Saturday, April 30, 2022

You tell me that it's evolution, well, you know...

It has been a frustrating several decades for science since John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961, the book that laid the groundwork for modern biblical literalist creationism. Those authors just flatly denied what science had appreciated since the early 1800s: that the earth is very old, and has been populated at different times by diverse creatures that were quite different from living ones, although frequently resembling them. While there has always been religiously-based resistance to Darwinism, it was a rare anti-intellectual who dared venture into “young-earth creationism”. Even William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow’s antagonist in the famous Scopes trial, volunteered the fact that he was an “old-earth” creationist, to the surprise of both sides in the courtroom. 

DARROW:  Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old?
BRYAN:  Oh no, I think it is much older than that.
DARROW:  How much?
BRYAN:  I couldn't say.
DARROW:  Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
BRYAN:  I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.
DARROW:  Do you think the earth was made in six days?
BRYAN:  Not six days of twenty-four hours.
DARROW:  Doesn't it say so?
BRYAN:  No, sir.

In other words, “young-earth creationism” was too stupid even for William Jennings Bryan in 1925.

The Genesis Flood, on the other hand, began in 1961 with the premise that the Bible relates literal history; the Bible says that the Earth is merely thousands of years old; therefore it must be; and therefore all species lived at the same time, not so long ago. Almost as an afterthought, evolution must be false as a simple consequence of this biblical revisionism. This begged the question of how animals actually came to be fossilized, short of having been magically petrified by the visage of the gorgon Medusa; or how particular fossils came to be very consistently deposited in similar formations of rock layers, in spite of all that sloshing of the flood waters. It left you to wonder how the modern lemurs made it to Madagascar, and nowhere else; or how the koalas made it from Mount Ararat in the Near East all the way to Australia, without eucalyptus forests in between.

Most importantly, though, The Genesis Flood enjoined the reader to simply reject lots and lots of real and scholarly geology in favor of some dopey alt-geology. Where might such a bizarre suggestion come from? Saying that science has gotten something wrong is not in itself threatening. After all, when we teach that science is self-correcting, that is quite specifically what we mean: Science has gotten something wrong and we are correcting it.

The context of modern biblical literalist creationism bears some examination. Today it is fashionable to regard creationists along with anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, and flat-earthers, as part of a vast conspiracy of stupid. But there are two problems with this view. First, science is, and has sometimes famously been, wrong. When American geneticists of the 1920s said that we needed to sterilize the poor and restrict immigrants on account of their “bad germ-plasm,” it was the anti-science mobilization of the civil libertarians, social scientists, political conservatives, and religious Catholics that we can admire in retrospect for standing up to the geneticists. And second, we don’t know the degree of overlap among the anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, flat-earthers, and creationists.  Although some of them rationalize their beliefs with Bible verses, only the creationists are actually religiously motivated. In fact, even the creationists think the flat-earthers are nuts. 

St. Augustine, a Hippo
In other words, creationism represents a special kind of anti-science, rooted in a particular hermeneutic treatment of the Bible: selective biblical literalism. It’s selective because, as even St. Augustine of Hippo  recognized, when you read that Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened” after eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, you simply can’t imagine that they had been walking around the Garden with their eyes closed, bumping into things. It has got to be a figure of speech, not to be taken literally.

There is a different context for looking at creationism, however. Scarcely a decade before The Genesis Flood, the scientific world was scandalized by a Bible-based book of a different sort. It was called Worlds in Collision, written by psychoanalyst named Immanuel Velikovsky.

Velikovsky was not a literalist, nor was he concerned with the book of Genesis. His interest lay in Exodus, but his biblical focus was rooted in an equally ridiculous premise: Since all myths and legends are ultimately based upon real events (rather than just being stories, like Cosette and the Thenardiers, or Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Luke Skywalker and the Death Star) then what actual circumstances might have been the inspiration for the miracle-infused biblical Exodus from Egypt? In particular, what might have started things off by turning the Nile to blood, Plague Number One of Ten – or at least to something that Bronze Age yokels might have mistaken for blood? The subsequent plagues of Egypt would also receive naturalistic explanations too – frogs making their own amphibious exodus from the now-toxic river, then hosting insect vermin as disease made its way up the food chain, eventually culminating in mass deaths – hazily misremembered and misrecorded as merely the Egyptian first-born.

