Science, Progress and History: Essay Competition

CHED - Science, Progress and History-headerThe Science, Progress and History project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the University of Queensland, and as part of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, seeks to explore questions at the interface of history and the natural sciences, with a focus on laws, patterns and narrative structures in human history, evolutionary history, and cosmology.

In recent news, the project is looking for essay submissions on any subject relevant to its main themes. There will be three prizes of $5,000, three prizes of $2,000, and three prizes of $1,000 awarded in Australian dollars. Students and recent graduates from any university or college are welcome to apply. The deadline for essay submission is 11 April 2014.

Broadly, essay topics range over the following questions:

1. How have conceptions of historical purpose or directionality influenced the emerging historical sciences (geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology)? These might include religious ideas (providential and eschatological), philosophical ideas (Hegelianism) sociological conceptions (Comte, Marx), or economics (Hayek).

2. In what sense was natural history a historical discipline, and what significance can be attached to its eclipse by biology?

3. Are there patterns, or evidence of directionality in evolutionary history?

4. Do the biological sciences, and evolutionary biology in particular, have ‘laws’ or allow for predictability in any strict sense?

5. What relationship, if any, is there been contingent or random processes, and the appearance of order, regularity, or directionality?

6. If historical conceptions of directionality and order in history did in fact influence the development of the historical sciences, can the vestiges of these influences still be discerned?

7. Does the popularization or communication of the sciences to a general public require that they be given some kind of narrative structure—e.g. ‘big history’,  ‘the epic of evolution’? Does this structure distort these sciences or might it be an essential ingredient?

8. Is ‘counterfactual history’ a useful explanatory tool in both spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

9. Are there similarities between the ways in which contingency and order are understood in these two spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

10. Has teleological explanation found its way back into biology and history?

Inventing Progress

Robert Nisbet has observed that “in the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the belief in progress attained the status of a popular religion among the middle class, and was widely declared by intellectuals to be a fixed law.” The idea of progress, of course, is an ancient one. “But only in Western Civilization,” Nisbet claims, “does the idea exist that all history may be seen as one of humanity improving itself, step by step, stage by stage, through immanent forces, until at some remote time in the future a condition of near-perfection for all will exist.” It is a misconception to view progress as a modern idea, as did J.B. Bury (1861-1927) in his The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origins and Growth (1920). Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) and his Works and Days is said to have “set before men the first idea of progress.” We also find contributions to ideas of progress in the writings of Xenophanes, Protagoras, Plato, and even Aristotle. Among the Romans, “the greatest description of human progress to be found in all of ancient thought is the Roman Lucretius.” To this we may add Seneca, who, in his Quaestiones Naturales, writes: “The time will come when mental acumen and prolonged study will bring to light what is now hidden…the time will come when our successors will wonder how we could have been ignorant of things so obvious.”

As is now well attested, Christianity contributed significantly to the idea of progress. As Nisbet puts it, recent scholarship “make it certain beyond question that a very real philosophy of human progress appears almost form the very beginning in Christian theology.” St Augustine (and indeed his predecessors, Eusebius, Tertullian, and others) “fused the Greek idea of growth or development with the Jewish idea of sacred history.” In an oft-cited passage, St Augustine, in his The City of God writes that “the education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible.” The legacy and influence of St Augustine can be found in the writings of Paulus Orosius, a student of St Augustine; Otto of Freising’s twelfth century Two Histories; and, most extraordinarily, Joachim of Fiore, who once “declared that human history must be seen as an ascent through three stages, each presided over by a figure of the Trinity. First, the Age of Father or of Law; second, the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; and third, still ahead, a thousand-year Age of Spirit when human beings would be liberated from their physical-animal desires and would know a contemplative serenity and happiness of mind scarcely even describable.” Within this tradition, the idea of progress belonged to a broader context of general teleology, of God’s providential plan for humanity, creation, and history.

Indeed, ideas of progress in early modern natural philosophy are centrally located within this Christian understanding of history. Many other examples are available, including ones that greatly complicate this picture, such as the inherent paradox of the Renaissance, which derived its vigor, its emotional impulse, not from looking forward but from looking background—or, as Frances Yates puts it in her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), the fundamental paradox of the forward movements of the Renaissance was that it viewed progress as “revival, rebirth, [the] renaissance of antiquity.” The point here is that modern scholars who claim progress is a modern phenomena—such as Bury—drew such anachronisms not from the historical record but from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.

What we find in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “is the beginning and development of [the] secularization of the idea of progress—detaching it from its long-held relationship with God, making it a historical process activated and maintained by purely natural cases” or laws. The first secular statement of the idea of progress occurred during the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns in France, but it would also move beyond it. In the writings of Fontenelle, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, William Godwin, Marie Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and many others, “there is a manifest desire to liberate progress from any crucial relationship with an active, guiding, ruling Providence” and replace it with a “demonstration of the scientific reality of human progress and of the laws and principles which make progress necessary.”

This was, of course, not so much a reality, as a myth, a narrative of progress and advancement, invented to serve a particular audience, time, and place. Peter Bowler’s The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past (1989) traces discussions in nineteenth-century history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology about the mechanisms of progress and change. He argues that Victorians structured the interpretation of the past to serve their own presentist purposes. History demonstrated inexorable laws of progress. Similar conceptions characterized other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology. Even Darwin’s purposeless materialism was reinterpreted to better suit Victorians’ sense of superiority to other cultures, nations, and races. Progressionism in Victorian historical, philological, anthropological, and geological studies thus paralleled progressionism in biology, and vice versa. In other words, all these scientific disciplines were overdetermined and filtered, through particular control beliefs about the nature of progress.

At the same time, according to Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), every major tradition of natural science spawned efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to social and political issues of contemporary concern. Or, in Oslon’s words, “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context and study of the natural world…into the study of humans and their social institutions.” Beginning with French positivism and then different modes of German materialism, Olson recounts a well-known narrative. Here we find Pierre Cabanis, Saint-Simon, and Auguste Comte, and Friedrich Schelling, Ludwig Feuerbach; Olson also treats us to the “scientific materialism” of Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig Büchner, the “organic physics” of Emil Du-Bois Reymond, and the “dialectical materialism” of Marx and Engels.

In later chapters Olson accounts for the “rise of materialisms and the reshaping of religion and politics,” “early Victorian public science and political science,” and the “rise of evolutionary perspectives.” Olson links the success of materialism as an ideology of political liberals with the advancements of the physical sciences: “If the status of science had not been rapidly on the rise in Germany during the 1840s, the materialist appeal to scientific authority in the name of humanistic religion and liberal politics would have had little impact, but such was not the case.” In any case, the scientisms of Saint-Simonian socialism, the socialism of Robert Owen, the positivism of Comte, the agenda of Marxism, and the plurality of social Darwinism were deeply imbued with optimistic hope for social progress. And all of these -isms held, to some extent, quasi-religious characteristics that can be traced back to a Christian legacy of progress.

The idea of progress had many elements in the nineteenth century, but one I find particularly fascinating is its alleged corollary: the myth of conflict between science and religion. In New York City, at the height of the Civil War, John William Draper spoke to a large audience and propounded the thesis that American history embodies a “social advancement…as completely under the control of natural law as is the bodily growth of an individual.” He would present this “physiological argument…respecting the mental progress of Europe” again at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford in 1860, and again in his The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862), before publishing the work he is most well-known for, a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). In this work Draper declares that “Whoever has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the mental condition of the intelligent classes in Europe and America, must have perceived that there is a rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith.” This retreat from religion was the result of the victories of science. The history of science, he concluded “is no mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers.” Draper substantiated the idea that science and religion were at loggerheads, an idea framed within the bounds of a progressivist narrative—an idea, moreover, still ingrained in debates about science-religion relations to this day.

John William Draper’s work, his ideas, sources, and reception, I suggest, may act as a foil for understanding, more broadly, opinions about progress, science, and religion in the nineteenth century—and, more importantly, “how and why the original myth [of conflict] was constructed, the channels through which it circulated, and the ways it was transformed and mobilized in different settings.” By answering this central question, we may begin to shed light on the projected themes set by the Science, Progress and History project at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland.

Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012) has caused quite a stir. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings finds “Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling.” She sees it as “a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that ‘the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.'”

While Louis B. Jones argues in the ThreePenny Review that Nagel’s “project seems like a glance in the right direction,” P.N. Furbank, in the same review article, argues that he is “fatally unspecific,” “impalpable,” and “reckless.”

Edward Fesser at First Things declares that Nagel’s work “marks an important contribution to the small but significant Aristotelian revival currently underway in academic philosophy of science and metaphysics.”

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg over at The Nation find Nagel’s argument perplexing, quixotic, unconvincing, and highly misleading; his book is declared “an instrument of mischief.”

John Dupré at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews also found the book “frustrating and unconvincing.”

Alva Noë, in a series of articles for NPR, “Are the Mind and Life Natural?,” “Moving Beyond Political Correctness,” and “Arguing the Nature of Values,” rejects some of Nagel’s convictions, but also finds Leiter and Weisberg’s review “superficial and unsatisfying.” It is, in the end, a “worthwhile” book.

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s review in New Statesmen find’s Nagel’s confession to “finding things bewildering” quite charming. But ultimately regrets its appearance. “It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design,'” he says, and “if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”

Alvin Plantinga, whose own Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011) sits beside Nagel’s book on my bookshelf, argues in the New Republic that Nagel makes a strong and persuasive case against materialist naturalism. According to Plantinga, “if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist.”

More recently, John Horgan at The Globe and Mail, states he shares “Nagel’s view of science’s inadequacies,” but was disappointed by his dry, abstract style. Like Popova, Horgan recommends Nagel’s book “as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists.”

Adam Frank at NPR sees “Nagel’s arguments against Darwin…[as] a kind wishful thinking.” Nevertheless, he finds his “perspective bracing.” “[O]nce I got past Nagel’s missteps on Darwin,” Frank writes, “I found his arguments to be quite brave, even if I am not ready to follow him to the ends of his ontology. There is a stiff, cold wind in his perspective. Those who dismiss him out of hand are holding fast to a knowledge that does not exist. The truth of the matter is we are just at the beginning of our understanding of consciousness and of the Mind.”

In the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr sees Nagel’s work as “provocative,” reflecting the “efforts of a fiercely independent mind.” In important places, however, Orr believes that it is “wrong.”

Richard Brody at The New Yorker is “immensely sympathetic to Nagel’s line of thought.”

Finally, at The New York Times, Thomas Nagel responds to both his critics and supporters with a brief restatement of his position. He argues that “the physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view.” Purely physical descriptions of neurophysiological processes of experience will always leave out the subjective essence of experience. The physical sciences, therefore, leave an important aspect of nature unexplained.

The sciences, if it wishes to have the full domain of explanation, “must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur.”

Nagel sees two responses to this claim as self-evidently false: namely, (a) that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical; and (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all. He also sees a third response as completely implausible, (c) that we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms. But by rejecting all three responses he does not see how it entails (d) that we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology—in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.

According to Nagel, “a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order.” In other words, Nagel wants an “expanded form of understanding.” “Mind,” he continues, “is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.” Although Nagel does not “believe” the theistic outlook, he does admit that “some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”

Myths about Science and Religion – That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon

Continuing the discussion from the previous post, Cohen’s tenacious assumptions about creationism and the Scopes trial undoubtedly arises from the notion that the movement is geographically contained. His examples of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas are no accident, and the underlying political assumptions are plain. But as Ron Numbers has made quite clear in a number of works, creationism has spread—and is spreading—beyond the confines of the United States.

According to Numbers, during the century or so following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) most conservative Christian antievolutionists accepted the evidence of the antiquity of life on earth while rejecting the transmutation of species. Only a small minority, founded largely among the Seventh-Day Adventist followers of the prophet Ellen G. White (1897-1915), insisted on the special creation of all life forms 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and on a universal flood at the time of Noah that buried most of the fossils.

In the 1960s, there was something of a “creationist revival” taking place in America, led largely by the Texas engineer Henry M Morris (1918- ). A thorough study of the Bible following graduation from college convinced him of its absolute truth and prompted him to reevaluate his belief in evolution. In the late 1950s, he began collaborating with theologian John C. Whitecomb Jr. (1924- ). While working on a book project together, Morris had earned a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota and began chairing the Civil Engineering department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

In 1961 they published The Genesis Flood, the most comprehensive contribution to strict creationism since the 1920s. 1963 they established the Creation Research Society (CRS). Of the 10 founding members, five possessed doctorates in biology; a sixth had earned a PhD degree in biochemistry; and a seventh held a master’s degree in biology.

New societies would continue to spring up in the 1970s, in the form of Creation Science Research Center (CSRC) and the Institute of Creation Research (ICR), which, according to Morris, would be “controlled and operated by scientists” and would engage in research and education.

