In the aftermath of the persecution of biology professor Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College, we need to pause and look back. With the Higher Superstition exposé by Gross and Levitt in 1994, many of us assumed that the postmodern fashion would begin to fade. This prediction was wrong. This has prompted me to reflect on a similar suppression of academic freedom that passed virtually unnoticed years ago, when world-renowned Hopi language scholar, Ekkehart Malotki[*], was censored and vilified by the same inquisitorial thinking proliferating once more on American campuses.
Far from fading, it is becoming entrenched and the current science establishment is either silent or complicit. See, for example: Can science survive long in a post-modern world? It’s not clear.
Postmodern Creationism in Academia: Why Evergreen Matters
The most important recent impetus for the surge in creationist ideology–within the institutions of higher learning–can be traced to the brazen attack on the theory of evolution in Red Earth White Lies by Vine Deloria Jr. The backdrop to the evolution-denial arguments is the politicized dismissal of the advances of modern science that are cast as “Western,” leading to, for example, creation myths being held up as contradicting the findings of evolutionary anthropology, population genetics, and archaeology.
We’d never heard of this issue before concern emerged about Weinstein’s legitimate fears for his personal safety at Evergreen. It merits a look. Did Native American beliefs about origins really make any difference?
A bit of background: Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) was a Native American activist. We learn at American National Biography Online:
A prolific author, Deloria wrote on philosophy, theology, politics, education, anthropology, and paleontology, producing a new volume every few years. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (1974), which the New York Times Book Review called “a permanent sourcebook for Indian historians” (24 Nov. 1974), repeated his demand for Indian sovereignty, but his later books focused increasingly on Native-American spirituality and cosmology. In 1995, for example, he espoused a revisionist thesis of history and anthropology in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact, in which he rejected evolutionary theory and challenged the widely held belief that Indians migrated from Asia on a land bridge across the Bering Strait, asserting that the ancestors of modern Native Americans had originated in the New World. The book was widely criticized for its literal acceptance of Indian mythology; John C. Whittaker, professor of anthropology and archaeology at Grinnell College, described it as “a wretched piece of Native American creationist claptrap that has all the flaws of the Biblical creationists he disdains” (Skeptical Inquirer 21.1 [Jan.-Feb. 1997]: 47).
Given the rise of identity politics, one wonders how many profs would say that about any “approved identity group” claim today. But never mind. What’s relevant here is, did Deloria’s views contribute to Weinstein’s woes?
According to Deloria, various cultures such as the Bengals, the Tibetans, the Bhagavata Purana, the Mexicans, as well as many American Indian nations, embrace the idea of four past ages. The Chinese have ten previous ages, and the Etrurians, the Visuddhi Magga, the Bahman Yost, the Annalos of Cuauhtitlan, the Sybylline Books, and the Mayas all report seven previous worlds, while the Polynesians and Icelanders have nine. He states that we have “no basis for rejecting their statements except to say, as many academics are prone to do, that we don’t believe them.” All this challenges the view of the Western/Christian propensity to support the single world theory. In fact, he proposes that it is necessary to note the Hebrew belief of the multiplicity (seven) of worlds and that Genesis must be understood within the context of early Hebrew beliefs. Genesis describes only the beginnings of the present world, and it is a summary of Sumerian beliefs.
So Deloria disputed conventional theses about how native Americans came to be in North America many millennia ago. But Francis does not offer direct evidence that Deloria’s views played any major role in Weinstein’s troubles. Of course, there may be stories that have yet to surface. All we learn from his article is:
A related science-denial approach consists of favorably citing works that argue for one or another theory of creationism, omitting mention of their most outlandish details. Authors then try to discredit the scientific consensus on evolution and migration and the accepted procedures of empirical research in the field. This attempt at relativizing the conclusions of research conveniently and ambiguously coincides with the anti-evolution arguments themselves. The false portrayal is one of generalized disagreement among competing and speculative hypotheses.7 An example is the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute of Evergreen State College that offers a “culturally appropriate curriculum” for Native American students. With course readings featuring the creationist Red Earth White Lies and other non-academic fringe sources, the syllabus specifies the criteria for evaluation of student learning: “Since this issue has no wrong answers because of the fluctuation in scientific reasoning, creative writing should be embraced as having the potential to be as accurate as the current scientific opinion.” More.
Creative writing as science is classic post-modernism, to be sure: Evidence does not matter and reason is an illusion. But focusing on this stuff to account for Bret Weinstein’s problems is wilful negligence.
Here’s the problem Francis and so many others do not want to face: Current science boffins, with way more reach than any native American activist, are unwilling and unable to take stand against post-modernism (and its inevitable results), possibly because they believe it themselves and just want to stay on top anyhow.
They can always prove us wrong by insisting that evidence and reason matter in their own right, wherever they lead.
[*]Note: Francis’s account of the thugging of a native American language expert is a worthy discussion in its own right.
See also: Biology prof Bret Weinstein’s persecutors face sanctions from Evergreen State College
Can science survive long in a post-modern world? It’s not clear.