But what started it off, turning the Nile river to blood?

Velikovsky had an answer, and peppered his biblical exegesis as well with tendentious renderings of ethnographic and archaeological texts. What had turned the Nile red and undrinkable was red matter that had fallen into the Nile from the surface of the planet Venus. How did it get there? The planet Venus had just come into existence, having been expelled as a comet from the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; and was shooting through the solar system, eventually banging into Mars before both planets settled into their separate orbits just a few thousand years ago. It was an ingenious theory, with only one obstacle in its way: astronomy.  So Velikovsky invented his own alt-astronomy and settled into the #1 slot of the New York Times best-seller list in the Spring of 1950.

Needless to say, astronomers did not take this at all well. Sadly, though, they did a spectacularly poor job of engaging with Velikovsky’s work, beginning with threatening its publisher. Their fulminations were properly dismissive, necessarily technical, sometimes ad hominem, and occasionally incoherent. Eventually, though, Worlds in Collision faded from view, and today you can generally only find Velikovsky’s ideas by searching for them on the internet. Nevertheless, both Worlds in Collision and The Genesis Flood prominently cast themselves against science, and in favor of their particular interpretations of the Bible. One bluntly opposed astronomy, the other opposed geology. Yet the biblical text figures prominently in both, as misunderstood “history” in the colliding planets narrative, and as properly-understood “history” in creationist narratives.

We (in the human evolution community) have engaged most commonly with biblical literalist creationism as a false theory of biology, or as an archaic remnant of older modes of thought; but it is reactionary, not primitive, and treating it as a false story simply replicates the astronomers’ frustrating engagement with Worlds in Collision. It will always prove unsuccessful to engage with creationism as “our story is true and yours is false” – since at very least, many aspects of any story of human evolution are debatable or downright inaccurate. Indeed, both evolutionist and creationist narratives of human origins have at times freely incorporated racist elements.

But Velikovsky had fashioned a mold: a Bible-validating narrative, and the replacement of real science with his own. And he largely succeeded in focusing the resulting debate on the nature of the story he had to tell – science had theirs, and Velikovsky had his.

That was 1950. The Genesis Flood was 1961. And a decade after that, Erich von Däniken published his best-seller, called Chariots of the Gods?  Once again, the Bible figured prominently, but this time with God’s presence as mis-remembered and mis-reported visitations by ancient astronauts. And the only thing standing in its way was archaeology.

Yet while the colliding worlds astronomy scenario has all but vanished, young-earth creationism and the ancient astronauts are very much still with us. Creationism’s biology scenario is touted in evangelical churches across America, and the ancient astronauts archaeology scenario is touted on The History Channel. Approximately as any people believe it as believe creationism, and we have no idea how much those 40% or so of Americans overlap with one another. 

It’s not simply the rejection of science, but the arrogant construction of a different science, based in some measure on an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. That is what connects the colliding worlds, young-earth creationists, and ancient aliens.  And one thing seems clear: arguing over whose story is right is not a successful strategy. “You” may believe that the planets have been more-or-less as they presently are for billions of years, but “we” believe that Venus is only 3500 years old. And why are you trying to disabuse us of that? Don’t we have a right to believe it? Come to think of it, aren’t you just being an intolerant archaic throwback to colonialist hegemonic practice?

The joint possession of secret knowledge is, after all, a pretty obvious form of social bond.  People who believe the Jets are going to the Super Bowl have something to agree on and to hope for together, regardless of any basis it might have in reality.

Would it give you pleasure to try and convince them otherwise? To me, that's a bit sadistic. I agree rather with H. L. Mencken, who said something like: Everyone is entitled to the belief that their spouse is attractive and their children are smart. 

