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.

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:

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.

The Great Summer Research Road Trip

I’ve thought it churlish to complain about living in London – particularly as a historian.  But I have discovered that one of the main challenges of being a historian of America based in London is the difficulty of sources.  Of course my university and other library affiliations here give me access to a lot of the major journals in American history – but we’re understandably not a place of high demand for the publications of state and county historical societies.

More importantly, living an ocean away really changes the way that I need to plan for research at archives.  It is obvious that my work in the US requires more time and money than my colleagues whose source materials reside here in London or elsewhere in Britain – or even in Europe.  But whilst a research trip to a major American city or a single other location might not be too onerous even from here, the archives that I need to work with are not only scattered, but often in locations that aren’t so easily accessible.  The only solution — the efficient solution it seemed, was to put as much as possible into a single summer-long road trip.  Fly out.  Drive.  Research. And on.

The result (after a month in New York) was a two month, 18 archive, 6 state (plus DC and one Canadian province) trip that put us (me, my partner and our baby) on the road from the east coast as far west as Denver, and from there a flight to Vancouver.

There were some strange moments and some fun ones.  I might have been the only person doing research in Gettysburg, PA who wasn’t working on the Civil War at all.  I had a few frustrating moments when I discovered that most of the books that were donated to a university archive had likely been discarded (the archive kept the papers and correspondence.)  In New York and Nebraska I had got to see several fossils and other artifacts, although I’m not quite sure I knew how to make any sense of what I was seeing.  There was also a few moments of reminding myself that I’m not supposed to dance for joy in the archives when I find something super useful that I didn’t think even existed.  We went to the Nebraska State Fair on our way from Lincoln to the Panhandle.  In David City, Nebraska, a local historian/journalist helped orient me with the archives, and also wrote about our trip in the local paper. We even had time to meet a bunch of interesting people while we were staying in Lincoln for a week, or Laramie for a few days.  When we got to Denver, it was the first time we’d hit traffic in thousands of miles.

In the continued theme of efficiency, I had planned on doing the research for two projects while I was in the US.  Many of the sources for my work on the 1924 Nebraska evolution trial and the history of the Hesperopithecus discovery were in the same place—or at least nearby.  On paper, this seemed like  great idea, especially when I was applying for grants to help fund this summer trip.  Funding bodies like efficiency right? They like knowing that the money they’re awarding will not be wasted, and that they’re giving it to people who know how to put it to use.  I’ll show them! I’m not just going to write one book set in Nebraska, I’m going to write two!

In practice, this initially proved more difficult than I anticipated.  Mentally, it was hard to go from thinking about how one project was going, and finding a lot of brand new material that I had to make sense of, and by the afternoon, trying to keep in mind all the things that were important for the other project.  The Nebraska trial and Hesperopithecus are only tangentially related— I think the discovery of Hesperopithecus may have triggered one of the events that was then brought up in the trial, but I don’t think it figured directly into the trial itself.  But I figured that if I was looking at material from Nebraska in the 1920s anyway, I could do them.

Then came the big discovery.  I had spent several days in Lincoln looking at the archives of the Paleontology department at the University of Nebraska, particularly the papers of Erwin Barbour, founder of the state museum, and father-in-law of the discoverer of the Hesperopithecus fossil.  I found quite a lot of useful material, but with about half an hour to go before the end of the day that Friday (my last day in Lincoln, I decided that I ought to see if any of the people from the trial happened to write to Barbour (the correspondence was partly indexed and arranged alphabetically within each year, and the archivist had permitted me to go through the files as I liked.)  Suddenly I discovered that D.S. Domer, the teacher from the Nebraska trial and Barbour had a correspondence going back almost ten years.  Moreover, Barbour knew about the trial, and Domer write to him about it after the fact.  This last letter is an incredible piece of evidence, the first thing I’ve seen that directly gives me Domer’s reaction to the trial.  And yet I never would have found i if I hadn’t been looking in Barbour’s files because I was also looking at Hesperopithecus.

So — grant justified! (And a small amount of dancing in the archive.)

Of course, we also got to spend some time in the US seeing friends and family and bringing the baby to meet everyone.  The only way this research trip worked was because he’s been much much better tempered than we have any right to expect.  And my wife also did a lot of driving, and spent several days in places where there was little to do while I was digging in old papers.  When the baby let her, she also helped go through papers. (She recommends the museum of Agrarian Art if you’re in David City.)

And now I get to spend the next nine months in London writing this up.  Hopefully, I’ll get this manuscript mostly done without needed to go back on the road, or that by the time I do need to go back, it’s all for final tweaks.

