Tuesday, December 29, 2015


How serious are the prejudices in Charles Darwin’s writings? Unlike someone like Adam Gopnik who is in complete denial about these prejudices, Stephen Gould recognized in The Mismeasure of Man that you cannot make Darwin out to be an egalitarian. Darwin definitely believed in a hierarchy of cultures, with European civilization at the top. But Gould tries to soften Darwin’s views into a kind of gentle paternalism. Based on his own standards, that does not hold up.

Before I get to that, I should say that Gould made the inaccurate claim that “All [in Darwin’s time] were racists by modern standards,” though earlier he had made an exception for Alfred Wallace who has been “justly hailed as an antiracist.” So in a sense, Gould was admitting that Darwin might well have been a racist, but that is excusable because everyone in that time was. The problem is that Gould erased plenty of antiracists besides Wallace. Just one more example is Charles Napier, a British military hero. In 1835, he objected to the ranking of races and indignantly denied that Australian Aborigines formed a missing link between man and monkey. Darwin, like so many other racists of his time, pondered the question of which race was the lowest and had a hard time deciding whether it was the Australians or the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. For someone like Napier, this was nonsense.

Even taking at face value that remark about all being racist, Gould acknowledged that there were harsher racists and kindlier racists. Here, he said, is how we can distinguish them: “those we now judge most harshly urged that inferiority be used as an excuse for dispossession and slavery, while those we most admire in retrospect urged a moral principle of equal rights and nonexploitation, whatever the biological status of people.” I ask: Which one most accurately describes colonialism?

In the very next sentence, Gould claimed, “Darwin held this second position along with the two Americans best regarded by later history [Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln].” That is true for Darwin only in regard to legal slavery. It is an untrue statement when it comes to the issue of colonialism and the extermination of the colonized. On that score, Darwin held the first position—the inferiority of savages justified Europeans taking their land. Colonialism was as dispossessing and exploitive as slavery. Darwin supported it as one of the consequences of native inferiority. It would be people like Wallace, Charles Napier, Georg Gerland, John Stokes, Saxe Bannister, Langfield Ward, and many members of the Aborigines’ Protection Society who really fulfilled (in varying degrees) the position Gould admired. Darwin turned his back on what colonization and the idea of savage inferiority were doing to natives. Gould never addressed this. He brought his usual historical curiosity to a full stop.

There is evidence in The Descent of Man that Darwin considered signs of savage inferiority in their biological make-up, for example in their having a better sense of smell than white people, which put savages closer to the world of animals. His most serious biological assessment of them was that they had smaller brains, which would indicate lower intellects. Gould ignored this direct evidence of Darwin’s biological determinism.

Even if we assume that Gould was right about Darwin believing savages were improvable and therefore not trapped in biological inferiority, it turns out to be a distinction without a difference. In another essay in The Mismeasure of Man, Gould eloquently describes the effects of believing in biological determinism: “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” That is exactly what colonialism did, when it wasn’t murdering people. It stunted life, denied opportunities, and imposed this from without, while claiming the limitations were due to the internal nature of savages.

So does it really matter if Darwin was technically a biological determinist or not, if ultimately he gave his tacit or explicit assent to the colonial project? I can’t see that it does. It’s the same difference, no matter how you slice it or dice it. Paternalism is a misdirection that Gould gave himself so that he wouldn’t see the evidence of Darwin’s support for the colonial enterprise and its stunting of life. Gould also missed that Darwin linked natural selection to the colonial enterprise and in doing so, he made a biological theory (natural selection) supportive of colonialism.

Gould quotes a famous passage from Descent in which Darwin says that over the next few centuries, “the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world” (Darwin also states here that anthropomorphous apes will be exterminated too). Gould actually quotes a longer portion of it. He cites the passage to show that Darwin did believe certain human races were inferior and that Darwin ranked savages between apes and white people, which in Gould's view makes Darwin a paternalist. But Gould completely ignores the part about extermination! There is nothing more stunting of life than extermination. I fail to see how that can be called paternalism. And I find it mindboggling that Gould could completely miss that.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, November 28, 2015


The following is a review of a part of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, published in May of this year, which I recently put up on Amazon.


This is not a review of the whole book. I always limit my reviews. In this book, what concerns me is the section on Darwin and evolution. That is all I feel qualified to comment on. They make too many errors for this to be called accurate history.

They treat Darwin as a hero (always a good sign that we are being confronted more with myth than with history). They try to cover themselves by stating early on that Darwin “was not the true originator of all that he wrote about.” But they contradict that as they continue. In fact, in the very same paragraph they claim that common descent was one of his new ideas and they repeat this later on, claiming common descent was “original to Darwin.”

This is completely false. The idea that species were evolving or descending from previous species, going back to a common origin for all life, preceded Charles Darwin by a long shot. Not only the idea of this, but offering evidence for it was going on long before Darwin. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, proposed that perhaps life had developed from a single living filament and presented enough evidence to make it a reasonable hypothesis to pursue. In his day, it was known as generation (one species generating another species just like the births of individuals). The authors of this book mention Erasmus Darwin only once in connection with some family problems, but never say anything about the work he did to establish evolutionary theory.

They briefly mention Lamarck, who published an important book on this the year Charles Darwin was born, and Robert Chambers whose book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published in 1844 and then nine more editions before Origin of Species appeared. Throughout most of the 19th century, more copies of Vestiges were produced than Origin. It is true that Vestiges had a fifteen year head start, but it took much more than fifteen years for Origin to catch up. In the days of Chambers, evolution was known as the development hypothesis and he presented a mighty strong case for it.

There are two ways people can be erased from history. One is to completely ignore them and the other is to give them brief mention while understating or even suppressing their achievements. Authors Montgomery and Chirot choose to do the latter for Lamarck and Chambers. They completely miss what these two figures accomplished. Chambers presented much of the same evidence for common descent that Darwin would and in fact proved that evolution or development was far more probable than the theory of independent or special creation. Yet he never gets credit for it.

The authors rightly praise Darwin for linking man to the rest of nature, but Chambers did just as good a job and went further. Chambers stressed that human beings were related to all other forms of life and especially to the lower animals (an expression they all used, including Darwin); even in intelligence, there were differences in degree only. Since we are all related, Chambers concluded that we had to respect the rights and feelings of other animals. Darwin would never go that far. When Darwin testified before a Royal Commission Committee on the question of vivisection, he pleaded with them not to ban outright all experiments on living animals, as mankind might derive some benefits from this, but he did object to experiments without anesthesia if they could be done with anesthesia. However, he would never go so far as putting man and animals as sympathetically close together as Chambers did.

