Friday, September 04, 2009

Lack of Progress

I was much entertained this week to see that the spirit of Andrew Dickson White is truly alive and well in the writings of one David P Mindell, an expert on the evolution of birds and author of ‘The Evolving World’, a book written with the laudable aim of showing how the findings of evolutionary biology are deeply integrated into our culture. Sadly he also attempts to construct a thumping anti-clerical historical build-up in the opening chapter and, despite the works of Lindburg and Grant appearing in one of his footnotes, the result is a total train wreck. This next passage is somewhat typical and reminiscent of a late 19th century positivist.

Despite our ancestors’ demonstration of the human capability for observation and logic, cultural and religious forces superseded a scientific approach following dissolution of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Instead of reliance upon observation, experience, and experiment, attention focused on sacred documents and supernatural agencies during the Middle Ages.

Mindell continues:

Lack of progress in the sciences following the decline of Greek and Roman culture around 500 ce until the beginning of the Renaissance about 1450 is often attributed to capitulation of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

Often attributed!?!, by who?; P Z Myers?, the internet infidels discussion board?, Edward Gibbon?, Doesn’t he wonder why one of the books in his bibliography is entitled ‘The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages’ and not ‘Ignorance, woo, superstition and woeful lack of progress in the Middle Ages’. Lets see which sources he is using to support this view?

Church censorship certainly played an important role. In his New Organon, published in 1620, Francis Bacon describes the times between antiquity and his own era as “unprosperous” for the sciences: “For neither the Arabians nor the Schoolmen need be mentioned, who in the intermediate times rather crushed the sciences with a multitude of treatises, than increased their weight.” In the eighteenth century Voltaire decried the “general decay and degeneracy” that characterized the Middle Ages, as did the Marquis de Condorcet, who remarked, “The triumph of Christianity was the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.

Francis Bacon, Voltaire and Condorcet!. Well that certainly trumps the last 50 years of research into medieval intellectual discourse. Next time I write something on Evolutionary Biology I’ll base it on the views of Galen, William Paley and Bishop Wilberforce.

He does at least seem to know about events such as the 1277 condemnations but thinks that they:

illustrate the inevitable conflict of that era between theologians, who claim authority on matters of revelation, and natural philosophers, who promote the explanatory powers of reason.

Notably absent is the much debated view of Pierre Duhem that ‘if we must assign a date for the birth of modern science, we would, without doubt, choose the year 1277 when the bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that several worlds could exist, and that the whole of heavens could, without contradiction, be moved with a rectilinear motion’, nor that of the historian of science Richard Dales, that the condemnations 'seem definitely to have promoted a freer and more imaginative way of doing science’. Nor Lindberg's more cautious view of the condemnations as a 'conservative backlash' but one which nonetheless 'encouraged scholars to explore non Aristotelian physical and cosmological alternatives'.

Towards the end of the chapter, an old favourite appears:

As recently as 1847, James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, was denounced from the pulpit for pioneering the use of chloroform as an anesthetic in difficult cases of childbirth. HolyWrit was cited to support the argument that use of chloroform was an attempt to “avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.” In a clever turnabout, Simpson used the Old Testament in defense of anesthetics, invoking the story of Genesis as a record of the first surgery ever performed, in which God “caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam” prior to extracting a rib for the creation of Eve.

A dastardly tale to be sure; and also complete and utter hogwash. Would it hurt to do some actual research before writing your book?.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Karl said...

Well it just goes to show that no matter how intelligent one person is they can still be intellectually blinded by their own preconceived prejudices. Or that if someone is an expert in one field that they are fit to talk about another field entirely. What a shame.

IlĂ­on said...

Karl, on what rational ground does one suppose that an expert is competent to speak in even his own field?

Expertise is frequently just a beard for "argument by (asserted) authority)."

Anonymous said...

Sorry but I think Mindell got it about right, keeping the big picture in mind. It is not news that many roots of science can be traced to clergy in the middle ages, that hardly means the church as an institution was a positive force in the development of science and free inquiry.