synthesis, and theoretical cognitive science. Previously I was at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at the University of Waterloo and a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore.

2 Responses to Infographic history of evolutionary thought

  1. Joachim says:

    Hi Artem,

    you wrote: “At best, I think this is a modern paraphrasing and re-interpretation of Al-Jahiz’s text, and leaves me unconvinced because it is extremely easy to attribute much deeper meaning to old texts with hindsight.”

    I think there are two issues involved. One is the pitfalls of translation, the other is “Whiggish” interpretation in retrospect. If we are following an analytical approach and parse the theory of evolution into its components, then we should not imply more by “natural selection” than the mere statement of differential reproductive success or variants. Lamarckism, for example, would have to be dealt with as a different component of the theory, namely the sub-theory about heredity.

    Even if Al-Djahiz held Lamarckian ideas about heredity, he might have said something that, taken on its own, might have anticipated natural selection. But we will never know without a trustworthy translation.

    Anyway, I think Wallace’s and Darwin’s integration of natural selection into a workable theory of evolution is unique and they are given priority for the full program and not some arbitrary ‘discovery’ of natural selection.

  2. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging: the algorithmic world | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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