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”

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“Questioning Darwin”: a review

The very last scene of the HBO Documentary “Questioning Darwin,” shows a view sweeping across the floor of Westminster abbey, in soft focus before coming to a stop at the plaque denoting the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.  The narrator, describing Darwin’s funeral, closed with the words of Harvey Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle who “told the mourners: ‘There need be no conflict between the study of nature and belief in God.’”

But it is only in these very last two seconds that the idea that there were religious people who didn’t oppose evolution are ever given any mention in the whole of the documentary.  While “Questioning Darwin” offers a personal view the experiences and views of some American antievolutionists, it fails to mention that there are many antievolutionists who are not committed to a young earth, or that there are also large numbers of religious believers who accept evolutionary accounts of human origins.  In the exclusion of these views, the documentary is effectively the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate done over with human interest angles and better lighting and music.  There’s more to it, (including some problematic aspects to how it presented the history of evolution and religion – although my main concerns with the documentary aren’t about its presentation of history per se.)  The documentary tries for some kind of balance—it doesn’t openly castigate or mock any of the people that it profiles—but in the juxtaposition of people’s views in ways that insinuated greater forms of similarity (or opposition) between views and in the way narration describes those views, the documentary gives a false impression about some of the ideas it describes.

From the very beginning, the documentary makes some subtle distortions of the state of belief in America that give some indication of some of the presumptions that informed the whole piece.  In the very first minute, the narrator tells us that: “For those Christians who believe their Bible is the word of God — the literal truth— one man is held up as the Antichrist, Charles Darwin.”  Leaving aside the movie-trailer quality of the ‘one man’ trope, it’s the first half of the sentence that is troublesome.  There are religious people who accept the Bible is the “Word of God” without holding to a belief in “literal truth” (a concept which less than three minutes later is equated with literal interpretation).  Also in those first four minutes, the narrator informs us that “According to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation.”  The Gallup poll doesn’t mention ‘Genesis.’  46% in the poll agreed with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  It’s logically possible, though unlikely to suggest that some people agreeing with this statement did so totally independent of the book of Genesis.  But it’s much more likely that some of the 54% who did not agree with that Gallup option would state that they believe in a “Genesis account of creation” (just not a young earth interpretation of Genesis.)  In making both of these distortions, the documentary reinforces the idea that there’s a singular way of understanding the Bible, “the Genesis account of creation.” And that this is what it means to “believe [the] Bible is the word of God.” From the very beginning, it seems that anything like theistic evolution, or even old-earth variants of Christian creationism (or ‘intelligent design’) can’t exist.  This presupposition is further echoed in statements like zoologist Aubrey Manning stating that Darwin is “well aware that he will be attacked by religious people and by other scientists,” (as if religious people and scientists are two mutually exclusive categories.)

The bulk of the documentary alternates between showing interviews and practices of young earth Christian antievolutionists (with a heavy use of video provided by Answers in Genesis and footage shot in their Creation Museum) with a biographical account of Darwin’s life and the personal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of Darwin as an individual.  The presentation of Darwin’s life (underscored by interviews with several excellent historians of science) is well done (although some disputes within the “Darwin Industry” are glossed over.)

In a film that refers to “here in the US”, it is somewhat surprising though that especially early on, nearly all the experts used to explicate Darwin’s life and thought are British, and based in the UK.  With the exception of the Australian Ken Ham (CEO of the Creation Museum) all of the voices advocating creationism speak with American accents.  (It’s not until more than two-thirds of the documentary is over that two Americans speak presenting evolution – Jim Secord, who’s based in the UK, and Jason Rosenhouse, who presents some of the history of antievolutionism in the USA.)  Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but since the documentary brought up a claim that William Jennings Bryan thought evolution to be “un-American,” more American voices on evolution might have been a worthwhile inclusion.

More important than the accents, the film’s focus on Darwin personally has the unfortunate effect of completely ignoring the whole of evolutionary science since Darwin, and to presume that Darwin’s own theological naïvete is the best voice for understanding the religious implications of his theory.  Historians have long made the case that it was not belief in evolution, but personal events such as the death of darwin’s daughter Annie that caused Darwin to lose his faith.  James Moore ably recaps this interpretation in the documentary.  But the juxtaposition of Darwin’s grief with the testimonies of Christians talking about the pain of losses that they’ve experienced reduces the whole question of Christianity and evolution to both a dichotomy and to a matter of personal sentiment and feeling—a choice between feelings of depression and consolation.

