I have only once been alarmed when giving a lecture: in Syria a decade ago, when I gave a talk on evolution at the University of Damascus. The students were polite and interested, but several members of the faculty – large mustachioed men with smokers’ faces – denounced me for insulting Islam (at least I assumed they were faculty, which was perhaps naive). Quite why, I could not understand for, unlike the Book of Genesis, the only overt account of human origins in the Koran refers to Allah moulding the clay of the earth into the form of a man, which is in fact quite close to one model of the origin of life by adsorption of chemicals on to a finely divided surface.
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 is an exhaustive and sometimes exhausting account of the chequered history of the theory of evolution in the Arab world. On the Origin of Species was greeted in just the same way as it had been in the West – as a political, moral and even theological document rather than as a work of science. Its translators, both oriental and occidental, were equally at fault: the first German edition was produced by someone who did not believe that species evolve into new forms, while the French equivalent included a discussion of the inevitability of progress that infuriated Darwin. Arab accounts, too, did not hesitate to bring in hints of natural theology or even of something not far from intelligent design in the versions presented to the public.
In the West, the Origin was used as an excuse for imperialism, for socialism, for communism and for fascism, for eugenics and for women’s rights, for racism and for internationalism, for atheism and, with equal fervour, as a call for the renewal of Christianity with a new agenda, or a cry for the Church to return to its roots. The Arab world was just the same. Some of the parallels are uncanny: Alfred Russel Wallace insisted that all creatures had evolved through natural selection – except, that is, Homo sapiens, which had, he said, “something which he has not derived from his animal progenitors – a spiritual essence…[that] can only find an explanation in the unseen universe of Spirit”. (Darwin commented that the statement was “not worse than the prevailing superstitions of the country”, in other words Christianity.) Several Islamic writers made an identical claim; that evolution proved the God-given uniqueness of man himself.
Darwinism made its initial impact in Syria, which was then – as, until quite recently, now – a light of reason in the Middle East. The theory was promoted in American-run missionary colleges (which had almost no success in making converts) until the fundamentalists back home got wind of what was up and put a stop to it. Even so, it spread widely through popular science magazines and may have had a greater effect on Arabic-speaking intellectuals than it did in its European homeland.
This is a learned account of the influence of a book on biology – the book on biology – on almost everything except biology itself. To those of us in the trade, using the Origin as raw material for theology, philosophy or politics is akin to using Moby-Dick as a zoology textbook: it entirely misses the point. At a time when more than 90 per cent of Egyptians deny the fact of evolution, we need a modern reading of Darwin in Arabic that tells us what he actually said, and not what others have said about him. I have no immediate plans to give further lectures in Syria. Dawkins, where are you when we really need you?
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950
By Marwa Elshakry
University of Chicago Press, 448pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226001302 and 1449 (e-book)
Published 11 February 2014