Talking people out of their delusions can be fun, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it should be the goal of science education. It's one thing to teach what scientists believe, and quite another to insist that everyone believe as you do. 

Instead, we should be focusing on how scientific stories get made, and why their odd beliefs aren’t science. How do we explain appropriate scholarly practice to those who have never experienced it? That's the pedagogical challenge. But this is the complementary intellectual domain of the humanities:  turning the conversation away from the content of the science itself, and towards the nature of scientific epistemologies. That is to say, what makes something scientific knowledge as opposed to unscientific knowledge.

And sure, if you want to go for broke, why, in most contexts, scientific knowledge is more reliable than unscientific knowledge.

But this will necessarily be a humanistic conversation, and it may not be one that scientists are comfortable with, but it is probably a conversation that has a better chance of making a difference than just insisting that they’re wrong and you’re right.

Or, to put it in the non-scientific domain of morality: Don't be an asshole.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Guest post: Carleton Coon made me do it, by Barry Bogin


I loved Jonathan Marks’s Legacy Review of The Origin of Races (Marks, 2022). The review is good history with an important lesson that academics must take responsibility for their research in terms of the way we interpret our findings and the way that others use or misuse our work. Marks is spot-on when he says that Coon’s writings on ‘race’ were, “…quite simply evil…” and that, “Scientists are not trained to grapple with evil.” We need such training, as many evils such as racism, sexism, and ethnic cleansing are ever-present.

Marks's Legacy Review dredged-up memories of how I became an anthropologist and this is the theme of this letter. Perhaps my story will resonate with others. My start toward anthropology had little to do with combating evil, but did involve reading another book co-authored by Carleton Coon, Anthropology A to Z (Coon & Hunt, 1963). More about this book in a moment but first I want to state that like Marks, I was never taught The Origin of Races. I do not recall that Coon was even mentioned in any of my anthropology courses. I learned about ‘Races’ sometime after earning my Ph.D. in 1977 and purchased a used copy. The perverse nature of the book’s argument was, I thought, a fascinating footnote in the history of anthropology. When relevant, I explained to my students Coon’s proposals and classroom discussion often became animated with incredulity!  About 10 years ago, I gave away ‘Races’ and my few other books that tried to make ‘race’ a serious anthropological topic (e.g., Garn, SM 1960 Readings on Race; Mead M, Dobzhansky T, Tobach E, Light RE 1968 Science and the Concept of Race). The pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’ had long since become an embarrassment to anthropology and, besides, I needed the shelf space for more useful books.    

I purchased a new, paperback edition of Anthropology A to Z in in 1969, near the end of my junior year of university in Philadelphia. At that time I was miserable. I was the third member of my immediate family to attend a university. Previously two aunts had completed courses in elementary education and physical therapy. My parents expected me to pursue a similarly applied vocation, especially medicine. Being mostly naïve, I thought that a major in biology was the only route to success in medicine. The biology of the late 1960s was strongly molecular and my instructors lectured toward genetics. I appreciated the marvels of the genome, but whole organisms held more interest. One lecturer was RL Miller, a developmental biologist who was the first to discover fertilization by sperm chemotaxis in an animal (Miller, 1966). Human sperm chemotaxis toward ova was shown 25 years later (Ralt et al., 1991). In my junior year (1969) I enrolled in Prof. Miller’s marine biology course, did well, and was able to secure a job in Miller’s lab. My work was to tie to glass slides male and female hydrozoans of the genus Campanularia, then feed and care for them until needed for further experiments. Later, I was trained analyze film images recorded by means of dark-field cinephotomicrography and trace the paths that spermatozoa from male animals followed toward the female gonangium (the reproductive members of the hydrozoan colony). Doing so allowed me to observe fertilization and the formation of new hydroids. This job stimulated my interest in growth and development.  

