What if Counterfactuals were Acceptable in History?

As historians it seems like we’re always cautioned against saying “what if” but the truth is that doing so is a necessary part of history and to pretend otherwise is simply irresponsible.

Last week in the Guardian, Richard Evans issued a scathing attack against the use of “counterfactual history.”  He rightly noted that the centenary of World War I has driven some highly speculative fantasies about what might have been had some elements of the war unfolded differently.  While Evans’s critiques of these particular applications of counterfactual history might be well grounded, the expansion of his comments to take in the whole of counterfactual reasoning as a historical method is misguided: either betraying a misunderstanding of the nature of counterfactuals as a philosophical concept, or attacking the method as a proxy for attacking the politicized motivations of some of the what-ifs of WW1.

Throughout his essay, Evans equates the asking of “what-if” or the consideration of counterfactuals with completely and rampantly making things up: Calling them “speculations [that] are of course unprovable” and products of “fantasising [that] threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.”  But this begs the question of what it means to call something an historical “explanation” without considering the range of possible alternatives.

Tacit Counterfactuals in Claims of Historical Cause


Almost any historical account consists of more than simply relating “what really happened.”  Historians are charged not merely with reporting unfiltered facts about the past (leaving aside the question of biases in even acquiring historical facts.)  We’re expected to make estimations of importance.  Which facts matter? When we relate an account of an event, we make choices of what to include.  These choices reflect decisions about which events count as part of an explanation and which don’t.  To say that something matters, or doesn’t, is to make a counterfactual claim.

In my history of the events leading to the Scopes trial, I discuss the 1924 reelection of Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, but I did not mention the 1924 presidential election. Even though both of these were events that took place shortly before the 1925 Scopes trial, and even though both of those elections are things that “really happened” one of them was involved in a chain of events that contributed to the trial.  From the point of view, one of those events is part of an explanation and the other is an extraneous fact that also happened.

Any time we make an interpretation about relevance, anytime we make a claim that one fact caused or contributed to a subsequent fact, we’re tacitly making use of counterfactuals.  If I’m saying that the reelection of Peay contributed to the Scopes trial, I’m logically making a claim that if Peay had not been reelected, then the events of the Scopes trial would have unfolded differently, if at all.  If I’m saying that the presidential election had no bearing on the trial, then I’m logically saying that the Scopes trial would have happened even if John W. Davis (the Democrat) had won in 1924 instead of Calvin Coolidge.  Even if they’re not expressed as a what-if, counterfactuals are unavoidable.  Logically, every single time that we make a positive causal claim, every time we say “A caused B,” we’re logically also saying that “if not for A, then B wouldn’t happen.” There might be some other things that could also cause B, but if that’s true then we’re not likely to identify A as the cause (or as part of a cause.)

If we believe that history includes an account of cause and effect, then we are tacitly making use of counterfactuals.  Evans is right that the popular use of counterfactuals tends to make the causes in history appear to be more singular.  The Scopes trial doesn’t happen without Peay’s reelection (without it, no one is proposing an education reform bill that prompts an antievolution bill in protest) but there were plenty of other things that had to occur in addition to Peay’s reelection for the Scopes trial to occur.  The fact that we recognize that history is complex and multi-causal doesn’t make counterfactuals disappear, it just makes them more complex.  In choosing what facts to include in a narrative—whether it’s social statistics, cultural practices, the presence of certain ideas in newspapers and books, economic data, or the singular decisions of a political leader—those choices imply counterfactuals that legitimates their relevance.

Philosophical Counterfactuals and History


The real problem with Evans’s argument, one that it perhaps shares with some some overindulgent what-if history games, is that it treats counterfactuals as any consideration beyond “what really happened.”  By relegating them all to the outrageous, fantastical, and speculative; this portrayal loses sight of what counterfactual conditionals actually are.  Consider the following conditional statement:

If Coolidge is elected president in 1924, then there is a Scopes evolution trial in 1925.

We can look to the historical facts to test this and discover that the statement is true in the real world of what actually happened.  Coolidge was elected, and a Scopes trial took place.  But does it follow from this that the election of Coolidge qualifies as a cause of the Scopes trial, or is the truth of the two events simply a coincidence?

For estimations of cause and effect, we need to consider counterfactual conditionals.

If Coolidge had not been elected president in 1924, then there would not have been a Scopes trial in 1925.

The counterfactual condition invites us to try to envision a logically coherent world in which the first statement is false.  There could be many scenarios in which Coolidge is not elected in 1924.

  1. The Democrat Davis wins.
  2. The third-party Progressive candidate Robert M. La Follette wins.
  3. Coolidge dies and is replaced on the ballot by another Republican, who wins.
  4. Canada conquers and invades the United States and the presidential election is cancelled.
  5. Space aliens invade Tennessee and destroy the human population of the State.  La Follette wins the election.
  6. Space aliens invade the earth and the human race is destroyed.  Consequently there is no election.

All of these are scenarios in which Coolidge is not elected president in 1924 (you might come up with others.)  It seems pretty obvious that in some of these (such as #5), the Scopes trial also would not occur.  It also seems fairly likely that in some of these (such as #2), the trial would continue unimpeded.

One of the most influential ways of thinking about evaluating the truth of counterfactual conditionals considers the idea of ‘close’ or ‘near’ alternatives.  Probably the best known explication of this is David Lewis’s discussion of “possible worlds.”  A counterfactual conditional statement is considered true if the statement is true for the closest worlds in which the hypothetical is true.  In other words, in the closest possible worlds in which Coolidge is not elected, is it the case that the Scopes trial doesn’t happen?

(There’s debate among philosophers over the details of this expression: what Lewis has meant by closeness, and whether comparative closeness can be evaluated—the details of which I chose to leave aside for now.  There’s also debate over using the idea of “possible worlds” as the way to think about interpreting counterfactual conditionals.  But for the question of applying this to historical method, I’m going to use it for the time being.)  The important concern for history is one that’s generally agreed upon by philosophers: the consideration of counterfactuals is an inherently conservative process, in which one tries to consider the least speculative fanciful worlds that are closest to the actual one.  Unlike what Evans describes, it’s not counterfactual history to simply make up anything that doesn’t happen.

Counterfactuals are about considering the worlds that are nearest.  In historical counterfactuals, this is a role for historical judgement.  Based on available evidence, I’d suggest that the possible worlds in which Davis is elected are nearer ones than the possible worlds in which aliens destroy the human race.  (If, after alien contact is made and alien military archives become available for research, I might have to revise this estimation.)  If Davis had become president is there any reason to suggest that anything local in Tennessee would have changed? Historical evidence can be used to argue the importance of this.  If it’s the case that in the nearest worlds, (Davis elected president, but with the minimal changes necessary to effect that change) that the Scopes trial does take place, then the counterfactual conditional is false.

The conditional statement

If Coolidge is elected president in 1924, then there is a Scopes evolution trial in 1925.

is true, but

If Coolidge were not been elected president in 1924, then there would not be a Scopes trial in 1925.

is false.

It’s the falsity of the counterfactual conditional that allows us to dismiss the presidential election as part of a cause or explanation of the Scopes trial.

For the sake of completeness, let me say that—to my best interpretation of the available evidence— the closest worlds in which Peay wasn’t reelected are those in which the Republican candidate won (not those in which Tennessee is ruled by a Canadian military authority or destroyed by aliens). In those nearby worlds, a Republican Governor of Tennessee would not have proposed a General Education bill that would have prompted the Antievolution bill to be proposed in backlash.  In effect this is a claim that these worlds are in fact closer than ones in which Peay is reelected and does not propose a General Education Bill.

