24 April 2011


What is it?

 Nicolaus Copernicus, the “heretical” 16th-century astronomer who was buried in an unmarked grave nearly 500 years ago, was rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church this weekend as his remains were reburied in the Polish cathedral where he had once been a canon.

The ceremonial reburial of Copernicus in a tomb in the medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast is seen as a final sign of the Church’s repentance for its treatment of the scientist over his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, declared heretical by the Vatican in 1616.

"Heretical?"  Copernicus wasn't a "heretical" astronomer; he was a heretical astronomer.  The Pope being infallible, presumably when he declares something a heresy he means it.  Whatever god is speaking to the current Pope doesn't get to play "backsies" with the one who spoke to Paul V.

The Times doesn't note the year the Vatican finally proclaimed heliocentrism the truth: 1992. 

376 years later.

But no matter.

Hand-wringing over religious heresy (in Christendom anyway) has gone the way of the dodo.  Why dredge up this dreadful word?

Because a mystic in a silk robe is not needed to enforce doctrine on true believers.  It can be done quite well by bureaucrats.  Bureaucrats who have successfully strangled the last king with the entrails of the last priest, no less.

The culmination of the genetics controversy in the Soviet Union came at the 1948 session of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, when genetics as known in the rest of the world was prohibited. (Graham 218)

The proletariat had spoken.  This conference celebrated Lysenko, the Soviets' Darwin, whom you can read about here.

 At the moment the Party decision was announced, the entire conference arose to give an ovation in honor of Stalin. The participants sent the Soviet leader a letter of gratitude for his support of "progressive Michurinist biological science," the "most advanced agricultural science in the world."  (ibid)

During the Lysenkoism campaign, Michurin (after his death) was promoted as a Soviet leader in theory of evolution...his theory was a variant of Lamarckism…that is, the implication that acquired characteristics of an organism — for example, the state of being leafless as a result of having been plucked — could be inherited by that organism's descendants.

Fair enough.  And survival of the fittest?:

According to Lysenko, there is no intraspecies competition, that is, there is no class struggle between members of the same species. On the contrary, all members of the same species "help" each other: "There is not, and cannot be, a class society in any plant or animal species. Therefore, there is not, and cannot be, here class struggle, though it might be called, in biology, intraspecies competition." (Birnstein 48)

Edifying.  Anyway, back at the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1948,
Of the fifty-six speakers, only six or seven defended genetics as it was known elsewhere, and of these the most important were later forced publicly to recant.  (Graham 218)

Recant?  Absurd. Scandalous.  Why, this is a society that has gone through the looking glass.

But just a footnote to history, finally, since the Soviet Empire and all its Lamarckian boosterism melted into dust.  They saw the light.  Scientific 'thought crime' ceased to exist (outside Pyongyang anyway). 

Or did it.

Jason Malloy, Gene Expression:

     It's difficult to name many more important living figures in 20th century biology than James Watson.  He ushered in the current age of molecular biology with his achievements in 1953, he built up one of the world's greatest biological research facilities from damn near scratch, and he is a former head of the Human Genome Project.

Given such an august curriculum vitae, you would think that this man perhaps understands just a few things about genetics.

In his interview with the Times on Oct. 14th, we learned that:

... [Watson] is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."

These thoughts were a continuation of an important theme in his new book Avoid Boring People:

"... there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

     There's no point in rehashing the rapid sequence of events in detail: several of Watson's sold-out speaking engagements were cancelled, many critical articles appeared in the British press, trailed by the American press a few days later, [...] soon he was suspended from his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor.  Watson cancelled his already ruined book tour and flew home to tend to the destruction.
It was too late; the eminent biologist retired in disgrace on Oct. 26th.

