Science, race, religion, witch hunts, and the difference between East and West: Interview with Eric Vandenbroeck
Webmaster of World News Research: On July 20, 1998, the cover of Newsweek was titled, "Science Finds God." Is there a relationship between western science as it came to be and religious belief?
Eric Vandenbroeck: Using historical evidence the "origins" of modern science can often be seen to lay in theology.
To give one example, in the latter decades of
the nineteenth century, the intellectual leadership of the Presbyterian
citadels of Edinburgh, Belfast, and Princeton were involved in the production
and reproduction of cultural space that played a crucial role in the ways
evolutionary science was encountered in these regions.
Religious machinations, of course, were not the
only conditioning factors in the regional rendezvous with evolutionary biology.
In the American South, the anti-evolution sentiments of the Charleston circle
of naturalists owed a good deal to southern racial
ideology. The mono genetic implications of Darwin's understanding of human
origins did not sit comfortably with the idea that the human race was composed
of entirely different species, each of separate origin. Moreover, the
enthusiasm of many southern naturalists for Darwin's most outspoken critic in
America, the Swiss savant Louis Agassiz, who argued for a range of racial centers of creation, had an important influence.
This is not to say that mono genists
were never implicated in racial politics. In the case of the Charleston
clergyman-naturalist John Bachman, a staunch adherence to the biblical unity of
the human race did nothing to dilute his belief in racial hierarchy. But the
willingness of the Charleston scientists to use natural history for racial
purposes discloses the relevance of regional politics to the encounter with
Darwinian theory. It was precisely because the racial
obsessions of the Old South had secured the antebellum benediction of science
that Darwin's account could now seem so threatening. Where southern opposition
to Darwin did most forcefully surface was in matters to do with human origins.
When Alexander Winchell lost his position at the University of Vanderbilt in
1878 over his suggestion that Adam had been preceded by pre-adamite
humans, it was the implication that those forebears might have been black that
contributed most to the furor. If that was where
evolution led, the South definitely did not want to follow.
In New Zealand, by contrast, racial politics
tended in a different direction. There Darwinism was espoused because it was
seen as justifying an ethnic struggle for life and as legitimizing the
settlers' routing of the Maori. Moreover, because religious ardor
rarely rose above the lukewarm, New Zealanders responded with remarkable
enthusiasm to Darwinism. The response of Canadians, in a context similarly
concerned with assembling an academic infrastructure, was rather slower. Here
the dogged digging for data-so strenuously underwritten by a flourishing Baconianism of Scottish derivation-together with
Protestant-Catholic politico-religious struggles, meant that little time was
left for theorizing of the Darwinian or any other variety. Besides this, the
harsh physical environment of the Canadian North remained what one writer
called "the single greatest fact" in the Canadian psyche. Endlessly
resistant to agricultural taming and a monumental obstacle to northward
settlement, it did a good deal to dampen nationalistic optimism at precisely
the time the Origin of Species made its appearance. In these conditions nature
seemed anything but a creative developmental force.
The vast expanses of a harsh, sparsely populated
environment influenced the reception of Darwinism in Russia in a rather
different way. Here Darwin's metaphor of a struggle for existence was resisted
by the leading members of the Russian scientific intelligentsia. The St.
Petersburg Society of Naturalists embraced versions of evolution that minimized
the role of competition; they remained deeply skeptical
of the Malthusian elements in the Darwinian scheme. In part this reflected the
country's political economy, largely composed of peasants and landowners and
lacking a market-driven middle class. In a political climate favoring cooperation, advocates of evolution aimed critical
commentary at Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and unnamed "European
Darwinists." Politically, they preferred versions of the theory in which
"mutual aid" dominated. But the physical environment also had a role
to play. A meager population and extreme climatic
severity did not fit at all well with Darwin's picture of teeming life-forms or
Wallace's lush tropical vegetation. Organisms in the Russian North were not
packed into tiny, tight ecological niches. For Russian evolutionists, the
Darwinian struggle just did not square with the Siberian land and climate; it
seemed a theory made in, and for, the tropics. In Russia, Darwinism could
survive,. only without
Malthus, for both ideological and environmental reasons.
The reception of Darwinism thus displayed an uneven regional geography. In some cases religious commitment was crucial. In others racial neuroses or political fixations controlled the diffusion of the Darwinian mind-set. In yet others the contingencies of local physical geography were directly relevant. Whatever the particulars, local circumstances were decisive in shaping how regional cultures encountered new theories. In the consumption of science, as in its production, a distinctive regionalism manifests itself.
To leave this short conversation on a more
humorous note I should point out that even map making was to have an effect on
regional identity. Scientific mapping provided a new means of collective
spatial knowing suited to the needs of the state. So by imposing national
standards of measurement, the map brought France into cultural circulation both
on parchment and in perception. But when Louis XIV was shown the results in
1682, he was shocked to learn that the coastline of France had
"shrunk" by more than a hundred miles in some places.
As for racism as such, Stephen Haynes examined the history of the American interpretation of Noah's curse and pointed out that a major flaw of many studies on racism going back to classical antiquity is the confusion between aesthetic preference and racial prejudice. Disparagement of black somatic features is not in and of itself racist. Only when a society's internal structures are discriminatory and its ideology justifies such discrimination can that society be considered racist. Otherwise we are merely looking at "ethnocentric reactions to black otherness and mere expressions of conformism to the dominant aesthetic values."
