Thursday, April 9, 2020

Say It Ain't So, Bergen...

Just a quick one for today.  I've learned a fair amount from Bergen Evans (1904-1978), a Professor of English who became a minor TV celebrity in the 1950s, and I'm currently reading The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense (Knopf, 1954).  Like his Natural History of Nonsense (Knopf, 1946), which I read some years ago, it's a debunking book, taking on all manner of superstition, malarkey, and error.  He does his job well, but then I glanced at the back dust cover, which reprints part of the book's conclusion:
The war between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, thought to have been won fifty thousand years ago, has broken out with renewed fury and, at the moment, the forces of reason are scattered in dismay while the Jugheads advance in triumph... Formes vos bataiilons! We have stood too long in sneers among the alien scorn.
This is nonsense, and Evans knew better: just skipping around in the book with the help of the index, I see him attacking genteel racism with the same pleasure he took in skewering religion.  For example,
George Orwell believed that the assumed susceptibility of the white race to sunstroke was a superstition that served to mark their delicacy and hence their superiority.  It used to be asserted that a white man could not safely walk in tropical sunshine without a pith helmet.  During World War II, however,whole armies maneuvered in the tropics without pith helmets, and the belief was quietly dropped.  With the weakening of the white man's grip on the colored peoples, it probably wasn't attention to any supposed physical delicacy, but rather (as was done) by tremendous feats of exertion and endurance to show that he was a tough customer [88, note].
Not bad.

We've learned more about Neanderthals since the 50s, but even then there was not, as far as I know, any reason to believe that they were more irrational than Modern Man.  The Spoor of Spooks, after all, is a backhanded tribute to Homo Sapiens' vast capacity for irrationality.  Trying to shift the responsibility for our failures to a people who may not even have been our ancestors is embarrassing irrationality itself.  Aside from the painful fact that the irrational are not "alien" but ourselves, they aren't even a distinct group from the wise.  There is no subset of human beings that is immune to fantasy and error, nor one that is never correct.  Evans knew that: many of his targets are highly educated wishful thinkers.  (Later, in the 1960s, he wrote a detailed refutation of professors and pundits who attacked the third edition of Webster's Unabridged dictionary based on their linguistic prejudices and ignorance.)  I suppose that's the scary part.

As well-read as he was, Evans must also have known that projects like his -- gleeful debunkings of the foolishness of Them -- are probably as old as writing.  It's always someone else whose beliefs are transparently absurd, just as it's only other people's downfall that is the result of Karma.  Think of the satire of idolatry in Isaiah 44; the prophet's mockery is not misplaced, but were his religious beliefs any more sensible?  Some of the historians of religion I've been reading in the past couple of years have argued that the entrenched dichotomy between science (or reason) dichotomy and religion should be replaced with a three-way division: science/reason, religion, and superstition, the last being other people's religion.  The educated religious think of themselves as eminently rational, and not without some basis, but like scientists they prefer to forget that rationality is only as valid as the premises it starts from.