Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Earth is Flat and We are Not Talking About the Thomas Friedman Variety: a Review of Flat Earth

Historians often find it difficult to write books that are scholarly yet narratively engaging and that fill the public demand to speak to the issues of the day. This later issue is particularly difficult because, strictly speaking, it is outside of the historian’s field and usually works against it. Any attempt to do so risks sliding into polemic. In studying history one quickly learns that the past is a different country and it is not connected to the present. Flat Earth: the History of an Infamous Idea by Christine Garwood, though, handles this issue magnificently. On the surface Flat Earth is a book about Flat Earth theory, focusing on the history of the movement in England and America from the nineteenth century through the late twentieth century. While this may not seem to be the sort of issue of interest or of relevancy to many people, Garwood has crafted a powerful story that is very relevant.

The underlying and understated issue at hand in this book is Creationism both in its crude form and its more sophisticated, Intelligent Design, variety. Make no mistake about it Flat Earth is a polemic against Creationism. As a polemic this book is remarkably effective. The flat earthers that populate the book’s narrative sound exactly like Creationists (Most of them, in fact, were Creationists as well.) I recommend this book to all those who accept evolution and are stuck trying to get well meaning acquaintances of theirs to come on board as well as to those well meaning acquaintances. The argument is never explicitly made in the book but it essentially amounts to there is no argument that can be used to challenge evolution that cannot also be used to challenge the spherical nature of the earth. The only reason that most people balk at rejecting the spherical view of the earth but not evolution is because in our society the rejection of the earth’s spherical nature is, for all intents and purposes, a one way ticket to a padded cell, a straight jacket and a lifetime supply of happy pills. Say that you believe the world is flat and see how long it takes for people to not want you anywhere near their kids or in any position of authority and influence. Hopefully it will one day be that people who reject evolution will be seen in a similar light. Until we reach that point those who are willing to put up with anti evolutionists and take them seriously as scientists have some difficult questions to face.

The great irony of Flat Earth is that it achieves its aim not by mocking flat earthers but by taking them very seriously. One almost gets the sense that Garwood admires Parallax (Samuel Rowbotham (1816-85), the modern founder of flat Earth theory. Rather than view Parallax and his followers as aberrations of the modern world or as part of some long running church based anti reason tradition in a continual war against science Garwood puts them within the context of nineteenth century science. Parallax was not simply some sort of anti science person. On the contrary she sees him as someone who, for all of his anti scientific establishment rhetoric, was, in a strange way, a “scientist.” His rejection of modern science was couched in the language and ideals of science and he was able to be successful precisely because he could appeal to scientific principles. He sold himself to the English public as an open minded seeker of the truth challenging a scientific establishment with their hidebound sense of tradition.

In this sense Garwood plays to the best ideals of the historical profession. She does not look down at flat earthers in order to congratulate herself and her audience for their modern thinking. On the contrary they become a challenge to modern ways of thinking. She does not support or condemn either side of the flat earth debate, but sees them as part of the modern narrative. In this vain it is interesting to note that while Flat Earth is an attack against Creationism it is also an attack on the Whig narrative. If nothing else this book is worth every cent for its opening chapter where Garwood demolishes the notion that people in during the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat and shows how this myth was manufactured during the nineteenth century. Garwood seems to take a certain pleasure in pointing out the irony that, while people like Washington Irving were in middle of concocting the myth of the medieval belief in a flat earth to congratulate themselves on their growing sophistication and clear superiority over the Middle Ages, it was this same nineteenth century that spawned a real life flat earth movement. Flat earth theory is something so incredible that only modern people could ever accept it.

Interestingly enough evolution does, after a fashion, come into this story in the form of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the co-founder of evolution. Wallace is a fascinating figure, particular since he defies the usual stereotype of an evolutionist and a scientist. For one thing he was most definitely not an atheist. While Charles Darwin is a bit of an enigma (He most probably became an agnostic after losing his daughter Anne.) and Thomas Huxely described himself as an agnostic but was most probably what we would call an atheist, Wallace was a fairly traditional believing Christian. He also dabbled in the occult, which he wished to subject to scientific analysis. This attempt to create a “scientific” occult was actually not so uncommon during the nineteenth century. Wallace took it open himself to come to the defense of science and of the spherical earth and participated in a number of well publicized confrontations with flat earthers. Wallace was successful but still comes across with mud on his face for even allowing himself to be dragged into this business.

Flat Earth is more than just a good book. It is one of those books that I would want to hand out to as many people as possible and say read this book. This is a book that will help people gain a greater appreciation of what science is and may even work to shame people who should know better to not apologize for anti evolutionists are attempt to grant them credibility. Of particular importance for me, though, this is a well written smart work of history, the product of a writer with the consciousness of a true historian and the willingness to present that consciousness to others.


James Pate said...

Hi Izgad. Do you have any thoughts on why flat-earthers believe NASA would give us fake evidence (on the earth being round)? What do they think is NASA's motivation?

Izgad said...

James, this is quite simple once you have mastered radical creationist thinking 101. The scientists faked the moon landing just as they faked the fossil evidence. This is all an elaborate conspiracy to get people to doubt the word of God. We know that scientists are all really atheists and atheists are all immoral liars. Since they have no basis for morality why should they not lie about the moon landing and fossils? As Scripture teaches us: at the end of days there going to be a lot of falsehood and unbelief and only a very few will have the faith to withstand the temptation to turn away from God. If you believe that the Bible is the word of God firmly and without doubt than everything becomes clear. It is only when you start to question the word of God that you become open to the snares of the Devil. So James I ask you; are you a true believer? If you were you would not be asking these questions; you would just know from simple faith that the earth is flat and six thousand years old.
(Now am I a good fundamentalist whacko or what! :P)

Ariel Segal said...

Hi Benzion! As an historian of science, I must say that this is one of your best posts yet!

KT, Ariel

Chris said...


This looks like a really fascinating book! I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy. Thanks for the heads up!