Counterfactuals are not simply license to make up absurd premises and and imagine a fantasy world.  And they’re not invitations to find the most obscure antecedent event and claim everything deterministically follows the way a proverbial “want of a nail” causes kingdoms to be won or lost.  Counterfactuals are used in history to explain why things happen; they’re used conservatively to assess the impact of one event on subsequent events.  Evans picks out some particularly outlandish examples, where people chose such extreme hypotheticals that it’s almost impossible to make a real case for what possible worlds are nearer to another.  Evans blithely suggests, that if you’re going to fantasize about an alternative world in which Archduke Ferdinand wasn’t assassinated, then he can equally imagine one where “Franz Ferdinand might have fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet, or died in a hunting accident.” In the egalitarianism of everyone-can-make-stuff-up we’re either left with an infinitude of incomprehensible and bizarre worlds, or we must restrain ourself only to the actual world. Is Evans’s hunting accident a legitimately nearby alternative to consider, or is this an attempt to depict all counterfactuals as equally baseless speculations by using a convoluted one to simply preserve his argument?

Evans is certainly right that some people use explicit counterfactuals to focus on singular events and individuals—and that is problematic.  But counterfactuals don’t have to result in a “kings-and-battles” view of the past.  The presupposition is that it’s easiest to think of nearby worlds in which a single person’s decision is changed, rather than one in which social conditions (which influence people’s choices) are different, and it’s outlandish to thing that individual decisions aren’t shaped by social conditions.  It might very well be that a world in which social conditions haven’t changed but in which leaders make slightly different decisions turns out to be fraught with inconsistencies.  (It might be possible to imagine a world in which Governor Peay did not push a General Education Bill, but that would perhaps be inconsistent with the idea that Tennessee voters would have reelected him, so it’s not a near possible world at all.)

I almost agree with the statement that: “the problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces.”  Evans is probably right that many historians err when considering the differences between a possible world in which Ferdinand is assassinated and one where he’s not.  But that’s a constraint on what it means for a world to be possible (not internally contradictory), not an argument against possible worlds.  It might be harder to speculate what might have been the political reality of a nearby world in which Germany’s unemployment rate was 2% higher.  But that’s a rationale for having historians recognize the use of counterfactuals, so that they are clearer in such argumentation.  It’s not a case for us to teach students that anytime they encounter a counterfactual phrasing they should immediately dismiss the work.  The problem Evans identifies is nota problem with counterfactuals, it’s a problem with historians who use them badly.  Unfortunately the blanket condemnation of counterfactuals doesn’t actually promote clearer historical thinking.

This matters particularly because this consideration of nearby counterfactuals is not only relevant to cause and effect in historical argumentation, it’s also relevant to cause and effect explanations in science, and Evans argument seems to augment the pseudoscientific presumption that all alternative explanations deserve equal weight and consideration.  Given some of his statements about the history of science, that might not be unintentional.

Counterfactuals in History, Science, and the History of Science

Scientific theories that make statements about causes and effects have a similar logic.  Perhaps the most clear case of this is in the scientific analysis of the history of nature, such as the evolutionary life history of Earth.  In a complexly interacting ecological system, with selection occurring at individual levels, group levels, and even levels interior to single organisms, it’s very difficult to say any single factor caused a given evolutionary effect.  But comparative data and scientific models help refine the idea of what factors have a robust impact on a specific development.  Perhaps the most famous version of this argument is Stephen Jay Gould’s analogy of “replaying life’s tape.” Gould suggests that evolutionary history is so contingent that even the slightest alteration can cause radical differences to the unfolding of life.  One argument against this view is the case made for evolutionary convergence (such as that put forward by Simon Conway Morris) which suggests that certain evolutionary outcomes are strongly likely because of long-scale properties about Earth and life, not the concatenation of highly divergent variables.  Even if life’s tape replays differently at the individual level, general trends like the development of optical vision, the development of higher intelligence, the development of interior skeletal structures are—not predestined—but so strongly favored that they occur even in different evolutionary lineages.  Conway Morris’s examples of counterfactuals in political history may suffer from the kinds of defects that Evans castigates, but he makes the case that this is a useful part of reasoning in the sciences.

Those who argue that naturally occurring evolution cannot give a causal account of the diversity and complexity of life (this seems to be a fundamental tenet of modern Intelligent Design) seem to make use of anti-counterfactualism like Evans’s in their arguments.  In describing evolution as purely random chance, they reduce all alternatives to equally random likelihood or nonlikelihood.  That presumption begs the question of whether any evolutionary explanation can possibly be robust enough to be an explanation of cause.

The concept of “irreducible complexity” that Michael Behe put forward in Darwin’s Black Box in 1996 could be interpreted this way.  Behe points to structures that require, for example, a number of genes to be produced and claims that these could not have evolved because there would be no benefit to a structure (or possibly harm) at intermediate stages.  This amounts to a claim that the nearby worlds in which a cell has only 39 genes of a 40-gene structure is not a possible world, and that the nearest worlds are therefore ones in which an intelligence intervenes in creation.  In his updated version of the book, Behe derides the work evolutionary biologists had done to show the possibility of such worlds: “Call them wishful speculations or call them plausible scenarios—both just mean a lack or real answers.”  In conflating wishful speculation and plausible scenario and juxtaposing them both against a supposed “what really happened,” Behe’s engaged in the same kind of distortion of counterfactuals that Evans has done by ignoring nearness, ignoring conservatism, and ignoring the requirement that accounts of cause require consideration of more than the instances that actually happen.

[Note: I may want to further develop this line of reasoning about the tacit use of claims about counterfactuals in arguments against naturalistic sufficiency. —comments especially appreciated]

The type of anti-counterfactualism that Evans advocates is consistent with that put forward by proponents of intelligent design (like Behe.)  So perhaps it is no surprise that Evans has also supported the claims ID advocates make about the history of science.  One of their biggest historical claims about evolution—used to show the purported immorality of Darwinism—is the Darwin-to-Hitler myth promulgated by Richard Weikart.  Weikart, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, claims that Darwin and Darwin’s ideas were directly responsible for the rise of Hitler and Nazism.  This is a claim that’s been addressed by Peter Bowler’s counterfactual argument—that a coherent and nearby alternative world without Darwin would still have seen the rise of the Nazi regime, its racial and moral commitments, and attempts to justify them scientifically.

This is not the place to fully address the historical debate over the relationship between Darwin’s ideas and Naziism, but I do want to observe that Evans is frequently cited in Weikart’s book.  In fact, just after a lengthy citation from Evans, Weikart writes in the last paragraph of his book:

without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world’s greatest atrocities was morally praiseworthy.

Weikart uses Evans to justify a counterfactual claim.  The conclusion of the entire book is this counterfactual claim.  If there had not been social Darwinism, then Nazis wouldn’t have claimed scientific justification for the Holocaust.  How did Evans respond to this apparently illicit use of counterfactual argument? By giving praise on the back cover of Weikart’s book.

Taken from the Amazon.com preview of Weikart’s “From Darwin to Hitler”

Paley isn’t the Common Ancestor of evolution and creationism

An article by Noah Berlatsky published online at The Atlantic this weekend comments on the creation debate of last week – with the view that creationism and evolution ‘share a common ancestor’ in William Paley.  I’ve been researching and publishing on Paley for quite a while now, and while I think the article does some things well – overall I feel like it really misrepresents Paley’s ideas.  Most importantly it reinforces the error that modern day intelligent design is fundamentally similar to Paley’s arguments for a designer (but using newer examples.)  Paley’s argument is something quite different, perhaps even more consistent with theistic interpretations of Darwinism, but it’s not what Richard Dawkins or Michael Behe describe it to be.

