In a couple of recent posts I have mentioned the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion edited by Ronald Numbers. Since I have now finished reading it, I figure it is time for a proper review.
Short review: Mixed. As a compendium of interesting facts about the history of science and religion the book works rather well. The myth/reality format, however, is not always successful.
Longer review below the fold.
Galileo Goes to Jail consists of twenty-five short essays, each centered around some “myth” related to science and religion. Some of the myths are of the sort that make religion look bad (so that by correcting them religion’s image is improved), while others are those that tend to make science look bad.
Some of the essays work very well. Myth 14 is, “That the Church Denounced Anesthesia in Childbirth on Biblical Grounds.” Historian Rennie Schoepflin makes a convincing case that hostility to anesthesia on Biblical grounds (as opposed to medical grounds, which had some merit at that time) was the province of a few fringe religious groups, and was never the position of any major religious authority. I had heard this myth before and was surprised to learn that it was not true. In this case the book served its purpose well.
Myth 15 is, “That the Theory of Organic Evolution is Based on Circular Reasoning.” I was expecting this to be about ye olde tautology objection to natural selection. Actually it is about homology (the alleged circular reasoning being that homology is used as evidence for evolution while being defined in a way that assumes evolution), and the use of index fossils in establishing the geologic column (the circularity this time being that fossils are used to date rocks, then those dates are used to justify interpreting the fossils as an evolutionary sequence). Historian Nicholas Rupke takes care of that one, pointing out that the basic facts of geology and homology used by Darwin in making his case were established long before evolution arrived on the scene.
Myth 9 is, “That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science.” Historian Noah Efron argues that such a view is far too simplistic, and that Modern Science was not born out of any one world view or philosophy. Quite right.
In several cases, though, the myth is just a very extreme statement of something which, if moderated somewhat, would be both true and significant. Myth 8 is, “That Galileo was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism.” As philosopher Maurice Finnochiaro tells the story, Galileo was only threatened with torture and imprisonment. He actually suffered nine years of house arrest, the forced recantation of his views, and seeing his book banned. Take that Church bashers!
Myth 7 is, “That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science.” Historian Joe Shackleford seems keen to remind us that Bruno was not tied to a post and set ablaze for his acceptance of heliocentrism. In reality it was his heretical religious views that earned him the Church’s wrath. A martyr to science? He was certainly a martyr to free thought, which is close enough for me.
Myth 18 is “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology.” According to historian Jon Roberts, Darwin merely dealt a serious blow to Paley-style design-arguments, but that the general enterprise of drawing inferences about the existence and nature of God (the main business of natural theology) continued apace, with theologians generally shifting their focus from the specifics of adaptation to the intelligibility of the universe as a whole. It seems to me that if you replace “Destroyed” with “Seriously Weakened” then you would have a perfectly accurate statement. Paley’s argument was not the entirety of natural theology, but it was surely among the crown jewels of the enterprise. In the decades following Darwin natural theology went from a thriving concern that strongly influenced the intellectual culture of the time, to something of marginal significance (especially among Protestant theologians, many of whom already did not like the idea of placing inferences drawn from nature in the forefront of religious thinking. This downplayed the more important emotional and experiential aspect of the religion, in their view.)
Myth 1 is, “That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science.” The reality, according to historian David Lindberg, is that science was a low priority for early Christianity, and was something to be practiced within the strict confines of Church authority and the teachings of scripture. (Science became the “handmaiden” of religion, in Lindberg’s telling.) Those aspects of Greek science and philosophy congenial to a Christian point of view were absorbed into the thinking of Early Christianity. Fascinating, but the fact remains that the Greeks had produced an impressive body of scientific and mathematical work, which the early Christians had little interest in building upon. They may not have killed ancient science, but they certainly did not embrace it or advance it.
In other cases the authors just do not make a strong case against the myth. Myth 2 is, “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science.” Historian Michael Shank bristles at the thought. Medieval Christians founded the first modern universities complete with science faculties, you see. That is not in dispute, but I wonder if Shank has ever visited Liberty University. If some future historian argues that YEC’s were not hostile to science because they did, after all, found a large university complete with a science faculty, then he will have missed something important. Likewise for the Church’s universities. By setting strict limits on acceptable knowledge based on scripture and authority they absolutely were suppressing the spirit of free inquiry that must exist for science to take off.
