Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

The Dark Ages

With all of the recent content ragarding the DI and other purveyors of hokum, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post an entry from a pre-scienceblogs version of the Refuge.

…and pretty soon there won’t be no streets
for dummies to jog on and doggies to dog on
religious fanatics can make it be all gone
I mean it won’t blow up and disappear
it’ll just look ugly for a thousand years

-Frank Zappa

Did you ever wonder what the world would be like today if Western culture had never suffered through the Dark Ages? What if, given the controls to some omnipotent time machine, we could shuttle The Enlightenment back several hundred years, oh let’s say to the ninth or tenth century? And further, that The Enlightenment ideals of discovery and rational thought continued from that time forward? What would our everyday lives be like? On this time scale, we’d have landed on the Moon and created the Internet well before the 14th century (versus the real 14th century which saw widespread wars, plague and misery). I don’t think it would take a great leap of imagination to expect that we’d have cured cancer, produced clean and inexpensive forms of energy, moved everyone out of “third world” status, colonized the inner planets, uncovered more about the Universe than Stephen Hawking’s best wet-dream, created stunning new forms of art, and in general, made the lives of humans much, much better. Heck, we might even have encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life. Sounds pretty cool.

But what happened? Why did we have a Dark Ages in the first place and what kept us there? Why did we have to have an Enlightenment to pull us out of this historical dung heap? If there is one defining characteristic of the Dark Ages, it is the oppressive control over governments and people at all levels through a rigid ideology, an ideology that claimed perfect knowledge for itself and that required the persecution of those who might consider the exercise of free inquiry. In those days, the Church was number one and all governments answered to it. Ultimately, the Dark Ages can be thought of as The Golden Age of Western Theocracy. You see, the Dark Ages is the sort of thing that happens when people who place blind faith and adherence to rigid rules above free thinking and rational inquiry get into positions of power. We’re talking about Ugliness on a grand scale.

Now aren’t you a little pissed off that this Dark Ages thing happened? Aren’t you a little pissed off that your friend or relative suffered and died from a disease that, under a better timeline, we’d have a found a cure for centuries ago? Aren’t you a little pissed off that so many people on this planet suffer without proper medical attention, food, energy, housing, etc., problems we could have licked by now with more advanced technology and a rational, thoughtful approach? Don’t you just want to hop in that time machine and knock some sense into the church leaders of a millennium ago? Doesn’t it make you just a little crazy that people could be so blind to the reality around them, so antagonistic toward basic logic? Aren’t you glad we don’t live in those times, a time when you could be burned at the stake or stretched on a rack until every joint in your body dislocated for professing that the Earth was a planet which revolved around the Sun?

Funny, but there are those today who would fit right into the 14th century. While they might admit that the Earth is a planet which revolves around the Sun, they might also claim that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old, that a pair of every species of life on the planet managed to be sequestered in a wooden boat a few hundred feet long for months during a global flood which covered even the highest mountains, or that ancient humans threw saddles on dinosaurs and rode them like horses. Why would they think such things? Do they have geological evidence? Radioisotope data? The results of DNA or biology experiments? Cosmological observations? The insights of anthropology or paleontology? Mathematical models? No. They have none of these. They claim they have something better. They have a book.

Yes, a book. And the book tells all. And the book is inerrant. How do we know this? Because the book says it is, that’s how. There’s no need to investigate, or even think for that matter, if you believe you are in possession of The Big Book With All The Answers. It’s all there.

Now, what happens when this person shows up at an institution where free inquiry and rational thought are prized? Well, things like this. Yes, a group of Christian Conservatives are all a-fluster that the University of California is calling them on their bass-ackwards “Christian fundamentalist coursework” and have decided to sue on a claim of discrimination. All I can say is hooray for the University of California! The last thing I want to see is anti-rationalists get science credit for a course in blind-faithism. This is not a matter of plurality or diversity. “What’s that Johnny? You believe that the early Earth was made out of Roquefort dressing and that Tyrannosaurus Rex invented pantyhose? My, but that’s charmingly diverse of you! Here, take a seat next Sarah. Her parents told her that trees are the work of the devil and that mushrooms are fairy umbrellas! I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about in Biology 101!”

