Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
In the past two weeks, we have been fortunate to host two lectures of extraordinary insight and impact, which I am confident, will stand the test of time to be remembered in the history of this university. They provide a remarkable lead-in to the crescendo of this term,
Founders Day, with our distinguished speaker Mrs. Maysa Jalbout, and
Giving Day, coinciding with the publication of this message.
The Science and Humanism of Freeman Dyson
On November 15, at our New York Office, our Board of Trustees meeting was graced by the presence of
Professor Freeman Dyson, who honored us by accepting
AUB's inaugural Science and Humanism Award and addressing a joint audience in the US and Beirut. Dyson—a theoretical physicist and mathematician—has enlightened generations of students with his scientific inquiries into the mysteries of the order of our universe. The 94-year-old has also spent a lifetime advocating for human rights and academic freedom, in the recent past campaigning courageously for the release of arrested Palestinian academic
Dr. Imad Barghouthi of al-Quds University, who joined the video link-up from his office in Ramallah.
Professor Dyson delivered an exhilarating and original
50-minute discourse charting the origin of our species and its likely future entitled
Biological and Cultural Evolution: Six Characters in Search of an Author. Inspired by the 1921 play
Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, he substituted Pirandello's six actors with five biologists—Charles Darwin, Motoo Kimura, Ursula Goodenough, Richard Dawkins, and Svante Pääbo—and an author, Herbert George Wells. Cameo roles were given to Gregor Mendel, Sewall Wright, Jesus of Nazareth, William Shakespeare, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Darwin was first to take the stage for his groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection (which Board Chair Philip Khoury would subsequently inform Dyson had profoundly impacted this institution during the 1882 Lewis Affair). Dyson went on eloquently to demonstrate how Darwin's theory was incomplete without Kimura's 1968 neutral theory of molecular evolution (describing the genetic drift that occurs in small populations) or the observation by Goodenough 20 years later of rapid evolution of specific gene systems. Separately, they each unlocked mysteries of the diversity which abounds at some branches of the tree of life, not predicted by Darwin, and characterized by Dyson as the “beetle paradox," or “the Creator's inordinate fondness for beetles" of which some 350,000 different species have been identified.
Dyson considered Goodenough's 1997 paper,
Rapid Evolution of Sex-Related Genes in Chlamydomonas, to be an achievement comparable to the books of Darwin and Kimura, showing that random genetic mutations are more prevalent in genes responsible for sexual reproduction, thereby increasing the risk of genetic isolation and the opportunity—if rare—for a pair of parents, “whose names might happen to be Adam and Eve," to create a new species. He speculated—with a not-so-subtle dig at gender inequality in science—that her theory's underexposure resulted from the “tendency to downgrade people because of the composition of their genomes."
At this point, our awardee turned his attention from biological to cultural evolution, that is the changes to life on our planet wrought not by genes over millennia but by the spread of ideas over decades. Dyson brilliantly used three works—Tono-Bungay, The Time Machine, and The Outline of History—by H. G. Wells to illuminate human destiny governed by the forces of good and evil, driven by the ancient emotions of love and hate, fear and greed. Like Wells, Dyson took us into the far future, not of predatory Morlocks and hunted Eloi, but of the small human populations who might leave the confines of Earth and once again become subject to genetic drift and genetic isolation to mold our species into new patterns of diversity according to Nature's grand plan.
Dawkins—a long-time intellectual sparring partner of Dyson's—was afforded due credit for his insights on the gene and its cultural counterpart, the meme.
The Selfish Gene “is a classic [which] makes a convincing case for the paradoxical conclusion: that selfish genes can orchestrate the evolution of cooperation, generosity, and self-sacrifice in humans." But Dyson decried the “dogmatic" approach of Dawkins's followers for disavowing the underrated Goodenough's insights that biological selection works directly at species level too, not just through unthinking, uncaring DNA molecules.
