Myth Busters United

Michal Meyer reviews Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers.

By Michal Meyer | April 18, 2010

Ronald L. Numbers, ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 302 pp. $27.95.

John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White are responsible for the noxious weaving of the greatest history-of-science myth of all time—that a war between science and religion is inevitable. Though both men are now mostly forgotten, White, a 19th-century president of Cornell University, and Draper, a 19th-century chemist and historian, helped create the dogma. In the edited collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, the authors untangle the threads of fact and fiction linking science and religion, from Galileo’s brutal treatment at the hands of the Catholic Church to Darwin’s deathbed repentance and return to the Christian fold.

Myth Busters United


A 19th-century view of Galileo recanting his heretical views of a moving earth.

History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries

This volume of applied history of science explores the origins of 25 such myths, ranging from Hellenistic science to, inevitably, creationism. The path runs through the Middle Ages and the early modern period, where one myth holds the Church responsible for suppressing science and another holds Christianity responsible for the success of science. Galileo Goes to Jail is a tightly packed book, each myth a digestible chunk. The importance of this work lies not in any new scholarship, but in scholars addressing public misconceptions for the first time. While some of the myths are mostly harmless, the most dangerous myths intersect with religious and political ideologies.

This is the kind of myth Ronald L. Numbers, the book’s editor and a leading historian of creationism, explores in his chapter. Numbers starts with the rise of creationism in the United States and points out that most early-20th-century anti-evolutionists “accepted the evidence of the antiquity of life on earth while rejecting the transmutation of species and any relationship between apes and humans” (p. 216).

Why were these earlier fundamentalists relatively more scientifically enlightened than their ideological descendants? He doesn’t say, unfortunately. But Numbers does give a region-by-region account of the organized spread of creationism from its original home, initially into other English-speaking countries during the 1970s, then into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Given the myth of American exceptionalism—or perhaps a greater belief in European rationality—such missionary activity went mostly unnoticed until recently. A few years ago a poll in Western Europe showed that only 40% of adults believed in evolution by natural selection. One hint of creationism’s appeal appears in a Russian deputy minister of education’s negative response to communism: in 1994 he offered creationism as an antidote to years of state-imposed orthodoxy in science. More recently creationism has moved into the predominantly Muslim cultures of Indonesia and Turkey.

Each author’s myth is based on an event, a person, or a theory and contains a kernel of fact. For example, Galileo did get into trouble with the Catholic Church. When discussing medieval science and the Church’s supposed suppression of it, author Michael H. Shank emphasizes the role of the universities, a medieval creation supported by the Catholic Church. Individual churchmen might forbid certain scientific teachings (the myth’s kernel of fact) at a specific university, but most students at most universities studied the sciences completely unhindered by any restrictions.

Occasionally explicitly, more often implicitly, the authors urge their audience to keep in mind the circumstances of a myth’s origins. John William Draper, for example, found himself incensed at the then newly made doctrine of papal infallibility, promulgated in 1870.

One of the most intriguing myths revolves around Copernicus’s supposed demotion of humans as the center of the cosmos. Displacing Earth from the center of everything dealt a blow both to our cosmic self-regard and to religious authorities—or so the story goes. Author Dennis R. Danielson points out that historically the center of the universe was not prime real estate. The ancient Aristotelian understanding of the cosmos as being made of earth, air, fire, and water (plus a fifth element, ether) placed the unmoving Earth, being made of the heavier stuff, at the center of everything. The center, according to some medieval philosophers, was furthest away from what was lofty and noble. Giovanni Pico, one of the major figures of the Italian Renaissance, wrote that the Earth occupied “the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world.” The earliest Catholic response to heliocentrism dealt not with any specifically religious opposition but with what Danielson describes as Copernicus’s attempt to pull “the earth up out of the cosmic sump” (p. 54).

This early Catholic response to the rejection of the Aristotelian cosmos raises an important point. Some controversies seemingly over science and religion were instead battles within science.

Controversy always sells, as Draper and White proved. So do myths that reinforce preconceptions. For a worthwhile conversation about science and religion, it’s time to throw away fabrications that have lost their final shred of historical credibility.