There’s an understated thesis throughout the documentary that is created by presentation of the personal lives of Christian antievolutionists.  It’s similar to a thesis that I think was made more persuasively in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos.  In that earlier film, Randy Olsen made an excellent case that a major factor in the public victories antievolutionism had achieved had to do with personal character, that the antievolutionists were more likable, more charismatic, and less condescending.  There’s no obvious condescension among the evolutionists — indeed there’s very little discussion of the science of evolution or any scientist besides Darwin himself, and Darwin is presented as a largely sympathetic character, not one who intended to cause harm.  But the creationists aren’t merely presented as charismatic or nice (indeed some of them seem a bit offputting.)  But scenes of congregations singing in churches, of church outreach to feeding the homeless, of helping individuals cope with addiction or other personal problems all have the effect of depicting the creationist community as a positive force of society.  The implication is that these  communities, and their good works, are threatened by evolution.  This completely overlooks the fact that many American churches that do good work for society don’t subscribe to young earth creationism, and many non-religious organizations also contribute to public good.  Where are the congregations of theistic evolutionists at prayer?

Moreover, where are the communities of joyful scientists? Absent. Perhaps worse, UCL geneticist Steve Jones is quoted saying: “In order to be a great scientist you have to devote your entire life to science, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  And Darwin did that.” This both perpetuates a ‘great man’ history of science that is grossly out of touch with most scientific practices today, and it also diminishes scientists as human beings.  Most scientists today do pursue their profession in balance with a family and social life.  This vision presents the idea of evolution as inhuman, conceivable only with minds wholly devoted to science, not to community, not to improving the world, and certainly not to religion or moral worldviews.

By presenting the personal lives of people who are identified as creationists, the documentary makes implicit the idea that their emotional fulfillment comes not only from their Christianity, but their creationist Christianity.  It’s emotionally manipulative for the documentary to show a paraplegic girl praying with her family, the reformed prostitute or the drug abuser who found Christ, the cancer patient who has faith in eternal salvation—and then to say that because these people disbelieve evolution, that advocacy of evolution is tantamount to denying the rest of their identity.  Could there not be an example of a person whose life was saved by medical breakthroughs that made use of evolutionary understandings of disease?

There were also a few claims about the history of American antievolutionism that I found irritating but of lesser importance.   The depiction of the Scopes trial was simplified and focused wholly on Bryan, Darrow and science-religion conflict.  (I’m not going to recap  the shortcomings of this interpretation here.)  But more problematic was the idea that creation science was a direct response to the BSCS, which was in turn a direct response to the launch of Sputnik.  For one, the federal initiatives in science education that included the BSCS predated Sputnik.  Moreover, it wasn’t the launch of the BSCS directly that prompted an antievolutionist backlash in the form of creation science so much as the Supreme Court ruling in Epperson v Arkansas (finally putting an end to Scopes-style antievolution laws) that prompted the implementation of creation science as a proposed alternative to evolution science.

The documentary’s greatest redeeming feature is that the people who are portrayed are done so sincerely.  Even though clips from the documentary (such as in this Gawker article) take things out of context in a way that makes the creationists look more ignorant or naive, the documentary itself seems to be respectful to all the people included.  It’s those who were not worthy of inclusion at all who will rightly feel the most slighted.

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.

 

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:

Image

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.

Why Attacking John Scopes as Racist isn’t True

Two fellows of the Discovery Institute have been criticizing biologist and prominent critic of antievolutionism Jerry Coyne after he posted a picture of himself visiting the grave of John Scopes earlier this month.  The substance of both Michael Egnor’s and David Klinghoffer’s response was the same: Scopes was put on trial for teaching from a horribly racist textbook that promoted eugenics.  Therefore, it’s unconscionable that Coyne should embrace Scopes (or more specifically his tombstone,) or declare that he should like to shake Scopes’ hand, unless Coyne was also legitimating the horrible racism that Scopes taught to some poor innocent Tennessee school children.