This new brand of creationist did not appeal to the authority of the Bible. Rather, they consciously downplayed the Genesis story in favor of what they called “scientific creationism.” In short, they competed for equal scientific status. And unlike the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s, which remain confined mainly to North America, the revival of the 1960s rapidly spread overseas. By 1980, Morris’s books alone had been translated into Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian. Strict creationism was becoming an international phenomenon.

Few countries outside the United States gave creation science a warmer reception than Australia. Morris had visited Australia in 1973, inspiring Ken A. Ham to organize the Creation Science Foundation (CSF) in Brisbane, quickly becoming the center of antievolutionism in the South Pacific.

Similar developments occurred in New Zealand. In 1992 New Zealand creationists set up an “NZ arm” of the CSF, called Creation Science. In 1995 the New Zealand Listener announced that “God and Darwin are still battling it out in New Zealand schools.”

The same can be said for Canada. In 2000 it was claimed that “there are possibly more creationists per capita in Canada than in any other Western country apart from the US.” A public-opinion poll revealed that “even though less than a third of Canadians attend a religious service regularly…53% of all adults reject the theory of scientific evolution.”

Before 2002 few people in Great Britain except evangelicals gave much thought to creationism. That year, however, the British press drew attention to a creationist “scandal” in Gateshead, where, as one reporter put it, “fundamentalist Christians who do not believe in evolution have taken control of a state-funded secondary school in England.” By late 2005 antievolutionism in the United Kingdom had grown to such proportions that the retiring president of the Royal Society devoted his farewell address to warning that the “core values of modern science are under serious threat from fundamentalism.”

Elsewhere in Western Europe creationists were making similar inroads. A poll of adult Europeans revealed that only 40% believed in naturalistic evolution, 21% in theistic evolution, and 20% in a recent special creation, while 19% remained undecided or ignorant. The highest concentrations of young earth creationists were found, remarkably, in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.

In Italy antievolutionists formed a society in the early 1990s dedicated to introducing “into both public and private schools the biblical message of creationism and the scientific studies that confirm it.” Most Italian academics ignored the threat until early in 2004, when the right wing political party began dismissing evolution as a fairytale unlinking Darwinism to Marxism.

Almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, conservative Christians began to flood the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. Within a few years creationist missionaries had successfully planted new societies in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Russia, and the Ukraine.

After a very slow start in Latin America, creationists witnessed an explosion of interest, paralleling that of evangelical Christianity generally. According to a survey taken in Brazil in 2004, 31% of the population believed that “the first humans were created no more than 10,000 years ago” and the overwhelming majority favored teaching creationism.

In Asia, Koreans emerged as a creationist powerhouse, propagating the message at home and abroad. In the 1980s creationists established the Korea Association of Creation Research (KACR), and by 2000 its membership stood at 1,365, giving Korea claim to being the creationist capital of the world.

But it’s not merely Christians who are creationists. According to Numbers, in the mid-1980s the ICR received the call from the Muslim minister of education in Turkey, saying that “he wanted to eliminate the secular-based, evolution only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with the curriculum teaching the two models evolution and creation.” In 1990 a small group of young Turks in Istanbul formed the Science Research Foundation (BAV), dedicated to promoting “immaterial cosmology and opposing evolution.” Also, in 2000 a group of Jewish antievolutionists in Israel and United States formed the Torah Science Foundation (TSF), whose head member, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, advocates “Kosher evolution,” that is, accepting microevolution while rejecting macroevolution.

Contrary to almost all expectations, geographical, theological, and political, “civilized opinion” has failed to contain what had begun as a distinctively American phenomena. Evidently, creationism is not merely a Southern predilection.

Climate Change the New Scopes?

THE "MONKEY TRIAL"Andrew Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, argues that the forces that initiated the Scopes Trial (1925) are still present today in the dogged renewal of the fight to teach creationism and in the rancor over the truth about the human causes of global warming.

In his article, What the Scopes Trial Teaches us about Climate Change, Cohen suggests that these forces are not merely “anti-science,” but something wider and broader. What he says is heavily dependent on Ray Ginger’s 1958 book, Six Days or Forever. Ginger was a mid-twentieth-century historian from Harvard. His Six Days was a colorful and popular account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Indeed, Cohen is so enamored by Ginger’s account that he likens it to the “Book of Revelations [sic],” in the sense that it presaged “how the forces that animated the run-up to the Scopes trial…are still present today.”