In other third year courses I was failing. At the end of the semester the university placed me on the ‘Dean’s List’, the one for students threatened with dismissal.  A few weeks into the second semester I had physical-emotional meltdown. I missed three weeks of classes, the lab work and two other jobs I had at that time, and all social life. A physician prescribed a barbiturate tablet, to which I developed a nasty allergic reaction, but it did help to regulate my emotions. When I returned to the university I went to the bookstore and discovered Anthropology A to Z. The text is mostly about ‘race’ and ‘constitution’ but there are sections on growth and development, paleoanthropology, primates, demography, and social anthropology. The material on fossil and non-human primates grabbed my attention. I bought the book ($2.95) and decided to change my major to anthropology. I took the three required introductory classes (Social, Biological, Archeology) in the summer term between my junior and senior years. My performance went from failing to As and Bs. I found my place and my profession.   

Anthropology A to Z was translated, with new material added, from the original German book Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon (Heberer, Kurth, & Schwidetzky-Roesing, 1959). The German book was designed as single-volume encyclopedia (the meaning of the German word ‘lexicon’). There is an ‘A Z’ artistic design on the cover, but not used in the official title. The authors were Gerhard Heberer, Gottfried Kurth, and Ilse Schwidetzky-Roesing. Heberer was a zoologist and anthropologist who was a member of the Nazi Party SS and was a high ranking "racial researcher " for the SS ‘German Ancestral Heritage (Ahnenerbe) Research Association’. Heberer was interned after the war because of his SS membership, but was declared ‘reformed’[1] in 1947. From 1949 to 1970 he was director of an "anthropological research center" at the Georg-August University in Gottingen. Gottfried Kurth was an anthropologist who studied the ‘races’ of German villages and paleoanthropology. His publications contributed to Nazi ideology on ‘racial hygiene’ and education. Years later, Kurth edited a festschrift to the professional life of Heberer, which was given a mostly positive review by C. Loring Brace (Brace, 1963). Ilse Schwidetzky-Roesing was an anthropologist who in the 1930s was assistant to Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, one of the leading ‘race theorists’ of the Third Reich. After the war she worked at Mainz University from 1946, eventually succeeding Eickstedt as Mainz Professor of Anthropology in 1961 until her retirement in 1975. I found no information that either Kurth or Schwidetzky-Roesing were interned or ‘reformed’. Instead, both seemed to have assumed traditional academic lives after the war and Schwidetzky-Roesing was even an honored member of several European academic societies and in 1974 the Vice President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Both in its original German and in English translation, Anthropology A to Z is a neo-Nazi racist diatribe. In English it includes the racist ideology of Carleton Coon that is exemplified by Marks’ Legacy Review. On page 129, for example, Coon and Hunt write, “The hypothesis to be presented here was suggested by Franz Weidenreich in 1947, and has been much elaborated since by C. S. Coon in The Origin of Races (1962).”  A few sentences later, Coon and Hunt succinctly precis the hypothesis by writing that Coon’s elaborations boil down to, “…some racial differences seen today can be traced all the way back to Homo erectus.” Much of the text of Anthropology A to Z, both before and after page 129 is a summary of material first published in The Origin of Races (A to Z is 277 pages long). The work of Franz Boas, towards whom Coon was personally and professionally antithetical (Jackson, 2001), is mentioned one time in Anthropology A to Z, with a sentence on Boas’ studies of the offspring of immigrants. There is no citation of that work, but Coon and Hunt dismiss the importance of Boas’ research and explain it away by stating that the plasticity of phenotypes Boas reported was merely due to selective migration. It is an understatement to say that it is ironic that Coon and Hunt’s Anthropology A to Z helped me become an anthropologist who dedicated his professional work to Boasian-style research and ideology. In the latest edition of my book

Patterns of Human Growth (Bogin, 2021), I devote a paragraph to Coon’s hypothesis and show that his ‘evidence’ from anthropometric studies was incorrect. More importantly, I devote many pages to explaining and critiquing the on-going research by contemporary genetic determinists from biology, psychology, bioinformatics, medicine, and other fields who promote claims of biological, cognitive, and emotional differences between ‘races’, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes.  

