Sunday, November 15, 2009

Darwin in Alexandria - I

Two days have passed and the verdict is in. The quality of speakers (excluding some crazies) and food (excluding coffee) is phenomenal at Darwin's Living Legacy conference in Alexandria. Some quick thoughts: There have been some anti-evolutionary comments made in the sessions that dealt with religion and evolution - but overall, the reception seems to have been quite positive - both in Egyptian newspapers and among the local participants. Ultimately, it is fantastic to see leading evolutionary biologists and historians of science presenting their cutting-edge research in Egypt! Excluding the people on my panels, my two favorite talks so far: Richard Wrangham on Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humans (basically arguing that pre-humans started to control fire and eat cooked food somewhere around 2.6 million years ago and that there is good evidence for the resultant reduced gut size and reduction in molars by 1.6 million years ago - somewhere between Homo habilis and Homo erectus) and James Secord on Darwinism and the Global Circulation of News (stressing the importance of newspapers in the dissemination of Darwin's ideas - though he talked about a number of other things including the mention of first Arabic translation of Origins in 1918 - pretty late, but not as late as in Turkish in 1970).

Yes, there have been some depressing moments as well. In particular the TV debate organized by BBC Arabic. It featured Nidhal Guessoum, Ramez Maluf, and...and...and...Zaghloul El-Naggar. If you are wondering who is Zaghloul El-Naggar. Well, he was responsible for the bizarre Al-Jazeera coverage of the discovery of Ardi - and yes, he made plenty of crazy claims in the debate as well. The debate was in Arabic but I listened to it via (bad) live translation into English. I think a discussion between Nidhal and Ramez and a subsequent interaction with the audience would have been terrific and probably would have brought out not only a discussion of evolution but also about other science-related topics. However, the presence of El-Naggar totally polarized the debate and evoked an equally polarizing reaction from the audience.

What a waste of an opportunity. But this craziness has been balanced by a very high quality of talks.

Some pics coming up in the next post.

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