Monday, April 05, 2010

Guest Post: Darwin in Jordan

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics atAmerican University of Sharjah.

On March 27, 2010, the British Council organized a “debate” in Amman, Jordan, around the question: “Evolution: Truth or Myth?” The panelists for the event were: Ehsan Masood, a British science journalist and writer; Ahmad Disi, a Jordanian professor of Zoology; Zuhair Amr, also a Jordanian professor of Zoology; Mohammed Abu Diyeh, a Jordanian biologist; Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist; Mohammed Rayyan, a Jordanian professor of Sharia’h (Islamic Law); and me. The event was held at the Jordanian University, the largest of the country, with over 40,000 students, and one of the most important in the region; more than 300 people attended the debate for over three hours.

I did not think it was going to be a “debate”, as I knew that all the scientists on the panel were fully convinced of Evolution and were there to explain it to the public and show that Muslims should not feel any antagonism toward it, as the evolutionary paradigm could quite reasonably be accommodated with the Islamic worldview, and Qur’anic verses, if taken not too literally, could be interpreted in that paradigm. But within half an hour, I understood why it was billed as a “debate”: first and foremost, many in the audience had come to oppose the evolutionists; secondly, perhaps the majority of the attendees held strong doubts about Evolution and kept repeating some of the ill-conceived and oft-repeated “arguments” against evolution (no “missing links”, the similarity being species or even between genomes not being tantamount to direct relation, etc.), and last but not least, one or two of the panellists were either trying to be soft on the audience, stating for example that “of course we cannot accept to be descending from monkeys” even though they knew that we had common ancestors with all monkeys and apes, or sometimes insisting that the evidence for evolution was not definitive enough to force a reconsideration of the Islamic dogmas. The scholar of Islam stressed that while Islam welcomed all scientific investigations and allowed people to take up any theory they felt inclined toward, no result could be accepted if it violated certain “well-established Islamic dogmas that are explicitly found in the Qur’an”, and – most importantly – that Science, being a human endeavour, had to be subjected to the principles of Islam, i.e. that the arbiter of true knowledge is the Qur’an and not Science.

Now, while quite a bit of work went into the preparation of the event, on putting together both the logistics of the events (many thanks to the staff of the British Council) and the program, within half an hour, and as soon as we opened the floor to questions from the public on the first segment of the program, the plan was thrown into disarray, as the audience fired questions on all issues related to evolution, particular human ancestry, chimpanzees, Ardi, and so forth, even though most of those issues had yet to be raised by the panellists. The first Q&A session, which was supposed to last only 15 minutes, took 45 minutes, after which we had to take a break; at that point we decided to reshape the program in order to quickly present essential knowledge on Evolution before opening the floor again for a wide and final discussion segment.

The second session was more productive and enlightening. Perhaps the highlight of the whole program was the presentation made by Dr. Rana Dajani, a clearly devout (Islamically dressed and hair-covered) Muslim biologist, who made an excellent, very didactic, short exposition of Evolution, in the process addressing squarely the question of how to understand/interpret the Qur’anic verses that talk about Adam and the concept of divine creation.

As to me, although short on time, I showed two sets of slides: one on the evolution of Earth (geology and climate in particular), without which the evolution of organisms and species cannot be understood, and one on the evolution of the human species over the last few million years and the evidence for that (fossils, genetics, etc.), showing a series of images on hominid findings, on the one hand, and on the near-identical genomes of humans and chimpanzees. The original plan was for me, the astrophysicist, to cover the first topic (evolution of Earth), and not the second, but considering what the audience wanted to discuss and how things were going, I made a quick decision to present those slides, and they were very much needed, as the public kept insisting that we address “the real issues”…

It was great to see how the audience, which was largely dominated by the opponents and the doubters at first, soon shifted to the supporting group, with more applause coming when the pro-evolutionary arguments were made. Also, the staff of the British Council ran a before-and-after survey, which showed a substantial pro-evolution shift/improvement in the audience’s views and, most importantly, a huge eagerness to learn about Evolution, with many respondents asking that such events be organized again, preferably over several days instead of several hours…

4 comments:

emre said...

You make it sound like a pitched battle! I want to see the video.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Well, I may have added some dramatization... but not much exaggeration... :-)

The most interesting moment was when someone read a "well-chosen" sentence from the recent Ardi paper in Science that made it sound like we can no longer say we have a common ancestor with chimpanzees. I jumped from my seat and shouted "I don't believe that; give me that journal to read right now!" And so I did -- out loud -- and it immediately became clear that the quote had been taken out of context and was not saying that was being claimed...

Two TV station actually recorded the whole event; and someone said there was a webcast, but I don't have any solid info about that; I flew out only a few hours later. But I'll ask... I want to watch that myself!

martin said...

sangambayard-c-m.com

Marc said...

Nidhal, thanks very much for your insightful post. To me, the shape the "debate" took was indicative of the huge thirst for engagement on this issue. This was a first for Jordan, and my prediction is that people will feel less of a need to defend their positions a) if they trust our agenda b) if they feel they are in a safe space and c) if more opportunities are given to them to take part in such debates.