Montgomery and Chirot also play down Darwin’s connection to later developments of Social Darwinism and eugenics. I agree with the authors that Darwin would have been horrified at some of the later things that were done with his theory of natural selection, but he would not have been horrified by all of it. Darwin himself stressed that the lower races of human beings would be exterminated by colonialism and suggested that humanity would rise higher because of this. The authors completely fail to say anything about this. They make Darwin appear more humane than he actually was.

The authors mention that Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton initiated eugenics thinking, but they leave out two crucial points. First, Darwin liked his cousin’s book on this. Second, when Galton argued that nature does not care for individuals, but only uses them to make superior races, Darwin only slightly disagreed. He pointed out that there are many extinct species which shows that nature may not care much for species either. But Darwin added that maybe the right way to express all this was that “Nature cares only for the superior individuals and then makes her new and better races” (he framed this in a rhetorical question). Darwin never thought about what it would be like to carry this to a logical conclusion, but we cannot say that Darwin did not supply plenty of grist for the Social Darwinist mill.

The authors present Darwin as a champion for what they call “the final secularization of the living world.” Long ago, Darwin was made into a great hero in the fight between science and religion (ironically, he never approved of this bogus combat and was always happy to see anyone reconcile religion and science), but when anyone is made into a hero, it means other people or their accomplishments have to be erased from history in order that the hero can shine more. It is that falsification of history to which I object.

The key point is this: When people are erased from history, it is usually the humanitarians. Chambers and other evolutionists were more holistic than Darwin who saw nature as a hierarchy of groups subordinate to groups. For Chambers and others, it is the whole that evolves and all the parts, including humanity, need each other in this scheme. Chambers was a more humane evolutionist than Darwin. We have lost a lot by forgetting this part of history.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


My email pal Sean once told me that historical Jesus studies needs a good kick in the arse. How true. The same can be said of Darwin studies and even the history of science, especially as it relates to evolution. When will we wake up and be truthful about what the evidence tells us?

Every time I come across a book or article on scientific racism in the 19th century, they always do the same thing. They make it seem like it was an aberration that was endorsed only by lesser figures. Charles Darwin is never mentioned or at best a glancing comment on his racism is offered. Same goes for Thomas Huxley. We have enforced this forgetfulness that scientific racism was a mainstream position. The top-notch scientists of the day promoted it. And every one of them would have sworn that their “racism” was objective and based soundly on the evidence.

How did the best scientists of the day go so wrong? How could they have so deceived themselves? These questions never get asked because we live in denial that it ever happened.

At the end of the American Civil War, Thomas Huxley gave a brief lecture entitled “Emancipation—Black and White” (the white part referred to women). He was glad that slavery was finally at an end in the west, but he emphasized that half the arguments brought in favor of abolition were wrong. In particular, the argument of equality between the races was dead wrong, as far as he was concerned: “no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man … The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins …”

Scientific racism went deep. It was not just a slight mistake. And science was not self-correcting about this. No profession is self-correcting. It is only when plenty of criticism from the outside makes inroads that science makes corrections.

We not only have ignored mainstream science’s devotion to racist ideas, but we have failed to take note of many of the anti-racists who were trying vainly to make a course correction. In 1864, just one year before Huxley’s lecture, Alfred Wallace made some interesting remarks on the subject. They were offered in a discussion following someone else’s paper delivered at a meeting of the London Anthropological Society. Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of Wallace in his own words, but rather a summary made by a third party. If we can trust the summary, Wallace made the following points:

He began by agreeing that the Negro is intellectually inferior to Europeans. “The only question to be determined,” he said, “was, how far that inferiority extends.” He then went on to challenge any ideas of inferiority by arguing, in effect, that these opinions are not based on any evidence. We have only seen Negroes in the most unfavorable conditions. How can one draw any fair conclusions from that? “We had never seen the negro under favourable circumstances. We had always seen him either as a slave or perfectly free without any stimulus to exertion … We had not yet seen the negro under the circumstances that would show him to the greatest advantage.” Wallace also made the point that if Negroes seemed to avoid work unless pressed by necessity, the same was true of all mankind (i.e., including white people), so that was no argument for inferiority.

A year before Huxley firmly stated his racist leanings, Wallace was already rebuking such thinking. We forget that, along with the fact that mainstream science ignored him and other anti-racists. Racism, in other words, went so deep that it forced the best scientists of the day to distort their view of the evidence and they would not pay attention even when their errors were pointed out. We ought to pay that more heed than we have—if only because it means that the dangers of mainstream science making mistakes is still with us.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Friday, September 25, 2015


[This month I am posting the same thing on my historical Jesus blog. This is adapted from the book I am currently working on: Darwin's Racism: The Definitive Case, Along With a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time.]