And of course, now that I’m back in London, it’s also time to teach again.  And I’m going to spend most of this year learning about the other great challenge of being a US historian in London – teaching American history to students who have had almost no prior exposure to it in high school.  (But that’s a subject for another time.)

On Eugenie Scott and Historical Memory

Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, is retiring.  That announcement on Monday has had me thinking about the role that the NCSE has played in the past few decades of the history of antievolutionism.  Like many people, my first thought was to wonder about who might be hired to replace her.

But a very close second thought was that someone had better make sure that her papers are saved for historians! Dr. Scott’s retirement announcement came as I was working on an article criticizing her portrayal of a “creation/evolution continuum.”  While I find the goals of the NCSE to generally be admirable; sometimes its portrayals of the groups, people, and ideas that they are opposed to are not always accurate.  That’s not a historical objection per se, but there’s a lesson to be learned from the history of the school evolution controversies: the distorted views that you popularize can become real nemeses, and in doing so, debates become more polarized.

There’s no shortage of historical questions that could be asked about the NCSE and Scott.   There’ve been few individuals and organizations more influential in the public conflict over the teaching of evolution in the past quarter century.  Of course the line between historical questions and contemporary political and policy questions becomes blurry when working on recent history.  There’s a tendency, or at least a temptation, on the part of some organizations and individuals when preparing some materials for archives, to preserve the materials that are seen to best serve the policy aims of the organization.  In fact, a 2008 article on the NCSE’s website suggests that the aim of the NCSE’s archives is to serve the aims of the NCSE—that is to debunk and to legally and politically fight creationism.  Where the archive’s utility to historians is mentioned, it’s with the understanding that by exploring the history of creationism, that present-day antievolutionism can be unmasked a recycling of old ideas.  It’s an archive on the history of creationism, not the history of the NCSE.

I would hope that Dr. Scott’s retirement is going to be an opportunity for the NCSE archives to expand their mission.  While hiring a new director is a huge task and the organization ought to be thinking about its future, it also needs to devote some attention to its past.  Of course a non-profit organization with finite resources can’t spend a huge amount of its budget to preserving its own history.  I’d hope that if the NCSE does not intend to save the bulk of Scott’s papers, that it will arrange for a library to do so.  Even though embargoing financially or legally sensitive material may be reasonable, I would hope that the archive is neither culled of its human element, nor restricted only to highlights of the NCSE’s victories.

One advantage that I had in working on materials in the 1920s is that the fear of legal action prompting a shred-it-all mentality, seems not to have been so pervasive 100 years ago.  And the notes scribbled in margins of letters, or the way a letter was copied and attached to someone else’s note forwarding it on, were preserved in archives.  It’s often if these unintentional details that a picture of the human actors involved in organizations really emerges.  For that matter, I was also fortunate that most of the materials that I wanted to work with were letters written on paper, which has a much better shelf life than the 5 1/4-inch floppy disks of the 1980s, or even more recent forms of data storage.  This is why the question of historical preservation is more urgent.  Even materials that were not well-preserved from the pre-digital era are often accessible.  For example, there is a wonderful article from last week in American Libraries about the discovery, acquisition, and preservation of John Scopes’s suitcase full of papers and memorabilia by the Special Collections at Western Kentucky University.

There’s no question that the history of the NCSE will be an excellent project and an archive of its actors and actions will be invaluable to anyone understanding the history of the evolution battles from the 1980s to the present.  But the ability of that history to be written depends on what sources remain available.  (By the way, if anyone wants to come work on a PhD on this topic, get in touch with me.)

In an interview about her retirement, Dr. Scott stated that “all nonprofits hope someday to put themselves out of business,” but the mission of the NCSE has not yet ended.  It may be too soon to write the conclusion to the history of an organization that has played such a crucial role in science and religion issues in America in the past 30 years.  But it is not too soon (and hopefully not too late) to begin working on the beginnings of that history.  And that starts with the collection of materials.

Congratulations on your retirement, Dr. Scott.

UPDATE (9 May): I heard from Josh Rosenau, who’s the program and policy director for the NCSE.  From what he says, it sounds like 1) the NCSE archives do contain a lot of resources on the administrative history of the center, and 2) there are plans to maintain and preserve Dr. Scott’s papers and make them available to researchers.

This is very good news and certainly not what all organizations and people do, so the NCSE is to be applauded for this.  It also means that there’s the opportunity for some really interesting and important historical work.  Some historians have already worked wit the archives, but there’s a lot more to be said about history of the evolution wars of the past few decades.  A history that’s still unfolding…