Nor were these limits just theoretical. On numerous occasions church authorities attempted to ban certain ideas and arguments from being disseminated. Shank gamely tries to downplay the significance of these incidents, but he is mostly unsuccessful.
For example, he writes:
Does the myth get a new lease on life if I reveal that lectures on Aristotle’s natural philosophy were forbidden at Paris in 1210 (under penalty of excommunication) and in 1215 (under no specified penalty). It does not. While churchmen acting in their official capacities did issue these condemnations, it is misleading to say that “the Church” did so, for this seems to imply that they were valid for all of Christendom. In each case, however, the condemnations were local, issued by the bishops in a province or by a cardinal legate in relation to Paris. Medieval hairsplitting, you say? Not at all: the point of this qualification is absolutely crucial. To make “the Church” the agent in cases where condemnation is local is technically correct but highly misleading, for such injunctions affected only a minuscule fraction of the population, and usually not for long. These condemnations did not pertain to students and masters elsewhere. Early-thirteenth-century Oxford, for example, saw no prohibitions of this sort (indeed, the reception of Arisottle at Oxford was very smooth.
Shank, it would seem, is unfamiliar with the notion of a “chilling effect.” To argue that the only people affected by a given condemnation were those specifically under the authority of some local prelate simply ignores the indirect effects such things have. Some eager young scholar, noting that church authorities are routinely in the habit of condemning certain modes of thought and argument, quickly learns not to step out of line. Shank is, indeed, engaging in medieval hairsplitting.
There is one essay in the book so bad that it reflects very badly on Numbers as an editor that he consented to publish it. It is Michael Ruse’s contribution. He addressed Myth 23, “That “Intelligent Deisgn” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution.” Talk about being served up a softball! But it is hard to imagine that a more inept essay on this subject could be written.
I have been critical of Ruse in a number of recent posts. I think he goes beyond civil interactions with ID folks, which is fine, to the point of actively promoting them, which is not. I think his behavior in his e-mail exchange with Daniel Dennett was shameful, and more generally his anti-New-Atheist writing has been vapid and silly. But for all of that I have long felt that when it comes time to sit down and explain clearly what is wrong with ID, he does it as well as anyone.
Not so with this essay. I figured he would say something intelligent about methodological naturalism or demarcation criteria. Perhaps he would point out the flaws in notions of irreducible complexity or complex specified information. Instead he begins with this:
We need to answer two questions: What is intelligent design (ID), and is it science?
To answer the first question he recounts the basic facts of the history of ID. You have heard them a hundred times before. Johnson blah blah blah Behe blah blah Dembski blah blah. In presenting a rough outline of their scientific claims, Ruse never gives the slightest inkling of what is wrong with them. Nor does he ever really answer the second question (beyond simply implying that the answer is no.)
I kept waiting for him to explain what, exactly, is wrong with ID. He never does, though in places it seems as though he is about to. He mentions his own testimony in the 1981 creationism trial, and briefly mentions the idea of methodological naturalism. Then he is digressing about Alvin Plantinga and about the 2005 Kansas School Board hearings. Interesting stuff, but there is nothing here that helps to refute the myth he was assigned.
Though he never provides an argument in defense of his demarcation criteria, and never gives any indication of the scientific flaws of ID claims, he does manage to quote conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and Judge Jones from the Dover trial. If you regard dismissive quotes from those two authorities as definitive, then Ruse’s argument, such as it is, will seem compelling to you. Otherwise it is a disaster.
Ruse also includes close to page cautioning us that ID is not YEC, since “many if not most of the leaders subscribe to, or at least are open to, some form of evolution.” I agree that there are important differences between YEC and ID, but this is not one of them. Michael Behe is an outlier among ID folks in accepting common descent. Nearly all of the others accept nothing more than microevolution, just as do the YEC’s. And some, like Paul Nelson, are themselves YEC’s. To include this long and misguided digression, which serves more to boost the ID folks than it does to refute the myth, at the expense of making an actual argument was very poor judgment.
Wrapping this up, I did enjoy reading the book and I found myself learning a lot from it. Read as an introduction to some major topics in the history of science and religion, the book is successful. But the myth/reality format was not a good idea.