Through his sixth character, Svante Pääbo's, Dyson marveled at the earliest example we have of cultural and biological evolution acting together—namely the pooling of resources and pair bonding during the last ice age (sharing memes, and then genes) between modern humans outside Africa and other hominin species, namely Neanderthals and Denisovans. Pääbo's genome analysis shows these ancient populations never became extinct, but simply merged their genomes with modern humans. It is an optimistic note to end upon; where skin color discrimination was once a norm that may have augured the division of our species, there is now a broad movement to champion racial equality. This points us towards a greater merging of diverse genetic make-ups, which Dyson unforgettably described as “a small step in the long history of the transition of human society from incessant warfare to brotherhood."
Restoration of Arabic and Islamic Science and Philosophy
inauguration of the
Farouk Jabre Center for Arabic and Islamic Science and Philosophy was the occasion for the second stellar display of scholarship from our alumnus George Saliba, AUB's first Jabre Khwarizmi Chair of Arabic and Islamic Science and founding director of the new center. Dr. Saliba is a world authority on the development and transition of scientific knowledge from antiquity to the modern age, particularly the role of Islamic civilization in that process. He drew a large audience on November 26, which was rewarded with a passionate elucidation of the need for evidence-based study of Arabic and Islamic science and philosophy, and the importance of institutionalizing it at this university. Like Dyson's, Saliba's thesis is the result of decades of methodical, humanistic inquiry, and also bears close examination here.
In the late 18th century, the Arab/Islamic world was unfortunate enough to suffer colonization from both France and Britain, and—as Bartholdi's statue at the Collège de France of Jean-Francois Champollion, the father of Egyptology, frankly demonstrates—the myth of European cultural superiority arose alongside the capture of territory and subjugation of populations. It translated into further myths, belied by the writings of Khwarizmi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn al-Haitham, to name a few, that Islamic civilization merely preserved classical science in aspic because Arabic was not a language suited to science, and that Islam was not a religion that fostered scientific inquiry. I share Dr. Saliba's outrage that one hears, even in this country, Arabic described as “une langue sauvage."
Dr. Saliba went on to provide multiple examples that proved Arab/Islamic scientists were innovators and discoverers in their own right, describing complex geometric and astronomical concepts (without the need for diagrams), refuting Aristotelian principles, and making their own corrections and fresh scientific observations. He also showed the continuation of first-rate science in the Arab/Islamic world long after its supposed demise following Abu Hamid Al Ghazali (d. 1111), including the now-famous contribution of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), whose calculations of the movement of Mercury were borrowed (without attribution, but also without fully understanding them) by the father of modern astronomy Copernicus (1473-1543).
Dr. Saliba brought us back to the modern era by charting the marginalization, impoverishment, and division of the Arab/Islamic civilization after Europeans managed to navigate both the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and transformed scientific research funding from patronage to monopoly capitalism (in contrast to stringent Islamic injunctions against those who conceal valuable knowledge).
In passing, he gave us a tantalizing glimpse of his as-yet unpublished research into the intellectual origins of Galileo's first—highly profitable and litigated over—patent, the military compass, in 1597, which Saliba has traced to 9th century Baghdad.
Which brings us to why we need—and why we are so grateful for the philanthropy of Trustee Emeritus Farouk Jabre for endowing—a center for the study of the Arab and Islamic contribution to science and philosophy at AUB. Our mission is to revive the fortunes of this region and connect it with the world through quality education, the advancement of knowledge through research, and being a role model for service and outreach to communities. Since its foundation, this university has had Arabic/Islamic science and philosophy in its DNA, from the works of Cornelius Van Dyck, Mansour Jurdak (grandfather of our distinguished Board Chair Philip Khoury), and Edward Kennedy, to modern-day scholars such as Professor Emeritus Tarif Khalidi, Dean Nadia El Cheikh, and former provost Ahmad Dallal, who envisioned this center with Trustee Jabre in 2012. To paraphrase Jurdak's introduction to his famous
Arabic Astronomical Dictionary, to have full confidence in our future, we need to take pride in our past, and the civilization, culture, science, and knowledge it has produced.
Indeed, from this institution's foundation, AUB has been the positive correction to Champollion's subjugating boot and will continue to be so. Both Dyson and Saliba—in their different ways—recognized in their lectures AUB's unique contributions to the cultural evolution of this region and of humanity as a whole, and this drives our university confidently forward in search of a better future.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD