Squid history

Paul Myers is probably a good biologist and I suspect he is a good biology teacher but he is a lousy historian who appears to think that wishing the world to be as he wants it to be is more important than the facts. In a post on his blog Pharyngula he makes the following set of claims:

The history of Western Civilization hasn’t been one of constant decline. It’s been a complicated series of ups and downs, and people seem to differ on when it was going up and when it was going down. I see the major lifts occurring during periods of secular thought: Greece in the 6th century BC, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. These are the moments when great changes occurred that expanded humanity’s vision. On the other hand, the great troughs in human history were whenever religion was ascendant: the whole of the Middle Ages. Not that people weren’t aspiring to great things during the Middle Ages, but they were all weighted down with the burden of dragging an anti-scientific, reactionary church with them everywhere.

The three periods of ‘lift’ that he identifies were anything but periods of secular thought. Contrary to the popular claims about logos replacing mythos in ancient Greece and this being the reason for the birth of Greek science, if you actually look at the works of the leading Greek thinkers they are full of religious claims and statements. Turning to the Renaissance all of the major figures who erected the structure that became modern science were deeply and actively religious, a fact that they openly acknowledge in their scientific writings. Again in the 18th century the period of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution nearly all of the leading participants were again deeply and actively religious.

As I have pointed out more than once on this blog the Church was not anti-scientific during the Middle Ages and in fact members of the Church actively laid the foundations on which other members of the Church created modern science in the Early Modern Period.

I did not know that the New Atheists had started an Orwellian revisionist rewriting of history.


Filed under Myths of Science

10 responses to “Squid history

  1. Hanlon’s razor seems relevant here. This isn’t Orwellian but rather simple ignorance. I’ve seen almost exactly this attitude from religious people as well. This is just a common set of misconceptions about history. PZ should be criticized for failure to fact check, but that’s not the same thing as deliberately distorting history at all. (Have you sent him a note? he generally seems to respond well to factual corrections.)

  2. I did not know that the New Atheists had started an Orwellian revisionist rewriting of history.

    Do not assume conspiracy when incompetence will do 😉

  3. John S. Wilkins

    I disagree. PZ is repeating a series of historical distortions that go back to the “Warfare of Science Against Religion” movement of White and Draper int he 19th century, which every historian knows was the outcome of question begging, cherry picking and sometimes of outright falsehood. He has repeated these claims more than once, as has Sam Harris, and many others of his genre.

    The problem seems to me to be that those engaged in the new exclusivism think that what obtains in one rather isolated case (creationism, antimedicine, and anticonservationism in America) is a cultural universal.

    I strongly recommend reading John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion to understand the vastly more complex and nuanced relations between European science and religious institutions and ideas.

    • sbej

      I partly agree. I think the American problem is a major factor. But P.Z does have a tendancy to pick aspects of history and come up with a particular narrow focus. Even if he is in this case repeating older claims.

      Dawkin’s vision of the medieval world which he uses in the odd throw away line is often based on complete fantasy, playing to popular notions of the period to make a contemporary point.

      It’s difficult for anyone to utterly escape the lens of the present. But seems to be no attempt made to escape it in this case

  4. Having just read Hedley’s book, I can heartily second John’s suggestion.

  5. Michael Fugate

    I am having difficulty with the whole idea of progress. Biological evolution seems to be a better analogy with change being inevitable, but having no destination as such. An example is the loss of detailed ecological data accompanying the loss of indigenous languages and cultures as the west explored the earth. This also brings up the western focus of these arguments – as if this is the only relevant culture. We have all of these different lineages of religions and sciences that developed in quasi-isolation – why not use a comparative approach?

  6. One of the ironies here is that books like White and Draper’s Warfare of Science and Theology owe a great deal to the tradition of Protestant anti-catholic propaganda. When I think of W&D’s tome, I’m reminded of tendentious histories like Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic and, from an earlier period, 16th and 17th Century English polemic against Spain and the Papists, the so-called black legend. There’s also an echo of “rum, romanism, and rebellion” in the rhetoric of the new atheists, though PZ does seem to have gotten over the problem with the rum and seems to think of every kind of Christian as a would-be Torquemada. Well, birds used to be dinosaurs.

  7. sbej

    Long echo’s of this in British history, J.H. Parry’s claim in the 1950’s that the decline of the Portuguese Empire was a mix of religious policy and intermarriage; “manning the ships with such indians and half-castes can account for the decline in seamanship”.

    He seems to want to use history to ground his own beliefs and attitudes as correct and acceptable.
    But they also feed and provide easy answers to the clear and very easily demonstrated stupidity of others.

  8. sbej

    I should have concluded by saying if Pro. Historians like Parry could fall into this trap (he is the most extreme example I can think of) its difficult to expect non-historians to aspire to higher standards and may say more about the way the subject has been taught than anything else.

    The outline of his book and others of the period still formed the basis of my undergrad med/ren course. It had changed little in it’s basic structure in 50 years of teaching.

  9. Mike from Ottawa

    Scientism means never having to admit other disciplines might know something.

    I’d still suggest, Thony C, that you repost this as a comment at Pharyngula. PZ might yet listen and we’d be better off for it.

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