Is the University of California discriminating against these kids? Yes, and rightly so. Consider the word “discrimination”. The basic definition is “to make a distinction between”. The school has to make a distinction between students for admission and credit purposes. But, is the school guilty of “‘viewpoint discrimination’ and unfair admission standards that violate the free speech and religious rights of evangelical Christians”, as charged by the Association of Christian Schools International? Put another way, is it unfair for the University to tell a group that their teachings do not meet the University’s standards? This is ludicrous. It makes no difference that the teachings stem from a religious versus secular source. Suppose Johnny went to a school that denied the existence of irrational numbers or the microbial theory of disease based on historical texts. Should Johnny’s “viewpoint” be discriminated against? You bet your ass. Does that constitute “unfair admission standards”? It would if his viewpoint was accepted, in which case it would be unfair to those students who learned what the scientific method offered. It is important to note that University of California doesn’t simply throw out an applicant because they attended a Christian fundamentalist school. They accept a number of courses from these schools (at least 43 according to their representative). What they don’t accept are courses which place blind faith before appropriate scientific rigor. The fundie schools are claiming that this amounts to being told what to teach. No, it doesn’t. It simply tells them that certain courses will not count at that University. “Teach these courses all you want folks, but we’re not going to accept them. Maybe some other fine institution like Bob Jones University will give your kids credit for them.”

Free speech is a separate issue here. Does Johnny have the right to claim that the Earth is 6000 years old in the face of evidence across myriad fields of study that show it to be nearly a million times older? Sure he does! He has the right to claim that and a host of other things, and his fellow citizens have the right to show through evidence to the contrary that Johnny is a crackpot. Johnny has the right to say whatever he wants but that doesn’t mean that he should get college admission credit for it just because it’s part of his so-called “faith”. I like to believe that colleges and universities are still halls of learning where the pursuit of knowledge and truth remains the top priority. While all opinions may be equal in terms of their right to be heard, they are not necessarily equal in terms of objective truth. It amazes me how the Christian fundies will be the first ones to cry that they are being discriminated against, how their ideas are not taken seriously, when they are the ones who, by definition, will not even consider arguments contrary to The Book. They reject the scientific method and free inquiry when it points out the flaws in their own world view, yet they don’t seem to mind so much if it helps them (for example, by pointing out that the creation myths of many other religions are not plausible, or by producing vaccines, cars, the Internet, and lots of other useful things). Fundies like to gripe about others’ “moral relativism” versus their objective truth when it comes to the fundie brand of morality, but they clam up pretty fast when it comes to the objective “truth” of their claims in the natural sciences. In fact, what the fundies are really bitching about is that they’re not being given special treatment, a treatment they feel they are entitled to because of their special brand of “faith”.

Newton said that if he had seen farther than other men, it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. I look back at the giants of The Enlightenment and am thankful that their work and sacrifice made my day to day life possible. My worst nightmare is that all of that work would be lost in a modern rendition of the Dark Ages; a retreat into superstition and the stifling of free inquiry and creative thought in order to assuage the demands of an emerging American theocracy. Ugliness redux.

What’s the ugliest part of your body?
I say it’s your mind

-Frank Zappa


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    April 5, 2007

    Why did we have a Dark Ages in the first place and what kept us there? Why did we have to have an Enlightenment to pull us out of this historical dung heap?

    I’m no historian, but from what I’ve read about the period, this is pretty wide of the mark. I don’t even think that the term “Dark Ages” is much used any more among those who study the period.

    And there’s a stretch approaching 700 years between the generally-accepted end of the “Dark Ages” and the Enlightenment.

    I suggest that much of what follows is badly reasoned because of the serious flaws in the “facts” on which you build your argument.

  2. #2 Jim
    April 5, 2007

    While I’ll admit the usage of the term “Dark Ages” is one of convenience (and connection for the average reader), the underlaying concept of a theologically driven society stagnating in the areas of science stands, as does the idea that it took Enlightenment ideals to pull humankind forward to what we have today. Technically, while the high or late middle ages may not be referred to as “The Dark Ages”, they have a hell of a lot more in common with the 10th century than the 18th.

    But thanks for picking that nit.

  3. #3 BWV
    April 5, 2007

    And where are these rationalist ancient societies that gave no truck to the supernatural and where freedom of speech and religion was upheld?

    Could it be that religion was a neccessary component in creating a successful pre-modern civilization, creating allegiance outside of immediate kin groups and forging legitimacy for political institutions?

    If there had been no Christendom perhaps there would have been no enlightenment, just warring ethnic groups with their own individual superstitions. Perhaps by banning most forms of superstition Christianity actually helped spur the creation of science.

  4. #4 VJB
    April 5, 2007

    Oh, com’on, the Dark Ages are when Camelot was ascendant. It’s also when those dirty Islamofascists saved European civilization’s sorry ass.

  5. #5 Griff
    April 5, 2007

    European trade had a lot to do with breaking with the church and nobility. You know, “free trade”. But the point of the post is well taken. There had to be a break from authoritarian religion and government for science to develop and get shared across borders.
    The struggle continues.
    Good post.