Indeed.  Instructive, perhaps, to quote contemporary reaction to the 1948 Soviet Agricultural Sciences Academy Conference:

Julian Huxley was among those few Western biologists who understood that Lysenkoism was not a science but rather a party ideology: "A political party has imposed its own dogmatic view of what must be correct and incorrect, and so violated the essential spirit of science."
Another biologist, Robert Cook, even compared Lysenkoism to religious faith: "Lysenkoism ... is the only scientific discipline in existence today whose validity depends, not on experiment, but on certification as to purity and truth, in content and concept, by government fiat." (Birnstein 50)

Because as it turns out, neither a mystic in a silk robe nor a battalion of bureaucrats is necessary to enforce doctrine on true believers.  Our vaunted "free marketplace of ideas" can do it all by itself.

     The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers […] was buffeted by complaints about his leadership at an angry faculty meeting on Tuesday and could face a confidence vote next week.
Many professors at the Ivy League school were outraged by Dr Summers’s suggestion, at an academic seminar last month, that “innate differences” may be the reason why fewer women than men teach mathematics and science there.
"Many of your faculty are dismayed and alienated and demoralised. There is a legitimation crisis concerning your leadership and style of governance,” Arthur Kleinman, chairman of the anthropology department, told Dr Summers.
“I have heard several outstanding colleagues say it is time to leave Harvard. I don’t believe that, but I fear others do,” Professor Kleinman said. “I ask you then to think hard about how who you are as president has taken us to this dangerous moment.”

Less than a week later, he was gone.

The 1948 Soviet Conference was not the first of its kind.  In 1938 the Agricultural Sciences Academy had already expelled twenty-one members at its annual conference for "anti-Soviet" behavior.

People like Dmitrii Pryanishnikov, Pyotr Kapitsa, and Andrei Sakharov, who publicly raised their voices in defense of their arrested colleagues, were rare among the majority of compliant scientists who followed Party orders in exchange for their elite position in Soviet society.  (Birstein 45

Quite.  An elite position in society is nothing to be sniffed at.  They don't grow on trees.

If you think they do, read on.

The stubborn black-white IQ gap was already flummoxing us back in the eighties. Snyderman and Rothman in 1988 conducted a survey of social scientists and educationalists to see just how many thought IQ was at least partly heritable.  A whopping 94% agreed that it was.  However:

In their analysis of the survey results, Snyderman and Rothman state that the experts who described themselves as agreeing with the "controversial" partial-genetic views of Arthur Jensen did so only on the understanding that their identity would remain unknown in the published report. This was due, claim the authors, to fears of suffering the same kind of castigation experienced by Jensen for publicly expressing views on the correlation between race and intelligence which are privately held in the wider academic community.  [emphasis mine]

(Their eye-opening report can be partially consulted on Google Books.)

Ah yes, Arthur Jensen.  Preeminent heretic of our time.  The castigation he experienced is dwarfed by that of fellow cognitive researcher J. Philippe Rushton, whom Wiki helpfully informs us has been called a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and of course the medieval witchcraft accusation of our day, "racist."

"There will always be Rushtons in science," geneticist David Suzuki said, "and we must always be prepared to root them out!"


Pope Paul V himself would have surely approved.  His commission declared heliocentrism to be

"philosophically (i.e., scientifically) foolish and absurd, and is considered official heresy because it explicitly contradicts the meaning of Scripture in many places." 

"a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false."

A very dangerous thing.

Very dangerous.

Galileo, 1633:
"I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, […]
"With sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, [...] and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me."

"I have had my share of controversy, as many of you know. But I am mortified about what has happened. More importantly, I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have.
"To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

A very dangerous thing.

How dangerous?

We're not the Soviets.  We have a government by the people and for the people, which is why Arthur Jensen disseminates his heresy from an air-conditioned office in Berkeley and not a Terminal Island Federal Prison cell in San Pedro.

However.  You may know the country of origin of he who said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  You may not know that this country is slipping into an intellectual climate worthy of the ancien régime:

Brussels Journal, Jan. 15, 2011

     An article at François Desouche reviews the story of journalist Eric Zemmour's comments about race and crime, a media event from March 2010 that led to a trial for defamation and racial discrimination. The trial is now in session. The comment that may cost Zemmour some money, if not his personal freedom was:

"French immigrants are more closely monitored than others because most drug dealers are blacks or Arabs... It's a fact." 

