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Abstract

Many people associate the medieval Arabic lands with a flourishing of science. However, when people think of the contemporary Arab world, they are more likely to think of political and religious conflicts than of scientific discoveries. In contrast to these common associations, however, the oil-rich Gulf monarchies in particular have made enormous investments in research and higher education in recent years and decades. These investments raise an array of pertinent questions: Is the Arab world about to regain its past position as a leading producer of science in the world? Do politics and religion in the region support or resist the proliferation of science? Are the Gulf's universities and research centers new ‘houses of wisdom’ like the libraries of the medieval Arab world? Or are they houses built on sand? As science is crucial to the creation of knowledge societies, answering these questions is important for understanding the future of the Arab world. Answering these questions requires an in-depth analysis of the recent history of science in Arabia. The paper focuses on biology, and in particular evolutionary biology, because of its importance and controversial status. On the one hand, Gulf governments have invested millions of dollars in biological research with the intention of improving health care and developing agriculture. The research was also intended to preserve certain flagship species, like the Arabian oryx, and practices, like falconry, as symbols of national identity. This research covered the evolutionary adaptations that enabled organisms to survive in the harsh environments of Arabia. On the other hand, several Gulf governments have banned the theory of evolution, the central theory of modern biology, and sought to replace it with Islamic creationism. The paper examines what enabled scientists to undertake innovative research into evolutionary biology under the constraints of such contradictory policies. If evolutionary biology as a sensitive subject can flourish in the Arab world, so can any field of science. The paper argues that networks, in particular social networks, were crucial to the development of research on biological evolution in the Gulf monarchies. Typical of rentier societies, some of the scientific networks consisted of vertical patron-client relationships. Princes and sheikhs interested in wildlife conservation offered patronage to biologists who worked on desert ecology. They thus shielded the biologists from attacks by religious scholars and from official constraints. However, at least as important as vertical links were more horizontal ones between scientists. Biologists working on evolution often received considerable inspiration from partners at foreign universities. In these partnerships, Gulf scientists often provided funds, and foreign scientists provided the scientific expertise. These foreign partners were often situated at hubs of global scientific networks. Through these networks, biology in the Gulf monarchies formed part of transnational science. Given the strengths and importance of these networks, I argue that we should look at the Arab world as an area interconnected with global science rather than as a poor, peripheral region.

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/content/papers/10.5339/qfarf.2013.SSHP-019
2013-11-20
2020-09-29
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