  6. #6 Mark M
    April 5, 2007

    I don’t think Christianity made the enlightenment possible. Wars continued after the “Christianization” of Europe.

    Most of the pre-Christian pagan religions were polytheistic, consequently people in in those times had little trouble tolerating other peoples gods. If you had ten gods yourself it wasn’t hard to believe that your neighbor had seven or eight of his own. There were plenty of wars, but very few of them seem to have been religious in nature. Whenever the Romans conquered another people, they pretty much absorbed their religions into Roman society. Their main problem with the Christians (and the Jews) was that they wouldn’t sacrifice to the Roman state gods, which was pretty much the Roman equivalent to the pledge of allegiance.

  7. #7 bwv
    April 5, 2007

    “Their main problem with the Christians (and the Jews) was that they wouldn’t sacrifice to the Roman state gods, which was pretty much the Roman equivalent to the pledge of allegiance.”

    But the same thing could be said about the inquisition (which historians now hold to be a victim of protestant propaganda and was actually an enlightened court for the time). Heresy was treason against the state.

  8. #8 bigTom
    April 5, 2007

    While I whole heartedly agree with the gist of what you say, I think of the enlightenment as having sparked what I would refer to as “scientific and technological breakout”. It is interesting that a few other societies reached a fairly advanced stage in the past, but no breakout occurred.

    Among these civilizations I’d include China, Greece, Rome, 11th century Islam, and possibly ancient Eqypt. Something about these societies at the time inhibited the breakout from occurring. Some of it probably had to do with the relative lack of a meritocracy. Religion, and especially
    if Religion and power were entertwined, and threatened is probably another factor. For some reason the waning religiostity of the reformation period, had just the right combination.

  9. #9 Baratos
    April 5, 2007

    And where are these rationalist ancient societies that gave no truck to the supernatural and where freedom of speech and religion was upheld?

    Athens came pretty damn close. Shame how they executed Socrates, though.

  10. #10 Thomas Palm
    April 6, 2007

    Jim, can you mention anyone burned or stretched on a rack for clamining the Earth revolved around the sun? Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa wasn’t for discussing the possibility. Copernicus wasn’t for putting it on a firmer footing. Galileo did get involved in some church infighting, but in a world where torture and death were common penalties Galileo got house arrest!

    To a considerable extent “the Dark Ages” are an invention of later historians, the most obvious example being the claims that people back then thought the Earth was flat. You should not compare the deliberate ignorance, or rather denial of reality, of modern day Christian fundamentalists with the genuine ignorance of those days.

  11. #11 Jim
    April 6, 2007

    I agree that willful ignorance is far worse, and I am not “making fun of” people who lived in the 9th or 14th centuries for not knowing some of the things we know today. The gist of my argument is that the combination of blind religiosity and political power make for a retarding force on the advancement of society in general. That’s a real effect which following generations feel. Had the people of Europe embraced Enlightenment ideals 1000 years earlier, where would we be today? Certainly, there is no way to go back and alter the situation, but I bring it up as a cautionary tale. As I tell my students: There’s nothing that says that there can’t be another Dark Ages. (And I’ll add here that I mean “dark ages” in the metaphorical sense.)

  12. #12 cephyn
    April 6, 2007

    An interesting thought experiment but oh so flawed. As pointed out, there was no Dark Age. While much of what you’re talking about in Europe stagnated, in the Middle East the Muslim world carried on with all sorts of scientific reasearch. And the Far East never had anything resembling a Dark Age at all. Why weren’t they on the moon in the 1400′s?

    You really need to look at why the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came about. Why it happened in Europe and not in those places where there was no “Dark Age”. The Renaissance and Enlightenment saw a great leap forward in technology because of the horrors of the post-Roman Europe, not in spite of them. I’m very serious about this. Without the misery of unstable governments, subsistence living and the Black Death, there would be no Renaissance. And it really comes down to the famines of the early 14th Century and the Black Death in the mid 14th Century.

    In the middle and far east, you had a steady progression of knowledge and population growth. As fast and as efficiently as they could produce food, their population grew. The great majority of labor was directed towards keeping people fed, the great majority of science research was focused on agriculture.

    In Western Europe, after Rome collapsed the political and social structure had to begin anew. It slowly built itself up, always focused on keeping people fed. And it continued until the early 14th Century, when the population of Europe was at an all time high, crop yields were maxed out and the labor focus was around keeping people fed. Then the famine hit, followed by the Black Death. Suddenly, there was a HUGE surplus of food. Agricultural technology was able to support a population much larger than the one that existed. The labor force no longer had to be focused on keeping people fed, the science research didn’t have to be agriculturally driven. And that is why you suddenly had a bunch of people who were able to get rich by filling voids left in the market, people who could pay other people to sit around and make great works of art and explore science for the sake of science. No where else in the world did you have this happen, because there just wasn’t time for it.