One of the worst things we ever did was invent the word religion. There is no such thing as religion. There are only cultures, which is a broader and looser term, much less loaded with preconceptions than religion is. By inventing this word, we have set up a bogus conflict between religion and science, and we have prevented ourselves from facing the real issues.
Call something a religion and we make assumptions about its beliefs about God and life. We automatically assume that it teaches God is all-knowing and all-powerful. We assume all religions believe God dictates and man’s duty is to obey; and when he doesn’t, God punishes. But anyone who reads the Torah honestly would have to admit that none of this accurately captures its depictions of God and human beings. There, the relationship between man and God is hardly ever straightforward.
I would not call the frequent debates, for example between God and Moses or God and Abraham, a simple matter of God proclaiming and man obeying. Sometimes God learns from them. He agrees to debating what truth is instead of proclaiming it. He accepts Moses confronting him about an appropriate punishment for Miriam and, in fact, reduces a lifetime of leprosy for Miriam to seven days. There is an implication that God makes or is capable of making mistakes. He agrees to reason with Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He practically begs Abraham to teach him. None of this fits what religious dogma is supposed to say about who God is and what he wants.
A better description of ancient Jewish culture, like other cultures, is that it wrestles with the existential problems of life. Existential problems never change. They are there in so-called religious culture and they are there in scientific culture. That’s what we should pay attention to, that’s what ails us, and not the manufactured, bogus conflict between religion and the secular. Existential dilemmas, often the exact same ones, remain in every culture, and calling them secular or religious does not change a thing. Verbal gamesmanship never solves anything.
The existential themes of life have been around forever. The ancients were as much concerned with them as we are. They were just as sophisticated, just as rational, just as historical, just as sensible and foolish as we are in attempting to figure out what is what. We are not superior. We have nothing over them. They too struggled to understand human nature, where we fit in the scheme of things, where we come from, and whether we can tolerate diversity or do we have to force everything into one mold. Their answers are comparable to our answers and as good as ours. Their mistakes were just like our mistakes. The grammar of their wrestling with these questions may have been different than ours, but I can assure you that they were no less rational than we were.
It is arrogance to think we secularists or scientists are superior in any way. We are still not sure if we can accept the diversity of human life on this planet or does everyone have to fit the mold of western civilization with all its devotion to technology and consumerism. We have our gods too. We have our Towers of Babel.
Just to switch over to Greek culture for a moment: In the play Ajax by the very ancient Greek writer Sophocles, Ajax enters the scene completely mad. The goddess Athena, visible to the audience but invisible to the human characters on stage, mocks him and enjoys her act of having driven him crazy. But if we pay attention, we realize that Ajax has gone mad because he had always considered himself to be the number one warrior in the world and now he has just lost a contest with Odysseus. For the first time in his life, he is now the second best fighter in the world. His self-image has been shattered. He cannot adjust or bend, so he breaks. He goes mad and then commits suicide. Ajax could not accept that he could be more than one thing.
When Odysseus appears later on, he tries to convince the authorities to give Ajax an honorable burial despite the shame of his suicide. Odysseus, we realize, has the flexibility that Ajax lacked. The rules of tradition are pliable for him. He would rather bend (including bending his attachment to tradition) than break. (I owe this interpretation of Ajax to a great philosophy teacher I had at Queens College in New York, Professor Henry Wolz—one of the great teachers who become more unforgettable as time passes.)
It reminds me that the Talmud points out that copies of Torah are made with the pliable reed, and not a more rigid implement, to teach us that to study and learn Torah you have to be as bendable as that reed (Taanith 20b). Torah in each verse is more than one thing. Only the man or woman who bends can fully appreciate what Torah has to tell us.
I am not here to proclaim that this is the central message of Torah or that love of the stranger and immigrant (alluded to so often in Torah) is the central message. There is no one final lesson. The Bible, like the writings of Darwin or the essays of Wallace or the varied output of Constantine Rafinesque or the plays of Shakespeare or the plays of the Greeks, has no one theme. Any great work has multiple threads running through it. ‘God don’t like empire or oneness’ is one theme of Torah, not the ultimate theme.
The problem of one versus many, autocratic rule (in personal or social life) versus the flexibility of diversity, goes back for ages. We are just as capable as the ancients of letting irrationality intrude into our system of knowledge (science) and they were just as sophisticated as we are in finding rational answers. We are not superior, better, wiser. If Darwin came up short in some respects (in his anthropological opinions of the inferiority of native peoples), it is a far more serious problem that we have come up short in discussing what he said. It is nothing but arrogance to misrepresent his complete views. It is arrogance to treat him or any modern figure as superior to previous accomplishments. If we are serious about defeating arrogance and if we truly (as opposed to hypocritically) believe that this is one of the purposes of science, then we had better learn this—learn it well and learn it fast—that our “advances” are just travels in a circle.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer

Monday, August 24, 2015


One would think that the following is a simple proposition that everyone could agree to:  The enemy is bad reasoning, no matter where it occurs, no matter who does it, and by bad reasoning, I mean primarily failure to pay attention to the evidence. But I continue to be amazed by how many people cannot accept this. There have always been certain religious people who will disdain evidence and regard any secular approach to evidence as unacceptable. But more and more, I see atheists who are convinced that religion is the enemy (it is always wrong, they say, and cannot prove any of its claims) and that, while science is not perfect, it is essentially always good and self-correcting of its mistakes.
This is not a contest. This is not a game. This is not about scoring points. This is not even about making mistakes and who makes more of them. This is about a deep flaw in human nature which you can see in any human activity including science and religion. It is the very human inclination to reject evidence in favor of ideology.
The idea that practicing science is inherently good and practicing religion inherently bad is despicable nonsense. Both are human institutions which are good or bad depending on the human beings running them. Science is not sacrosanct. It is a product of human beings.
Many religious people are deeply devoted to a God who created the world according to certain rules. These people believe we have a duty to understand the laws of nature. They are deeply committed materialists because their religion tells them to study and honor the world just as God created it. You cannot define these people out of existence by claiming all religion is false or a case of bad reasoning.
Science in the ideal is one of the greatest things there is, but professional science and ideal science are not the same thing. Professional science does not get a free pass just because the word ‘science’ is in it. When we think of science, we usually have in mind the science of technology which gives us useful things. In that kind of science, we excel. If we don’t reason correctly, the immediate practical results are bad. Bridges and buildings will collapse, refrigerators will stop running, the a/c will go on the fritz, cellphones will drop calls. But in fields where there are no immediate practical results, scientists will champion ideological preconceptions over evidence which becomes irrelevant. It happens all the time.
One such field is the study of history. Historical study is a science because, when done right, it is mainly about evidence. But history (including the history of science) is notorious for being influenced by ideology and throwing evidence to the winds. Who is hurt when history is misused? No bridges will collapse. Tell lies about history and everything continues to function. Usually, it is only minorities who are hurt when historical lies are perpetrated, and the majority in power could care less about that.
Here is a small bit of the history of science: Fifteen years before Darwin came along, Robert Chambers proved by a preponderance of the evidence that evolution (descent from previous species) was more probable than independent or special creation. Mainstream scientists of the time refused to acknowledge his accomplishment. Today, Chambers and his accomplishment are still erased from history. Darwin has been made into a god who cannot have any competition. Chambers was more holistic than Darwin. He believed all organisms are connected into a great whole in which no one part gets special treatment. That meant the feelings and rights of animals would have to be respected. He pushed this further than Darwin did.
I mention this because I believe that when we get the history of science wrong, it means there are still problems in science today. When a field cannot accurately study its own history, something very odd is going on. Religion has the same problem. Being dishonest about its own history is a vice shared by both science and religion. Both seek power rather than truth-telling.
When you look at any science where practical results are not at issue, ideology tends to replace the hunt for evidence. That is the key issue and we don’t pay attention to this in part because of this stupid, false battle between science and religion, which blinds us to the real issues at stake. Religion versus science is a false issue. It is not based on evidence. It is an ugly ideological battle that has nothing to recommend it. When people mess with the evidence in order to champion their ideology, that is where the trouble lies, and it happens in science as well as religion more often than we would like to think.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


