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Biodiversity: A Long Evolutionary Road!

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Earth today, with all the biological richness we feel around us, is the result of 4 billion years of evolution. Although the origin of life has not definitely been established by science, some evidence suggests that life may already have been well-established a few hundred million years after the formation of Earth. Until approximately 600 million years ago, all existence consisted of simple single-celled organisms.

The term “Biodiversity” was first used by wildlife scientist and conservationist Raymond F. Dasmann in a book advocating nature conservation. The term was not widely adopted for more than a decade, when in the 1980s it came into common usage in science and environmental policy. The term is the contracted form of “Biological Diversity”; it may have been coined by W.G. Rosen in 1985, while planning the National Forum on Biological Diversity to be held in 1986, and first appeared in a publication in 1988 when entomologist E.O. Wilson used it as a title for the proceedings of that forum.

In fact, the earliest known treatises dealing with environmentalism and environmental science were Arabic treatises written by Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Jazzar, Al-Tamimi, Al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali Ibn Radwān, Abd-El-Latif, and Ibn Al-Nafis. Their works covered a number of subjects related to pollution, such as air and water pollution, soil contamination, municipal solid waste mishandling, and environmental impact assessments of certain issues.

Ibn Radwān, an Egyptian physician; and Ibn Butlān, an Iraqi poet who left a series of works devoted to practical application and healthy lifestyle, were behind a famous verbal and written controversy. A faithful disciple of Hippocrates, Ibn‑Radwān criticized Ibn‑Butlān for not paying attention to the climatic differences between the cities. In his book “Kitāb daf‘ madār al-abdān bi’ard Misr” (On the prevention of bodily ills in Egypt), he defends the general level of health within Cairo, a city which Ibn-Butlān judged less hygienic than Baghdad. From here, the concern about the environment was triggered into further research and studies.

Al-Jahiz (781‑869) was the first Muslim biologist to develop a theory of evolution. He wrote on the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive; he was the first to describe the struggle for existence. Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains and an early adherent of environmental determinism, arguing that the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community and that the origins of different human skin colors are the outcome of the environment.

The world has witnessed throughout the years milestones in the history of biodiversity studies, among which:

  • Historia Plantarum (Natural History of Plants) and De Causis Plantarum (Reasons for Vegetable Growth) by Theophrastus in 322 BCE, that remained the most authoritative treatises on botany for more than 1,500 years.
  • De Materia Medica, by Pedanius Dioscorides in 50 CE, that described a multitude of medicinal plants.
  • Single-lens microscopes by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in 1673; with a magnification of up to 250 times, allowed him to see what no one had seen before.
  • Philosophie Zoologique by Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Lamarck in 1809, that encompassed all the elements of his study of the cosmos.
  • Origin of Species by Charles Robert Darwin in 1859 that was destined to change Man’s view of his place in nature.
  • Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance in 1865, and Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges and Hermann Muller studies in 1910 on genes inheritance.
  • The discovery of the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) by the Swiss chemist Paul Müller in 1939.
  • Dividing life forms into five-kingdom classification: animals, plants, fungi, protists and bacteria, by Robert Whittaker in 1969.
  • Dolly the Cloned Sheep in 1996.
  • The Human Genome Project (HGP) completion in 2003.

The studies on biodiversity will continue and each milestone is just a step in this long evolutionary road!


*In collaboration with Reda Kandil and Magui Elshirawi, PSC Programs and Events Specialists.

** The original article was published in the PSC Newsletter, Back to Nature (2nd School Semester 2009/2010).

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