    So if the “Dark Ages” never happened, there would also have been no Renaissance or Enlightenment, and the World would probably be more backwards than it currently is, not more advanced.

  13. #13 Jim
    April 6, 2007

    “a HUGE surplus of food” in the 14th century?? I suggest that you read Barabara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century”. With half the population gone, vast tracts went untended as there was no one to plant, no one to harvest, no one to create or maintain the implements, and so on. The 14th century was far from some idyllic agrarian paradise.

    It seems that some folk are suggesting that in order for there to have been an Enlightenment we had to have coarse church and state oppression so that peasants would say “Gee, things are so bad that we need to do something else.” Sure. Let all captives thank their jailers for motivating them. That’s a twist.

  14. #14 Thomas Palm
    April 6, 2007

    Another suggestion for how the plague may have been important is that for a long time people in Europe looked back on Greek and Roman thinkers, believing them to have discovered most that was worth discovering. Then came the plague, something far worse than anything seen in the ancient texts, and people found the need to do something about it so they had to go outside the ancient texts. And it seemed to work, while the plague returned each time it was easier to defeat. This probably had more to do with the survivors having better resistance than any medical advance, but the *impression* was that doctors were becoming much better, surpassing the Greeks. The plague also created lots of vacancies, giving people a better chance of advancing in society. This created an optimism that other problems could be solved as well.

    As always anything that tries to explain a complex historical event by a single cause is to simplified, but there may be a grain of truth to it.

  15. #15 Jim
    April 6, 2007

    “lots of vacancies” to “advanc(e) in society”? Are you suggesting that 14th century Europe was a meritocracy? It’s been a few years since I read Tuchman’s book, but please, my memory ain’t that bad.

    Here, allow me to simplify by swapping this around. Is anyone willing to suggest that the work of science and rational, naturalistic thought was advanced by the church-state system of the time, or that at the worst, it was a non-player?

  16. #16 cephyn
    April 6, 2007

    Thanks, I have Tuchman’s book. Good reference.
    “With half the population gone, vast tracts went untended as there was no one to plant, no one to harvest, no one to create or maintain the implements, and so on. The 14th century was far from some idyllic agrarian paradise.”

    And they didn’t NEED to tend all that land – agricultural technology had advanced to the point that the number of farmers per capita needed to support the population had dropped. But when the population was at a peak, they needed all the land and all they could get out of it.

    When the population plummeted, it was no longer necessary to farm all the land. And those that did farm produced far more food than centuries earlier when the population was at similar levels.

    And there were vacancies to advance in society. Because of the gaps in the social structure, a true middle/upper middle class could emerge, one based on money made through commerce and entrepeneurism instead of hereditary titles and land rights. The number one example of this is the Medici family, built after the Black Death on banking. Instead of the rich having access to cheap labor due to overpopulation, suddenly labor became very valuable. Wages rose. The reshuffling of the entire social structure in Western Europe, which allowed for the Renaissance, was precipitated by the famines and the Black Death. The closest analogue to look at is Eastern Europe. The plague didn’t hit them as hard, didn’t cause a vast restructuring of the social system, and as such, no Renaissance developed there – what did lagged far behind Western Europe.

    It wasn’t a meritocracy, but the rigid structure had to change because of the loss of cheap labor and the increased power of the lower classes.

    The church-state system rapidly became a non-issue. The Reformation permanently weakened the power of the Catholic Church.

    In the middle ages, the church absolutely fostered scientific research. The basis of western astronomy is rooted in the church’s need to properly set holy dates like Easter. Mathematics were needed for this. The clergy was the only group actively pursuing study of the natural world. One of the most important “scientists” of the High Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas – a church dude. The move to experimental science was pushed by William of Occam – a Franciscan friar.

    All major middle ages science study was done under the wing of the Church – not in spite of it. By the time of the Reformation, the Church had weakened and scientific research was driven by universities, governments and money.

  17. #17 Jim
    April 7, 2007

    “All major middle ages science study was done under the wing of the Church – not in spite of it. By the time of the Reformation, the Church had weakened and scientific research was driven by universities, governments and money.”

    And under which system did we see the greatest advancement? You can have “science study…under the wing of the church” but that doesn’t mean that it will be efficient or effective. For a modern example, just look at the “results” of the ID community (not a classical church, but inquiry driven by theological demands).

    The fact that the church was weakened is what made the difference. That was the whole point of the piece, so in the end, thanks for agreeing with me.