Tonight’s a teaching night, so I only have time for a brief response, but I’ll make a few points:

The kind of creationism that Ken Ham advocates is utterly unrelated to natural theology.  Paley doesn’t evoke scripture in the Natural Theology.  His point is that by using natural arguments (in effect, by using the kind of experience and reason that is available to everyone regardless of their religious commitments) he can make the case for a deity.  When Ken Ham effectively said that no empirical evidence could make him change his views on Christianity (he actually said that it would be impossible for such evidence to even exist) he reaffirmed that in his view, Scripture is the first source of knowledge, and the natural world secondary, and dependent upon that.  For the sake of argument, at least, Paley reverses this: it’s because we see evidence of deity in nature that we are justified in considering the reliability of Scripture (which is what Paley’s Evidences of Christianity is about.)

That said, Paley is not a Deist.  The article conflates unitarianism with Deism, in addressing the views of Samuel Clarke (and Newton) but claiming that there’s not a triune God, or that Jesus is not divinity himself, is not the same as rejecting the idea of an intervenionist God.  Paley was an Anglican, and in his other writings makes it quite quite clear that he’s using natural theology as part of a larger argument to advocate for the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England.  Surprisingly, perhaps, he does so with a firm commitment to religious toleration.  It’s toleration with pluralism.  Part of Paley’s point is to show that the starting place for religion ought to be human reason and natural observation, not the revelation of Scripture or the personal evangelical religious experience.  He’s arguing against Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and other Dissenters in doing so.  However at the same time, he’s trying to show that natural religion need not lead one to unitarianism or deism.  In part because he takes this middle position, he was widely criticized from both sides when the book first came out.

It’s not at all true that “the questions Darwin was answering were ones that Paley had posed.”  An article by me on how this falsehood about Paley developed was published just two months ago.  One of the most novel parts of Paley’s natural theology, as opposed to that of Clarke, John Ray or others, is that he eliminates considerations of the origins of the material world from his argument, focusing instead on how one can tell that there was purpose behind the arrangement of things.  Paley in part does this as a response to Hume’s criticisms of natural religion.  This also means that Darwin’s questions about the origins of diversity and complexity of life were not ones that Paley was trying to answer.  However, as I relate in my recent article, it’s a question that editors of Paley and some of the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises attributed to Paley in the 1830s (around the time Darwin first read Paley.)  Does this mean that Darwin misread Paley? Not necessarily, because Darwin was also interested in other aspects of Paley’s account of nature.

The only place Paley is mentioned by name in the origin of species, he is cited approvingly.  That is when Darwin considers the “utilitarian objections” to his theory.  Darwin was concerned that the mechanism of natural selection might appear to be unnecessarily cruel or wasteful, but he points out, via Paley that no creature has an adaptation that is primarily injurious to it.  When Darwin mentioned Paley in his autobiography, it is in a sectoin in which Darwin considers his personal faith.  He says the Paley’s theological conclusions (that from nature we see the marks of a God) no longer seem satisfactory to him.  He does not suggest that the thing he finds unsatisfactory about Paley is Paley’s (nonexistent) account of origins.  Misreadings of this passage in the autobiography feature prominently in the Paley-as-Darwin’s-foil myth as it emerges in the mid 20th century.

Paley’s main argument (I outline this in a 2009 article) is that the evidence of purposeful adaptation in nature comes from the correspondence between the laws of nature and the material world.  Berlatsky’s article touches on this well.  Paley considers that one entity might be responsible for setting the laws of nature, and another responsible for the creation of material structures.  The fact that the latter seem to anticipate use of the former, that eyes are arrayed in ways that show adaptation, to the laws of optics, ears to the laws of acoustics, wings to aerodynamics, etc—these examples suggest that the entity responsible for the material world intended these structures to use those natural laws, which they do to achieve purposes (I’m simplifying Paley here, in the interest of time, and not recapitulating my entire article.)

But the real point of this is that it’s because we can know the laws of nature, and because things work within the laws of nature, that we’re able (before we even consider scripture, miracle or revelation) to infer a deity.  This is very different from Ken Ham’s creationism, and it’s also very different from modern intelligent design, which argues from the insufficiency of natural laws to account for observed phenomena.  In fact, Paley explains why he thinks that arguments from insufficiency are absoluetly the wrong approach to take (in part because the kind of God that is implied by that is obscure and unknowable.)

There’s a lot more to say her about the Political and social context of Paley’s thought.  And I have some more articles in progress trying to get to those.  But I wanted to very quickly address the main points of contention with this Atlantic article to prompt further discussion.

If anyone wants either my 2009 or 2013 articles on Paley and can’t access them online, contact me and I’ll send them to you.

Replying to Evolutionists at the Creation Debate

Buzzfeed published two lists of questions from people at the creation debate.  One from Creationists to Evolutionists, the other from Evolutionists to Creationists.  This morning, Adam Rutherford published a list of mostly mocking replies to the creationists.  I find this to be a non-constructive approach, and by and large not even that funny.  Mockery, especially from a position of power is a form of bullying.  A biologist with a PhD and a substantial background in science communication bashing people who may not have had any serious background or even interest in the creation-evolution controversies prior to this debate seems only to confirm that kind of behavior.

So I’m starting a list of replies to the questions by evolutionists for creationists, from what I understand to be the perspective of Ham and the Creation museum.  I’m not endorsing these answers as true, my interest as a historian is in trying to fairly represent ideas, right or wrong. And I’m also interested in pointing out that (evidence of mockery to the contrary) most people are neither willfully wrong not internally inconsistent.  As I tried to explain in my post about the debate, the sides have differences about the nature of knowledge, in addition to the specific knowledge claims that they make.

1. If my Great Great Grandpa Rode Bareback on a T-rex, Why Can’t I?

A. Is your question really asking why did Dinosaurs go extinct, or why were dangerous carnivores once safely cohabitating alongside man? First let’s clarify several assumptions.  Dinosaurs went extent several thousand years ago.  Probably not long after the Flood and the Ark.  So we’d have to add a few more greats to your question.  Secondly, while it’s true that during Eden there was no carnivory, and it might have been safe for Adam and Eve to ride on dinosaurs, the dangerous nature of beasts was part of the punishment for the fall.  To answer the question, it’s because you’re a sinner.  We’re all sinners.

2. How do you explain the fossil record and the established science of geology?

A. Young earth creationist geologists and old earth evolutionist geologists look at the same fossils, but we disagree on how to interpret them.  The argument for an old earth comes from the presumption that the age of fossils is determined by the age of the rock strata they’re found in, and that those strata are very old. But young earth geologists argue that dating rock strata is based on a clock that has been misread.  Old Earth geologists believe that the rate of radioactive decay that we see in the world today is the same as what it has been in the past, that if we see a clock running at a normal rate now that it didn’t run faster or slower earlier on.  But we’ve seen evidence from across the sciences that suggest that some of the constants of natural law change.  Old earth cosmologists used to presume that the speed of light was a constant, something that they’re now calling into question.  If radioisotope decay hasn’t been the same throughout earth history, we can’t use it to reliably measure ages of rock strata or the fossils therein.

3. What’s with all the raping and pillaging, God?

A. We don’t condone raping and pillaging, but let’s first keep it clear that you’re asking a moral question, not a science one, even though there are some evolutionists who have argued that rape was a natural result of evolutionary psychology.  Our position is that the morality of actions are defined by God, not by what humans today find fashionable or repelling.  We also understand that the people of the Bible after the fall were sinners, especially before the redemptive promise of Jesus.

