It’s been hard to find the time to post this month and answer the question I posed at the end of last month’s entry. I will be concise, I hope.
The obvious answer is that mythmaking is usually carried out by people in power. They need to invent lots of things to hold onto that. A myth or a hero serves both as a symbol of power and to consolidate power. Darwin, whether he liked it or not, was made to serve as a weapon in a contrived battle between science and religion.
Even apart from any conflict (real or imagined) with religion, every field of endeavor—and science is no exception—seems to need powerful figures that others must be made to worship. Whether science serves mainly the rich or also the poor and middle class is a question that is trumped by worship of invented heroes. Professional science turns out to be not much different from organized religion.
Much more could be said about all this, but I am interested in a more subtle reason for mythmaking. Not only do myths create a false reality, they are also used to obliterate parts of reality that really do exist. They create a forgetfulness. Heroes are often used to erase some quite genuine heroes we would rather not know about, or actually, those in power would prefer we not know about them. And here I will give a concrete example.
Darwin and his fellow scientists sometimes pondered the dubious question: Which human race is the lowest? For Darwin, it was a toss-up between the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and the Aborigines of Australia. This belies the idea that Darwin was a great humanitarian. Those who do acknowledge that Darwin thought like this usually make the excuse for him that everyone at the time indulged in this kind of thinking.
Well, not everyone. We’ve been made to forget.
By making an idol out of Darwin, we have covered up those who were the real genuine humanitarians of the day. I can give no better example than a certain British military officer whose name I won’t reveal just yet. I’ll keep that card close to my chest. A couple of decades before The Origin of Species, he was denouncing racism and, among other things, the use of science to make men rich. He knew he was reaping “the ineffable contempt” of men of science and political economists, but he could not help it. As he said, “[W]hen David slew Goliath, he gave great encouragement to little men!”
This military men was well aware that many people held opinions about the lowest races and often characterized Aborigines as the missing link between man and monkey. This disgusted him. He insisted that only individuals could be ranked, not races or nations. He believed that the Creator had endowed savages with physical and mental faculties equal to ours. They might wear different clothes or no clothes at all, but under the skin, we were all the same. Savages had the same intellectual capacities or potential as ourselves.
All this is as clear an anti-racist position as any that has ever been expressed. And this officer did not stop there. He demanded that all must be treated equally under the law. As you might guess, he severely criticized the brutality of colonialism. So did many others.
In particular, another British military officer called “the depopulation of the countries we colonize” a “national crime” and said that the supposed inevitability of the extinction of Aboriginal races (which Darwin, by the way, believed in) should not be used as an excuse to evade moral responsibility.
It is remarkable that two military officers should have been so far ahead in humanity than most scientists. Not to be outdone, an Oxford professor argued that the law of the inevitability of Aboriginal extinction, as espoused by Darwin (whom he otherwise admired) and others, was imaginary. On a slightly different point, that second military officer said that colonists have believed in “an erroneous theory, which they found to tally with their interests … That the aborigines were not men, but brutes … and what cruelties have flowed from such a doctrine.”
Erroneous theories and imaginary laws—of science, no less. The first military man thought all these bad ideas came from an obsession with national wealth (he complained that his countrymen were always bragging that Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth). National wealth was used to justify everything from child labor to nasty treatment of the Irish to the brutal ways of colonialism. To say he was distressed by this, and by the misuse of science to enhance wealth rather than create true happiness, would be an understatement.
I don’t ask that everyone should agree with all this man argued for. But that he stood for the equality and fair treatment of all human beings is undeniable, and that he risked speaking truth to power about these things must also not be denied. If that does not make him one of the real heroes in our western history, I don’t know what would make anyone a hero.
I apologize for not revealing the names of these worthy humanitarians. Let my withholding of their names serve as a symbolic reminder of the injustice done to them by the many historians and scholars who have erased them from history. I will certainly reveal all of them in my book, whenever it is done, which won’t be for a while yet.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer