Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths (PART 1)
by Nasser Tufail
PART 1 of 2
“FAKE NEWS” AND SPECIOUS REALITIES
“The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on…”
“nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”
Though his words are a metaphor representing elements of fate, remorse and time, along the lines of Lady Macbeth’s expression: “What’s done cannot be undone”, the point to be made in using this analogy is that in a post-truth world of internet, social media and verity challenged politics where single universal truths can often get supplanted by “alternative facts”, opinions, hoaxes and falsehoods, it is becoming increasingly challenging to discern fact from fiction when not just “half a line” but complete lines and paragraphs can be effortlessly altered, rewritten or undone entirely and new “realities” created!
The former President of a “certain” country as well as many of his cohorts lavishly demonstrated that not only can you callously say some really malevolent and horrible things about others and fabricate things on the fly completely out of thin air, you need not have an iota of compunction to even consider the need to “undo” anything unpleasant that was said or done. In fact, you can simply deny of having ever said or done something in the first place, simply discarding it as “Fake News”, and then even going on the offensive if someone confronts you with facts! Regrettably, many millions seem to condone these kind of actions and validate such behavior.
For someone with a basic science background, it is easy to dismiss the time-lapse viral video enthusiastically shared by a friend on WhatsApp of a “lightning fast” bullet train supposedly travelling faster than a bullet at 4,800 km/h from Osaka to Tokyo as fabrication on steroids.
AN ARAB THEORY OF EVOLUTION?
But what is one to make of another seemingly outlandish claim shared by another person with an accompanying corroborative quote that the “real” man behind the Theory of Evolution who is worthy of credit was not Charles Darwin but an Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, whose “real” name was Wali al-Din Abd al-Raḥman ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Ibn Khaldun! A few days later, the same quote was forwarded to me by another friend, who happens to know the other person who first shared it. Now, I for one am always open and receptive to new concepts, ideas and possibilities, and can easily be persuaded by logic and reason if they compellingly prevail over established narratives, authority, dogma or tradition, and since I did not know about an “Arab Theory of Evolution”, I was quite curious and wanted to explore this idea further.
It just so happened that a few days earlier I had started reading the Magnus Opus called Muqaddimah written by the Tunisian-born great philosopher, scholar and historian, Ibn Khaldun (Franz Rosenthal’s translation). The treatise is 1,252 pages of arduous philosophical stuff, injected with some economic principles (including the “original” Laffer Curve, believe it or not – more on that in a minute), political philosophy, mankind’s history, Islamic theology and even sociology! Since I have the digital edition of the book, trying a few keyword searches on the subject was easy and I promptly ended up at the following text on page 138:
“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 reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man. This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.”
An ostensible precursor to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, this quote at least had veracity, unlike the comical one attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “The thing about quotes and information from the internet is that it’s hard to verify their authenticity!” But to consider Khaldun as the “real” founder of the Theory of Evolution seems a bit of a stretch!
ISLAMIC CONTRIBUTION TO SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
There is no question that the scientific texts, discoveries and inventions emanating from the tradition of Islamic scholarship have contributed immensely to the overall scientific knowledge that helped in further great discoveries during the early and late modern periods – from the Renaissance and Age of Discovery through to the Age of Enlightenment and even beyond. And some of those texts do include thoughts on evolution as well.
The Iraqi theologian and scholar, Al-Jahiz, the Persian polymath, Nasir al-Din Tusi, the Andalusian Muslim scholar, Ibn Arabi, as well as other Islamic scholars all proffered the idea of micro-evolution or gene frequency change and evolution in terms of the transition of elements to minerals, plants, animals (monkeys, to be sure, for that is as evolutionary as it gets) and finally, to humans. Al-Jahiz actually described the “natural selection” process as a being’s innate desire to live and the struggle within the species against one another, with the stronger prevailing over the lesser biologically fit. We know that Ibn Rushd was greatly influenced by Aristotle’s work and wrote about him. We also know that pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaximander and Empedocles put forth elementary forms of evolutionary ideas to add to the existing body of knowledge and the story of humans. Whilst it is plausible that some of the Arab scholars may have come across such knowledge, which in turn could have influenced their own ideas, but no one can be sure. I think the human story of science, evolution and scholarship becomes more enriching if it seen as a collective human endeavor, and not necessarily as petty triumphs of one over the other – the West, the East, Christianity, Islam, Judaism.
DARWIN IS STILL THE “REAL” DEAL
Information and knowledge exist as a continuum; moreover, the same piece of knowledge that was explicitly codified in the last century or two may well have existed 1,000 or 2,000 years ago, in an unstructured, informal or uncodified way. Scientific discoveries and knowledge “borrow” and build on existing knowledge by additional observations, research, experiments, modeling and other techniques. The bottom line is that whilst all great minds before Darwin contributed in some way to the evolution story, Darwin was the “real” deal who proposed the theory and presented his findings and evidence. He spent years observing plant and animal life and collecting tens of thousands of living and fossilized specimens to study. He developed the framework of his groundbreaking theory of evolution through natural selection and went on to publish On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, challenging long held religious and scientific beliefs, including boldly confronting the core teachings of Christian faith and the notion that the natural world existed in “benevolent harmony” with a benevolent God who cared a lot for his creation; he thought the world was a savage and cruel place, and one can draw their own conclusions on that idea! If there is one person who deserves almost as much credit as Darwin, it would have to be the other British naturalist (and a contemporary of Darwin) who came up with a stunningly similar theory, Alfred Russell Wallace.
Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.