Archive for the ‘History & Philosophy’ Category

David Hull (1935 – 2010)

August 11, 2010 1 comment

John Wilkins is reporting that the noted philosopher of biology, David Hull, has passed away. I first read Hull’s Science as a Process (1988) as a break from writing up my zoology PhD in 1993 and it opened me up to the world of history and philosophy of science. Indeed, it left me cursing the fact that I wasn’t able to study HPS (in hindsight, I think it would have been my career choice for various reasons). Years later, I met David at an ISHPSSB meeting and I coyly introduced myself. David was delighted to hear that a biologist had read and enjoyed his work. He was a gentleman and will be missed.

Update (8/12): I forgot to mention that ASU houses the David L. Hull Collection (actually the collection sat in my office for a few months). And via Wilkins – obits from the Chicago Sun-Times and Northwestern.

[Review] Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins.

June 8, 2010 Comments off

The following first appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science (2009).

It is not often that one reads a book that discusses both the sixteenth century Spanish human rights advocate Bartolomé de Las Casas and the twentieth century American neo-Nazi Richard Butler, but David Livingstone’s latest monograph does just that. Livingstone offers a history of pre-adamism – the idea that human beings inhabited the Earth before Adam and that their descendents may still occupy the planet – and its engagement with race, religion and human evolution. In so doing, he covers a millennium of theology, natural philosophy, geography, ethnography and anthropology in an even-handed manner and a reader is doubtlessly going to learn much and come away impressed with Livingstone’s synthesis.

In the 1920’s the Canadian creationist George McCready Price succinctly summarized the centrality of Adam and the issue of human origins for those that hold the account presented in Genesis to be literally true: “No Adam, No Fall; No Fall, No Atonement; No Atonement; No Savior” went his oft-quoted syllogism. Without an historical Adam, there would be no original sin and no reason for the atoning death of Christ. Thus the very foundation of Christianity would be removed. Yet it was obvious to many readers of Genesis that there were problems with the narrative if read literally, one such problem being the question of the origin of Cain’s wife and of why Cain feared for his life after being banished by God. Could it have been that there were humans who were not descendents of Adam? Livingstone begins his account by outlining three further issues that raised problems for the historicity of the Genesis account of creation. The first of these was the increasing availability of non-Judeo-Christian accounts that clearly were of ancient origin yet went against claims made in the canonical texts. The second of these was the presence of “monstrous races” as detailed by Pliny, Strabo & Herodotus and their problematic relationship to humans. If these existed – and few doubted the fact – were they human and therefore should they be baptized? Lastly, and somewhat related, there was the issue of the inhabitants of the New World – if they were human – and thus in need of baptism – how did they fit into a scheme that saw all humans as descendents of Shem, Ham or Japheth? Equally as important, how did they end up at the other side of the world? Indeed the possibility of extra-terrestrial life – as raised by Giordano Bruno and Tomaso Campanella – only exacerbated these problems. These were serious questions that worried the best minds of the early modern period.

A French theologian, Isaac La Peyrère, offered one solution in 1655 in his work, Prae-Adamitae. The works English subtitle gave a clue as to La Peyrère’s methods: “A Discourse Upon the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Verses of the Fifth Chapter of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans. By Which Are Prov’d, That Men were Created before Adam” and he used scriptutal exegesis and non-Christian sources to argue for a polygenism that was not tainted with racial inequality. La Peyrère claims went beyond simple advocacy of plural origins for humans; he furthermore claimed that the Scriptures were fallible human transcriptions, that Moses was not the sole author of the Pentateuch, that the Noachian Flood was localized, and that Adam was only the father of the Jews. Clearly this early form of biblical criticism could not go unpunished and La Peyrère was forced to recant his views. As Livingstone notes, this recantation did not prevent the Pre-Adamite theory having significant impact on future thought in relation to the origin of humans.