According to Ginger, recent immigration reanimated fear-based practices and policies. Next came a sense of alienation, of betrayal, of losing one’s birthright, all brought on by the Great War. This combination of “fear” and “alienation” was followed by the inculcation and promotion of “received truth”—that is, “a good man does not drink, or smoke, or gamble, or commit adultery, or contravene the Word of the Bible, and who punishes the sins of others”—thus resulting in hard-lined resistance to change.

This attitude eventually became a political force, argued Ginger, giving rise to nativism and xenophobia. And according to Cohen, the same thing is happening today: “We have a new generation of fear and prejudice wrought by a new wave of immigration…bloody conflicts…skepticism about science.”

From here Cohen goes into a general account of creationsim, discussing things like the Butler Act in Tennessee in 1925, to more recent events in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma, which in recent years have presented anti-evolution measures, and a Texas education panel responsible for reviewing submissions from biology textbook publishers who, according to Cohen,  adhere to “creation science.”

This same panel, says Cohen, are also skeptical of climate change as scientific truth. Accordingly, the Scopes trial foreshadowed the claims made today by climate change deniers. They argue, Cohen writes, relating Ginger’s claims about creationists, the “truth revealed in the Bible could not conflict with the truth discovered by science. All truth was from God. But what if they seemed to conflict? The answer was easy: The truth that science claimed to discover had not been discovered at all. It was not truth, but wild guesses.” According to Cohen, this is the same argument made today by climate change skeptics. And just as the fight against evolution in the 1920s took place in the context of the classroom, that’s where a big part of the fight over climate change is taking place today.

Here is where Cohen shows his greatest debt. His argument is essentially taken from Sara  Reardon’s early 2012 article in Science magazine, who suggested that “climate change education” is the “new evolution.” And it is here where Cohen also reveals the occasion for his piece: the release of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which concluded, says Cohen, with “unequivocal” evidence of climate change and that humans are “extremely likely” to be the cause of global warming.

Cohen ends with the postscript: “Fear is the great underlying theme of Ginger’s work, and it seems to me that fear helps explains the forces at work today, in Texas and elsewhere. Fear of great social change animates a longing for the “old certainty” of creationism. Fear of the great economic change it will take to combat global warming animates the denial of global warming. And fear of the new truths, as expressed in science, animates the suspicion of it. This is part of the fundamental conservatism that has almost always marked America’s political profile.” He concludes with suggesting some “helpful” resources for understanding the Scopes trial, including Ginger’s Six Days or Forever, John Aloyious Farrell’s Attorney for the Dammed, Randall Tietjen’s collection of Clarence Darrow’s letters, In the Clutches of the Law. Cohen even suggests the film Inherit the Wind for those who are “lazy and do not want to read.”

I am not a scientist, but I do have a major interest in the history of science. History, or the stories we tell about history, enables us to understand the present. In constructing our position in society, in religion, in the family, as well as our manner and social norms, we turn to history—real or imagined. Cohen’s article illustrates how stories, that is, as master-narrative, can be employed for apologetic purposes. Cohen tells a simple, straightforward, and striking story about how science challenges the prevailing cultural norms; or, alternatively, how prevailing cultural norms stifle progress in science.

But Cohen’s story, told for obvious partisan purposes, is best described not as history but as fitting history into an ahistorical mold. The mold is shaped by the assumption that there is an inherent conflict between “science” and “religion,” arising from competing sources of authority, competing methodologies, or competing criteria for truth. This view, that there is something essential to science and something essential to religion that keeps them perpetually at war, provides a ready-made interpretation of the Scopes trial, the rise of global creationism, and skepticism toward man-made climate change.

Edward Larson’s essay in Galileo goes to Jail is a helpful corrective to this all too common narrative. Larson relates how the Scopes trial was from the beginning was a publicity stunt, and not the confluence of nativism and xenophobia. “Responding to the invitation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the statute on free-speech grounds, town leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, decided to test that new statute in court by arranging  a friendly indictment of a local science teacher named John Scopes. Come what may, they wanted publicity for their community.” It wasn’t just the town leaders who orchestrated the ordeal; Scopes himself was in on the scheme.

William Jennings Bryan was a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, and while he was known for his “fundamentalist” views on the Bible, he never insisted on a strict six-day, twenty-four hour creation account. Indeed, Bryan was quite the leftist democratic, known for his oratorical skills and support of not only religious conservatism but political liberalism.

