Category Archives: History of Science
Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.
For months, as I described elsewhere earlier, Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H. Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place. This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.
The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings. As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process. A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.
A request for comments on this report drew over 200 submissions. Despite earlier commitments, the Provost refused to publish these, alleging confidentiality, and instead a summary was prepared by two outside facilitators from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, neither of them biologists nor historians. As might be predicted, this summary was obviously bad, suppressing all quantitative information about the general thrust of the submissions and giving equal weight to views that did, or did not, reflect historical reality. This summary was then made available to the President’s Board, a group of senior advisers to the President, with whom the final decision rested. Board members also had access to the full submissions, but as we now know these add up to around 90,000 words, and one wonders how many people at such a level of seniority could possibly have found time to read them all.
Fortunately, loud voices had been raised in protest both inside and outside Imperial, the tenor of a forum held to discuss the History Group report was unmistakable, and I know that at least some Board members were directly lobbied by academic staff opposed to the removal proposals. It may also be relevant that the President, a firm advocate of removal, is now in the last few months of her term of office, and has been further weakened by other controversies.
The board met on February 21, and an official account of its conclusions was published on February 25. According to this account, its main recommendations were as follows:
The Board committed to finding new ways to mark the impact and contributions of brilliant figures from underrepresented groups, having connections to Imperial, such as the Nobel Prize physicist Professor Abdus Salam , Dr Margaret Fishenden, who conducted seminal studies of combustion and heat transfer at Imperial , and Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the father of fibre optics. This recommendation had met with widespread approval.
A working group has been established to implement these recommendations, and “To establish new ways for the Imperial community to continue to expose, engage with and learn from its history.”
The name and bust of TH Huxley will be retained, but put in context. This makes sense, provided the contextualising material comes from someone well informed about its subject matter. The submission to the History Group by Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s most noted biographer, would be a good start. The College will also consider a joint name for the building, linking Huxley to “a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.”2 Here the working group faces a daunting challenge. There are very few scientists of any background whose names could be linked to Huxley’s without suffering by comparison, let alone if consideration is restricted to the underrepresented.
Similar recommendations made regarding commemoration of the Beit brothers, whose profits from mines in South Africa did much to finance the College, seem to me sensible although I have no expertise in this area. Specifically, the College will seek to direct its Beit scholarships to African scientists. Other de-naming recommendations seem to have been quietly dropped.
The Board also decided to release an anonymised version of the written submissions. This has the effect of showing the degree of distortion in the previously publicised summary. For example, the summary says that “Some participants felt such items [statues, busts, and historical artifacts] should be removed when possible as they are a daily reminder of enslavement and colonial legacy and not a reflection of the College current values.” In the full version, slavery (or slave, enslavement, etc.) is explicitly mentioned in 45 submissions. Two of these deal with a side-issue, the slave owner Sir Henry de la Beche. (Here the first version of the report was criticised for being too kind, but the matter had by then already been dealt with with at the Department level by removing his name from an award, renaming the geology society, and archiving his bust ) . Of the remaining 43, only 5 favour removing existing names or statues, 2 are ambiguous, and 36 are opposed to removal. 26 mention Huxley by name and all but twoof these oppose removal, with frequent mention of his enlightened attitudes and opposition to slavery. (It took me less than half an hour to establish all this, using simple word searching to scan the relevant submissions, which were generally quite unambiguous.)
Again, according to the summary,
Other [respondents] said they felt unwelcomed and rejected by Huxley’s links to eugenics, leading to feelings of marginalisation, disrespect, hurt and offence. Some that marking his legacy without this context had a negative effect on Imperial’s aspirations to equality and inclusion and its global standing.
This is flat out untrue.
By my count, 20 separate submissions mentioned eugenics. Of these, only one was in favour of renaming. 19 were opposed, and of these 18 mentioned Huxley by name, many pointing out that nothing in his writings could be said to support eugenics. As one respondent put it, capturing the general flavour of the responses, “taking down Huxley because his work contributed to eugenics is about as logical as cancelling Jesus because his name has been used to justify crusades.” Others also pointed out that to link Huxley to eugenics is unhistorical, since we can date the very term to Galton’s writing in 1883, some years after the work for which Huxley is chiefly remembered. (I would further add, since such charges are often raised by creationists against evolution science as a whole, that eugenics was deeply rooted in older beliefs2 about hereditary inferiority.