4. If there’s no such thing as evolution, how come snakes have legs, but evidence of once having legs?

A. Honestly, there’s an account in the Bible of the serpent losing its legs for its role in the temptation of Eve in Eden.  A legless snake is probably the worst example you could pick.  But lets take another legless animal with a vestigial pelvis: Whales.  Some people have argued that the whale pelvises serve a function in regulating its balance.  More generally, evolutionary scientists are coming to the conclusion that organs they once regarded as useless and vestigial may have functions that are not yet known.  We would argue that this is one of the best reasons for creationists to do science: We ought to discover more about these structures.

5. Does God get bored with Finches of Galapagos every few generations? Mix it up?

A. Perhaps you’ve heard the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow?”  That song is drawn from the Gospel of Matthew (10:29) “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” So we might say that God has an especial interest in birds.  We think that God is as attendant to all his Creation and doesn’t get bored.  But perhaps you’re asking if God is the cause of mutations and changes.  We think that ultimately God is the cause of everything, but we also believe in the divergent evolution of finches from some initial population of finches.  We think that variation within natural kinds, roughly what biologists refer to as families, has happened, allowing for great diversification since the flood and the ark.

6. How can you ignore evolution as a theory if there are entire disciplines devoted to it?

A. You know, there’s a famous incident a few years back.  When philosopher Keith Ward was appointed to the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford, Richard Dawkins published an open letter claiming that there was no subject as theology and that as such no one could be an expert in it.  There have been people identified as theologians for centuries, indeed it was one of the very first academic disciplines and there are several subdisciplines devoted to it.  So we could easily ask why anyone should ignore theology for the same reason.

But a better answer to your question is that we don’t ignore evolution; we disagree with it.  There’s been plenty of cases of scientists disagreeing over which scientific theories best fit the data.  We also reject the implication that the truth about nature is known with certainty simply because certain ideas are more or less popular among people.  The truth is out there in creation, not in our fallible human minds.  Just because there’s a large scientific opinion in favor of evolution doesn’t make it right.

7. Why do you believe carbon dating is so unreliable?

A. We appreciate that this question attempts to understand some of the scientific reasons we give for our view of the age of the Earth.  I think this has mostly been answered in #2, but to add some more thought.  As Bill Nye himself said during the debate, it used to be thought that the age of the sun could be determined by predicting how long it had been doing what it was doing.  At first, scientists thought this was a chemical reaction (like burning) but the size and estimated heat flow rate suggested that if that were the case the sun would be much younger than geologists thought the Earth was.  Later, scientists thought that maybe the light and heat was given off by gravitational collapse (the matter from the outer parts of the sun being drawn in—falling—towards the center, and the energy of that fall being converted to light and heat.) but that still only gave estimates of millions, not billions of years.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that nuclear fusion was seen as a possible source of the sun’s shine (Note, even They Might Be giants released a new song updating their hit “Why Does the Sun Shine?”  Because sometimes scientific theses are rendered invalid!)

At the same time, geologists began to reject the idea that all change is purely the very gradual accumulation of changes—that uniformitarianism was in fact unnecessary.  We think that this history raises the need to be aware that scientific theories are subject to change.  We use facts to determine scientific theories and—this is important—theories to interpret new facts.  But sometimes the theories aren’t just determined by facts, but by the beliefs of scientists.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that uniformitarianism was formulated by geologists who were trying to work “unencumbered by Bible preconception”, and that this desire led to strong resistance to abandoning it when the facts became increasingly difficult to fit.

We believe that the revealed Bible is an independent source of knowledge that gives us an age of the earth, and that it can guide our search for theories that we can test scientifically.

8. How can you deny microevolution (i.e. evolution in action?)

A: We don’t! In fact we think that it’s a necessary component to understanding the diversity of variations that we see in the world today, because only a pair of each kind (biological family) was present on the Ark.  All the cats (ocelots, panthers, grumpy cats, Garfield, etc) are descended from the pair of cats on the ark, diversified through microevolution.

9. Show me the facts: how can you possibly find evidence that an omniscient being created everything? 

A: When it comes to looking at nature, we use the same facts that all scientists use.  The difference is in how we interpret them.  But we don’t say that we have to look to the facts of nature for evidence that God created everything.  We claim that there’s a source of evidence and knowledge that is superior to looking at nature, and that is the direct knowledge that comes from God and that is personally witnessed, or revealed through Scripture.  In fact, if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t have any right to assume that the things we see with our imperfect eyes and interpret with our fallible human minds were accurate at all.

This is a big different between the creation view and, for example, the view put forward by what’s called “intelligent design.”  ID says that you start by looking at facts from nature and use those as evidence of a designer (who they often won’t acknowledge is actually God).  From the perspective of Creation science, this is misguided.  Our imperfect understanding of nature can never get you certain knowledge of God.  We say that the evidence that an omniscience being created everything comes from divine inspiration and Scripture, and then we use evidence from nature to understand more about his Creation.

10. I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.

A: Good for you! Though I imagine that in your college philosophy classes you might have read some Aristotle or Plato, which are over 2000 years old.  So where’s your cutoff?  More to the point: if you mean science textbooks, we also agree.  That’s why we think it’s necessary to do science—within the framework of creation— and to teach the facts of nature within that interpretation.  That’s why we are continuing to engage in new research confirming and elaborating on the creation!

11. Science Rules!

A: We agree, though we understand nature to be the work of God and the human capacity for making sense of nature (science) also to be the work of God.  So we’d probably prefer to express it as “God Rules!”

12. If you accept religion as truth, why is your religion “more true” than all of the others.

 A: If you think that religion is a choice like choosing from a menu at a restaurant, then you’ve understood “religion” in a very different way that we do.  In fact the idea of “religion” as this category that includes lots of different beliefs and practices was largely the creation of Europeans exploring and conquering other parts of the world and trying to make sense of the people they encountered.

This has had the effect of trying to reduce religion to something that can be understood by an outside observer, like a social scientist.  It presumes that fallible human reason can make total sense of religion and pass judgement upon it.

We don’t take the view that  religion is something you chose by using your own interpretations and judgement.  We think that religion comes from God and that “faith” is more about God acting upon you than you making a rational choice to believe or disbelieve.

So we’d say that the only ideas that God inspires people with are true ones, and the other ideas, what some people call other religions, are the works of human invention.  Even though their adherents may be well meaning and even though they might be attractive to us, we don’t accept that their ideas come from God or that they’re true.

13. Assuming that the Flintstones was a documentary, what was Jesus’s role in having dinosaurs in the workplace? They seem like a safety hazard for Mr. Slate.

A: The Flintstones is an imaginative rendering, and we certainly don’t take it as representative of the era when humans and dinosaurs coexisted on the earth.  In fact we think that dinosaurs may have inspired many of the legends of dragons that folklorists have collected all around the world.

You raise a really interesting question about how Jesus might address concerns about workplace safety.  Considering that evolutionists believe that birds descended from dinosaurs (not a position we agree with) ww might consider this passage about animal labor (Matthew 6:26) “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.”

