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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Science and Moral Responsibility

Scientific American ( just ran a blog item about the discovery of Homo Nalendi and its opening of Apartheid-era wounds.  Apparently, a number of black South African churchmen, aware of how evolution was used to justify colonialism and white supremacy, have expressed resentment against being characterized as the descendants of "baboons".  Hence, Scientific American brings out the usual sighs about "fundamentalism" and charges the scientific racism of the 19th century with being "pseudo-science". Unhappily, this is a prime example of both the anti-historical thinking and moral irresponsibility of the modern world-view.

There is also a now aging book by John Haller entitled Outcasts of Evolution, describing how 19th century scientists used evolution to buttress white supremacy.  Unhappily, from Haller's exposure of the available methods used, the cognition required, care in selecting samples, meticulousness in measurement (down to the exact numbers of grains of wheat needed to fill various cranial cavities), and the eminently respectable persons and institutions nurturing it, this racist evolutionism was in fact some of the best science of its time rather than the "pseudo-science" its heirs charge it with being.

Scientific racism died an unnatural death in the ashes of World War II.  The horrors of the holocaust wrought by German National Socialist racial doctrine caused an understandable and thorough justified reaction against the direction that evolutionary anthropology had often taken.  However, this reaction came not from scientific self-correction via better information or method, but was prompted by the political, emotional, and moral climate off the times. After horrors amply documented by the capture of the German government's archives, the witness of countless military and civilian personnel, and the witness of the survivors themselves, it was simply impossible to maintain that ideas about the progression of "races", eugenics, and other products of the racist stage of evolutionary science could be even morally neutral.

Before the holocaust, scientific Americans and others were not only glibly and supinely racist about their neighbors of color, but also took great interest in such movements as eugenics.  The eminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. justified the sterilization of mental defectives, no less than many others decried the importation of such inferior breeds as Italians, Slavs, and Jews via immigration in the name of that movement, which turned out to have had a seminal influence on the mind of the young Adolf Hitler.

Then there is the unhappy case of a Congolese Mbuti named Ota Benga and the eminent Henry Fairfield Osborn, a benign-looking statue in the American Museum of Natural History,that shrine of my much younger self.  Ota Benga, taken from his family in the then-Belgian ruled Congo, was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of a less-evolved human being.  This was loudly protested by African-American preachers in New York, even then becoming stock figures of fun in the American press and infant motion picture industry.  The same injustice was defended by Osborn, who was among other things, an eminent geologist, paleontologist, and popularizer of evolution.

There can be no argument that the Roman Catholic Church owns the Spanish Inquisitions.  Protestants and Catholics alike own the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years' War.  Muslims undoubtedly own the cleansing of religious minorities in the Fertile Crescent, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Theravada Buddhists own the oppression of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka and the suppression of Kachin and Karen aspirations in Myanmar. Germany owns the holocaust. The USA owns a long history of racism justified by various ideologies. Marxistm owns Stalin, Mao, Mielke, and Saloth Sar.   By the same token, Evolutionary Materialism as a system of thought owns the scientific racism of the 19th century and the political horrors unleashed in the 20th century by parties claiming to be applying the "best insights of science" to social problems.

Hence, Scientific American's attempt to brush off its forbears as "pseudoscientific" while patronizing Zulu or Xhosa churchmen with painful and recent memories of how evolutionary doctrine was used against their people a case of both heaping scorn on the discipline of historical thinking and moral irresponsibility of the worst kind. Can we today fault Columbus for risking the lives of his crew by not using a steam- or nuclear-powered ship in crossing the Atlantic?  Similarly, we cannot fault 19th century researchers who wondered why the North Atlantic nations were seemingly more "advanced" than other, and used the measurements of crania and limbs, rates of mortality and disease susceptibility to explain the differences when they knew nothing of Mitochondrial Eve.  We may indeed criticize their callousness towards their neighbors, but such a critique is rational only on the basis of pre-scientific religious or philosophic doctrines towards which the enlightenment had taught everyone to be skeptical.

This should by no means be read as a defense of the indefensible racism of the past, or as an attack on scientific inquiry.  However, it is a plea to stop pretending that all aspects of the scientific endeavor are morally neutral.  Perhaps, to wax fundamentalistic, it may be time for the materialist community--instead of condemning the forbears who nurtured it as "pseudoscientifc"--to do something about the logs in its own eyes before it removes the specks in the eyes of those for whom ways of seeing other than the empirical retain their validity.