[I posted the following review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible on Amazon last week. Like all my reviews, it is not a full-scale review but focuses on one issue. I will add a few comments at the end.]
There is no essential conflict between religion and science. There is certainly conflict between individuals, ideologues, on both sides. But to introduce this into the fields themselves is artificial. It serves those who want to promote their own power, but contains no truth beyond that.
Coyne has cherry picked his evidence, and worse yet, his definitions, especially of religion, to manufacture a controversy. He eliminates awe and wonder, experienced by many scientists, from his definition of religion (103) because it interferes with his ideology. Coyne knows very well there are many examples of science and religion getting along (e.g., the “science-friendly believer” on 64), but that does not suit his purpose. He picks out the most irrational features of religion (belief in miracles and a willingness to blind oneself to the evidence) and compares these to the best science has to offer. How is this fair?
It is as if Coyne were out to demonize religion—making it dangerous to both science and society (225). But it is only a certain type of fanatical religious thinking that is dangerous. Coyne might agree. What he misses is this: It is not in its character as religious that this thinking is harmful, but in its character as bad reasoning, and such reasoning (like ignoring evidence) is not limited to religion.
Here is a series of simple propositions which seem to make many people angry whenever I propose them: The enemy is not religion. The enemy is not science. The enemy is bad thinking wherever it occurs, no matter who does it. Scientists are just as capable of doing it. To deny that is to be guilty of a cover-up.
Professional science and science in the ideal are not the same thing. There is often a gap between the two. If we make out professional science to be sacrosanct, we create a situation as dangerous as what Coyne addresses. Religious officials once claimed for themselves the mantle of power. They falsely convinced people they had the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Most people don’t buy that anymore. The irony is that the mantle of power is now wrapped around scientists who claim to have the keys to the kingdom of truth. It is a terrible power to give anyone. Scientists are just human beings. Some will abuse their power. It is a human failing.
Good science demands constant vigilance. That vigilance is not on display in Coyne’s book, despite his admission that “venality, irrationality, and immorality” are universal human features (221). He portrays working science in too golden a light. Professional scientists need watching as much as anyone. Granting them power carte blanche is a bad idea.
Coyne acknowledges that science has done some bad things, but he blames this on individuals who have misused science, not on science itself (217-21). He is right. He just won’t allow the same defense to be raised when religion is abused. He has defined religion to make it inherently bad. This is typical of the stacked deck type of argument in this book: Let’s compare science at its best to religion at its worst. How is any of this fair?
The problem is not that religious belief blinds people to the evidence, as he frequently says. That is just one example of a deeper problem: Cultural values can hamper and skew looking at the evidence. This affects secularists as much as religionists. You can change your clothes, but the same human frailties lurk underneath.
Would it be fair if we judged science by its most egregious errors? Would it be fair if we rejected science just because Darwin and most of his fellow scientists took the wrong direction in their treatment of indigenous peoples? To the end of his days, Darwin insisted that most savage tribes were inferior to Europeans and, as a result, would gradually be exterminated. Humanity would rise higher, he said, when all the lower races were gone. Darwin had to violate his own basic tenets to maintain this. He had always insisted that natural selection acted slowly and locally. But indigenes were not endangered by changes in their local environment. Europeans had come from far away and the doom they were inflicting on natives was happening much too rapidly to be natural. This was closer to artificial selection, but Darwin never acknowledged this.
Only a handful of writers have recognized that Darwin naturalized or rationalized genocide (there was constant talk in his time of exterminating the natives). Most scholars are still in denial about this and refuse to look at the abundant evidence for this misuse of science. This twin belief in the inferiority of other races and their inevitable elimination was based on cultural ideology, not evidence. Many humanitarians of the day objected, but few paid heed. Shall we use this tremendous failure as indicative of science?
In 1898, Alfred Wallace, a more humane evolutionist than Darwin, bitterly lamented that science was being used to create weapons of mass destruction. Shall we condemn all of science for that? Wallace didn’t. Neither should we. Racism still occasionally rears its head in science. It has never entirely gone away. Shall we disparage science as a whole because of these problems and much more? Yet it is precisely this kind of unfair reasoning that Coyne arrogantly applies to religion. Whatever else Coyne’s book is, it is not an example of good science.
I can agree with a sentence here and there (e.g., about self-correction in science), but the overall effect of this book is to distort reality. Near the end, Coyne relates some horrific examples of what Christian Scientists have done to their children by withholding medical aid. Coyne implies this represents the essence of religious faith. I would despise anyone who argued that what Nazi doctors did represents science. For Coyne to indulge one argument while rightly condemning the latter is as double a standard as any I have ever come across.
The enemy is bad reasoning and failure to attend to the evidence. Remember that and eschew all ideological combat which serves only egos and not humanity.
That was the end of the review.
I feel the need to add a few words about how deceptive Coyne’s book is, and this is in addition to the fact that he employs a double standard to judge religion as a whole, not just religious extremism. Religious fanatics who defy and/or seek to undermine science are pretty out there. They make no bones about believing that their faith gives them knowledge superior to that of science. As such, I don’t consider them to be the greatest danger to science. Far more dangerous for any field of knowledge are the unconscious forces that subvert an honest look at the evidence. Coyne pays that no attention at all, and in failing to do this, he covers up the most serious problems of all.
Coyne pretends that when scientists make mistakes, it is the fault of this or that individual scientist, which of course is sometimes true. But the deeper problem is that cultural biases will influence scientific investigation. There are many examples of this in the history of science and they are often extremely difficult to correct. I gave one in the review. The scientific racism in the 19th century, which included Darwin and which continued well into the 20th, was not the error of just a few scientists. It was a huge cultural error. It infected mainstream science.
These scientists would have sworn up and down that their work was totally objective, when it was anything but. It is an extraordinary case of how mainstream science can sometimes be so blind. We are mostly over it now, but it still occasionally shows up in some scientist or other. It is a legacy that haunts us still.
When culture or any form of bias affects a scholarly field, it usually happens unconsciously. It is difficult to correct because no one likes facing and admitting that unconscious forces can take hold of us. Ignoring that is probably the most serious defect of Coyne’s book. He has created a false bogeyman so that the greater villains can escape undetected.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Not all humanitarians in the 19th century looked alike or sounded the same. There was quite a range. You could say it is like the gradation of species. There were many grades of humanitarians. All deserve some praise and those with deficiencies should be noted.
Sir George Grey, who served as Governor of New Zealand and then in South Africa in mid-century, was a low-level humanitarian. He took a very strong anti-racist position by arguing that all human beings were equal in intellectual endowments and that different races should be able to live together. He was opposed to the separation of races. But that was about as far as it went for him. He drew no conclusions that native peoples should be treated with justice or be given any power. He had no respect for native cultures. Despite his belief in equality, he was bent on taking all the land from the Maoris in New Zealand and the Xhosa in South Africa. They lost a lot because of him.
Way up there on the list of great humanitarians were people like Saxe Bannister and Charles Napier. They not only stood firmly for anti-racist views, they were not afraid to follow up with demands for justice. Equal treatment under the law was a theme that both struck. They were committed to colonialism, but they objected to its callousness towards native peoples and its unfairness.
Bannister, an Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s, wanted to see colonial expansion regulated with an eye to restraining the worst vices of colonists. He expressed so much concern for native rights (e.g., that there should be a board independent of the Colonial Office to oversee the interests of natives and that colored people should serve on this board) that an under-secretary would say he suffered from mental aberration.
Napier was a British military hero who was offered the Governorship of a new colony in South Australia in the 1830s, but his demand for enough soldiers and money to ensure success in case the colony ran into trouble resulted in his not getting the job. He despised people who ranked races and who looked at Australian Aborigines as the missing link between man and monkey. He saw no reason why natives should not be allowed to live as it suited them. He said that if he had been appointed Governor, he would have made sure that natives were treated the same under the law, equal to himself and the men who served under him.