14. How did Noah’s Ark Stay afloat even with termites on the Ark?

A. The Bible says that Noah brought food and provisions for all the animals on the ark.  This presumably means that the termites had food, that wasn’t the ark itself.  But the Bible also tells us that God brought the animals to the ark.  We understand this to mean that during the period of the Flood, the behavior of the animals was being controlled by God (lest the wolves devour the lambs, or be attacked themselves at the Red Wedding)

15. What is your explanation of the human genome that was found dating back 40,000 years?

A: Genome dating is estimated based on estimated rates of changes or divergence within a population.  The more divergence, the longer ago evolutionists believe divergence happened.  The ages of divergence are inferred by calibrating them against other old earth interpretations, like the geological dating discussed earlier.  But we don’t directly see divergence, we see difference.  Divergence presupposes the idea of common ancestry.  Now we completely accept the common ancestry of all human beings, but we don’t accept that the rate of divergence has been constant or can be easily understood from the way mutations occur in nature or the lab today.  And we also don’t accept the calibration of the genomic calendar by use of an old earth geological calendar.  In fact, just like geologists once believed the Earth to be older than astronomers thought the sun was, using their dating techniques, there’s disagreement among scientists trying to correlate genomic and geological/radiological dating techniques.

16. Explain Rock layers and plate tectonics.

A: There’s certainly evidence of tectonic plate movement today.  The inference that we can somehow extrapolate backwards from this movement to reconstruct a “Pangea” of billions of years ago, however, assumes that the change that we are observing now has been going on uniformly over time.  But if there were sudden changes, an upheaval such as a global flood, the impact of that water and the hydrological pressure caused by it would have quite completely reshaped the landscape, pushing landmasses around and causing the surface to be scoured.  As the waters receded  and the sediments began to sink, sediments containing different composites of chemicals, minerals and animal and vegetable matter precipitated or were deposited at different rates.  Although the comparison is inexact, you might look at how water draining from a bathtub leaves different layers.

Like old earth evolutionists, we believe that there are instances of rock layers being deposited in a sequence, but we believe that that sequence came quite rapidly, during and immediately after the flood.

17. How do you explain fossils that are millions of years old?

A: We’ve mostly addressed this before.  The fossils don’t give direct indications of their ages.  We use the evidence of the rock layers that they’re found in.  As mentioned before, dating rock layers to be millions of years old is an interpretation that is based on the presumption that those layers could only have formed gradually. (And that radiometric methods are calibrating using similar presumptions.)

18. Do you really believe in a talking snake!?!

A: We’re not Parselmouths, if that’s what you’re implying! But we know that animal behaviors can be influenced in unique ways.  Just like God altered the behavior of the animals that he brought to the Ark, the Deceiver influenced the behavior of the snake (or serpent) that spoke to Eve.

19. Keep Religion out of my science class

A: We understand.  That’s why we want to emphasize that creation science is a science.  Religion tells us that the Bible is true, and it gives us inspirations for scientific hypotheses.  We then do science to confirm, or to learn more about the natural world.  Evidence from nature that there are signs of a worldwide flood, or that radioisotope decay occurred differently in the past is scientific evidence.  It’s inspired by religion, but it’s not religion itself.

We might also observe that there’s a ‘religious’ element to belief in evolutionism as well.  Not only does the supposition that human observation and reason make a religious claim that we consider humanism, but the idea that the observable world is only permitted to be explained through natural law, that the miraculous is ruled out from the very beginning, is a religious principle, not a scientific one.

20. Creationists and Pastafarians—We’ve got to stick together! Won’t you support our religious right to have our Pastafarian story in science classrooms as well?

A: We disagree with Pastafarianism; we know that it was not divinely inspired and in fact was invented by humans to mock Christianity.  But we have supported the rights of teachers and students to practice their religions in schools.  While we may disagree with your strainer hat, we accept your religious right to wear it.  And many of us love pasta, just not religiously.

21. Read more than 1 Book.

A: We only accept one book as being divinely inspired and we only accept that one book as being a direct source of truth from God, but we read and engage with many different books.  Did you know there are over 300 books for sale in the Answers in Genesis bookstore?

22. Jesus Riding a Dinosaur? Nuff said?

A: Dinosaurs were on the Ark but they went extinct sometime after the Flood.  There’s certainly no indication that they were still around in Jesus’s day.  In fact, according to the Gospel of John (12:14), when Jesus did sit upon an animal, he chose the humble donkey to ride into the city of Jerusalem.

The Creation Debate as co-created spectacle

There’s no question the the Creation Debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was a success – from the point of view of creating a spectacle event.  According to reports, the audience reached over half a million viewers at one point.  Whether it was equally successful intellectually, whether any new ideas, agreements, concessions, or reconciliations were reached—whether there was any real exchange of ideas at all is another matter entirely.  Most of the arguments that both men brought up were unoriginal, and many of the refutations they offered to the other’s perspective were either question begging, or simply mentioned and then ignored.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  we should really see this not as a debate between two individuals, but as a performance by two individuals for the purposes of a larger audience.  In that respect it is very similar to the creation of the spectacle during the 1925 Scopes trial (in which the legal question at hand – over the guilt or innocence of John Scopes, and later even the legal question of the law’s constitutionality) were left behind entirely.  In fact, observing the Creation debate as a co-created spectacle has helped me think more clearly about  some of my own research, contrasting the spectacular Scopes trial with the utterly obscure evolution trial that came a year earlier.



Tacit Consensus about Science and Religion

Seeing the Debate as a collaborative production of Ham and Nye can help make sense of some of the more confusing parts of last night’s debate.  Most important is the amount of tacit agreement between the two debaters.  I’m certainly not suggesting that Nye and Ham didn’t have some real points of difference, but they also agreed on the grounds of their disagreement and in so doing, created a strong impression of what the issues of creation are about.  When groups like the Discovery Institute and BioLogos both decried the debate, they did so because the presentation of Nye and Ham’s views as the two poles is dismissive of the distinct positions they each advocate.  More importantly, if forces advocates of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution (or any number of gradations of belief) to represent themselves as being somehow between these extremes.

This is something that happens frequently in science-religion discussions.  They’re arrayed on a spectrum, in which something like theistic evolution is portrayed as closer to atheism than religious antievolutionism, but also as less evolutionary than its atheistic cousin.  Some of the questions from the audience, and especially from the moderator conflated Intelligent Design with theistic evolution as if the ‘middle ground’ was all some unified position.  Even though Ham would claim that it’s not all of science, but evolution specifically that he opposes, this had the effect of setting up a science-religion dichotomy (with a quisling middle ground that compromises both its religious and its scientific values.)


The Debate and the Metadebate, 

On the face of it, the debate was over the question of whether or not creation was a ‘viable’ model of explanation of the origins of life.  But simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, there was also a metadebate going on about the nature of creation as a kind of explanation, particularly if it counts as a form of science – or whether evolutionary science rest on foundational assumptions that can be seen as equivalently religious or ideological.

It seems that oftentimes, Nye took the debate at face value in a way that left the metadebate to Ham.  In effect, it feels like Nye may have won the scientific debate, but in failing to challenge the idea that this was a scientific debate, Ham gained the larger victory.

The metadebate matters in part because of legal rulings in the US about the teaching of evolution.  Th US Constitution prohibits the promotion of one religion above another, or the State acting to establish a religion.  There is no Constitutional mandate to promote science (despite Nye mentioning one in the debate – I’ll discuss this more fully in a later post.)  However, an effect of the 1983 McLean v Arkansas federal court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v Aguillard) one way of determining whether an ‘alternative’ to evolution is religious is evaluating whether or not it is science.  It was precisely for this reason that Judge John Jones III’s opinion in 2005’s Kitzmiller v Dover trial bothered to rule on the fact that intelligent design is not science.


The Metadebate and the Nature of Science

There is a real and historically longstanding difference between how Ham and Nye understand what science is.  Ham’s views were almost verbatim what some of his displayed in the Creation Museum says.  A trip through the museum begins with learning that “different scientists reach different conclusions because they have different starting assumptions.”  Ham emphasized this point early in the debate, claiming that there’s no difference in the available evidence from nature, the natural world doesn’t reveal itself in a different way to the creationist of the evolutionist, but that all scientists have operating assumptions that influence how they interpret evidence.  The act of interpretation is a human—and fallible—one.  (A point I will return to later on.)


