27 November 2007

Expanding the Footnote: Inventing the Flat Earth

Expanding the Footnote

Was the myth of a flat earth promulgated by liberals seeking to ridicule religion?

Rob and Cyndy Shearer intimate that it was, although not quite in those words. See the quote from their Homeschool World article in Footnote to “Columbus and the Flat Earth.” Jeffrey Burton Russell is more explicit:

…the falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history. This vast web of falsehood was invented and propagated by the influential historian John Draper (1811-1882) and many prestigious followers, such as Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the president of Cornell University, who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day. A lively current version of the lie can be found in Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers, found in any bookshop or library.
The Myth of the Flat Earth Summary
Russell continues by offering the explanation that Christian opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution motivated perpetrators of the falsehood:

The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: "Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?"
The Myth of the Flat Earth Summary

Serendipity and Columbus

Umberto Eco repeats Russell’s claim, but first mentions controversy regarding the heliocentric hypothesis. The Church opposed Copernicus before Christians objected to Darwin. This conflict, too, may have been exaggerated, but Eco does not go into that. With respect to the shape of the earth, Eco discusses the fourth century Byzantine geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes, about whom Russell devotes a fair portion of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (1991). Eco cites other texts that dwell on Cosmas at some length, pointing out “the text of Cosmas, … was revealed to the Western world only in 1706, … No medieval author knew Cosmas, and his text was considered an authority of the ‘Dark Ages’ only after its English publication in 1897” (Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, 5).

Eco continues with a catalog of scholars including Ptolemy, Augustine, Dante, Thomas Aquinas and others that all knew the earth was round. His discussion leads up to the paragraph that expresses the heart of Serendipities: Language and Lunacy:

So what was the big argument all about in the time of Columbus? The sages of Salamanca had, in fact made calculations more precise than his, and they held that the earth, while assuredly round, was far more vast than the Genoese navigator believed, and therefore it was mad for him to attempt to circumnavigate it in order to reach the Orient by way of the Occident. Columbus, on the contrary, burning with a sacred fire, good navigator but bad astronomer, thought the earth smaller than it was. Naturally neither he nor the learned men of Salamanca suspected that between Europe and Asia there lay another continent. And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right—thanks to serendipity.
Eco, Serendipities, 6-7.

Correcting Error

The Shearers show evidence that they might have read Russell’s text, although they do not cite it. Their narrative of the facts highlights points made by Russell and others: understanding the earth to be a sphere has a long lineage; Columbus erroneously estimated of the size of the earth; and the main elements of the myth of the dispute at Salamanca was concocted by Washington Irving in his historical fiction, The Voyages of Christopher Columbus. They refer their readers to Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942) and the hagiography, George Grant’s The Last Crusader: The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus (1992).

The Shearer’s article begins with a composite of “howlers”—their term—that they have encountered over the years. Their composite is focused almost exclusively on the flat earth myth. James Loewen offers a more detailed composite in his detailed study of twelve representative textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). I’ll quote only a portion of his collective textbook mythistory:

His adventures convinced him that the earth must be round and that the fabled riches of the East—spices and gold—could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland routes, which the Turks had closed off to commerce. … After an arduous journey of more than two months, during which his mutinous crew almost threw him overboard, Columbus discovered the West Indies on October 12, 1492.
Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 44.

Loewen examines the errors of fact and of emphasis in extensive detail through his chapter, “1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus.” Textbooks, he argues, miss or deemphasize “advances in military technology,” “new forms of social technology,” “the pursuit of wealth,” a “proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest,” and recent successes “exploiting various island societies” facilitated by disease (33-35). Loewen’s key point: “The way American history textbooks treat Columbus reinforces the tendency not to think about the process of domination” (35).

Loewen suggests, “American culture has perpetuated the idea that Columbus was boldly forging ahead while everyone else, even his own crew, imagined the world was flat” (45). But he notes, of the twelve textbooks he studied, only The American Pageant (1991) “repeats this hoax” (46). On the other hand, it is also the only one of the twelve that mentions disease as a factor in the conquest.

The American Pageant has a new edition since the publication of Loewen’s book, as do many of the others. My son finds it dull, and his high school history teacher doesn’t like it either. Nevertheless, the 2002 edition no longer repeats the flat earth hoax, or at least modifies it slightly: “His superstitious sailors, fearful of venturing into the oceanic unknown, grew increasingly mutinous” (The American Pageant, 14).

Probably the only text that today’s high school students are reading that appears to perpetuate the myth is the troubling sentence in Schweikart and Allen, “But knowing intellectually that the earth is round and demonstrating it physically are two different things” (A Patriot’s History, 4). Of course, high school teachers are another matter, as are those teaching lower grades. It would require extensive time consuming investigation to survey myths that teachers might perpetrate or correct.

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen list three principal sources for their narrative of Columbus, two tertiary sources, and one primary source. They list Oliver Perry Chitwood, A History of Colonial America, 3rd edition (1961)—the first edition dates from 1931; and Esmond Wright, The Search for Liberty: From Origins to Independence (1995). Wright’s book is cited several times throughout their first chapter. Facts carried forward from these tertiary sources are augmented by a few quotes lifted from a key primary source, The Journal of Christopher Columbus, trans. by Cecil Jane (1960).

Science and Religion

By his own account Columbus was a devout Christian. Legions of historical narratives since his death only rarely have questioned this devotion, and then most often by emphasizing his quest for wealth. Likewise, the sages of Salamanca were devout men concerned with orthodox Christianity and, presumably, the wealth of the Spanish Crown. Their dispute, such as it was, was not one of secular knowledge against religious knowledge; it was not one of medieval knowledge versus modern knowledge. It was a dispute regarding the size of the earth.

Accounts of this dispute rarely appear in school textbooks; nor does an account appear in A Patriot’s History. On the other hand, my representative “liberal artifact” from my own hand highlights this dispute, as does A People’s History.

We might ask who is best served by the creation of hostility between modern science (whether Copernican heliocentrism, Columbian geography, or Darwinian evolution) and biblical religion. John William Draper (1811-1882) had his reasons for fomenting this conflict. He was almost entirely ignored as he spent an hour reading his paper, “The Intellectual Development of Europe Considered with Reference to the Views of Mr Darwin” at Oxford in 1860. The crowd had gathered for the anticipated showdown between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, which occurred after Draper sat down. Wilberforce’s speech, Huxley’s reply, and their subsequent exchange have become the stuff of legend.

The exact words, either of Wilberforce or Huxley, are now uncertain. Their effect is not. One lady fainted. The undergraduates cheered. Most of the audience applauded. To reply in such a vein to a Bishop, especially in his own diocese, was rare indeed. The Bishop himself sensed that Huxley had won the day and did not rise again.
Vernon Blackmore and Andrew Page, Evolution: The Great Debate (1989), 103.

Of course, Draper went on to write History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). His views were augmented by Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Russell mentions these two in his summary, and Eco disputes some of White’s analysis in Serendipities. The intellectual history of this myth, and its historiography, are the themes of Russell’s work. Of the two core American history texts that are my central concern here, Zinn’s A People’s History, published more than a decade prior to Russell’s text, better reflects its findings than Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History, published more than a decade after Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.

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