So how did the summary come to say what it did? Its authors, remember, were from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, with no expertise either in history or in the relevant science. I must presume that, as non-experts, they wrongly imagined that the History Group spoke from a position of expertise, and allowed their perspective to be influenced accordingly. I emphasise this point because it helps explain the very real harm that this process has done to the College, and to the reputation of science in general.
Consider the History Group’s overall impact. To quote its own report,
The Group’s project was set up as part of a series of initiatives to address racial injustice. An important rationale for the project was to develop an understanding of how Imperial is perceived by a wide range of stakeholders, how this is influenced by its history (or perception of its history) and the extent to which this perception will hinder our ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home.
How well has the History Group succeeded in attaining these objectives? Not very. The recommendation to dis-honour Huxley achieved the rare distinction of being attacked both by the strongly Conservative Telegraph and the left-leaning Observer, sister paper to the Guardian. The Telegraph printed and re-echoed the letter of protest by 40 academics that the journal Nature had refused to publish. In the Observer , Kenan Malik, who himself studied at Imperial and is, for what it is worth, himself a member of a minority ethnic group, criticised the entire notion that real inequalities were being usefully addressed by such symbolic actions, while pouring scorn on a process that treated Huxley, an agent of scientific and social progress, in the same way as the slave trader Colston whose statue had been thrown into Bristol Harbour (or, I would add in the context of Imperial, the slave owner de la Beche discussed above). As Malik puts it,
Damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment.
The Times also gave sympathetic treatment to criticism of the history group report from within Imperial.
By the time the College’s decision was announced, Russia had invaded Ukraine, moving public attention away from this, as with so many other matters. The only newspaper accounts of the decision that I could find were in the Daily Mail online and, again, the Times.
Ethnic minority scientist’s name will be added to Imperial College building named in honour of Thomas Henry Huxley after claims that biologist who discovered birds were descended from dinosaurs was racist
Its bulleted summary states that the History Group had accused Huxley of ‘scientific racism’, while the full article reports academics’ rebuttal and praise of him as a role model.
The Times article, however, is extraordinary, not only restating the refuted claim that Huxley’s work had somehow led to eugenics, but describing him as a eugenicist himself.
Notice that this article appeared under the byline, not of a reporter, but of the Social Affairs editor. I can only surmise that it is playing a role in some wider agenda.
So, returning to the history group’s objectives, how will all this activity have affected “how Imperial is perceived” and the worthy “ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home”? Not, I fear, very well. The College has given us a shameful exhibition of poor scholarship, and besmeared the reputation of its founder. It created a false impression of impartiality and expertise in the setting up and naming of the History Group, thus enhancing the opprobrium it will attract from some for ignoring its recommendations. For those who, like the vast majority of historians, life science scholars, and respondents to the call for submissions, the accusations against Huxley were ill-informed and misguided, the exercise will leave them dismayed by the History Group’s recommendedations. For those, if there are any, who do really feel excluded and less able to flourish because of Huxley’s belief, in 1865, in a hierarchy of races, they will be dismayed that the Group’s central recommendation was not implemented, and will be feeling more excluded than ever. Who can blame them when the report itself and its Press coverage have given them so much cause?
One final irony. Within the UK at least, the biggest single cause of imbalances of power and education between groups is social class. Imperial itself is well aware of this problem, and includes this factor among others in its ambitious plans to widen access. What better role model, then, than a child forced by family poverty to leave school at age 10, who rose to the highest levels of accomplishment, whose scientific achievements continue to earn our admiration 150 years later, and who did more perhaps than any other person of his time to broaden educational opportunity? I give you
Thomas Henry Huxley
This article first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, as an update of my earlier Intellectual Disgrace at Imperial College. As before, I thank numerous colleagues for discussions and relevant information, including Joe Felsenstein, Steve Hollenhorst, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, Betty Smokovitis, and members of Imperial’s academic staff. RCS Building image, Barabbas1312, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Huxley, photograph George P. Landau, via https://victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/agnos.html . Huxley sketch by his daughter, Marian, via Wikipedia
1] To be fair, there was some overlap with the other main target for reconsideration, the Beit brothers, major donors towards the College, whose wealth derived from South African mines. Imperial College has no history department at such, but the academic staff member best qualified to pronounce on historical matters was also relegated to a consultative role.