"different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions." From the Creation Museum's online virtual tour

“different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions.” From the Creation Museum’s online virtual tour





For Ham there are two main possibilities for stating assumptions.  One is that God’s revealed Word (the Bible) is a source of certain and true knowledge, and teat investigations of teh natural world can confirm or extend that knowledge, but it cannot contradict it.  Revelation and Scripture has epistemic priority: it’s the thing we must know in order to make any other kind of knowledge possible.  The fact that the natural world shows itself in ways that we can study scientifically is made possible by the Creator God (note you don’t have to be a creationist to accept this last claim – it’s been a core tenant of natural theology for centuries.)

The alternative starting assumption is belief that human reason is the foundation of all knowledge.  By making human reason epistemically prior, the truth of Scripture, the ability to interpret it in ways we find satisfactory or logical, the ability to judge its credibility or authenticity are all dependent upon our ability to judge it in the light of human reason.  It’s the difference between these “starting assumptions” that leads one to creation science or evolution science.

What Ham does (brilliantly as a rhetorical strategy, I think) is that he initially presents this difference in starting assumptions as an epistemic difference, and only much later recasts it as a moral difference.  It’s not until later in the path through the museum (and later on in the debate) that Ham suggests that making all truths, religious and moral as well as scientific, conditional on the power of human reason leads to gross immorality and (in his view) the ‘fallen’ condition of humanity.  What was initially presented as a philosophical or personal choice is revealed to have moral consequences.  I’m not about to suggest that this argument is without logical flaw, but on a rhetorical level, it’s very well composed.

For Nye, as with other scientists, the rebuttal is that the ways in which nature is interpreted aren’t starting assumptions, they’re entangled with the process of collecting and observing data.  Scientists will readily except that there are sources of ideas outside science itself that inform the ways they interpret data, but (a point Nye failed to address) scientists and philosophers of science have long questioned the view that the aim of science is to confirm hypotheses that are generated from extra-scientific sources.  Nye was correct to say that the fundamental difference was over  “the nature of what you can prove to yourself,” but in part because of his naive views about theology, he didn’t fully understand what those differences were.


De-Nye-ing Theology

One of the most personally interesting (to me) parts of the debate came when Ken Ham was challenged to explain his literalism.  In fact it evoked almost exactly the famous Bryan-Darrow exchange during the Scopes trial.  But Nye (and the moderator in framing the question) conflated literalism with literal interpretation of scripture (almost exactly as Darrow did) Ham’s reply to this question started out fairly close to Bryan’s.  The literal truth of the Bible means that the text of the Bible was God-Inspired, that to the letters, the words, the authorship was divine in origin.  But this does not mean that the human act of interpretation is infallible.  Where Ham differed from Bryan however was in that the latter showed far more humility in Dayton Tennessee, more readily acknowledging that there were passages in the Bible that he accepted literally without knowing what they necessarily meant.  by the end of his answer, Ham seemed closer to defending Darrow’s version of Bryan’s literalism (as literal interpretation) than to Bryan’s own expressed views.

But Nye failed to capitalize on this position, in part because his understanding of theology was both logically and rhetorically flawed.  Nye relied on caricatures of religious arguments, imagining himself clever by pointing out that Noah’s ark was technologically improbable when the whole Flood was itself Divine action, or harping on the fact that there have been diverse translations of the Biblical text after Ham had already quoted a few specifics in Hebrew.  Nye’s failure to bother to understand the theological concepts that he was invoking and refuting made him appear religiously incredible.  It also made him appear to be dismissive, rather than engaging the theological questions raised by Ham’s view.

And there are some extraordinary theological presumptions and questions raised by Ham’s view.  As I blogged about a while ago, theologians have argued that the idea that ‘creation’ implied the sudden instance of something from nothing was an interpretation that came centuries into the Christian era, and that the Biblical ‘creation’ had better been understood as the formation of the world from eternal existing matter.


For those of us interested in the historical development of science and religion, the debate is an interesting phenomenon.  And it raises some very interesting questions about how public discussion of science religion functions, and what social groups engage in it.  Overall, I think this was an interesting event that will probably prompt a lot of discussion. But most of that discussion will accept the frame of the creation debate without challenging it.  For those interested in a more constructive dialogue of science and religion, this may do more harm than good.


Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

The controversy started by British Secretary of Education Michael Gove about how to teach history (exemplified in his Daily Mail column from January 2) has continued for quite a while. With the majority of it focused on the historical causes of the First World War, and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year, it’s probably going to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite sometime.
But I was struck by a comment Gove made a few days earlier during a roundtable/interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on December 30. Towards the very end of the radio programme, Gove made a statement that got me thinking:

Kings and Queens are chapter headings.  They’re ways of dividing up the past and they’re also intriguing personalities.  If you talk about dividing history into Kings and Queens, that doesn’t mean you’re a monarchist.  It just means that you understand that one damned thing follows another.
In America, they break up their history by the personalities of presidents and what happened during that period.


This got me thinking, how do Gove’s pronouncements about how history ought to be taught pertain to the teaching of American history? Particularly, teaching that subject in the UK, as I am doing at present. Although my students all completed their compulsory history education before Gove’s efforts to reform the history curriculum took any effect, if I’m to continue to teach American history in the UK, I eventually would have students whose views of history are informed by Gove’s historiography. How could this matter?
Should I be breaking up my syllabus based on presidencies? The first week we barely discussed US presidents at all (topics: the Pig War, Fenian Raids and US-British relations post-Civil War leading to Canadian Confederation; the Homestead, Morrill Land Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862; and the prairie wars with Native Americans from Red Cloud through Wounded Knee), but the second week we talked about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the debates over Reconstruction policies after Lincoln’s assassination, and the effects of Reconstruction on American industry, economy and culture. But are the periodizations we associate with US presidents equivalent to the reigns of monarchs?

So I put the question to my class, and asked for their reaction to Gove’s column. Several points came up:

Presidencies as Eras
With US presidencies, it’s sometimes easy to associate some of those with the terms of 8-year presidents (Eisenhower 50s, Reagan 80s, Clinton 90s, etc.) This led to some speculation as to whether the Obama era will be undervalued because it is split across two different decades. For that matter, why would we consider presidents as equivalent to monarchs, as opposed to, say Prime Ministers? For that matter, Obviously we hear talk about the Regency, the Victorian Era, and other monarchally defined epochs, but are future historians likely to be referring to the second Elizabethan Age as opposed to the Thatcher era or Blair era? Several students suggested that this was in part a function of distance. Thatcher and Blair are close enough to us now that we emphasize their differences, but historians a century from now might be more likely to group them together under the reign of Elizabeth.

Moralized Histories
We haven’t reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different. While US Secretary of State would have no problem agreeing that Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove calls it) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we seen Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

This led to a discussion of what I might call an Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in Moral terms, that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military superiority, or economic superiority. Whether the North had a technological advantage, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.
We then turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir
The narrative that Early gives is one that shows the Souther fight for independence was just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers, the patriotic Southern soldier buried under a mountain of corpses. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith. Like the restoration from exile, or the tribulations faced by chosen people in the past, the true South will rise in messianic fashion.
As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency
So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviors of individuals where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents. that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviors. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.
And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality, if poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology
The conversation then moved to a more general question about history and ideology. If history explains how causes and effects work in human behavior, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was in error all around to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History
What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama. We also discussed the recent debates over the history curriculum in Texas, raising a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

An additional note on the evolution-eugenics historiography

I’ve just read through Michael Egnor’s two blog posts (Dec 20 and 21) directed at me written over the weekend.  I’m going to largely leave off on the various issues of character that he seems convinced of, (for example: that my name is “Alan,” that I’m a “Darwinist”, and curiously, that I’m English) but will point out that he seems to assume that anyone who writes about a person, concept, or event in the past and doesn’t immediately decry it must therefore be apologizing for it or somehow supporting it.  To me, this suggests that that Egnor’s primary interest is not historical.  History’s not really about sorting out who was ultimately an saint and who a demon.  It’s about figuring out what happened, how and why, regardless of whether or not it should have happened that way.

