I’ve Been Used!

by Juliana Adelman

In theory, there is nothing more exciting for the academic than to find that her work has actually been read by someone and even, gasp, cited!  It is less exciting, however, to discover it being mustered in the cause of intelligent design.  Someone in cyberspace has seized upon an article of mine as evidence that evolution never happened.  Mind you my article does not have much at all to do with evolution or intelligent design.  Instead it is about the importance of personality, reputation and media exposure in the consolidation of scientific opinion.  Nonetheless, since I do mention Darwin one time it was doubtless this that brought the article to the reader’s googling.  I am not going to provide a link to the website, but if you are curious you can google ‘Eozoon’ and it will come up.

The fact that my article is being used by a pro-creationist lobby is slightly disturbing, although I have to admit that the lobbiest in question clearly read and understood the article and used my ideas in a rather subtle and clever attack on scientific authority.  While most historians of science are neither creationists nor relativists, recent historiographical trends have offered ample ammunition for these groups to seize upon.  Historical narratives depicting a heroic quest for scientific truth are now limited to popular science.  Instead, we tell stories of how one idea gathered support at the expense of others offering diverse nonscientific causes including social, political and cultural needs.

This puts us historians in a camp which might be uncomfortably adjacent to that of the proponents of intelligent design and other anti-scientific movements.  Of course we claim that it is historical objectivity that tells us to question scientists’ motives and definitions of ‘truth’.  I don’t doubt that the creationists believe they have truth on their side as well.

Historians generally like to claim some level of objectivity and avoid using their research to promote a particular social or political end  However, there are historians who are open about the ideological inspirations for their work.  One obvious example is the Marxist historical tradition led by figures like Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson.  As any of you who have studied historiography have probably been told, every historian is imbued with certain ideological biases that he or she may not even be aware of.  We, like the people we study, are creatures of our time and place.

Science, although overtly claiming to eschew social influences is no different.  And historians of science are also equally susceptible to the world around them.  My work, although it examines the nineteenth century, is informed and shaped to some degree by our current scientific concerns.  In particular, recent developments in genetics, medicine and neuroscience all seem to push for a scientifically-bounded concept of what a human is and how it works.  Scientists are not so limited as to see humans and society as a predetermined outcome of a set of chemical reactions, but the scientific explanation increasingly dominates.  I am worried about the limitations of these explanations and the consequences they may have for human society as a whole.  Therefore I acknowledge that I am inclined towards a critical perspective on science, which tends not to privilege scientists as arbiters of truth.  So in some way the intelligent designers have simply managed to read between the lines quite precisely.

Piece crossposted with Pue’s Occurences