There were many more who were somewhere in between Grey and Napier or Bannister. Those humanitarians who stuck by their convictions often suffered for it. They became outcasts, leading ruined lives. Others, when push came to shove, compromised so that they could continue to live in their society. The history of humanitarianism deserves better treatment than it has received so far.
Where does all this leave Darwin? Where does he fit into this spectrum? I am not sure that he even reaches the low level represented by Sir George Grey. In The Descent of Man, he is very clear that he does not regard all races as equal. Savages are generally ranked by him as intellectually and morally inferior to Europeans. It is their inferiority which he regards as the chief cause of their impending extermination and not immoral behavior on the part of colonizing Europe.
The only reason anyone thinks Darwin could be considered a humanitarian is because he was anti-slavery. But that was a very limited idea. It was legalized slavery that he abhorred. As far as I know, he never raised concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He totally supported colonialism which was a kind of de facto slavery, as far as indigenous people experienced it. Many humanitarians saw colonialism that way too and some thought it was worse than slavery, but Darwin never joined them.
It is hard to know everything about the relationship between Darwin and humanitarianism because he was basically silent on most of these issues, except for his firm belief in the inferiority of most natives. There were quite a variety of humanitarians around Darwin. Some of them, like Grey, he read. But none of it seems to have had an impact on him. He certainly did not agree with their humane views, but he never took the trouble to acknowledge them or dispute them. He gives them the silent treatment. And that is troubling.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Monday, April 27, 2015


[My post this month exactly parallels the current post on my other blog, http://historicaljesusghost.blogspot.com. Same title and the same first six paragraphs. Each post then gives examples appropriate to each field of how scholars blind themselves to the evidence.]
When I was a kid, sometime in high school, I think, I bought a paperback book called “30 Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary”, or maybe it was a better vocabulary. I think I still have it, buried in a box somewhere. I got my money’s worth with that book. It did its job and I did feel my word power grow. It made learning an entertaining exercise. I remember it had single-panel cartoons throughout the book. The one that stuck with me was of a young boy who had just returned home from school and says to his mother, “I learned a new word in school today, Mom. Try and surmise what it is.” It still gets a laugh out of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new term from a journalist on NPR: Epistemic closure. He described it as a condition in which a person is so sure of his own position that he will not hear any evidence to the contrary. I have been talking about that for years and never knew there was an expression for it. I was kind of delighted that there is now a name for it, but then I immediately had doubts about its usefulness. Is it good to have a name for something, and a fancy one at that? Sometimes naming something can help bring attention to a problem, but with something like this, the condition has been described for a long time and where has it gotten us?
And would a simpler term or description be more useful?
For a very long time now, I have frequently quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haitian historian among other things, who wrote, “Worldview wins over the facts.” (I recently checked on Amazon and found that his incredibly enlightening book Silencing the Past has recently been reissued in an anniversary edition.) Trouillot’s simple sentence is a more powerful description of what epistemic closure points to. You could also say ideology wins over the facts. He used it to describe how Europeans could not accept that there was a slave rebellion going on in Haiti which was defeating European armies. So they explained the facts away to fit their worldview that, on the one hand, slaves were too docile to desire much less fight for freedom, and on the other hand, they were not skilled enough to defeat European might.
If “Worldview wins over the facts” does not hit your over the head like a ton of bricks, I don’t see why epistemic closure would be any more instructive. In True Jew, I described the same condition this way: The less we see, the more we know. That captures what scholars in many fields do. All these expressions do. Usually what happens is that tradition has handed them a certain point of view, and while scholars are fond of spinning it in ways that sound like something new is being said, nothing new happens at all. The same tale gets told over and over again, and everybody is convinced, “We don’t need no stinking evidence” because our worldview or ideology tells us everything we need to know. Our knowledge is closed down. It closed a long time ago. It would be too much trouble to open it up now.
Let’s face it: It’s all about telling lies and getting away with it. Lying is its own reward. What is shocking is that the lies can be bold-faced and still they get away with it. You know it’s a closed discussion when everybody is content with the lies that are being told.

Look at what happens in Darwin scholarship. If you read a thousand books on Darwin or evolution, you will be told a thousand times, or more likely two thousand, that Darwin was a revolutionary. They claim he gave us the theory that man and all life forms are descended from lower life forms. Sometimes, they also mean he gave us a more humble understanding of man’s place in nature. But Darwin gave us neither of these ideas. They were a gift from previous evolutionists and they rarely get any credit for their accomplishments.
It was scientists like Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, and Robert Chambers who enthusiastically spread the news that a theory of the development of species made more sense of the evidence. All admitted that no one quite understood how it was happening, but they all saw important pieces of evidence that demonstrated that organisms were related to each other and to previous species. Erasmus Darwin compared the generation of species to the generation of individuals; so did his grandson in his early Notebooks.
Charles Darwin was the first to offer an explanation (natural selection) as to the mechanism of species development, but he was definitely not the first to suggest or even prove the greater probability that evolution was indeed occurring. So if there is a revolution in the very idea of the gradual change of life forms on this planet, it was brought to us by several investigators who came before Charles Darwin. Darwin was a latecomer to the field, through no fault of his own as he was born later. But why should the last to enter the field get the credit for the revolution?
As for the lesson of humility for mankind, credit for that really belongs to those who pushed that into the consciousness of the public, and again that was not Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers did so much to stress that all forms of life were related to each other. Chambers more than anyone else drew the conclusion that this should make us incredibly humble. He even argued that we should respect the rights and feelings of animals, something Charles Darwin would never say. What Chambers, E. Darwin, Rafinesque, and Lamarck argued was that all life is netted into one great whole which is more important than any one part, including humankind.
Scholars have taken this teaching and claim it is one of the essential lessons of evolutionary theory, and further claim that it comes from Charles Darwin, but he never declared this as much as the others did. He rather gave himself to almost the opposite idea. What Darwin saw was a hierarchy of life, an order and ranking, not an interconnectedness into a whole. Over and over in The Origin of Species, he told his readers that life gives us groups subordinate to groups, yielding dominant groups that beat feebler groups in the struggle for life. What is revolutionary about “let the strongest live and the weakest die”, the last words of Chapter VII of Origin?
Charles Darwin was far more a medieval thinker than the preceding evolutionists who all had a holistic approach to nature. In theory, Darwin should have been as holistic as his predecessors, but in practice, he stressed the subordination of groups and ranked groups from lowest to highest. He made the dominant more worthy of life than the weak and small. I cannot see a revolution in any of this. He applied medieval theology to biology and gave comfort to the ruling classes. Considering the accomplishments of the others who came before him, Darwin was more of a counter-revolutionary.
That’s not the way most scholars tell it. The point is not just that they are exaggerating what Charles Darwin did, they are erasing the important work of the first evolutionists who were taking the theory in a more holistic and humbling direction than Darwin ever would. I suppose they need a heroic Charles Darwin in their ideological combat with religion, but whatever their reasons, it is a dishonorable way to study history. They are embracing the same motto historical Jesus scholars follow: The less we see, the more we know.
They are spinning the evidence, and erasing portions of it, until it says nothing we do not want to hear. Whatever you call that—epistemic closure, worldview winning over the facts, or anything else—it is the end of learning anything.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, March 26, 2015


The biggest worry that people seem to have about Darwin’s racism and his devotion to colonialism is that if established as thoroughly true, then this will undermine the theory of evolution. It won’t. No matter what Darwin’s prejudices were, no matter even if he misused the theory of evolution, the science of evolution is safe. That is because there is more than one way to be an evolutionist. Even when it comes to natural selection, Darwin’s version of evolution, there is more than one way to pursue it.
People forget a basic fact of history: Darwin does not own the idea of evolution. He was not the first to propose it or even the first to prove that it is more probable than special or independent creation (the belief that God created each species separately). Evolutionary theory has a history that goes back well before Charles Darwin entered the picture. By the time Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, probably a majority, or at least something close to a majority, of the general population in England believed that the birth of new species, in descent from older species, made sense. It was an attractive idea and its popularity was due in part to Robert Chambers, who put together enough evidence (in 1844) to demonstrate that it made more sense than the prevailing theory of independent creation.
The majority of professional scientists was still stuck in the older idea. This was one case where the people were ahead of the scientists. It was the reason why Chambers had such a hard time of it and had to publish anonymously. His book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, caught the people’s fancy, but scientists gave him quite a knocking. Almost half a century earlier, Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, enthusiastically promoted evolution, called generation in his time, and while he may not have proved it, he presented enough evidence to make it a reasonable theory to pursue. A common argument made by many was that the generation of new species was very much like the generation, or birth, of new individuals, and that the birth of a new species was as normal as the birth of a baby. Just a few months before Chambers’s book, Emma Martin was handing out pamphlets in the street, comparing the two types of generation.
But the intellectual atmosphere was still too hostile. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck would make the theory more reasonable still, but his name became a term of abuse among English scientists. In America, Constantine Rafinesque wrote a long poem, which is really more of an essay, called The World, or, Instability, arguing that we should welcome constant change as a law of life. He was also one of the first to argue that racism against other human beings was irrational.
The previous evolutionists were much more holistic than Charles Darwin. They saw each part of the whole, including the various races, as serving the whole in some way. Darwin changed that. He saw nature as a hierarchy of groups, with dominant groups becoming ever more dominant and wiping out the weaker groups. You can already see the seeds of disaster in that point of view. But whatever prejudices and preconceptions Darwin dragged into this, his way was not the only way to espouse evolution and his way was not the original way to be an evolutionist.
For some evolutionists, having a common ancestor would engender a feeling of brotherhood among all peoples. Darwin unfortunately did not see it that way. For him, the common ancestor evolved into varying descendants, descendants that were so different that some could be said to be higher than others.
It is important to distinguish between a theory and the ways it can be misused. If it turns out that Charles Darwin made a contribution to both, that does not invalidate the former. If we remember how many people made evolutionary theory a reasonable theory (before and after Darwin), then it should not be upsetting to learn that Darwin did not always advocate the theory in the purest, most objective way. His failings are independent of the theory. If we don’t pay careful attention to this history, we will miss a much needed lesson in humility.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Monday, February 23, 2015