2] Pet peeve: I wish people would not say “minority” when they clearly mean “underrepresented”. Albert Einstein came from a minority ethnic background, and as a result had to flee his country of birth, but I do not think that is what the College has in mind.
Western Washington University, a well-respected publicly funded university in Bellingham, WA, is conducting a review of the naming of its buildings, in the course of which demands were expressed for the renaming of the [TH] Huxley College of the Environment, and as a result the University’s Legacy Review Task Force has invited comment. Background information including links to solicited academic comment is available at https://president.wwu.edu/research-and-resources.
My own initial reaction was outrage, but closer examination convinced me that serious engagement is a more appropriate response, given aspects of Huxley’s legacy of which I was not aware. There is no doubt, however, that the movement to rename is seriously misguided, and can be traced back to the long-standing creationist tradition of pretending that evolution science is responsible for racism. The attack on Huxley, as spelt out in a submission by one member of the Task Force (Why is TH Huxley Problematic?) has therefore evoked a detailed rebuttal by Glenn Branch of the [US] National Center for Science Education.
With the encouragement of a WWU faculty member, I have drafted the following letter, for which I invite signatures. If you wish to add your name, and especially if you have some academic, educational, or related standing, and please let me know, either by comment here or by email to me at psbratermanATyahooDOTcom, giving me your name, and position(s) held. I will then include you among the signatories when I forward the letter to Paul Dunn email@example.com – President’s Chief of Staff and Chair of the Task Force, with copy to Sabah Randhawa firstname.lastname@example.org – President of the University. Alternatively, you may wish to write to them directly as an individual.
We welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renaming of Huxley College of the Environment.
We are used to making allowances for people of the past, on the grounds that their behavior was conditioned by their time and place. For example, your own University, and the State that it serves, are named after a slave-owner. But Huxley, his detractors may be surprised to hear, requires no such forgiveness. Like most Englishmen, and most scientists, of his time, he believed in the racial superiority of Europeans, and this misguided perspective affected his anthropological studies. It did not, however, affect his progressive social outlook, and as the evidence submitted to the Task Force shows, he was deeply opposed to slavery and to all forms of unequal treatment and discrimination, argued in favor of equal treatment for women and against Spenserian “Social Darwinism”, and campaigned vigorously on behalf of Abolition during the American Civil War.
The attack on Huxley has deep roots, and is part of a wider creationist strategy to discredit evolution science. For this reason, the case has attracted attention from as far away as Scotland and New Zealand. The creationist connection accounts for the presence, among critics of Huxley cited in support of renaming, of the creationist Discovery Institute, and of Jerry Bergman, associated with Creation Ministries International, among other suspect sources. Ironically in this context, Bergman once wrote for support to the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
However, despite these tainted connections, current discussion of renaming at Western Washington is part of a praiseworthy worldwide process of re-evaluation, and student involvement in this is to be commended. It may therefore be helpful to display prominently in the Huxley Building a brief summary of his achievements, including his campaigning against slavery, and on behalf of equal treatment for women, in which he was far ahead of his time.
20th-Century creationism and racism
(re-post from 3 Quarks Daily): Henry Morris, founding father of modern Young Earth creationism, wrote in 1977 that the Hamitic races (including red, yellow, and black) were destined by their nature to be servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Noah was inspired when he prophesied this (Genesis 9:25-27) . The descendants of Shem are characterised by an inherited religious zeal, those of Japheth by mental acumen, while those of Ham are limited by the “peculiarly concrete and materialistic thought-structure inherent in Hamitic peoples,” which even affects their language structures. These innate differences explain the success of the European and Middle Eastern empires, as well as African servitude.