According to SOS-Racism, Eric Zemmour's remarks tend to "assimilate the origins of people with criminality," a type of discrimination that carries a criminal sanction. Among the other plaintiffs are MRAP (Movement against Racism and for Friendship among Peoples), LICRA (International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism), UEJF (Union of Jewish Students of France) and J'accuse.

Eric Zemmour had been supported by the prosecutor (avocat général) of the Paris appeals court, Philippe Bilger, who in turn was summoned to explain himself to the Paris district attorney (procureur général) (...) 

I chose France un peu au hasard; having called it home for the last eight years it of course matters to me.  I could have easily chosen at random among any of the planet's Euro- and Euro-descended countries for such examples.

But Gates of Vienna has kindly compiled them for you. Why not go take a look?

If you are American, you live in one of the last bastions of truly free speech in the Euro-descended world.  You may lose your plum job at Harvard, but you won't be "summoned  to explain (yourself) to the Procureur Général…"  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Et enfin.  I said I wanted to talk policy, and I do.  But let's understand just where we stand.  In light of the above, I invite you to peruse the genial Steve Sailer's take on this profoundly disturbing article which perfectly embodies bad science birthing bad policy.  An EEOC lawyer, this month:

Another case we filed is a nationwide challenge to criminal arrest and conviction screens [on job applicants]. We challenged that as having a disparate impact against African-Americans and Latinos. That is still pending in Baltimore. […]  Another one was filed in Ohio and we're looking at the use of credit reports to screen out applicants. We allege it has a disparate impact against African-Americans.

And so on.

Steve's bemused take is here.

Mine will come later.

Heretics, thank you for reading.  It took 376 years to rehabilitate Copernicus.  Must it be so for James Watson?  It must not, and it will not.  But when that day comes, there will be a crying need for sane policy that does not leave the weakest to the wolves.  Society won't accept it.

Let's put our heads together and try to turn this madness into something constructive.

More soon.

Non-web references:
Birstein, Vadim J., The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science
Graham, Loren R., Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union


Nanonymous said...

Speaking of Neo-Lysenkoism, here is an oldie but goodie:

http://www.cpsimoes.net/artigos/art_davis.html (the original is here http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/200604071_issue_073_article_3.pdf ). Note the date, 1983. The author was, by the way, a microbiologist/biochemist/geneticist of high caliber.

M.G. Miles said...


When you hear, 'HBD is false, respected scientist Stephen Jay Gould says so,' this is the article to present. Not easy to cut through Gould's obfuscations, Davis does so exceedingly clearly.

He was also a prophet: "And such Neo- Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow."

Could he have imagined the fate that would befall James Watson 25 years after he wrote these words?

One point on which Gould was right to be worried: that IQ tests "invariably find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups--races, classes, or sexes--are innately inferior and deserve their status."

This is what people are truly scared about, and I don't blame them. "Humane" is the key word for any realistic public policy involving HBD.

Thank you, Nanonymous, I've added Davis's article to the blog's 'reading list' page.

Bruce Lewis said...

From The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed," and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

[Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 4, SubSection 1, Heading 3, 809-891]

In other words, the Church (for which the Pope speaks) is endowed by God with infallibility only in matters of faith and morality. The pope is just as prone to error in matters of science as anybody else.

M.G. Miles said...

Thank you for the clarification, Mr. Lewis, and your point is conceded.

I assert, however, that my larger point stands: The Church's numerous about-faces over the centuries have sapped her credibility. An admitted heretic was in fact condemning his own eternal soul to Hell; a more terrifying fate did not exist for Europeans of Galileo's time. You seem unperturbed that Popes are 'prone to error;' I seriously doubt the "scientific heretics" they condemned four centuries ago took such a cavalier view.