How to Break the Informal Ban on Studying Evolution

/ 02 Mar 2017

How to Break the Informal Ban on Studying Evolution

DOHA—Say it quietly, but evolutionary research does takes place in the Arab world. The subject is highly sensitive, rejected by many officials and religious scholars for its perceived atheism. Yet with the right backing and the right connections it can be undertaken, even in the religiously conservative Gulf states.

A recent book by Jörg Matthias Determann, a German-born historian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, has explored the possibilities and pitfalls of researching evolution in the Gulf. Determann teaches a course on the history of science and became interested in the question of whether doing good science was even possible or whether a lack of academic freedom in the region would forever prevent innovation.

“How can we transform an economy driven by oil into one that relies on the creation and sale of knowledge?” asks Determann. This idea of a knowledge economy, using research to eventually develop new products and hence revenue, is sought after by much of the Gulf. And many say that the freedom to investigate any subject is important for a true knowledge economy to flourish.

“I could have looked at the theory of relativity, but I wanted to look at something more controversial,” explains Determann. “If you can do evolutionary research then I assume you can also be innovative in other fields.”

Teaching the theory of evolution in school classrooms is rare and controversial in much of the Arab world. In Morocco, for example, students can complete high school and even university without a mention of Darwin. And the Gulf can be even more conservative, especially Saudi Arabia, where evolution can’t be found in many textbooks or, if mentioned, is treated as an unproven theory.

This aversion to evolution isn’t limited to state classrooms. Last December, conservative hackers managed to take down an online event where evolution was to be discussed and explained to an Arab audience.

In light of this less-than-friendly environment, what Determann concluded is that a surprising amount of research on evolutionary topics does take place in the Middle East. It requires scientists to be discreet, but it’s there.

Pockets exist within countries and institutions where researchers are able to tackle evolutionary topics without fear of reprisal. Determann calls them “islands of scientific efficiency.” What most of them have in common is that they’re backed up with some political clout.

“They have key patrons, often members of the government, who protect them,” says Determann. “A good patron can get you a lot of money very quickly without jumping through bureaucratic loops.”

Perhaps most crucially, Determann says a well-connected political backer also affords more academic freedom. “They make it possible to engage in controversial topics.”

Strong patronage can also mean that certain labs and research centers are exempt from the strict employment laws in many Gulf countries, which insist that a certain percentage of the workforce be made up of Gulf nationals. That means the laboratory administrators can hire on the basis of merit and encourage foreign researchers to bring their expertise to the area.

Joseph Williams, a biologist at Ohio State University, has spent eight years on and off researching the adaptations of various birds and mammals in Saudi Arabia. He worked with the Saudi government–funded National Wildlife Research Center, an example of one of Determann’s “islands of scientific efficiency.” He said that almost all the researchers there were Western nationals.

Other experts say that it’s fairly typical for evolutionary research in the Gulf to be dominated by foreign scientists.

“It’s because they can leave the country if they need to—and that includes people from other Arab countries,” says Daniel Stolz, a professor at Northwestern University in Illinois who specializes in the history of science in the Middle East.

What Determann describes can be considered the best-case scenario for evolutionary researchers in the Arab world. “He is quite consciously trying to show where there are possibilities to discuss and research evolution,” explains Konrad Hirschler, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and Determann’s one-time doctoral supervisor. “That’s almost certainly why he’s been allowed to do this work.”

Other observers of the region are highly critical of censorship and routine infringements on academic freedoms in the Gulf.

“Some people might describe him as optimistic or even bordering on naivety,” says Hirschler. “But I don’t think he’s romanticizing or is unaware of things. He is trying to show what is actually possible.”

Williams says researching in Saudi Arabia didn’t feel all that different to working in the conservative parts of the United States, where some citizens believe in “creationism”—that God, not evolution, made the world—and a diplomatic choice of words also goes a long way. “I went to school in Tennessee, where there are similar concerns,” he says. “We talked about how animals have changed over time rather than evolved.”

The term “evolution” in the Gulf is often viewed as a bad word, says Williams, just as it can be in Tennessee. “Most scientists in Saudi Arabia accepted that animals can change, but it’s still a very sensitive subject,” he says.

Iyad Zalmout, an evolutionary biologist and advisor to the Saudi Geological Survey, agrees that shrewd scientists in the Gulf have to choose their words wisely. Zalmout is originally from Jordan and spent a long time as a researcher in the United States, but he is now in Saudi Arabia unearthing fossils to learn more about the country’s geological history.

He chooses his battles carefully. “If it’s a small discovery we’ll be very hesitant to talk about evolution,” he explains. But if he digs up a really significant fossil that could help further map the evolutionary origin of humans, he’s prepared to take the risk. “We have to assess whether it’s worth the provocation,” he says.

For most of the time Williams was at the National Wildlife Research Center, Saud al-Faisal, a prince and former foreign minister, supported the institution. But the royal family member withdrew his backing and funding before he died last year. This highlights the vulnerability of researchers in this area: The center suddenly had to meet targets for employing Saudi nationals and was exposed in a way it hadn’t been previously. It had to cope and react to this with less money at its disposal.

“In the last year I was there it got to be a squabble over the money,” says Williams. “Things got fairly ugly before I left.”

But when times were good and the research center enjoyed the prince’s backing, he says he was given carte blanche in terms of what he wanted to study.

Not all evolutionary scientists in the region have enjoyed the same freedom—some, especially Arab researchers, felt a reticence to discuss the topic and declined requests for an interview.

Some scientists may see a true knowledge economy in the Gulf as a distant dream while researchers still feel the need to tiptoe around to get their work done, but Determann remains positive. For him, the very fact that such contentious work can take place in any form is proof that science and research may help to bankroll the region’s insatiable desire for development after the oil wells run dry.




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