The Voltage Gate

Welcome to the 5th edition of Oekologie, the ‘sphere’s only blog carnival focusing on ecology and environmental science. We are always looking for hosts (especially for October) and contributors, so please check out those tabs if you’re interested in either.

Some of you may know that I have a tendency to mix in some history when hosting science carnivals. So, for the first themed edition of Oekologie, we will be using ancient and medieval Arabic nature writing to frame our moving monthly mag of biological interactions in the environment.

Zoology One of the most famous Arabic zoological writers was a man named Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr, who was born in Basra and is usually referred to by his less than pleasant nickname, al-Jahiz (“goggle-eyed”).

Some scholars claim that al-Jahiz may have been the first scholar to propose the evolution of life because of a few glancing references in the man’s writings to death as a standard for animal life. This assertion is a bit of a stretch. His statements represent more of an understanding of ecology than evolution in the animal kingdom:

The mosquitoes go out to look for their food as they know instinctively that blood is the thing which makes them live. As soon as they see the elephant, hippopotamus or any other animal, they know that the skin has been fashioned to serve them as food; and falling on it, they pierce it with their proboscises, certain that their thrusts are piercing deep enough and are capable of reaching down to draw the blood. Flies, in their turn, although they feed on many and various things, principally hunt the mosquito… All animals, in short, cannot exist without food, neither can the hunting animal escape being hunted in his turn.

This may be the first written observation of ecological patterns among animals. The following are a bit more recent:

Botany The botanical writings of the ancient Greeks, especially works like De Plantis by Nicolas of Damascus, inspired Arabic works of the same ilk. Most of these writings served a practical function, discussing the use of plants in medicine or agriculture. The seventh volume of the Kitab al-shifa or the Book of Healing by the physician Ibn Sina featured plant physiology prominently for medicinal purposes. Perhaps more famously, Abu Hanifa al-Dinawari, a native of Dinawar, Iraq in the 9th century, wrote a multi-volume work called Kitab al-nabat, the Book of Plants (pictured), in which he listed known plants alphabetically and included information about animal interactions with these plants: pollination, infection and consumption.

Plant ecology is not nearly as popular as animal but nevertheless, we have a couple of great posts from the ‘sphere this month:

Environment While there were no conservation efforts launched in the ancient days of the Islamic world, the land was important to the people and reflective in their prolific writings on geography as Frank Egerton explains:

The study of geography was more highly developed in the Islamic world than in its Byzantine and West European neighbors. Muslim civilization covered a much larger region than did either of the others. Muslims were engaged in significant long-distance commerce, and sometimes conquests, and they wanted to understand where they were headed.

They were accomplished cartographers, using the latest in technological innovations: the astrolabe, celestial sphere, gnomon, quadrant and sundial.

Today’s ecologists are using analogous instruments to study the layout and integrity of our ecosystems. Here are some posts discussing recent issues in environmental methodology and policy:

Thanks for the submissions! Looking forward to next month. Submit your blog article to the next edition of Oekologie, to be hosted by Greg Laden, using the carnival submission form.


Frank Egerton’s wonderful series entitled A History of the Ecological Sciences, part 6 & 7, published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.

Islamic Philosophy Online


  1. #1 Laelaps
    May 15, 2007

    Wonderful stuff Jeremy; I definitely learned as much from your summations of Arabic ecology as I did from the submitted posts themselves. And if you still need a host for October, I’ll be more than happy to oblige.

  2. #2 John Feeney
    May 16, 2007

    Nice job. Fascinating bits of history too. Thanks.

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