In pointing out, for example, that some African-Americans reacted negatively to what they perceived as the white supremacy of supporters of Tennessee’s antievolution bill — and particularly to William Jennings Bryan work to undermine an anti-KKK platform resolution in the Democratic party in 1924 — I’m simply quoting the argument given by a historian who has looked quite closely at the available evidence, publications and correspondence from the era.  I think it’s inappropriate to tell people how they ought to have reacted to events (especially when it comes to lecturing to African Americans about whether they are targets of racism.)  The point was that this reaction actually existed, regardless of whether later commentators like Egnor think that they shouldn’t.  Likewise, with his claim that Darwin/1859/evolution must have inspired eugenics, which might make sense to intuition, but requires more evidence to support as a historical claim.

When Egnor isn’t casting personal aspersions and when he’s not simply invoking his intuition to counter historical evidence, Egnor does raise some interesting historical points, and I welcome that.  The history of nineteenth and twentieth century biology is complex and there’s a lot of different influences inside and outsides sciences themselves that contribute to how it unfolds.  And the broader history of the biological and social underpinnings of eugenic policies is still a matter of some historical debate.

That’s not the question that was originally raised, and in his second post, especially, Egnor seems to have left those off entirely.  The original questions concerned whether or not 1) John Scopes was racist or performed a racist action for teaching from George Hunter’s Civic Biology and 2) whether that textbook taught something that could be characterized as “eugenic racism” or “racist eugenics”.

In responding to those questions, based on my own research, I argued that,

• the textbook itself treats evolution and eugenics as distinct topics, covered in separate, non-consecutive chapters

• it’s consequently unlikely that John Scopes covered both of these topics as a short term substitute for the biology teacher.

• the textbook presents eugenics as an application of heredity, not of evolution.

• the textbook does not discuss racial differences or supremacy in connection to eugenics.  I provided extensive evidence, quoting specific pages of the Civic Biology to support these arguments.

• No one during the debate over Butler’s law or during the Scopes trial made the claim that Darwinism was racism, and given the racial attitudes of some of the supporters of the antievolution law, that comes as no surprise.

• The idea that antievolutionists in the 1920s were motivated by their opposition to eugenics is not historically warranted (I wrote about this back in March.) But that historical claim that seems to have been popularized a generation ago by Stephen Jay Gould – which might help explain why it informs our intuitions today.

Referring to the textbook as teaching “eugenic racism” is like like calling William Jennings Bryan an inflationary prohibitionist.  He supported currency policies that promoted inflation.  And he supported the prohibition of alcohol.  But to claim that he opposed the gold standard because he was against alcohol, or vice versa, requires more than loose association.

That was really the historical point which it was always my intention to emphasize: that calling Scopes a racist is unwarranted, and if the claim of his racism has to do with what he purportedly used in the classroom then we need a much better understanding of what that book actually says.  Not to ratify our intuitions, but to better understand which of them are grounded in facts.  It distracts us from finding  real sources of racism in our culture and society.

There’s a broader question that Egnor has started asking about the relationship between racism and eugenics, and I agree that this is an interesting historical question (but also that it’s different than the question of what Hunter wrote in 1914 or what Scopes taught in 1925).  My sense from some of the primary evidence that the use of eugenic policies in the US to sterilize people became increasingly racialized in later years.  For example, from 1929-1936, North Carolina sterilized 277 Whites and 55 Negros (as they are classified in the biennial reports of the state Eugenics Board).  By 1964-65 those numbers were 64 Whites and 131 Negros.  (The biennial reports are all here.)

This kind of statistical evidence along with the anecdotal evidence that people like Galton seem to be more concerned with degeneration within a race rather than some hierarchical conflict between races suggests that the relationship between race and eugenics is more complicated.  That it more explicitly became a tool of systemic racism later on, and that its origins were more connected to issues of class than of race.  (Of course those are deeply connected – as systemic racism contributed to poverty, but it seems that a poor, uneducated white woman in North Carolina was much less likely to be deemed “feebleminded” and made the victim of eugenic sterilization in the 1960s than the 20s.)  The evidence seems to suggest that the racism comes later: does this mean that scientists were informed by their own racism, or that their research attracted popularization, implementation, or funding from people with racist agendas to pursue?

So evidence of individuals like Stoddard are interesting.  His Harvard PhD thesis appears to have been in history—not in evolution, biology, anthropology, or any science.  And the version which was published upon its completion in 1914 makes no mention of evolution or eugenics, but it does speak of a “world-wide struggle between the primary races of mankind —the ‘conflict of color,’ as it has been happily termed.”  It seems like he was a race warrior first and only came to make use of scientific arguments afterwards, and without any training in the sciences.  Egnor hasn’t suggested that Stoddard had any direct influence over the Scopes trial, and given that Hunter’s book was out the same year Stoddard’s PhD was completed, it clearly had no effect on the textbook.

And yet, I think Egnor’s right to say that at least some people were making use of eugenics to promote racism in the 1920s.  Whether that represented much of biology, or a “consensus” is another question altogether.  In his book on American biology in this period, the historian Philip Pauly gave evidence that “the most popular twentieth-century American book on eugenics was [Luther] Burbank’s engagingly titled Training of the Human Plant, which argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the positive value of racial hybridization.”  Pauly also made a strong case that “a biology-based eugenics… was an enterprise that never really cohered.” (page 216)  Pauly also observed that “initially, [Davenport] hoped to investigate variation, mutation, and selection to uncover ‘the laws of evolution of organic beings,’ but he soon came to focus on Hugo DeVries’s mutation theory and on the Mendelian ‘laws of inheritance of characteristics.’” (page 221) This fits in with my earlier statement that biologists did regard heredity and evolution as distinct areas of inquiry, and that this was true even of Davenport himself.

So in answer to Egnor’s question to me.  There were several new theories of heredity developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The discovery of the chromosome, to cite just one example, was probably a lot more important to discussions of biological eugenics than Darwin. It seems like a variety of developments in biology in the nineteenth century may have contributed to the advent of eugenic policies, but it’s hard to see why Darwin’s formulation of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution would be the most important key to that.

I think there’s a worthwhile conversation to be had about this broader history, but it has to be based on more than misdirected moral indignation and unfounded assertions in the face of evidence.   My interest isn’t to exonerate eugenics, apologize for racism, or advocate for some vague notion of Darwinism.  My interest is in understanding the history of ideas and the people who communicate them.  My feeling is that Egnor (and the Discovery Institute) undermine their own credibility when they refuse to acknowledge that people who disagree with them get things right at least some of the time and.  Similarly, I think that the advocates of Intelligent Design sometimes raise some (metaphysical, epistemological and theological) questions that deserve some honest and open conversation, and that the insistence on being classified a science prevents that discussion from taking place.

For me at least, that conversation will have to resume next year.  I’m going to enjoy my holiday, catch up on course preparation and my own research, and when I do get back to this blog there are other topics I want to give some time to.  Happy New Year, everyone.