We say it so easily and we mean it as high praise. He was ahead of his time, what a genius! We choose not to think about how painful and frustrating it was to be in that condition. No one who’s been through it will tell you it was a good thing. Wake them all up from the dead. They’ll tell you it was a raw deal. Ahead of your time? You might as well be told you have cancer or you’re bleeding to death. And nobody would go through it again, if they had a choice.
Well, it’s all so ironic because, in fact, no one is actually ahead of their time, as Gertrude Stein reminded us. Whatever you come up with, you got it from the materials available to you exactly in your time. It did not come from a lightning bolt out of the blue. It came precisely from its time and place. It’s just that, as Gertrude Stein pointed out, everybody else was busy creating for the same time; they were busy with their own vision, and no one had a need for yours. Your vision will come into its own only when a future generation needs it and responds to it. You needed something before everyone else did. It was that need that came early, not your ideas.
Think about that when we look back at people or ideas that were “ahead of their time”. It’s about needs, and who needs what and when. The possibilities were always there, available to all. It could have happened much earlier. It didn’t take a genius to see the goodness of a certain idea. It only took a feeling that we need it and want it. The shame of it is that so many decided we don’t want it, and then later, they cover up by saying that other guy was ahead of his time, so it’s not our fault we didn’t see it. Oh, but it is our fault. We saw it, we weren’t blind. We rejected it because we had other needs.
We will say something was ahead of its time because it startles us to see it so early in history. When Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, writes that Jewish law requires that no one can be put to death without first getting a trial by the Sanhedrin, we think how advanced that is. We don’t expect to see such a clear statement of due process. But it is not all that surprising. The legal system of any culture will have procedures and it is not unreasonable to foresee that people will demand adherence to those procedures. That’s due process.
More surprising is that some Pharisees argued that everyone, including kings and nobility, are subject to the Constitution (Torah) and rules of law. The first few times they tried imposing this, they lost. In fact, I’m not sure they were ever completely successful at establishing this principle. It was only one Pharisee, maybe a couple, who insisted on it. The majority were nervous about defying a king or other aristocrat. We don’t need this, we don’t want it, it’s too much trouble. In that sense, this idea was ahead of its time. It was conceivable, but it was unwanted.
British humanitarians of the 19th century were sometimes ahead of their time and on other points were not. Many humanitarians saw the need to make the justice system in the colonies more equitable. They believed that natives should be allowed to give testimony in court. A lot of people were suggesting this and gradually it got done. As an idea, it was not too advanced for its time.
But when someone like Saxe Bannister, Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s and later one of the founders of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, suggested that when natives can still not get judgments executed, then governors should indemnify them, that was going much further than anyone else of that time wanted to go. He also recognized that the Colonial Office could not possibly serve both the white colonists and the Aboriginal population, as the interests of these groups were often diametrically opposed to each other. Therefore, an independent body should be appointed to look out for the interests of the natives and that body should include people of color. It does not take a genius to realize that Bannister’s proposals would go nowhere. Not because his ideas were incomprehensible, but because they did not serve the needs of the white colonists.
Bannister was truly ahead of his time. Another humanitarian was actually capable of saying that Bannister was mentally deranged (probably in response to some points he made about overhauling the colonial system in South Africa). The outlook of the majority was that what we need is lip service to the idea of justice for indigenous peoples, but not actual justice. To put it another way, what even many good humanitarians recognized was that one could push the majority of whites only so far. They knew when to quit in the fight for justice. Bannister was a purist. He thought about what pure justice required and then said it. What he spoke up for was not that hard to see. It was just that everyone else was telling him that we don’t need this. It doesn’t serve our interests.
Which brings me to Charles Darwin, who was definitely not ahead of his time. Few people in history have been more in tune with what the zeitgeist will and will not allow. He knew exactly what he could deliver without having the door slammed in his face. He gave his generation what it, and he, wanted to hear: The dominant species are the most important thing ever. What no one wanted to hear was that the whole was more important than any one piece. All the previous evolutionists—Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, Robert Chambers—were ahead of their time in this respect. Actually, they stood for two ideas, one of which was just right for that time and place, and the other was apparently too soon.
The first idea was transmutation of species. The early evolutionists were right for their time in their belief that creation was on-going and species continued to develop. That idea appealed to people long before Charles Darwin came along. The upper classes did not like it, but the majority of people lower down felt the need for it. We like the idea that life (and by implication, human society) is not fixed but fluid. So the idea of species change gained ground. But the other idea evolutionists advocated for was that nature as a whole is evolving and every piece of nature, small or large, strong or weak, has a role to play.
Lamarck pointed out that any part of nature that could reason might try to assert itself as most important because it would perceive its own interests to be contrary to that of the whole. The powerful might not like the idea that they too are only temporary and might have to give way to the next change because it would serve the whole. I believe it was this kind of reasoning about the whole that caused so many of the scientists who came from the upper classes to reject the theory of evolution or development. It was not until Charles Darwin offered natural selection to establish that the dominant species will become ever more dominant that scientists began to find evolutionary theory appealing. Ironically, while natural selection was hotly debated, it was appealing enough even to those who rejected it.
In theory, Darwin saw that everything was potentially temporary. Natural selection, he said, acts only tentatively. But he never made that the mainspring of his system. He put his emphasis on the success of the strongest or most dominant species. It was a theory that was well-suited to his colonial age. It was perfect for its time. But the holistic thinkers were out of touch with the needs of their time. Not stupidly out of touch. I think they knew where they stood. They just could not help speaking the truth about seeing things from the point of view of the whole. It is still ahead of what we perceive to be our needs.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Monday, January 26, 2015


