Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
There is a story, often told about the philosopher William James:
One day when the philosopher William James, who had a liking for scientific popularization, had just finished explaining in a small American town how the earth revolved around the sun, he saw, according to the anecdote, an elderly lady approaching with a determined look. Apparently, she strongly disagree, expressing herself in the following terms: no, the earth does not move, because, as is well known, it sits on the back of a turtle. James decided to be polite and asked what, according to the hypothesis, the turtle rested on. The old lady replied without hesitating” But on another turtle, of course.” And James persisted: “But what does the second turtle rest on?” Then, so the story goes, the old lady triumphantly exclaimed: “It’s no use, Mr James, it’s turtles all the way down.” [From Isabelle Stenger’s book, Power and Invention. However, in similar form, the story is widely found ascribed to James.]
So the story goes. The same event is also ascribed to Bertrand Russell or an unnamed scientist. I amuse myself from time to time, now I have access to archive.org and Google Books trying to find the source of these phrases. I may not have found the oldest of all, but the oldest accessible one is dated 1905 in a sermon (a “testimonial”) by Oliver Corwin Sabin, a bishop of the Reformed Christian Science church, in his Washington News Letter:
The old original idea which was enunciated first in India, that the world was flat and stood on the back of an elephant, and the elephant did not have anything to stand on. was the world’s thought for centuries. That story is not as good as the Richmond negro preacher’s who said the world was flat and stood on a turtle. They asked him what the turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and they asked what that turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and finally they got him in a hole and he said. “I tell you there are turtles all the way down.”
Of course, somebody found it before me in Wikipedia (what is the reason people belittle Wikipedia? There are pedants and curmudgeons aplenty contributing to it enough to make it pretty accurate). What’s interesting is that it is not ascribed to an old lady, but to a “Negro preacher”. In both versions of the story (also told by Stephen Hawking, whose literary and historical skills are not so good as one might think, given how often he is quoted authoritatively on this subject), the flat earther is a member of a despised and ridiculed group – blacks and old ladies – and in both they stand in for the stupidity of the folk belief and believer, overcome by the truths of science.
But the fact is, flat earth views (unlike geocentric views) were never the default view (“the old original idea”). Here is a picture I took in Exeter Cathedral, of a clock that dated to the 14th century:
It shows the “two sphere” universe, with a globe earth at the centre. Spherical earth representations also appear in images of European rulers. Here’s Charlemagne in the 9th century holding the orb that represents secular power over the earth:
and Harold II from the Bayeaux Tapestry:
These anecdotes serve to legitimate the narrative of the teller of tales, to show they are on the right side of history, and to lessen our appreciation for the ordinary person. And they are pernicious. The weak minded have failed and we strong minded have succeeded, and history was always moving towards this point. This is the positivistic narrative of Comte: society has shrugged off the superstitious and theological and achieved enlightenment. Except that it is a lie.
While folk science is often wrong, it is also often right, and we find evidence of clever people making good inferences any time, culture or region you care to investigate. In my species book I state that people were not stupid and bad observers before Darwin, and that Darwin did not make us clever and good observers. It turns out that humans all have pretty much the same neural material between their ears, and achieve much the same cleverness no matter what they are placed into. This means that we should not expect that having the historical accident of science and technology makes us better than the poor beknighted religious, natives, or old wives. We should not expect that we will behave any better, nor should we think that our scientific thinking is going to make our societies somehow free of the errors humans have always fallen into. Or else, how to explain the antiscience movements that run our attitude engineering technologies (mass medias)?
Recently, an article claimed that religion is becoming extinct in some countries. This is because the trends to date have been the decline of religious adherence there. But trends in social structure are not like the movements of continents or large weights on ice. They have no momentum. They change because conditions are such that individuals may choose not to put resources into religion, or because religion no longer serves a particular need, or simply because it hasn’t yet adapted to new technologies and economic conditions.
All religions have a social ecology to which they must adapt. And they do adapt, just like a species of plant or animal that must adapt to an invader or new disease. Some fail to do this, of course, and they become extinct. We do not hear very much about the Moravian Brethren or the Shakers these days. Others find a way to circumvent or even exploit the new conditions. Hence televangelists. But if we think that because we in these nine enlightened countries happen to have the conditions under which around 20% of people lack religious beliefs, that no more means that religion will fail ultimately than the fact some people have a resistance to AIDS means AIDS will eventually disappear. And no amount of Turtle Anecdotes will make it so.
We misunderstand the nature of history and science if we think that we make ourselves better through an act of will that the misled simply lacked the strength to choose. It is a bit like blaming the poor for being poor, as Reaganesque conservatives do. Things are more complex and more egalitarian than that. There, but for the grace of the right narrative, go we ourselves.
Late Note: Nick Matzke has found one, also in a sermon, from 1854. See the comments.