History of Misreading – And Scopes is still not a Racist

One of the processes I’m most interested in as a historian is what I often refer to as the genealogy of misreading.  One person writes something, another person quotes it, or misquotes it,  or reacts to its conclusions and misunderstands the reasoning behind those.  Over the course of several iterations, the errors accrue until the original view has been almost totally obscured.  My new article just published online this week examines this phenomenon for William Paley’s Natural Theology.  (Conclusion, one thing both sides of the current debate get wrong is in claiming that modern ID is philosophically similar to Paley’s arguments for a designer.)

I mention this because an extraordinary example of misreading, with a traceable genealogy, has been unfolding this past month.  This began with Jerry Coyne’s post about visiting John Scopes grave, and a response by Discovery Institute fellow Michael Egnor’s criticizing of Coyne for embracing Scopes.  Egnor (and David Klinghoffer) essentially accused Scopes of being a racist for teaching from George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook A Civic Biology.  I wrote about some of the historical problems with this in an earlier post on December 14.

A couple days later, Jerry Coyne responded with another post, which largely cites mine against Egnor and Klinghoffer (and is quite gracious in accepting a point of correction I’d raised to something he’d written earlier.)

The next day (December 18), Egnor responded with another post, in which he calls “Bullfeathers” on Coyne (and implicitly me).

There’s some misreading going on.  Some of which may be intentional.

From Egnor’s post:


One misreading which I think was unintentional resulted in Coyne’s use of the word “genetics.” I had said that eugenics was treated more as a primary application of the biological concept of heredity as opposed to evolution (later on I’ll show exactly how this happens in George Hunter’s textbook).  Hunter didn’t use the word “genetics” even though he did mention Mendel’s theories.  I think it’s understandable why someone who’s a practicing biologist working in the field of evolutionary biology might use the word “genetics” when he reads the word “heredity,” even though in this instance it’s anachronistic.

Egnor justifies his claim of “bullfeathers” by pointing out that “The word ‘genetics’ wasn’t coined until 1905, by Bateson.”  Eugenics, of course predates this.  This is itself a completely valid response to the historical argument that eugenics was an application of genetics.  But it also reveals that either Egnor didn’t read the rest of Coyne’s post (or my post from which Coyne cites) or that Egnor was deliberately looking for something he could take out of context.  Because this claim of anachronism is utterly useless in responding to the historical claim that eugenics was considered an application of the biological concept of heredity.  Of course, if Egnor wanted to rebut that claim, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned in his very next sentence: “The science of eugenics began in 1869, when Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, published his landmark Hereditary Genius.”  The first word of the title of that book might be a bit of a giveaway that Egnor’s historical analysis is flawed.

Egnor then gives a somewhat selective history of British and American eugenics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pointing out that some of these eugenicists were supporters of Darwin! Egnor takes note that  “The Center for Experimental Evolution — the center for eugenics, that is — opened in Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. The word “genetics” was coined in 1905.”  This seeming gotcha moment is actually pretty well discredited by the History page on Cold Spring Harbor’s own website:

1904: Genetics research begins

Soon, another mission was established: research in genetics. This grew out of two events: the appointment, in 1898, of Charles Davenport, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, as director of the Laboratory, and the rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel’s work, carried out 35 years earlier. Mendel’s Laws provided explanations for the variability that underlies evolution, and his work opened new possibilities for experimentation in biology.

Davenport approached the Carnegie Institute of Washington and proposed that it establish a genetics research program at the Cold Spring Harbor site. In June 1904, the Carnegie Institute’s Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Department of Genetics, was formally opened with a commerative speech given by Hugo de Vries, one of the three re-discoverers of Mendel’s work.

From its founding in the 1890s, Cold Spring Harbor was a place where “biologists and naturalists of that time worked out the consequences of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”  However, in 1904, Davenport was brought there for “another mission”  First called the “Center for Experimental Evolution” it began some of the research that led to the coinage of the word “genetics.”  What Egnor’s actually pointed us to is the fact that whatever eugenics was in Galton’s day (an extension of heredity) by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century: it was applied genetics.  More interesting, it was seen as distinct enough from “Darwin’s theory of evolution” that it required the founding of a separate center.

I also want to caution against taking the evolution-or-heredity idea to an impossibly absurd extreme. It’s not as though you had to accept one but not the other.  But I also want to get back to the original issue at hand: which was not the claim that eugenics was not primarily an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.)  It’s the claim that this Evolution-to-Eugenics-to-Racism combination exists in George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook, A Civic Biology.  Let’s actually look at the textbook.  (It’s a textbook I know pretty well, having written extensively about its post-Scopes trial revision in my own book.)

A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems by George W. Hunter (American Book Company, 1914) is out of copyright and is digitized online.  The archive.org link should work everywhere, but the Google books full text seems to only be available in the US.  i’m going to direct-link pages from Google books, but i’ll include page references for everyone who can’t access those but can download the pdf from archive.org.

Where is Evolution and Where is Eugenics?

The main sections discussing evolution are from pages 193-196.  If you look at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that these are in the last part of a chapter titled: “Division of Labor, the Various Forms of Plants and Animals.”

Eugenics is detailed on pages 261-265, the last sections of the chapter “Heredity, Variation, Plant and Animal breeding.”  Evolution is mentioned once in this chapter (page 253) but only to say that heredity is a force which is partly responsible for evolution (which was itself discussed earlier.)  This is a few chapters after the chapter which mentions evolution in detail.  It seems pretty clear from the placement alone that eugenics was seen as an application of heredity moreso than evolution.

How is Eugenics Discussed?

Eugenics was considered part of sexual health, good breeding, including the belief that certain diseases could cause congenital deformity or could cause harm to offspring.  Eugenics, at least as Hunter’s book defines it, concerns the transmission of “germ diseases.”  (page 261)  In this section, Hunter doesn’t mention “race” at all, but as I said in my earlier post, there’s quite a lot of class issues in this discussion.  On page 263:

Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society.  They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually cared for by the state out of public money.  Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist.  They take from society, but they give nothing in return.  They are true parasites.

I agree that both the tone and content of this passage is offensive.  But it isn’t at all about race.  (And it bears a striking resemblance to some of the recent rhetoric from the political right that seems to castigate those who (they claim) “take from society, but … give nothing in return.”  In the political rhetoric that claims that the impoverished are undeserving of protection from their government is the free market eugenics of the twenty-first century.)

In the section of eugenics, Hunter continues: “we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or in other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” But it’s clear from the context that Hunter isn’t talking about racial intermarriage, and that he’s using “race” to describe the people (of any color, ethnicity, or background) who are degenerately inferior.  In all instances where the word “race” is used in the eugenics section, Hunter uses it in the singular (as in a human race, not distinct races of humanity.)

There’s been a lot of misreading going on.  Some of it seems to be encouraged through deliberate rhetorical tactics.  In my previous post, I pointed out that Egnor often made claims that were false on several levels, with the seeming strategy of encouraging people to object to the last of these and slipping the others by unquestioned.  He began his new post doing the same thing.  He says nothing in response to the very true fact repeated by Coyne that Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, and “almost certainly didn’t teach the eugenics part of the book.”  But he mentions it along with the second claim in the hope that we won’t notice that his effort to link this alleged racism via eugenics via Civic Biology all the way back to Scopes still has this additional missing link.  I am wary of attributing intentions to authors, but it seems to me that this can’t be as honest a distortion as, say, Coyne’s substitution of “genetics” for “heredity” is.  At least, I don’t think that Coyne threw in an anachronistic word in order to trick Egnor into writing a refutation that missed the point entirely.