Science as Religion

This may meander a bit but there is a point. This post was provoked in response to a Letter from the Society for American Archaeology and a recent article in The Smithsonian Magazine. I will return to those later. This post is dedicated to the memory of Marija Gimbutas who was a Lithuanian archaeologist who back in the 1950’s believed the ancient Europeans and their indo-european languages had migrated from the Eurasian Steppes to Europe. DNA evidence has proven her theory to be true even though it was largely discredited at the time.

A standing stone–looking like hands in prayer
at Callanish, Scotland

Background

I am the child of parents who adored science. My father was an electrical engineer assigned to the nuclear chemistry division of the Lawrence Radiation Lab of the University of California, at Berkeley. He built the equipment that allowed scientists to do what they wanted to do. He worked with the team on the discovery of Element 102 (Nobelium), on monitoring radon in groundwater to see if it might predict earthquakes (it didn’t), on analysis of the purported Sir Francis Drake’s Plate of Brass (it was a forgery) and on the analysis of dating ancient pottery shards. My mother was originally majoried at Berkeley in Architecture, took a leave of absence and returned twenty years later to get her degree in Physical Anthropology. At the time DNA was just beginning to be used in Anthropological inquiries. I tell you this not to impress, but to assure you I am no stranger to scientific inquiry. I also have a son who is a scientist. So although I myself ended up in the social sciences, I am not stranger to the scientific method and logic.

The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.

Alfred Whitehead

One of the most wonderful parts of my education, as a re-entry student, was a class I took from the noted Civil Rights leader, Mario Savio, famous for his “Bodies Upon the Gears” address given at Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley on December 2, 1964. Mario was a Physics teacher at Sonoma State University, and I came to know him through a seminar he led called “Science and Poetry.” As we learned in his class, there was a time when these disciplines were not separate. The way we humans described the world to ourselves was infused with the poetry and spirituality, that for many, still gives life meaning. Mario was one of the gentlest people I have ever met, but also one of the most passionate. I bring this up because he was a person who could straddle the chasm between Science and Art. I loved that class, and Mario, because he made it okay to draw on both hemispheres of our brain. To not chop up the world into rational scientific inquiry on one side and intuition and art on the other.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Albert Einstein

Orthodoxy

If you know me or have read me for any length of time you will find I bristle at ultimatums and rules. I eschew many organizations and even certifications because the elitism, group think and politics of such groups I find can be bothersome. I know these organizations do much good and are often quite helpful—however they can also be very parochial, elitist, and expect a certain adherence to their brand of orthodoxy. And frankly I just can’t abide that, whether it is in genealogy, genetic genealogy or related fields of anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, astronomy etc. Much of the progress in the world has been accomplished by those “thinking outside the box.” Those that dared to explore other reasons for things being they way they appear to be. And here is the kicker, the scientific method is “supposed” to be an empirical method for acquiring knowledge that involves careful observation, rigorous skepticism, a hypothesis or conjecture seeking to explain what is observed and then constant testing and revision of said hypothesis. But that is not what happens in fact. Whenever someone comes up with a completely different explanation they are often attacked and disparaged. The level to which this happens varies greatly depending on the specifics. There is also the politics and the competitiveness that enters the mix—that is frankly the antithesis of good science. Although not the subject per se of these three books, the reactions to them by the scientific community and the stories they tell, illustrate my point.

  • Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo
  • Who we Are and How We Got There by David Reich
  • Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson

So what got me to write this post was a Letter by the Society of American Archaeology to Netflix about a TV series called Ancient Apocalypse hosted by Graham Hancock. In the series Mr Hancock explores ancient civilizations around the globe and posits many questions and alternative theories than posited by main stream archaeology and he points out the unwelcome reception his ideas have garnered. And while I am not writing to discuss the merits of his program or his theories I did find the series intriguing and came away with a very different impression then the authors of the letter to Netflix. Quoting the letter “This series publicly disparages archaeologists and devalues the archaeological profession on the basis of false claims and disinformation.” When I read that my first thought was: “methink thou does protest too much.” It goes on to make claims that I as a viewer simply did not feel justified, including the claim that “the theory it presents has a long-standing association with racist, white supremacist ideologies; does injustice to Indigenous peoples; and emboldens extremists.” Well I did not come away with that at all— And my feelings on the subject has always been that cultures that have been deemed as “primitive” are seldom so—but viewed that way because historians, archaeologists etc find it “easier” to explain in the absence of recordings of their oral history (rather than written) and building in transitory materials (wood vs stone) then it is easier to call them primitives. This never makes sense to me. Vast complex civilizations just don’t rise out of nothing. I do not believe they “need” a white superior culture to have educated them (even if that is what Graham believes). And in my limited experience almost all human endeavours, build on earlier ones. Just because we lack evidence does not mean that they did not exist. I expect years from now more will come to light. I can separate someones theories about what they think may have happened from the evidence we have in hand. I also think evidence is often misinterpreted.

In the excellent book by Lisa Brooks: My Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War she draws on a different interpretation of the historical record in early new England referring directly to the original documents and she draws out a much more complex narrative of the clash of cultures between the indigenous people of New England and the European Colonists. And that book struck me very clearly that in making assumptions about what we don’t understand we so clearly miss the mark. Savages and barbarians are people who do not share our culture. The dominant culture sees what it wants to see, which is precisely my concern for orthodoxy in scientific endeavours.