H.L. Mencken set the journalistic tone of the trial, but he embellished events as they unfolded. Mencken had fabricated a victimized Scopes as a model of scientific progress quashed by religious dissent from an ignorant townspeople.  But according to Larson, “the people of Dayton had no part” in the trial, and “Scopes was not their hapless victim.” Indeed, neither Mencken nor Cohen inform their readers that Scope’s favored biology textbook of choice was George William Hunter’s 1914 A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, a book that espoused not only evolutionary theory but racism and eugenics.

But images of heroes and villains are hard to eradicate. In 1931 Frederick Lewis Allen published a best-seller, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, describing Darrow’s interrogation of Bryan as a “savage encounter, and a tragic one for the ex-Secretary of State. He was defending what he held most dear…and he was being covered with humiliation.” Lewis goes on to say that “civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”

By the 1960s, Larson tells us, the myth of the Scopes trial had reached mainstream American history textbooks, repeating Mencken, Ginger, and Lewis’ story of heroes and villains. Then came the 1960 movie Inherent the Wind, crystallizing the Scopes myth. The movie depicted the town officials being led by a fanatical fundamentalist minister, calling for the arrest and prosecution of Scopes. The trial itself is portrayed as a religious inquisition, but nothing of the sort ever happened at the actual trial, says Larson.

For those seeking a better understanding of the Scopes trial, the best advice is to avoid all the resources Cohen recommends. Larson’s Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion is a fine place to start. And for those who are “lazy and do not want to read,” avoid popular accounts at all costs. There are a series of videos on YouTube with Larson discussing his book that might prove useful for this latter category.

Now, since Cohen’s understanding of the Scopes trial is so grossly inaccurate, relying as it does on popular, partisan accounts, how trustworthy is his understanding of the climate change debate?


The blog has been on hiatus the last couple of weeks. We have been quite busy. I was recently accepted to the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia, to work with Peter Harrison on my PhD. As a result, we have been busy with visa applications, selling, packing, and figuring out the logistics of leaving half of our belongings here in the USA and shipping the other half to Australia.

Once I have an extended break, I will return with some reviews of recent articles and books I’ve read.

The European Commission and the Commemorative Euro Coin


Cyril and Methodius with halos and crosses, and without

Andrew Higgins, in one of the cover stories of today’s New York Times, reports how the European Commission ordered the National Bank of Slovakia to remove halos and crosses from a commemorative euro coin to be minted this summer (“A More Secular Europe, Divided by the Cross“).

The coins are a celebration of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands by the evangelizing Byzantine Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people. In the original design, the brothers are depicted with heads crowned by halos and a robe decorated with the cross. These items were removed in the new design. According to the Roman Catholic archbishop of the Slovak capital, Stanislav Zvolensky, “There is a movement in the European Union that wants total religious neutrality and can’t accept our Christian traditions.”


The EU flag, with its circles of 12 yellow stars, inspired by iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars

But according to Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official responsible for outreach to both religious and “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” the “European Commission is not the anti-Christ.” The report also notes that even the European Union’s flag has a coded Christian message. Indeed, the French Catholic, Arsène Heitz, who designed the flag in 1955, was inspired by Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. These stars are also depicted on the to be minted coins.

The unification of Europe too has its origins in Christian ideals. A united Europe was first proposed in the ninth century by Charlemagne, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

But modern history tells a different story. The 1951 Treaty of Rome and other founding texts of the EU, makes no mention of God or Christianity.

But von Schnurbein dismisses accusations that the EU has a anti-Christian agenda. Rather, she says, “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith.” Higgins emphasizes this point, writing that “assertive secularists and beleaguered believers battle to make their voices heard,” leaving the European Commission “under attack from both sides.”

The EU, Higgins admits, is generally uncomfortable with religion. He gives two reasons for this. First, well-organized secular groups that “pounce on any hint that Christians are being favored over other religions or nonbelievers” are increasing in number and campaign strategies.

The second reason, however, is somewhat contradictory. Higgins claims that “church attendance is falling across Europe as belief in God wanes and even cultural attachments wither.” But in the very next sentence he states that “the continent’s fastest-growing faith is now Islam.” He also states that in Britain more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God, and offers a statistical number—without reference—asserting that only half the population of the EU as a whole believe in God. But this is evidence not so much of religious decline as it is of religious transformation.