The difference between ethnocentrism and racism is "a self justifying concomitant of economic, political and cultural domination and exploitation." Without it the seeds of racial prejudice will not germinate and take root.
Also the colors black and white become in the early modern period
the conduit through which the English began to formulate the notions of
"self" and "other." It wasn't a
recognition of color difference, or even an
ethnocentric preference, that was new in sixteenth-century England.
It was the appropriation of
these differences to support a racial ideology. "Traditional terms of
aesthetic discrimination and Christian dogma become infused with ideas of
Africa and African servitude, serving as racial signifiers. The very word
"race," from the beginning of its use in the English language reflected a particular way of looking at and interpreting
human differences, both physical and cultural.
It was intricately linked with certain presuppositions of thought held by European colonists from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. During that period the word was transformed in the English language from a mere classificatory term of biophysical variation into a folk idea. This idea expressed certain attitudes toward human differences as well as prejudgments about the nature and social value of these differences.
Webmaster of World
News Research: Why was there no witch hunt in Islam?
Eric Vandenbroeck: This in spite of
the fact that Islamic culture is saturated with magic and with belief in devils
and evil spirits, and Muslim theology accepts the
power of sorcerers to do harm. And indeed, according to Islamic law, death
is the appropriate penalty for sorcery.
However, belief in satanism and in a widespread and dangerous network of agents of the Devil was early one, not developed in Islam. Instead a major factor is that Islam was content to condone the widespread practice of magic, in part because it posed no threat to Muslim political rule, and partly, too, because many of these practices are "embedded in" the Qur'an. And a second factor is that Muhammad provided individuals with the means to be entirely secure against all forms of magic and sorcery.
Muslims believe that by reciting the last
several sentences of the Qur'an following the five daily prayers, they
neutralize all evil forces. Finally, Islam failed to develop a satantic perspective for the same reason it failed to
develop science, Islamic theologians were not nearly so committed to reason and
rationality as their Christian counterparts later on.
Hence while Christian theologians could not settle for the observation that magic simply "worked," their Muslim counterparts could and did. That is the final and fatal irony about European witch-hunts. As we have seen before, they were in fact the result of 'reason and logic' but applied to a false premise.
Webmaster of World News Research: Also, why early on in the Middle East there were no fears of a Jewish conspiracy and domination as is the case now?
Vandenbroeck: For that we best go to the late nineteenth century, as the crisis of
the Ottoman Empire deepened, the tide of European anti Semitism began to wash
over. In addition to the now more widely distributed blood libel, a new theme
emerged, already richly developed in Europe.
Then came the 1930s, a time
of rising racialist fevers in Europe - and a time, too, of rising friction
between Zionist settlers in Palestine .
Nazi teachings found
receptive ears among Arabs facing what they regarded as a "British-Jewish"
plot to seize their territory.
A variety of political
parties and movements sprang up in countries across the region that emulated
the Nazi system and Nazi symbols, organizing themselves in strictly
hierarchical fashion and embracing the nationalist and anti-Semitic tenets of Hitlerism. They included the National Socialist Party in
Lebanon and Syria, the Futuwwa in Iraq, the Young
Egypt Society also known as the "Green Shirts," and the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt.
Webmaster of World News Research: And finally, having traveled widely,what differences between eastern and western culture have you noticed?
Eric Vandenbroeck: They derive in good part from perceptual differences, what is attended to, and in turn are driven by differences in social structure and practices.
China, Korea and Japan (the
countries I still regularly go) are developing out of a historical tradition of
thought in which holistic influences is emphasised, whilst logic was never
The Western tradition
(Europe and North America) ultimately developed out of the Aristotelian
formalization of logic in search of ultimate causes. Eastern students on the
other hand are more likely to make attributions based on context, are happier
with contradictions, seeking the "middle way" rather than rejecting
one of two contradictory positions and tend to
make classification judgements based on family resemblances rather than rules.
Thus our cultural
upbringing may also bootstrap our psychological abilities by providing us with
an epistemological framework which serves to predispose the interpretation of a
set of circumstances in one or other direction.
And a key functional
advantage of the "limited capacity" of consciousness is that it
provides a single interpretation of a visual scene, a quality that facilitates
fast and direct action. By reducing informational complexity, our cultural
upbringing would serve to facilitate direct action.
For example the process by which organisms discover the relation between
pairs of variables. Eastern students seem more inclined to detect co-variation,
and are more confident when doing so, than western students. Similarly, field
dependence, which reflects the ability to separate the object from its
surroundings, also varies across culture, with eastern students demonstrating
higher levels of field dependence than western students.
That cultural differences
may attenuate our tendency to separate the figure from the ground, might
suggests that we are dealing with fundamental differences in how objects are
distinguished and we have no reason to believe that these differences do not
correspond to differences in how our brains express the relevant stimulus.
This may shed light on a important aspect of information processing associated with
conscious awareness, the binding problem. The binding problem refers to the
attempt to understand the process by which the brain in some way binds
together, in a mutually coherent way, all those neurons actively responding to
a different aspect of a perceived object. It seems on the face of it that there
seem to be as many potential interpretations of a visual scene as there are
well formed sentences in a languages.
It is only experimentation, something for which there is currently an interest, which will determine whether the environmental and cultural influences experienced throughout ones development may have measurable consequences for the mechanisms through which conscious experience is expressed in the brain. But consciousness and other good tricks that our brains employ probably are an emergent property of the interaction between the workings of innately specified brain modules and the social system within which we exist.