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Decolonising history of evolutionary biology: a perspective from 19th-century India

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In an 1896 article in the Urdu journal Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, titled ‘Adna Halat se Aala Halat par Insaan ki Taraqqi’ (‘The Stages of Human Development from an Inferior to Superior State’), Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898) wrote, ‘the monkeys that exist today, orangutans and apes, are quite similar to humans in many ways. Darwin claims that middle chains are missing or extinct, but even if we found them, they would only prove similarities among kinds.’ Here, Sayyid Ahmad refers to the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), not to discredit or defend Darwin’s theory of evolution, but to support Sayyid Ahmad’s own position on the topic, outlined in ‘Adna Halat’, that humans evolved over time from a common animal ancestor and this process is guided by a divine creator.

This talk examines questions related to Sayyid Ahmad’s views on human evolution and its broader implications related to historians of biology. What is left out when historians use a term such as ‘Darwinism’ to represent the history of evolutionary biology? Does it create a Eurocentric narrative of evolutionary thought focused on a specific area? I will argue that Sayyid Ahmad’s views on human evolution are not only important in how we write about the history of evolutionary biology, but also of the theories of human development from a non-Eurocentric perspective, in this case a Muslim in 19th-century India.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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