Ultimately, Higgins concludes, Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, with halos and crosses (which makes one wonder of the editorial wording of the title). The European Commission has also agreed to adhere to the original design, honoring the memory of Cyril and Methodius.

How Thinking Feels

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another. It is not too much to say that the stepping by which great geniuses scale the mountains of truth is as unsafe and precarious to men in general, as the ascent of a skillful mountaineer up a literal crag. It is a way which they alone can take; and its justification lies in their success. And such mainly is the way in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason,—not by rule, but by an inward faculty.

— John Henry Newman

Now this…Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

postmanWe live in a world of distractions. A world infiltrated by a cacophony of Internet sites, memes, and social networks; a world of cell phones and smart phones and iphones; an influx of cable channels by the hundreds, flat-screens, DVDs, HDTV and Blue-ray. In other words, a world of instantaneous and constant noise.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, first published in 1985, was a work ahead of its time. It is a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century. In it Postman argues that television, and media in the larger context, has generated a seismic shift in our epistemology, adversely affecting our public discourse.

The book opens with a Foreword that relates two literary dystopic visions—that of George Orwell, who in his book 1984 warned about a despotic state that would ban information to keep the public powerless, and that of Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World depicted a population too amused by distraction to realize that they had been made powerless. Postman wants to argue that discourse inspired by television has turned our world into a Huxleyan nightmare. “What Orwell feared,” writes Postman, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

Postman divides his book into two parts. Part I is concerned with background and historical analysis. In the first chapter, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Postman introduces the concept of “media-metaphors.” “Culture is a conversation, or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes.” And conversation, or discourse, is necessarily limited by the form of the medium it employs. That is, the limitations of a particularly medium affects what can be realistically communicated. Postman suggests, for instance, that the “smoke signals” of Native Americans conveyed only a limited amount of information. You can’t have an abstract, philosophical discussion using smoke signals. Thus form excludes content.

Postman gives additional examples of how the form of discourse limits content, but perhaps most crucial for his argument is what he calls “the news of the day.” Postman observes that the “news of the day” could not exist without the proper media to give it expression. Even though atrocities have always occurred in human history, for example, they were not a facet of a person’s everyday life until the telegraph (and subsequent technologies) made it possible for them to be communicated at a faster rate. This idea of instantaneous, decontextualized information will be central to later chapters.

Postman wants to show how today’s denizens are “undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.” By proposing our media-metaphors as powerful forces that influence our means of thought, he means to say that form subjugates content. “Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” In the reminder of the book Postman intends to reveal the effect of the media-metaphor of television on our minds.

In Chapter Two, Postman examines how media determines the way in which we define truth. Although Postman rejects relativism, he does believe a civilization will identify truth largely based on its forms of communication. An oral culture, for example, will likely put great stock in a man who remembers proverbs, since truth is passed on through such stories, whereas a culture of the written word will find oral proverbs only quaint, and the permanence of written precedent far more important. What concerns Postman about the television is not that it provides non-stop entertainment; rather, it has limited our discourse to where all of our serious forms of discussion have turned into entertainment.

“Truth,” writes Postman, “does not, and never has, come unadorned.” It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged. The way a culture defines “truth” is largely contingent on the means, mediums, and technologies through which they receive it. Postman speaks of truth as a “cultural prejudice,” and goes on to illustrate some of our own prejudices. Our society, for instance, is largely reliant on numbers to illustrate our truth, to the point that we often consider no other source as capable of communicating economic truth. Something relatively more recent is satire. We watch shows like SNL, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show not only to laugh but to find out the latest information. Thus such sources of information determines how we derive truth. Our media has become our epistemology. And from that Postman wishes to show “that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”

In Chapters Three through Four, Postman discusses the way that “Typographic America” influenced the “Typographic Mind.” During the colonial period and through about the mid-nineteenth century, the American populace was markedly literate and thus accustomed to approaching the world from a rational—or, at least, expository—perspective. Because the written word is based around a series of rational propositions that challenge a reader to judge them as true or false, the whole of society during this period was founded around the idea of rational discourse.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connection one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text.

The printing press was not simply a machine of the industrial age: it was a “structure for discourse,” delimiting and establishing rules, insisting upon certain kinds of content, and inevitably a certain kind of audience.

