Conant the Barbarian? Part 2

James Bryant Conant

In part 1 of “Conant the Barbarian?” I was discussing a request to help with researching a quotation from James Bryant Conant—a professor of chemistry at and president of Harvard University, and a mover and shaker in the mid-twentieth-century American scientific establishment—which, supposedly, described evolution as “a fantasia which is neither history nor science.” Could a scientist of his eminence have said anything so barbarous? The ultimate source of the quotation, as used by creationists on the internet, was a 1982 article by Kevin Wirth published in the obscure creationist journal Origins Research. Although Wirth was contending that evolution is shaky, and ought to be presented along with opposing points of view, he wasn’t claiming that Conant shared that view: rather, he was citing him as a case of a scientist who objects to ad hoc hypotheses.

Not so the general ruck of creationist websites. When I used Google to search for a highly distinctive phrase from the quotation, “a fantasia which is neither history nor science,” I found on the first page of results the Baptist Church in Ballincollig, Cork, Ireland, presenting the quotation under the heading “Evolution is not science”; describing it as a statement admitting that “evolutionary theory is bankrupt”; Holding Fast claiming that it corroborates the point that evolutionary scientists interpret the evidence in accordance with their prior assumptions, and so forth and so on. Perhaps cagier, Creation Ministries International presented the quote unadorned and without comment. Origins Research was often cited as the source, and there was clear evidence of borrowing from website to website. Nowhere was there any evidence that any of the website authors ever looked at the original source to see what Conant said.

I did, though. As Wirth correctly stated, the quotation is from Conant’s Science and Common Sense (1951), which dates from a period of Conant’s career, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was teaching and writing on the history and philosophy of science. Here’s the entire paragraph containing the quotation, from p. 287:

The astonishing popularity of that fantastic book, Worlds in Collision, shows how eagerly the reading public welcomes a repudiation of the findings of modern science. The fact that such a volume has found wide distribution in the United States is a distressing phenomenon. Our attempts to give some understanding of science through the formal channels of instruction in school and college obviously have not accomplished all that we might wish. Nonsensical speculation about physics and chemistry today finds relatively little acceptance; any wild notions can be put in their proper place by demanding to know what the consequences are of these alleged revolutionary ideas in terms of new experiments. But the sciences dealing with the past stand before the bar of common sense on a different footing. Therefore, a grotesque account of a period some thousands of years ago is taken seriously though it be built by piling special assumptions on special assumptions, ad hoc hypothesis on ad hoc hypothesis, and tearing apart the fabric of science whenever it appears convenient; the result is a fantasia which is neither history nor science.

Conant isn’t talking about evolution at all: he’s talking about Immanuel Velikovsky’s cockamamie views. Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision had been published in 1950, and Conant was among the scientists who were astonished that its publisher “would venture into the Black Arts” (as the astronomer Harlow Shapley described it) by publishing it.

The paragraph occurs in chapter 10, “The Study of the Past,” where Conant wants to extend his approach to understanding science to the historical sciences. Part of that approach involves distinguishing scientific theories (which he takes to be fruitful conceptual schemes) from scientific facts, and a particular problem in teaching the historical sciences, Conant argues, is failing to make the distinction. “Geology expounded as earth history almost inevitably takes on a dogmatic cast,” he asserts in the paragraph preceding the quoted one, leaving “the layman with the feeling that all conceptual schemes stand on the same basis.” Whether or not he was right about that, it’s clear that he was indicting contemporary science education for failing to equip the public to discern the glaring problems in Velikovsky’s methodology (such as it was).

What did Conant think about the scientific status of evolution? In a section of Science and Common Sense entitled “The origin and evolution of living entities,” which concludes the chapter on “The Study of the Past,” Conant wrote that when it comes to the origin of life, “there have been few ideas put forward that can even be called working hypotheses.” He continued, “Since Darwin’s time, on the other hand, evolutionary ideas have become a conceptual scheme, fruitful almost beyond measure.” After reviewing the development of evolutionary theory, he cited the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria as “the most convincing evidence that can be given of the reality of biological change,” but added that “the successful convergence of independent lines of evidence” was impressive. “At the moment the evolutionary doctrine seems to stand on a firmer basis than ever before.”

Back to 2013. Remember, I was researching the Conant quotation because Lew, a member of NCSE, encountered it, posted by someone named Rockland L. Zeiler in the course of a long on-line discussion of Zeiler’s review of Stephen C. Meyer’s screed Darwin’s Doubt (2013) on I sent Lew a PDF of Wirth’s article, the text of the relevant paragraph from Conant’s Science and Common Sense, and a few remarks about Conant’s views on evolution. He posted a comment on the discussion thread (and was kind enough to thank me and send me a link). Zeiler himself hasn’t addressed his use of the quotation in the following discussion, although it was interesting to see a comment from a self-identified former young-earth creationist who abandoned the movement because of “the blatant dishonesty” of its leaders. Given the widespread casual abuse of Contant's quotation and the apparent disregard for its actual context, it's easy to sympathize.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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