The Beginning of Scientific Mythology

This first article in the “Bad Science” category was inspired by  “D’ya hear about the moon-bison?” by Lynda Walsh in The Scientist Weekend March 2, 2007.

As I researched the historical context of Darwin’s great myth of common descent of all life from microbial ancestors, possibly from chemicals coming together in some “warm, little pond,” I was struck by how many strange and just plain bad things began during the same period. The 19th century saw the rise of a number of cults, and toward the end of the 1800s there was a strong (but wrong) feeling that science was on the verge of having answered all the major questions, and the 20th century would only see the filling in of lesser details. These are subjects I may explore later. The article by Walsh touches on some of the hoaxes of the time that involved or were related to scientific discoveries.  

While I was doing some further research on 19th-century hoaxes, it seemed to me that the rise of science fiction also illustrates a key statement that Walsh made:

During the mid-19th century, life scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin were helping to change who Americans turned to in order to learn the truth about their universe — away from preachers, poets, and philosophers, and toward scientists.

This should have been noticed and rejected by scientists as much as by poets, as illustrated by Walt Whitman’s When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer“. As early as 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by scientific experiments and warned of terrible results if scientists sought to go beyond learning about natural processes and try to “play God” with the very essence of life.

Walsh’s statement, however, confuses the matter. As part of the science-media Establishment, she probably simply didn’t see any difference between Pasteur’s work and Darwin’s. Pasteur, from his work on fermentation to creating a vaccine for rabies, was doing hands-on experimental work with great practical applications. Darwin jumped from observations of variations in animals to proposing universal common ancestry, an idea which has produced no real benefits and led to several bad-to-terrible results.

Likewise, some science fiction, such as Verne’s tales of exploring under the sea or going to the moon,  helped inspire the creation of real technologies for exploration. H.G. Wells, on the other hand, told wild tales of alien invasion or travel through time in order to popularize his own liberal, atheistic ideas and philosophy.

It would be easy, but wrong, to condemn evolutionism by association with hoaxes and cults. There was a lot of good scientific work like Pasteur’s being done at the time, too. The point I’m making is that, both the good and the bad contributed to people’s turning away from religion and treating “Science” or pronouncements by scientists, as truths that were not to be questioned. Science works best when it is open to questioning by anyone. It is also not designed for providing solid answers to questions about things that can’t be repeatedly observed and tested.

People’s acceptance of “scientific” hoaxes, the rise of science fiction stories as a new form of mythology and prophecy, and the acceptance of uniformitarian geology and Darwinism all show how science had “gone off the rails” of its fundamental method and practice and become a substitute for religion. While most science continued to function fully within its fundamental principles, it had started to become the new arbiter of all that is really true as well as the source for a new mythology, and from these people have drawn ideas about morality, society, and social engineering which contributed to the greatest horrors of history… but that’s the story of the 20th century.

Here’s a timeline of events mentioned or further illustrating the points:

1788 James Hutton: New Theory of the Earth

1818 Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

1830-1833 Lyell’s Principles of Geology…

1835 “Richard Adams Locke’s Great Moon Hoax… ”

1839 <Darwin’s _Journal of Researches_ (Voyage of the Beagle) published.>

1842 The famous “Feejee Mermaid” hoax by P.T. Barnum

1844 Poe writes hoax newspaper article about a manned balloon being blown across the Atlantic

1857 “Pasteur proves that fermentation is caused by living organism.”

1859 {December}Darwin’s _Origin of the Species_

1862 Mark Twain pens hoax article of “petrified man” that is picked up by many papers despite including subtle clue to being a hoax

1863-1866 Jules Verne publishes Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and From the Earth to the Moon

1864 Pasteur awarded prize for demonstrating spontaneous generation of life doesn’t happen

1865-67 “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” written and published

1869 The famous “Cardiff Giant” statue hoax “discovered”

1870 Jules Verne: 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea

1871 Darwin’s _Descent of Man_ “revealed to the world that …’man is descended from some lowly organized form.'” and that religion is a purely natural, evolving human concept. Not a popular book.

1880 Cope responds hopefully to hoax article about “highland alligator”

1885 Pasteur devises a rabies vaccine to cure hydrophobia

1888 Robert Louis Stevenson publishes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

1895 H.G. Wells publishes The Time Machine

1898 H.G. Wells publishes The War of the Worlds


Hoax information from: The Scientist Weekend March 2, 2007, “D’ya hear about the moon-bison?” by Lynda Walsh and from The Museum of Hoaxes

For science fiction list, see Science Fiction Timeline and A Chronology of Jules Verne

Pasteur references from The Timetables of History (The New Third Revised Edition), by Bernard Grun, based upon Werner Stein’s _Kulturfahrplan_, A Touchstone Book, Published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991.

Also see: The Faces of Origins: A Historical Survey of the Underlying Assumptions from the Early Church to Postmodernism by David Herbert, M.A., M. Div., Ed. D.; D & I Herbert Publishing, London, Ontario, 2004