Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darwin bicentennial in Pakistan

I have bits and pieces of information about Darwin's bicentennial in Pakistan. The news is a bit of mixed bag. There have been some very good opinion pieces urging television networks and others to use Darwin's bicentennial to highlight evolution and its applications. However, most of these got published in Pakistani English newspapers, which cater to the more liberal-educated (and elite) segments of the population. But still it was great to see mainstream newspapers addressing an issue many feel controversial in Pakistan. At the same time, as far as I know, cable channels did not show any documentaries on the subject. I know that Zakir Thaver had even made all the arrangements to get the rights to air the fantastic PBS series, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea at a significant discount, but was unsuccessful in convincing Dawn News or others on airing it in Pakistan. I don't know what happened on Darwin Day in other Muslim countries. If someone knows about it, let me know.

Here are couple of Darwin related articles and activities in Pakistan from the past few weeks:
Isa Daudpota wrote two opinion pieces in Dawn. The first one, Darwin's year: time to reflect (you'll have to scroll down to see it), was published on January 11th, and among other things, it talked about the Museum of Natural History in Islamabad:
During the visit I walked to the lowest level. This is where the museum explicitly shows how the evolution of life took place on earth. You enter the moderately sized room with its four walls painted to show quite nicely the story of life. Starting on the right one sees in almost seamless progression the appearance of primitive life forms in water, moving on to fish, reptiles, amphibians, land-based animals, primates and then early humanoids, the hunter-gatherers, finally getting to modern humans. This brings one back to the door where one began the journey. If you stand in the middle and turn around you see the panorama of life before you. A good teacher of biology could keep a class occupied for several hours in this room alone.

One wonders how many teachers in Pakistan would, however, notice the white pillar from floor to roof, over one foot wide, that separates the pictures of the hordes of apes from the hunting humanoids. (Nowhere else in this room are the different life forms shown separated from other groups.) More importantly, will the teacher on noticing this anomaly, point it to the students and discuss it? A clear discussion on this issue alone could lead to a much better understanding of biology (and life generally) than a year of learning facts that fail to unify the subject.

I gathered a number of museum staff nearby to ask their opinion about why the museum chose to separate the apes from the humanoids, given that after Darwin it was generally accepted that human are primates, i.e. closely related to monkeys and apes. Most remained quiet. One said, in true bureaucratic fashion, that I would need to contact the director who designed the room. Another said that if the connection was shown the museum would be burned down by religious fanatics. The museum’s stagnant website, perhaps reflecting this attitude, has no mention of Darwin or evolution. Instead, it should be the main institute explaining and displaying artifacts of natural history on the foundations laid by scientific Darwinian ideas.
Well...part of the problem is that everyone is assuming a threat from the religious circles on this topic. So there is a preemptive self-censorship (redundant?). It seems that cable stations are also reluctant for the same reason. But we don't know - what if turns out to be not such a big deal. After all, Iqbal (revered as the national poet) in the early 20th century had accepted evolution (granted, with some reservations). Dr. Israr (no one can accuse him of being a liberal) has also openly defended evolution. So perhaps things are not as hopeless as we believe they are.

Perhaps one of the more entertaining essays was written by Irfan Hussain, again in Dawn. He used an idiotic statement of Pakistani cricket legend turn politician, Imran Khan, as an excuse to talk not just about evolution but also about the state of thinking on these matters in Pakistan:
Many religious people have viewed the Darwinian theory of evolution as an attack on their faith. Others have reconciled belief in a supernatural being controlling events in the universe with a scientific theory that pulls together a vast plethora of evidence. Whatever one’s position on the truth of Darwin’s revolutionary exposition, it would take a foolhardy person to dismiss it as a ‘half-baked theory’ as Imran Khan has done recently.

Titled Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion, the essay is dated Nov 8, 2008, and was sent to me via email by a reader. In this article, the politician and ex-cricketer describes his personal journey from the westernised, secular outlook of his youth to his present faith-based worldview.

In a sense, Imran Khan’s view of Darwin’s life work captures the essence of our backwardness. By rejecting a vast body of scientific research and analysis as ‘half-baked’, he exposes his own ignorance. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion on any subject under the sun. But as he is a role model for many young Pakistanis, he has a duty to choose his words with greater care. He may refuse to accept the consensus behind Darwinian theory in the international scientific community, but to dismiss it out of hand risks influencing impressionable young minds into following him.

As it is, there is not a single world-class university or research institute in the Muslim world. The reason for this is not hard to find. By refusing to accept and internalise the rational method of empirical research and analysis, we discourage and suppress scientific and objective scholarship.

In Imran Khan’s mind, as in many others, reason is a western monopoly. So anyone using rational analysis as a tool is dismissed as ‘western’, a pejorative term deployed to undermine any argument. Unfortunately, this widespread trend has had profound significance over the centuries. By ceding scientific research and progress to the West, Muslims find themselves in their current predicament. By contrast, countries like China, Japan and Korea have made tremendous progress by accepting reason as the basis of their education and public discourse. So when Imran Khan says ‘the East sticks to religion’ in the title of his essay, he is effectively ignoring well over half the East.
I actually like Imran Khan. I think he is one of the very few (only one?) honest politicians out there. However, he has been over-compensating for his wild cricketing days - and is frequently found in strange alliances with right-wing conservative political parties. The Darwin slip is just a symptom. But I'm quite certain that Imran Khan is not really familiar with evolution nor has he given it a serious thought. He is a smart guy (despite evidence to the contrary), and I'm sure if someone (other than his Jamaat-e-Islami friends) properly explains to him the basic ideas of evolution and the evidence behind it (see these 15 evolutionary gems from the journal Nature (pdf)) and 12 examples from Wired Magazine), he would be fine with it (by the way, here is the link to Imran Khan's Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion).

Close to Darwin's bicentennial, The Daily Times had an opinion piece by Munir Ataullah. Talking about the bicentennial, he asks:
Will we in Pakistan be in step with the rest of the world? I doubt it. For, apart from the odd pocket of sanity here and there, our people know better: most of us unequivocally reject such crude attempts to impose ‘Western cultural hegemony’ — in this case, under the insidious guise of pseudo-scientific fact — upon those who are blessed enough to be vouchsafed eternal truths. Check for yourself what — if anything — the vernacular media has to say on the occasion.
In addition, after failing to convince cable stations, Zakir screened Darwin's Dangerous Idea - the first episode of PBS series, Evolution, at - where else - The Second Floor (T2F).

Yes, the numbers are small - but these conversations are essential. Congrats on all these efforts! To those who could not attend the screening at T2F, here is Darwin's Dangerous Idea:

Update (2/15): There was also a seminar in Quetta, Baluchistan on Darwinism: Evolution, Genomic, and Medicine (organized by faculty of Biotechnology and Informatics at Baluchistan University of Information Technology, Engineering & Management Science - BUITEMS) to mark Darwin's bicentennial (thanks Zakir). I am really curious about the presentations. BUITEMS is a perfect example of the complex practical situation: They have a course on evolution and diversity which looks like a pretty good course. At the same time, there is a requirement to take a first semester course on Islamic Studies. (By the way, BUITEMS is also offering a new BS program on Islamic Studies with Computer Technology (!). So when we talk about evolution, we have to take into account this complex ground reality).


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