There is one more anecdote to relate about how I came to read Anthropology A to Z. This story begins with Coon’s television career and ends with a possibly racist high school guidance counsellor. I grew-up in Philadelphia. About the time when I was 10 years old (1960ish), it was difficult for me to get out of bed on school days, but I was up and running by 6 AM on Saturday. I ate some breakfast in front of the TV and often watched a repeat showing of What In The World (WITW), which was a co-production of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia TV station WCAU. The Penn Museum website provides the basic history of WITW. Watch the video at that site, with its dry ice ‘smoke’, mysterious flute music excerpts from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and images of worlds in space, and you will understand the show’s impact on my 10-year-old mind! WITW won the Peabody Award for television in 1951, was shown by 89 affiliates of the CBS television network, and ran for 16 years (1950-1966). This is incredible for show that was based on a panel of academic ‘egg-heads’ trying to guess the identity of an archeological object held by the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The host of the show was Froelich Rainey, director of the Museum. One regular panelist was Carleton Coon, who was then Curator of Ethnology at the Museum. I marveled at the wisdom of Coon and the other tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking professors as they debated the symbolism, beauty, and use of the mysterious object. Today, I suspect that the objects were selected by Rainey and Coon and that Coon may have prepared some text for the other panelists to help make the show more entertaining.

The show must have made a lasting impression because when it came time for me to think of life after high school, I went to my guidance counsellor to ask about a career as an archeologist. I still recall that she looked at me with a condescending expression and said, “There is only one place you can study archeology – the University of Pennsylvania, and you cannot get in there.”  I guess that WITW made a lasting impression on her as well! As a 16-year-old I interpreted her words to mean that I was too stupid to successfully apply to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. I did attend Temple University, a public, state-supported university in Philadelphia. In the 1990s I had occasion to reminisce about my high school counselor’s words and realized that what she really meant was that Penn would likely reject me because of its desire to be international and cosmopolitan. Many elite universities had admission quotas for local residents, so that the student body would be geographically diverse. There were also quotas for ethnic and religious ‘diversity’ – meaning lack thereof in most cases – and my counselor may have thought that I was too Jewish for that quota. In fact, Penn never had a ‘Jewish quota’ and was the Ivy League school with the highest percentage of Jewish students. Was my guidance counselor an anti-Semite? Was she trying to promote her favorite students for admission to Penn?  I will never know. But the impact of WITW stayed with me and when I saw Anthropology A to Z in the Temple University bookstore the name Carleton Coon must have stirred something that lead to my life-long excitement for biological anthropology and all it has to offer.

Barry Bogin

Member, UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA), USA

Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology, Loughborough University

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA, Member Diversity Scholars Network


Bogin, B. (2021). Patterns of Human Growth (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brace, C. L. (1963). Review of Evolution und hominisation:Evolution and hominisation. Edited by Gottfried Kurth. 228 pp.; 43 figures; 3 tables. Published by Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany. D.M. 45,50. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 21(1), 87–91.

Coon, C. S., & Hunt, E. E. (1963). Anthropology A to Z. New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap.

Heberer, G., Kurth, G., & Schwidetzky-Roesing, I. (1959). Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon. Frankfurt-Main: Fischer Bücherei, K.G.

Jackson, J. . (2001). "In Ways Unacademical”: The Reception of Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology, 34, 247–285.

Marks, J. (2022). Legacy review: Carleton S. Coon (1962) The origin of races . New York: Knopf. American Journal of Biological Anthropology, 178:193–195 (2022).

Miller, R. L. (1966). Chemotaxis during fertilization in the hydroid Campanularia. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 162(1), 23–44.

Ralt, D., Goldenberg, M., Fetterolf, P., Thompson, D., Dor, J., Mashiach, S., … Eisenbach, M. (1991). Sperm attraction to a follicular factor(s) correlates with human egg fertilizability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 88(7), 2840–2844.

[1] The term used in the 1940s was ‘denazified’. That word is used by Putin as part of Russian aggression against Ukrainian people and has taken on a new, evil meaning.