Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Squinting at Science.

De-conversion has a nice little article about the preformationism and somehow comes to the wrong conclusion and goes for the quick claim rather than properly explaining that that's how science works and what it does. There's a lot of really good ammo against religion in the history of science and so getting it wrong is a terrible thing to do. As I'm a big enough fan of Richard Carrier and History of Science as well as preformationism I posted a well researched and quite pointy comment to the blog. However, since it's half a month old, it might not get noted or addressed. So I decided to post it here as well, because that way I can be sure that nobody will see it!

BTW, the self-deprecation is simply a no-lose. Either self-deprecating and funny or it's true and sad but if it's true then nobody will see it and know how sad it actually is, however if somebody sees it then it's just self-deprecating and funny.

 As for the article at hand...

In the 15th century, Nicolaas Hartsoeker, after squinting though his microscope at ejaculate, became so convinced that each sperm was actually a little man (homunculus), ...

Incredibly, scientists today have rejected the theory of Mr. Hoarsoeker. Scientist now claim that sperm do not at all resemble little men. But the track record of biblical insight into natural phenomena has suffered very few setbacks as fundamentalist will attest. It was simply a misunderstanding or misapplication of scripture they will inform you. They’ll get it right next time.

This article gives some rather clear misconceptions about the preformation debates and the nature of science and religion.

First, it didn't occur in a vacuum, and the debate itself was not non-scientific, it was actually the best conclusion they could muster at the time (that's what science always is!). Nicolaas Hartsoeker was actually a scientist himself by any measure. He taught Huygens how to make telescopes. Was a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and eventually taught at a university. Calling him "Mr." is just silly and disrespectful.

Secondly, you seem to give full credit to Nicolaas Hartsoeker for all the intellectual thoughts on the ideas of preformationism, while he did do the quintessential drawing on the subject he never said that that was what he saw, and most of the presented ideas were common. For example the idea that one homunculus would be inside another ad infinitum was largely the contribution of Nicolas Malebranche who was an ovist rather than a spermist like Hartsoeker. He was the first to come up with the idea that there would be one little person inside another inside the eggs of all the women going back to Eve, like little Russian nesting dolls. The fact that it provided a religious argument doesn't mean that it wasn't the best conclusion they had given the evidence. That was just bonus.

We see little people grow into bigger people and have children. Tracking this back it does stand to reason that bigger people should have really tiny people in them to make this happen. And those people should be in the gametes. Though, which gamete has the little person is a matter for debate. Such early science still has impact today as the word spermatozoa means "seed animal" as the discoverer of sperm was a spermist and thought that his discovery, because it moved around like animals, was easily more likely the source of such animation, rather than the egg.

This was the science of the 17th century (note Nicolaas Hartsoeker lived 1656-1725 that's 17th and 18th centuries not 15th, which would have been in the 1400s), and just because it was a bit more religious than science is today doesn't mean it wasn't science. A lot of good science got done asking religious questions for example Herophilus in the negative 2nd century was one of the first anatomists and performed live vivisections of animal brains to identify which specific part controlled which specific sense to answer the question of "where does the soul resides?" Galen did remarkable work in the 4th century combating those who claimed that the body was simple enough to come about by chance or simple progression from natural forces.

You can't say look at this idiot who made up this stupid theory all by himself and it ties into religion and therefore religion is stupid but science rejects that idea because science is awesome. He was a scientist. Scientists use to be very commonly Christian and very commonly theistic. As time went by, those living the truly scientific life would no longer conclude God, but eventually accepted a rational deism as it became the end result of a functional epistemology. However, after Darwin, atheism rather than deism became the end result of respecting truth more than desire.

The above blurs this line and the truth is far more entertaining. It isn't that science rejects religion out of hand. But rather science investigates the truth where ever it exists and compares those results to reality. It isn't that science is anti-Christian, it's that science is pro-reality, and reality has a strong anti-Christian bias.

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