Michael Slackman

It is not that Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution are unknown in Alexandria, Egypt. But even among those who profess to know something about the subject, the common understanding is that Darwin said man came from monkeys. Darwin, of course, did not say man came from monkeys. He said the two share a common ancestor. But to discuss Darwin anywhere is not just to explore the origin of man. It is inevitably to engage in a debate between religion and science. That is why, 150 years after Darwin published On the origin of species,” the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government, decided to hold an international conference on Darwin in this conservative, Sunni Muslim nation. It was a first.

“A lot of people say his theories are wrong, or go against religion,” said Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council. “His ideas provoke, but if we are going to understand each other, we have to discuss things that divide us.”

Darwin may be misunderstood here, but in many ways that is but one symptom of a more fundamental problem with education in Egypt and around the region. In a culture that prizes and nurtures conformity, challenging conventions and beliefs is anathema, said writers, political scientists, social workers, students and educators inside and outside the conference.

Education here is based on rote memorisation, with virtually no emphasis on creative thinking. Few schools here even teach the theory of evolution.

“Our culture, the whole Arab culture unfortunately, does not encourage free thinking,” said Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at American University in Cairo. “You’re not encouraged to think freely, you’re supposed to be moulded into certain forms and frameworks.”

In large part because of the emphasis on memorisation over critical thinking, many here say, the quality of the education is poor. While countries in the region often spend as much or more than the world average per pupil, the results are frequently far below average.

Egypt, for example, once considered the intellectual capital of the Arab world, was recently ranked 124th of 133 countries in the quality of its primary education by the World Economic Forum, based in Switzerland. Other global assessments have provided equally dismal results.

“If our education system is solid, but without emphasis on Darwin, it would be OK,” said Belal Fadl, a script writer and social commentator. “But our education system doesn’t really teach anything well, not Arabic, not English, nothing.”

Indeed, many people, including some of the 150 scientists and scholars in attendance at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina this month, were somewhat surprised that the government even agreed to allow the conference. It was unlike the leadership here to permit public discussion of ideas that challenge religious thinking and the national curriculum, or promote critical thinking, they said.

But the government’s acquiescence came in part because of the library itself, a modern reincarnation of an ancient intellectual centre that was rebuilt and re-opened in 2001, a one-shot effort to rekindle the kind of scholarship that centuries ago put Egypt at the forefront of science and learning.

While defending Darwin, it was this broader theme, the idea of at least listening to new ideas, that the library’s director, Ismail Sergaldin, emphasised in his opening remarks. He pointed to the Quran, which he said emphasised study and scholarship, as well as early Muslim scientists, to make his point. He cited the words of the pioneering 13th-century physician, Ibn al-Nafis:

“When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because people say it is.”

It was a message that seemed to resonate with the many Egyptian college students in the lecture hall.

Partial acceptance

“I am not against the idea of evolution completely,” said Amr Zeydah, 23, a zoology major at Alexandria University. “I accept the idea partially.”

Despite his major, Zeydah has never studied Darwin, and before the conference knew little about the theory of evolution. But after taking in the discussion, he said he had worked out a way to reconcile the two: that God created life, which then evolved to suit its environment. While some people may chuckle at the notion that man was once of enormous height, the point, some of the speakers here said, was that local sensitivities and beliefs must be understood, too, not dismissed out of hand, if dialogue is to work.

“The problem is trying to impose your ideas on others,” said Samy Zalat, professor of biodiversity and former chairman of the Department of Zoology at Suez Canal University.

The British Council framed the conference to seek middle ground, more than to promote confrontation. While challenging a religious society to think seriously about evolution, it emphasised the possibility of reconciling a belief in divine creation with Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. That was a position that many students here said they were comfortable with.

“Darwin’s theory of species says nothing about the appearance of life — or about the origins of the universe,” read panel number 7, in an evolution of man exhibition put on display during the conference. “It is perfectly plausible to uphold a scientific account of how natural laws allowed the universe and life to develop and to believe that a deity created those laws.”Judging from public comments made during the gathering, the effort to reconcile faith and science left avowed atheists in the audience frustrated and did little to convince the religious fundamentalists. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service