Science, race, religion, witch hunts, and the difference between east and west: Interview With Eric Vandenbroeck

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Science, race, religion, witch hunts, and the difference between east and west: Interview With Eric Vandenbroeck

Science, race, religion, witch hunts, and the difference between east and west: Interview With Eric Vandenbroeck

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 a 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.

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.

Also, why early on in the Middle East there were no fears of a Jewish conspiracy and domination as is the case now?

Eric 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.

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 formalized.

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.

The difference between western and eastern culture can also be seen by looking at the role of elders. In eastern cultures, elders are the leaders in the home, so children do what the elders say without questioning them. Any important decisions to do with a child are generally made by an elder. When parents grow old, children are often the ones who take on the responsibility for caring for them. Often in western cultures, an elderly person’s welfare becomes the responsibility of the state in collaboration with children or other close relatives. 

Arranged marriages commonly take place in eastern cultures. They are usually arranged by a couple’s parents or another elder. They believe that love follows marriage, not the other way round.

This may shed light on an 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 language.

It is only experimentation, something for which there is currently an interest, which will determine whether the environmental and cultural influences experienced throughout one’s 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.

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