This period transitioned into “The Peek-a-Boo World, which Postman discusses in Chapter Five. With the invention of the telegraph and the photograph in the middle years of the nineteenth century, transportation and communication became disengaged from each other, “that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” The sudden access to instantaneous information resulted in society being less driven by contextual understanding of  information and more involved with the collection of irrelevant “facts” divorced from context.

Everything Postman describes in this chapter is doubly true about the Internet. Much Internet humor derives from decontextualizing artists or politicians from their primary context, and the prevalence of photo manipulation allows a subterfuge of authority. As newspapers become part of a dying industry, replaced by a prevalence of less-researched and accountable Internet sources, one would be remiss to heed the warning that information without context can only serve to make us less informed and less driven towards any type of real action.

With Part II Postman begins discussing the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse. In Chapter Six, “The Age of Show Business,” he explains how “The Age of Exposition” was replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. Entertainment has become the content of all our  discourse, to the point where the message itself is trumped by the entertainment value of its delivery. “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology,” he writes, “believe that a technology is entirely neutral.” Television as medium demands heavy editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation. These are the inherent biases of television.

In Chapter Seven, “Now…This,” Postman uses the “news of the day” to provide a metaphor for how we now receive all information. He decries how we are now “presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” The most horrific story only gets a short bit of attention, and then is separated from the next story. There is no time for reflection, and the entertaining aspects of the news—attractive newscasters, pleasant music, clever transitions—only reinforce the idea that the information we receive is not to be considered in the context of our lives.

In Chapters Eight through Ten, Postman examines other modes of important public discourse that have been affected, and denigrated, to entertainment under the media-metaphor of television. Chapter Eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem,” examines how religion has become an empty spectacle on television—which to some degree has also transferred into the church—and thus lacks the power to deliver a truly religious experience.

Chapter Nine examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do: namely, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. Politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. The Obamas are just the most recent manifestations of this, as is evidenced with both Michelle and Barack Obama appearing on numerous day-time talk shows, night-time late shows, and even syndicated comedy programs. Postman notes how over time notions of fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. “Television,” he writes, “does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom.” Much like the way a product is advertised, a candidate is presented as an image of who the audience wants to be: “This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.” But this is not an entirely new phenomena. “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent.”

Chapter Ten, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” explores how even education is transitioning into an entertainment industry. Postman begins with a discussion of the iconic Sesame Street. When it first premiered in 1969, it quickly became a hit, largely because children saw in it the principles of television commercials, while parents loved it because it had the potential to educate in a form that children embraced. Its use of cute puppets, celebrity appearances, catchy songs, and heavy editing assuaged a society’s ever-deepening thirst for entertainment.

However, according to Postman, Sesame Street “encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.'” Sesame Street, accordingly, undermines traditional pedagogy. A child cannot ask questions of what is presented on television; she learns more about images than about language; and is held to no standard of social behavior or expectation. “Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Postman ends his book with “The Huxleyan Warning,” in which he reiterates that Huxley was right. Our culture is becoming a burlesque, and will ultimately shrivel. In this concluding chapter Postman is aware that he might come off as some cantankerous Luddite, but time is proving him right.

The question should be asked if whether Amusing Ourselves to Death remains relevant for a world less defined by the media-metaphor of television than by the media-metaphor of the Internet. To this we can give a resounding yes. The concept of channel surfing has reached a new apex with the Internet, where one can find more fragmented, decontextualized information than even Postman could have imagined. His warning remains one worth considering.

Current Research

I have finished a number of books recently, all of which I hope to post some comments on soon. These books include Neil Postman’s classic epistemological critique of a technologically obsessed culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  I have also finished  Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, where in the Introduction he provocatively states, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” Another beautifully written book I have recently come to appreciate is David N. Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, where he argues that “Like other elements of human culture, science is located.”Although at times turgid, Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe also found space on my reading list and I was pleased with its overall argument. The last book I recently polished off was a rereading of Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, a collection of papers dedicated to the pioneering work of John Hedley Brooke, edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey.

My next course of books to read will keep me occupied for some weeks. This list includes three works by Peter J. Bowler, his  The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past, Evolution: The History of an Idea, and a work co-written with Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey. Also on the list is an anthology of nineteenth-century literature which, I think, will provide wider orientation to that era of ideas, edited by Laura Otis, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, and James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, will serve the same purpose. As I continue to tackle Rethinking Secularism, I have also picked up Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity. These books will helpfully give me a better sense of where my research interests are going.