All this is spelt out in Morris’s 1977 book, The Beginning of the World, most recently reprinted in 2005 (in Morris’s lifetime, and presumably with his approval), and available from Amazon as a paperback or on Kindle.
Morris is no fringe figure. On the contrary, he, more than any other individual, was responsible for the 20th-century invention of Young Earth “creation science”. He was co-author of The Genesis Flood, which regards Noah’s flood as responsible for sediments worldwide, and founded the Institute of Creation Research (of which Answers in Genesis is a later offshoot) in 1972, serving as its President, and then President Emeritus, until his death in 2006. Read the rest of this entry
This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.
I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.
Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?
Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.
In the run-up to the case, we even have the…
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This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.
There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.
Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.
The debate took place at the May 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual exchange is whitewashed out of the account of the meeting in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, leading some historians to wonder whether it really occurred, but a recently rediscovered contemporary account places the matter beyond doubt. What I find even more interesting, however, is the way in which argument and counter-argument between Wilberforce and Huxley, and between other supporters and opponents of the concept of evolution, prefigure arguments still being used today.
Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified
Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge
Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:
Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]
Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:
The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]
Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:
Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.
If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1
Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.
And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry
Catastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.
McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.
This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.
THE GEOLOGY OF GENESIS FOR TODAY
One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition. https://www.dayone.co.uk/products/genesis-for-today
Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.
In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions. I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.
Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.
From the whole of his book, other writings and…
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I just came across this piece by John Gribbin, interesting for many reasons.
Glasgow University started awarding degrees to women in 1892; contrast Cambridge University’s 1948.
Auguste Comte, 1835: “We will never be able to determine the chemical composition of the stars”.
1802, Wollaston observes Fraunhofer lines
1814, Fraunhofer independently observes Fraunhofer lines. Perhaps a reader can tell me why they are named after Fraunhofer, not Wollaston
1859, Kirchhoff (of circuit laws fame) and, independently, Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) match Fraunhofer lines to atomic spectra, infer chemical composition of stars
1868, Lockyer correctly identifies third solar Fraunhofer line in “sodium yellow” region as due to a new element, names it “helium”
1892, Glasgow University starts awarding degrees to women
~1923 (see below), Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposhkin) completes studies at Cambridge, but cannot formally graduate because she is a woman
1925, Cecilia Payne gains Ph.D. from Radcliffe; unravels highly complex (see below) Fraunhofer lines of stars; shows that, contrary to all then current expectation, stellar composition is dominated by hydrogen and helium
1948, Cambridge University starts awarding degrees to women
Posting this in response to a question I was asked. It is essentially an extract from my book 13.8
Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge (the only way she could have afforded a university education) in 1919. She studied botany, physics and chemistry, but also attended a talk by Arthur Eddington about the eclipse expedition on which he had famously “proved Einstein right” by measuring the way light from distant stars was bent by the Sun. This fired her interest in astronomy, and she visited the university’s observatory on an open night, plying the staff with so many questions that Eddington took an interest, and offered her the run of the observatory library, where she read about the latest developments in the astronomical journals.
After completing her studies (as a woman, she was allowed to complete a degree course, but could not be awarded a degree; Cambridge…
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Archaeologists are puzzled by the significance of a cuneiform tablet dating to around 1400 BCE, recently discovered during excavations in Sumeria. A tentative translation, still controversial, is as follows:
“From Moses, General Secretary of the Brickmakers Union, Land of Goshen, greetings.
From my measurements of the sedimentology of the Nile Delta, I estimate that the river has been depositing sediment there for many tens of thousands of years. Concerning the origin of mankind, I am now convinced that we, the jabbering creatures of West Africa, and the knuckle-walking giants who live beyond Numidia are different species of the same family.
However, You-Know-Who has told me to come up with a simplified version of the story, which my members will be more capable of understanding.
I wonder if there is anything suitable among your own traditional mythologies. In particular, since the Internet has not yet been invented, can you send me by camel post a preprint of Enuma Elish. And if possible, an advance copy of your pending publication, The Flood of Gilgamesh. Read the rest of this entry