Coyne responded to these posts which prompted an even longer response from Egnor which essentially doubled down on Scopes’s alleged racism, and demanded that Scopes ought to have “taught the controversy” rather than just teaching eugenics.

Egnor’s first post links to the Wikipedia page for the textbook Scopes used in 1925, George W. Hunter’s 1914 Civic Biology.  (Egnor also links to a page from the UMKC law project that shows some pages scanned from the textbook, but he quotes directly from the Wikipedia page.  The UMKC link doesn’t contain all of the material that’s cited.  It seems that Egnor went only by what he read on Wikipedia, even though the entire Civic Biology is available for free, at least in the US on google books.)  As I’ll discuss a bit later on, the quotes from Hunter’s text in the Wikipedia entry are somewhat out of context, running together passages from different parts of the book, which give the impression that evolution and eugenics were closely related.

I noticed that the Wikipedia page for the Civic Biology actually cites my book as a reference, but clearly Egnor didn’t bother with it.  Egnor (and Klinghoffer’s) posts are rife with patently false historical assertions about Scopes and about the Civic Biology.  Coyne’s has some error as well, but much less.

Did Scopes Teach the Eugenics Section of the Civic Biology?

Egnor states that “Coyne’s hero taught the schoolchildren of Dayton from a textbook with rancid eugenic racist hate.”  But (as Coyne correctly points out) Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, he only filled in as a substitute briefly.  It’s almost certain that Scopes, personally, did not cover the eugenics passages.  For that matter, Scopes was unsure that he’d even taught evolution, relating in his memoir that he had to go back and look in the textbook to even be sure it was in there.

But Egnor’s subtle and precise in never actually stating that Scopes taught racism or eugenics.  In his second post he says: “Scopes’s legacy consists entirely of inviting prosecution by proudly teaching human evolution from a eugenic racist textbook.” Scopes taught the textbook.  The textbook taught eugenics.  Given that Scopes didn’t even remember whether he’d covered evolution, it’s probable that he didn’t even know (beforehand) that the textbook he was reviewing contained eugenics.  Nonetheless, Scopes is morally appalling to Egnor and Klinghoffer because of his association with the textbook.  By extension, Coyne is appalling because of his embrace of Scopes.

Interestingly, William Jennings Bryan tried the same thing during the Scopes trial.  In one of his speeches, he began to attack Hunter’s Civic Biology for other material that it contained rather than the part that ostensibly put Scopes afoul of the law.  (Note that even then, Bryan didn’t even think the Eugenics was worth mentioning.)  As I argue in my book, this backfired tremendously as it opened the door to the defense to discuss the broader relationship of evolution to religion.

Did Scopes’s Accusers Mind the Racism or Eugenics of the Civic Biology

In an earlier post, I argued that antievolutionists in the 1910s and 20s were not motivated by antagonism towards eugenics.  In fact, the same year that the antievolution law was passed, the state legislature also passed a General Education Bill that reinforced school segregation.  If anything John Scopes indicates in his memoir that his family was quite opposed to racism.  Historian Jeffrey Moran has noted that while some African-Americans were opposed to evolution at the time of the Scopes trial, their concerns were its incompatibility with scripture not the purported eugenic applications of evolution.  Moran also noted that

African-American intellectuals invoked Scopes and the respectability of science as part of their struggle against white supremacy in the South: they identified with John Scopes as a victim of southern repression and they claimed that antievolutionism derived much of its strength from racist assumptions that resonated with white southerners.

If people though that Scopes and what he taught was deeply racist, you’d think that would show up more among the racial minorities who were close audiences to the Scopes trial.  For the record, although Bryan was personally opposed to the KKK, he also opposed the Democratic Party’s consideration of a 1924 platform resolution condemning them.  At least for some African-Americans, Bryan’s accommodation of the KKK a year earlier certainly shaped their distrust of his agendas at the Scopes trial.

How Racist was Eugenics in the 1920s?

Eugenics was described by Hunter in the Civic Biology as the improvement of the human population, not as the basis of ensuring the superiority of those races.  It’s true that eugenic sterilizations in the United States (some of which stayed on the books until the 21st century) were deeply racially skewed: both in terms of racist assumptions built into intelligence testing and in selective enforcement of the eugenic laws.  However, the racial disparities became more pronounced in after the Second World War.  In the 1910s and 20s, eugenics seems to have been less about race and more about class: specifically the class of people who were perceived as non-contributors to society: criminals, the “feebleminded” and the immoral.