A major portion of Livingstone’s account is taken with how individuals – both creationist and evolutionist, believer and infidel – wrestled with pre-adamism and its manifest consequences, and it would be impossible for me to summarize the rich vein that he successfully mines. Despite the idea being favored by atheists and unbelievers who sought to undermine Scripture, pre-adamism would equally become deployed as a means to preserve scriptural reliability when faced with such criticism. Interpretation would allow for two origins of humans as accounted in Genesis, the first being of the human species and the second being of Adam, who was thus seen as father of the Jews (or in certain readings of Caucasians or Aryans). Ethnographers in the nineteenth century were divided between polygenism and monogenism, the latter ultimately receiving support from Darwin’s work. This in turn was opposed by the polygenist Louis Agassiz who himself supported the racist writings of Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott and George Gliddon. Pre-adamism thus fed into the rhetoric of Antebellum America and became as important politically as it was theologically. In opposition to the claims of many modern anti-evolutionists, Livingstone makes it clear that many apologists for slavery (and racial inequality) sought support not in the writings of Darwin but in Scripture, some going as far as to claim that Eve’s sin was one of miscegenation with a black pre-adamite.

The amazing scope of Livingstone’s work lends to its appeal. Having personally written at various times about Agassiz, Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller, George Pye Smith, Robert Chambers and St George Jackson Mivart, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter these theologically diverse individuals in this work, often in unexpected contexts. Historians of other eras are likely to have similar encounters. Livingstone’s book is highly recommended both for its sweeping synthesis and the nature of the questions it raises in the mind of the reader.

David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

“Follies of the present day”: Scriptural Geology from 1817 to 1857

June 3, 2010 Comments off

[Over eight years ago, I edited a series of facsimile editions of works written by scriptural geologists. The set was titled "Creationism and Scriptural Geology, 1814-1857" and was published by Thoemmes Press at a price that put it out of range for all except libraries. What follows below is the introduction from the series. I have added some hyperlinks and done some light editing.]

“Follies of the present day”: Scriptural Geology from 1817 to 1857

“There is a prejudice against the speculations of the geologist, which I am anxious to remove. It has been said that they nurture infidel propensities. It has been alleged that geology, by referring the origin of the globe to a higher antiquity than is assigned to it by the writings of Moses, undermines our faith in the inspiration of the Bible, and in all the animating prospects of the immortality which it unfolds. This is a false alarm. The writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe.” [1]

So spoke the Scottish theologian, Thomas Chalmers in 1804. During the winter of 1803-’04, Chalmers presented a series of lectures at St. Andrews during which he outlined a reconciliation of the apparent incompatibility between the Genesis account of creation and the findings of the developing science of geology. He argued that the language of scripture allowed for an indefinite gap between the first and second verses of chapter I. This in turn allowed for a time in which geological formation could occur before the traditional six-day creation which, in this view, represented a restoration of the whole Earth after aeons of activity and eventual devastation. Chalmers’ ideas – on geology, natural theology and revelation – would eventually be expanded into The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation [2], and his “Gap theory”, as it became known, aimed to show that Genesis and geology could live side-by-side, once one was willing to interpret the scriptures to allow for the apparent age of the Earth. Thus Chalmers could argue that geology does not lead to “infidel propensities” for the very reason that the text of Genesis never explicitly set the time of creation, unlike specific chronologies from such individuals as Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh.

Read more…

Putting Galileo in his place

June 2, 2010 8 comments

Thony Christie:

The image of Galileo Galilei has been inflated like a dirigible airship that floats above the early modern period obscuring the efforts and achievements of all the other scientists, his shadow only being broken by the light of that other god of science Isaac Newton. Unfortunately this image is total bullshit and its propagation leads to a major distortion in our understanding of the historical development of science. In what follows I shall be pulling the plug, extracting the stopper, puncturing the balloon and letting the gas out so that one can begin to judge Galileo’s achievements from a sensible standpoint.

More here.

Martin Gardner (1914 – 2010)

May 22, 2010 5 comments


Martin Gardner died today in Norman, OK, at the age of 95. Anyone who has been even tangentially involved in the modern skeptical movement will have felt his influence. His Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science was a work that I read as a 13 year old back in Ireland.

Lippard, Plait & Randi have more.

Demarcating Philosophy

May 22, 2010 3 comments


So to ask if so-and-so is a philosopher is to ask, in effect, are they embedded in that tradition of issues and methods and topics that philosophers are? It’s not, quite, that philosophy is what philosophers do, any more than science is what scientists do, but an essentialistic definition is impossible for such a fluid set of cultural and intellectual traditions in either case. We can’t get a demarcation principle for philosophy any more than we can for science.

Sterelny on Gould

May 17, 2010 Comments off

Philosopher Kim Sterelny has a nice review in American Scientist of a recent encomium of Stephen Jay Gould. Having read the book in question, I think Sterelny is correct in his assessment of both the volume and Gould.