In my last couple of blog posts you may have read about the Roman settlement of Lugdunum (Lyon, France) built upon the earlier Celtic Hillfort. Or the Cathedral of York built on the earlier Roman Basilica which I would venture to guess may have been at the site of a Celtic shrine or sacred place. Traditions matter and they are often subsumed into the dominant culture or religion of the invaders or victors. It doesn’t much matter to me whether the scientific evidence exists yet, I basically understand most of what humans do has some logic or sense to it. Sometimes difficult for us thousands of years later to decipher, but for me it needs to make sense. So if someone makes educated guesses about Stonehenge or the Serpent Mound in Ohio I think that’s absolutely fair game. And I think scientific orthodoxy cuts off their noses to spite their faces in dismissively being unwilling to entertain such ideas. It’s for that same reason it never made sense to me, that Homo sapiens (modern man) was alleged to never have mated with Homo neanderthalensis. Due to the work of Svante Pääbo and associates we know that they did and those with Northern European ancestry carry that Neanderthal DNA. Some of my genealogical discoveries and even some genetic ones have been based on hunches on intuition. They are not always right—but they often lead to unexpected discoveries. Being open to that is what I advocate.

I do not wish science to become ungrounded in evidence, far from it. But I am equally concerned that scientific orthodoxy rejects out of hand that which doesn’t “fit” into their current theories. So I was delighted today to see the article in Smithsonian Magazine: Document Detectives Use Smudges and Bloodstains to Investigate the Past Proteins left behind on historic artifacts are revealing centuries-old secrets. In the article Pier Giorgio Righetti, an Italian chemist, describes the response to his work with Gleb Zilberstein, formerly of the Soviet Union, as a “a barrage of criticism” questioning their techniques, their conclusions, their legitimacy. How many times do we have to see this to not get that the dominant culture and prevailing views are unsettled by anyone or thing that questions their “authority” or suggests a new way of doing things? I personally did not feel that Graham Hancock was disparaging archaeology, far from it; he was however protesting the treatment of his ideas by archaeologists. Whether he is crackpot or genius or something in between is not the point for me—it is whether the scientific orthodoxy is so keen on maintaining submission within its ranks, that it becomes itself a sort of religion and shuts down other points of view. I found his series interesting even when I didn’t agree with his conclusions.

Dissension

I read broadly and I like cross disciplinary approaches to complex problems. I am not threatened by the most outlandish theories or the most benign ones. I tend to find myself agreeing with authors and scientists that posit explanations which are consistent with what I know about how people behave. Past peoples —and many of them so called savages or barbarians acted in ways that were consistent with their culture and understanding of the natural world. They were often keen observers of the natural world and this may have led to elaborate attempts to pay homage to it and the gods that they engendered. Predicting when the summer solstice would arrive and marking that in a temple or stone circle seems a completely reasonable thing for humans to pursue. It demands a very close attention to the natural world, detail and history which belies the “primitive” tag so often given to early peoples. Similarly accusing people outside of the orthodoxy as unscientific and not credible seems more self serving than saving us from charlatans.

Rollright Stones near Long Compton, England with Druid sculpture in background

DNA and new discoveries are doing an excellent job of overturning many a sacred cow. Perhaps scientific visionaries that see a thing before the proof exists deserve their due. Perhaps it is my inherited penchant to root for the underdog and celebrate the discoveries of those who dared to be different that allows me to be generous with finding value in some of the more controversial books or theories. I purchased a few years ago, a book by Graham Robb: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. And while some of the theories he posits are unconventional and I remain skeptical, the book itself is a fascinating read with incredible detail and information. One reviewer writes “A work of colossal ignorance and pseudo-academic arrogance” and yet another writes “Put aside suspicions of grand conspiracies and dare to enter the web Robb weaves here. It is an intellectual journey well worth the effort…” And I have to say it is a book I return to again and again for its wonderful maps and history. It is not necessary for me to agree with all the authors conclusions to find value in it. So perhaps this is a very long winded way of saying that science is better when infused with art and intuition. For you who must stay inside the lines and never question authority—sorry to have wasted your time. But those of you who know exactly what I am saying and finding yourself nodding in agreement—know we are not alone. And as long as I am going to open myself up to criticism I might as well mention that intuition is often the providence of women and disparaged by the patriarchy. I don’t think this is an accident.

Addendum I wrote on Mastodon:

I do not understand why some in the scientific community, are almost relgious zealots when it comes to defending their scared cows. A professional or amateur can be wrong about 9 things & right about one. And that one thing can be the key to unlocking universes. Discrediting All of someone’s work (or worse yet personal attacks) in a dismissive, arrogant way is antithetical to the scientific method but sadly you see this as the standard by which so much science is practiced.

Kelly Wheaton ©2022 All Rights Reserved.

2 Comments on “Science as Religion”

  1. an excellent recent book is “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” which covers recent advances in understanding early civilizations and the sometimes distorted& teleological view of history. from amazon “Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.”

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