Evolution, the Iraqi Translation Project, and rebuilding science in the Arab World

by Paul Braterman

Translations change the course of civilisations. The translation project begun by Caliph al-Mansour in the 8th century CE, and accelerated under his grandson Harun al-Rashid, made available in Arabic scholarly writings from Greek, Aramaic (Syriac), Persian, and Indian sources, and laid the foundation for the flowering of science and philosophy in the Islamic world during Europe's Dark Ages. A second translation project, from the 10th century onwards, was in the other direction, from Arabic to Latin. Among its initiators was Gerbert d'Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, and it reached its height in Toledo in Spain where for a while Christianity and Islam came into close contact and where Gerard of Cremona translated al Khwarismi and Avicenna (ibn Sina), as well as Arabic versions of works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. It refreshed Europe's contact with classical learning, while also conveying what was then current scholarship. It was the pathway through which Christian Europe rediscovered Aristotle, while Avicenna's clinical expertise is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. His writings on geology, which I have discussed elsewhere, were among those translated at this time, but originally misattributed to Aristotle.

Avicenna_Expounding_Pharmacy_to_his_Pupils_Wellcome_L0008688R: Avicenna expounding pharmacy to his pupils, from the 15th century "Great Cannon [sic] of Avicenna"; Wellcome Library via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Happily, if belatedly, another translation project is now under way, from English to Arabic, focused largely on science-related topics of general interest, with special attention to evolution.

Why evolution? Not only because of its central role in modern life sciences, but because the response to evolution is a test of willingness to accept reality. Not just to accept that sacred texts require interpretation (we all know that anyway), but that human beings are part of nature. And because the teaching of evolution is under attack in the Arabic-speaking world (as it long has been next door, in Turkey, where last June it was dropped from the textbooks).

Acceptance of evolution is low throughout much of the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, school texts describe "Darwin's theory" as blasphemous and unscientific. In territory controlled by ISIS, the teaching of evolution was banned. In July, ISIS was finally driven from Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq. In August, Iraq itself dropped evolution from the school syllabus, on the grounds that the syllabus was overcrowded and that evolution was never really taught anyway. The Iraqi Education Minister, Omar Mahmoud Mohamed Iqbal Al-saydali, has religious party connections and while he has a degree in education (more that can be said for his opposite number in the US, or the UK or Scotland, for that matter) he has no special training in biology.

MosulThe destroyed al-Nuri mosque and its gate in the old city of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian). Click to enlarge.

In early August, I wrote a short piece for The Conversation on how to present evolution in the face of politically motivated misdirection. As a result, I suddenly I found myself invited to comment on the Iraqi situation, translated into Arabic, and befriended on Facebook by numerous people from Iraq, as well as other Arabic-speaking countries. Befriended by students, artists, poets, engineers, scientists. Befriended by someone from Mosul, almost before the dust of battle had settled, which I found immensely moving. And contacted by the Iraqi Translation Project, of whose existence I had until that time been completely unaware. Now, they have translated several of my pieces into Arabic, a fact of which I'm immensely proud.

The Iraqi Translation Project (ITP) is one of several similar projects that have sprung up in recent years, spurred on no doubt by the disappointments of the Arab Spring. The potential audience is enormous; these projects keep well-curated Facebook pages, and according to the Dubai-based Arab Social Media Report there are over 150 million Facebook users in their target areas. Dubai's Global Initiatives has written in praise of these projects, which makes it all the sadder to note that in Dubai itself, and throughout the United Arab Emirates, evolution is about to be phased out of the school syllabus.

ITPA group of Iraqi Translation Project volunteers outside the Almansour shopping mall, Baghdad. Click for clearer image

ITP started in 2013. Its materials are archived on its website, and accessible through Facebook, where it has over 140,000 followers, and YouTube. The closely related Arabic-language Real Science, founded in2011, also has its own website (now bilingual) and Facebook page. The co-founders of ITP, several of whom are also involved in Real Science, include Hassan Mazin Alkhayuon, currently a PhD student in applied mathematics at the University of Exeter and my own main contact with the Project, a biology teacher and a construction engineer with experience in popularising science, a surgeon, and an English literature graduate. ITP translates cultural articles, videos, and documentaries, with a special concentration on science-related digital materials for a general audience, of which there is a severe lack in Arabic. The Project runs entirely on a voluntary basis, and currently has over fifty active volunteers, including some qualified or qualifying as a translators. The longer term ambition is to set up a professional translation project that will inspire young Arabic-speakers to play their full role in today's world.

The Project has some high-ranking support. Neil Shubin, discoverer of Tiktaalik (the "missing link" between lobefish and amphibians), gave an interview on his motivation as a scientist. His book, Your Inner Fish, is one of my favourite accounts of evolution science, and ITP has provided the documentary version with Arabic sub-titles. Very recently, Shubin tweeted "I'm completely overjoyed that Inner Fish is helping Iraqis build science understanding and appreciation in the arab world. Exciting and bold effort of the Iraqis".

James Yorke, a co-recipient with Benoit Mandelbrot of the 2003 Japan Prize for his work on the mathematics of chaos, made a special video for the Project using the ever-surprising chaotic compound pendulum (enjoy it here).

So far, ITP has translated over 2,000 articles, 60 documentaries, and 150 videos (play list here). Topics cover a wide range, and postings include Sumerian civilisation, gravity waves, political secularism, female philosophers (from Hypatia to Carol Gilligan), and interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans. They do not shy away from sensitive topics, although of course publication does not imply agreement, and recent posts discuss the nature of religious belief, and the politics of separatism in Catalonia and Kurdistan. Evolution is one of the most popular subjects, with the first instalment of Your Inner Fish having received over 90,000 views since August 2016.

The glories of Arabic science in its heyday are now increasingly recognised even in the West, and the reasons for its decline are many and complex. If the decline is to be reversed, change must come from within, and the Iraqi Translation Project, and the movement of which it is part, are signs that maybe this is beginning to happen.

This is an expanded version of a piece that originally appeared in The Conversation.

For more of Paul Braterman's writing, see https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/

Disclosure statement The Iraqi Translation Project has translated several of my pieces into Arabic, and has initiated an Arabic Wikipedia page about me. I am delighted that they find my contribution helpful, but derive no material benefit.