Today's Daily Telegraph has a nice piece by Jim Al-Khalili on the forgotten scientific geniuses from the early centuries of Islam. It looks at how, while Christian Europe languished in what some historians view as the "Dark Ages", the Islamic world, with Baghdad at its centre, became the driving force behind advances in philosophy, astronomy, medicine and mathematics.
One figure mentioned is abu Uthman al-Jahith who, between 781-869AD may have preceded Darwin in speculating that environment influences the development of species. In his Book of Animals al-Jahith wrote: "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."
The article tells how this period of Islamic scientific discovery began around 813 when the caliph of Baghdad, al-Ma'mun was instructed by Aristiotle, in a dream, to "seek knowledge and enlightenment", and offers possible explanations for why this golden age drew to a close from the 13th century onwards.
This reminds me of an article we had this time last year by Abdelwahab Meddeb, who wondered why the openness and intellectual dynamism of the early years of Islam did not end up influencing the politics and culture of the Islamic world in the same way the Enlightenment did centuries later in Europe.