Eugenics was considered an application of a biological principle of heredity moreso than evolution (inasmuch as those could be seen as distinct principles.)  This included the presumption that at the cultural and developmental level, social improvements (or disimprovements) could be passed on.  The eugenic theories that were outlined in Hunter in 1914 were based on a combination of hard (genetic) inheritance principles as well as “soft inheritance.”  That is to say that (this era of eugenics) prescribed neither essentialist or hierarchical views of race.

The passages of Hunter’s textbook that talks about the hierarchy of races are part of the section that discusses human evolution.  But those are in a completely different chapter than the passages on eugenics.

Egnor states without citation: “Eugenic racism in 1925 was consensus science in the field of human evolution.”  This statement is wrong on several levels.  It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily about race (in 1925).  It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily considered an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.)  And it’s wrong to claim that it was a consensus.  But disagreeing only with the last of those three claims tacitly reinforces the first two.  This is an extremely subtle – and dishonest – rhetorical strategy.

None of this is to say that eugenic practices were morally justified or shouldn’t shock us, but they weren’t directly connected to evolution.  Scopes and other readers of Hunter’s textbook wouldn’t have seen it that way.

Do we Save Scopes By Condemning Civic Biology?

This is the one issue where I think Coyne has made a mistake.  His refutation to the Discovery Institute seems to be that Scopes, being both the substitute teacher and teaching the state mandated textbook had no choice but to use Hunter, which “did indeed contain some pretty dreadful racist and eugenicist statements.” A minor quibble is to point out that there was a second adopted biology textbook—which about 10% of Tennessee students used instead.  But in terms of its evolutionary and eugenic contents it was really no different.  (And it wasn’t left to Scopes’s personal discretion which to use anyway)  but Coyne’s claim that “it is ironic, by the way, that Tennessee, by requiring use of a book that covered human evolution, was requiring its biology teachers to break the law.”  This is really not accurate.  When Governor Peay signed the bill into law, he specifically stated that nothing in the books being taught in the state would place a teacher in jeopardy.  (In Chapter 5 of my book, I argue that if we presume that Scopes taught exactly what was in Hunter’s book, then he didn’t actually violate the Tennessee law.)

But this strategy of acknowledging the offensiveness of Hunter’s textbook has been part of a rhetorical strategy against creationism for quite a while.  Stephen Jay Gould used it to essentially say that William Jennings Bryan was well-meaning in opposing the teaching of evolution, but wrong to claim that it was not true.  This strategy has had the effect of foisting egregious racism onto the character of George Hunter, unfairly I think.  It overlooks the fact that Hunter was drawing from some of the scientific theories of his day, and that he was not solely responsible for the content of his book.  Did he believe that the Caucasians were the “highest type?” Probably.  Did he believe in the politics of Jim Crow or the promotion of racist policies? Almost certainly not.

Egnor states: “Ironically, telling the truth about evolution — telling exactly what Scopes taught to his students — is precisely what David and I did.” This is wrong twice over.  It’s not true that Scopes taught the eugenics passages (or perhaps even the evolution passages) and it’s also not true that the passages about eugenics were “about evolution” in the way that Egnor implies.  Similar to the other rhetorical slight of hand mentioned earlier, Egnor seems to strategically invite us (and Coyne takes the bait here) to disagree that Scopes taught the eugenics section, or that Scopes had no choice but to teach it, but then hopes to slip by the other implication of his statement – that eugenics was part of the evolution coverage.

Overall Coyne does a good job refuting the most egregious historical falsehoods of Egnor and Klinghoffer, but he lets some of the more subtle ones go un(der)challenged, and this reinforces at least some of the false claims that have been made about the Scopes trial, the textbook at the heart of the conflict, and the personae of John Scopes and George Hunter.

One last note: In terms of the militant rhetoric against antievolutionism (and the open disdain for religious fundamentalism) Coyne seems more closely akin to George Hunter than he does to John Scopes.  By the way, Prof Coyne, Hunter’s grave is in Redlands, California, if you’re ever headed out that way.