Wilkins on Jesus and philosophy

May 9, 2010 1 comment

A nice quote from Wilkins: “Everybody does philosophy to an extent. The problem is that most of the time they do it badly or incompletely.” I certainly agree after grading papers :)

For context, you need to read his series of posts on whether Jesus was a philosopher (here and here). For what it’s worth, I agree with Wilkins. Jesus was not a philosopher.

Update (5/11): And now he asks was Darwin a philosopher?

Origins: Anti-Evolutionist History

April 25, 2010 Comments off

We’re entering the final week of lectures for Origins, Evolution and Creation and I had originally intended putting together a lecture that took an in-depth look at the Darwin/Hitler meme that creationists so seem to love. However, time got the better of me and instead I’m delivering a slightly modified version of a talk I’ve given on Expelled. Maybe next year.

Wednesday’s lecture will tie a bunch of things together. I’ll try and post that on Tuesday evening.

Pigliucci on the “new” atheism

April 15, 2010 24 comments

Pigliucci realizes something that some of us have been thinking for quite a while now:

[T]his to me represents the latest example of an escalation (downwards in quality) in the tone and substance of the discourse on atheism, and I blame this broadly on the rhetoric of the new atheism (the only “new” aspect of which is precisely the in-your-face approach to “reason”). With few exceptions (mostly, Dennett), what we have seen in recent years is much foaming at the mouth, accompanied by a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of one’s arguments. And now we have seen a new low consisting of childish insults to a fellow atheist and writer who is clearly fighting the same battle as the rest of us.

I am often told by my non-activist friends (pretty much all of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves) that the problem with the new atheism is that it looks a lot like the mirror image of the sort of fundamentalist rage that we all so justly abhor. I always shrugged at this accusation as being overblown and missing the point, after all we — unlike them — are on the side of reason and true human compassion. Now I’m not so sure.


Pigliucci on the future of Philosophy of Science

April 14, 2010 Comments off

Massimo Pigliucci has a thoughtful post up on the future of the philosophy of science in which he sees a future

along three major lines of inquiry: as an independent discipline that studies scientific reasoning and practice; as a discipline contiguous to theoretical science; and as a crucial simultaneous watchdog and defender of science in the public arena.

In the last line of inquiry, he very much mirrors my thoughts about some of the things that history of science can bring to the table.


April 2, 2010 Comments off

I hadn’t realized that Robert Solomon had died a few years back. I’ve always enjoyed his writings on Nietzsche & existentialism and his piece from Waking Life always resonates with me. We were discussing Dostoevsky today in class and I had reason to show it.

Update: YouTube embed didn’t work for some reason. Follow the link.

The Role of Historians

March 13, 2010 2 comments

In the past, I have written pieces presenting my thoughts on the role of historians in the creation/evolution issue (see here and this pdf). Now, Jon Weiner has a piece in The Nation detailing historians such as Robert Proctor, Louis Kyriakoudes, Gregg Michel, Lacy Ford, Michael Schaller and Kenneth Ludmerer and their respective roles in legal cases about tobacco and cancer. (The first two have testified for plaintiffs against Big Tobacco, the rest have accepted money from the likes of Phillip Morris).

As Weiner notes,

Brandt, Kyriakoudes and Proctor are proud of their work and let everyone know about it, while those on the other side never mention their work for Big Tobacco on their faculty websites or online CVs. Lacy Ford doesn’t, and neither does Michael Schaller at the University of Arizona or Kenneth Ludmerer at Washington University.


Texas History Standards axe Jefferson for Aquinas and Calvin.

March 12, 2010 11 comments

From the Texas Freedom Network via Ed Brayton:

9:45 – Here’s the amendment [Cynthia] Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.

It’s impossible to make this crap up. Replacing Jefferson with Aquinas and Calvin? Deleting explicit mention of the Enlightenment? And of political revolutions?

“Creation” screening tomorrow

March 11, 2010 Comments off

Just a reminder to readers in the Greater Phoenix area that the AzCoR screening of Creation will be tomorrow (Friday) at 6:05pm at Harkins Valley Art Theatre (Mill Ave, Tempe). The screening itself will be followed by a Q&A of up to 45 minutes with me where I will answer your question on Darwin etc. Come one, come all.


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