Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's Interesting That The Phrase "Bronze-Age Goat Herders" Was Coined By A Highly-Respected Scientest

That phrase, which has become a hugely-popular meme, was coined to describe the authors of the Bible by Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most highly-respected biologists, perhaps the single most highly-respected biologist in the world. (Or perhaps he still was before he started devoting more time to religion than to biology.) It's interesting because when the subject is biology, Dawkins, like any competent scientist, is at great pains to be as accurate as possible. For example, he has devoted more than a little energy to combating the popular meme that "humans are descended from apes." He points out that humans and apes share common ancestors, and that the most recent of those shared ancestors, several million years ago, were neither humans nor apes, but rather species which have a great deal in common with both. The inaccurate "humans are descended from apes" meme leads to all sorts of other inaccurate notions, such as that some creatures evolve to a certain state and then stop evolving. The false conception here would be that, millions of years ago, apes existed, and stopped evolving, except for those apes who were our ancestors, who continued to evolve. But the truth is that those primates millions of years ago had some descendants who evolved into apes while, at the same time, other of their descendants were evolving into humans, and also that apes, humans and other species are continuing to evolve. The "humans are descended from apes" meme and others like it tend to distract from the fact that evolution is continuing.

The difference between the popular meme: "humans are descended from apes," and the truth, that humans and apes descended from common ancestors and are continuing to evolve, may seem small to someone who knows very little about biology. The more one knows, however, the bigger the mistake looms which is contained within the popular meme. The more one cares about the study of biology, the more interested one is in sharing the excitement of that study with the broadest possible audience, the more intolerable such popular memes will become, and the more urgent it will be to remove such misunderstandings from the collective consciousness.

The term "science" is defined differently in English than the closest corresponding term in some other languages, and in English, some people define "science" much more narrowly than others. In German, history is a "Wissenschaft" as much as biology is. Perhaps such matters of linguistics sometimes lead English-speaking scientists (in the more narrowly-defined sense) to regard other academic disciplines such as history with an undue lack of respect.

Perhaps some biologists don't realize that strict accuracy is every bit as crucial to the competent study of history as it is to biology or physics. The Bible wasn't written by Bronze-Age goat herders, it was written by urban people in the Iron Age, and even among rural ancient Israelites, many more sheep were raised than goats. To believe that the bible was written by Bronze-Age goat herders requires a very profound ignorance of the dates of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Middle East, of the dates of the earliest-known writing in Hebrew, of the distribution of the rates of literacy among urban and rural ancient Israelites, and of the types of animals domesticated and raised by those ancient Israelites. It's actually harder to imagine any 4-word phrase which could betray a more complete ignorance of the history of ancient Israel than referring to the authors of the Bible as "Bronze-Age goat herders."

It's odd, it's just so damned odd that so many of the people leading the way in the spread of this spectacularly-inaccurate "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme are scientists, scientists who constantly -- and accurately -- are pointing out that science advances by constantly correcting itself and changing its views in the light of new information, and that this gives science a huge advantage over religion, which clings to revealed "truths." Very damned odd indeed, because of their own approach to a certain segment of ancient history, where it seems they're deaf to some information which would cause them, for instance, to modify their outlook and refer to the authors of Genesis as "Iron-Age temple scribes." Instead, regarding this area of history, they're just as deaf as any fundamentalist Christian is to information about evolution -- and/or they simply don't care about being accurate. It's just downright odd. And as the study of history, it sucks. But maybe we don't even need to call it the study of history. Maybe it's much more accurate to describe it as a stubborn resistance to studying history.

Oh well, the anger and disgust these people arouse in me with their "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme gives me lots of energy and incentive to write. Thanks, you schmucks!

PS, 31. January 2015: I'm sure I've mentioned it somewhere on this blog already, but since writing this post I've found out that the term "meme" was invented, ironically, by Richard Dawkins.

No comments:

Post a Comment