In these days of religious terrorism which seeks only to commit ungodly murders and which confers absolutely no benefits on anyone, western imperialism can seem like a blessing. At least it can claim not to be an unmitigated evil. But this has nothing to do with our responsibility to confront our own peculiar mixture of good and evil.
The defenders of western imperialism take one of two approaches: Either they refuse to discuss its deep faults (such as excessive greed, violence, arrogance) and refuse to consider whether and how much this contributed to the success of the west, à la Nicholas Wade in A Troublesome Inheritance, or they acknowledge but understate the harm inflicted and claim that whatever the injuries, the benefits outweighed them, à la Niall Ferguson in Civilization: The West and the Rest. Both approaches play up the benefits, hoping to blind us to anything that might detract from a story of unparalleled good.
Given that western imperialism did some good things, the question that is just begging to be asked is: At what cost to the indigenous peoples were these benefits accomplished? No one knows better than Ferguson that “At what cost?” is always the supreme question. He has no hesitation asking this question for other political societies or systems.
Ferguson is clearly no admirer of the French Revolution and I cannot blame him for that. Whatever value came out of the French Revolution, it has to be weighed against its costliness in blood and repression. Ferguson is glad to bring up this point for France’s radical turn towards liberty and equality. He calls it “the first demonstration in the modern age of the grim truth that revolutions devour their own children.” He is proud of Edmund Burke for having seen so early what was happening in France. Ferguson nails Stalin’s regime in a single sentence: For the years of increased industrial production from 1929 to 1932, “few asked how many people died for every ton of steel produced under Stalin (the answer was nineteen).”
Ferguson knows that “At what cost?” is the real bottom line in history. Yet he makes sure to stay very far from asking this question about European imperialism. He adopts a double standard in the study of history. (The only time he asks about the costs of imperialism, he means the cost to the imperial country.) The victims of the French Revolution and Stalin matter enough to Ferguson to cast doubt on the overall value of those political events, but the victims of European imperialism do not matter enough to shake his conviction in the supreme worth of western empires.
Ferguson will acknowledge that some bad things happened as the west pursued its imperialism. “Western civilization is far from flawless. It has perpetrated its share of historical misdeeds, from the brutalities of imperialism to the banality of the consumer society.” One of his techniques is to occasionally acknowledge some brutality here and there, so that he can claim to have been historically honest, but he never gives it his full attention as he does the positive aspects of western culture. Page after page extols the west, with only an occasional interruption to lament a rare mistake. Ferguson is almost always brief about western misdeeds and never sees them as part of the reason for material success. They are aberrations that do not deserve to be incorporated in his central story.
In his preface, Ferguson claims that he is writing not merely “a history of the West but a history of the world” and that the peoples subjugated by the west “are equally important members of the drama’s cast.” But if you removed these lines from the preface, you would never glean these thoughts from the rest of the book. The full story of these peoples is absent. They matter to Ferguson only in so far as they prove the west’s ability to westernize everyone.
Ferguson gives us only the most positive factors in western civilization to explain its material success (Wade does this too)—things like an open society, a spirit of innovation and the freedom to innovate, healthy competition, consumerism, advances in medicine, the rule of law, the work ethic, and more. Words like justice and injustice do not appear in his analysis. Nor does he consider whether extreme greed may have been a factor. The west may have gained more because it wanted more and was willing to be ruthless about it. Ruthlessness was not an element in this success as he sees it. I don’t mind celebration when it honestly presents itself for what it is—there is a lot to be genuinely celebrated—but why call that objective examination of the evidence, which is what both Ferguson and Wade claim to be doing?
Everything is slanted in favor of appreciating the west’s greatness. Ferguson never clarifies for his readers that the rule of law applied to the invaders and their relationships to each other as they competed for wealth. It never applied to the natives. Europeans had mixed motives, he tells us. “Some came to invest, others to rob.” But how does one invest, in the legitimate sense of the word, in land and resources that were stolen to begin with?
The presumed bottom line which Ferguson uses for his arguments is that the benefits of imperialism have far outweighed any harm inflicted. He has little patience with criticism that would see it any other way. “Empire has become a dirty word, despite the benefits conferred on the rest of the world by the European imperialists.” Even contemporary criticism of imperialism was wrong: “perhaps contemporaries should have praised the English ‘savings glut’ rather than grumbled about imperialism.” Ferguson’s position is easy to sustain as long as you understate the harm that what was done.
If we reject Ferguson’s double standard, the question has to be asked—just as we ask it about the French Revolution or Soviet Communism or unrestrained capitalism or monopolies or protest movements or anything—what was the cost? What was the cost of colonialism to indigenous peoples? Forsake the glib answer that, oh yes, well, of course, there were some bad things, but the benefits were greater than the injuries. How could anyone know this without a full investigation? It might be more difficult to come up with numerical answers in some colonies. How many Aborigines in Australia died for every ton of wool produced? In Tasmania, an island, the population was more or less fixed and could not deteriorate below zero, so the ratio of people killed to tons of wool produced might not be as dramatic as in Stalin’s Russia. But there will be ways of totaling up the good and the bad and finding a reasonable measure of the real costs and benefits.
The trouble with the celebration of western imperialism is not just that it is dishonest about the full truth of the subject, but that it is dishonest about what it really wants, about its own greed to have it all. Granted that there are some benefits to imperialism that we can hold onto, the celebrants of it seem to be saying that it is not enough that we have invaded, we conquered, we stole, and we killed—we were the outright victors—we must also win in history. We must take over your history too, or else our victory is incomplete. We must be vindicated. We must be seen and remembered as good and beneficent. We gave more than we took. We need total control of history to hammer home that point and ensure the final victory. We must show either that we did nothing wrong or that the benefits we brought far exceeded the harm, and that these benefits were unquestionably the result of the good things and not the bad stuff like rapacity and bloodthirsty violence.
The need to make such an argument may be very great, but this is not objective history. This is loaded history. This is greed raised to the nth degree. This is history made to serve a complete takeover by the powerful.
The defenders of western colonialism are making large claims, but in another way, there is a smallness to their vision. It is like saying we have a right to defend our way of life but you don’t have a right to defend yours. The hypocrisy of this is heightened by the fact that the western way of life contains a lot of aggression, whereas the indigenous way is relatively passive—certainly less grasping and more content to enjoy the given—and yet we think they have less right to form their homeland security and defend their quieter lives. We have shrunk our sense of right and wrong.
Ferguson wants to believe that what’s done is done. All we can do is look back and say we regret the excesses that took place, the violence and denigration, and hope it is all truly behind us. Is that all we can do? Could we not also look back and give a full accounting? Do we owe that much? What does it mean to regret the violence and the stealing? How do we regret without telling the full truth? Do we also regret our arrogance and self-righteous attitude that God or nature or history ordained us to be the winners? Most societies and systems will create a mixture of victims and beneficiaries. The question Ferguson knows is right but is unwilling to face is: The imperial success of the west was achieved at what cost to the indigenous populations?
The ultimate question for western civilization is whether humanitarianism can become as strong a force as our hunger for continual material improvements. Can it make an equal claim on our desires? Or will we forever let it slide into second place?
© 2015 Leon Zitzer