Alfred Wallace and the Flat-Earthers

You know how we feel about debating creationists, which we explained in Debating Creationists is Dumber Than Creationism. It warms our Curmudgeonly heart to see that the tactics against which we warn have a long history.

Take a look at this article in Scientific American: Wallace’s Woeful Wager: How a Founder of Modern Biology Got Suckered by Flat-Earthers. It’s not only a delight to read, it’s also very educational, because the experience of Wallace in dealing with flat-Earthers is pretty much what one can expect today if he is foolish enough to have any interaction with creationists.

We know you’re going to read the entire Scientific American article, so we don’t need to provide many excerpts. Here are just a few, which will encourage you to click over there. We added some bold font for emphasis:

In January of 1870, Alfred Russel Wallace found himself on a collision-course with a group of creationists who fervently believed the earth is flat. The father of biogeography, co-discover of the theory of evolution by natural selection, seems an unlikely sort to be mixed in with religious fanatics on a question of geography settled since the 3rd century BC. Why was such a venerable 19th century man of science accepting wagers from flat-earthers regarding the shape of our planet? Simply put: It looked like easy money.

So it begins. Then we learn about Samuel Birley Rowbotham:

Known as Parallax, he was a Biblical literalist, young earth creationist, and quack who believed in a flat, disc-shaped Earth. The North Pole stood at its center, and that was it; in his cosmology, there was no such beast as a South Pole. He backed his contentions with bad math, bogus experiments, and Bible verses. He revived the ancient flat-earth idea and gave it a modern patina of “science,” then used the result to stir up controversy for cash.

Through a series of Rowbotham’s disciples, we come to John Hampden, about whom we’re told:

Like our modern creationists, John Hampden looked on in horror as the masses slurped up all the science they could hold, including the round-earth heresy. He made it his mission to eradicate such ideas from the public consciousness, even when his bombastic techniques horrified his flat-earth grandfather Parallax. Sounding like the Borg of Hampden, he declared that spherical earth theories had to go: “All further resistance is useless.” And he was willing to wager his money on it.

He published the terms of his wager (we’ve seen creationists do the same thing), and then:

Poor Wallace, like [Sir Charles] Lyell, thought that Hampden only needed to be shown some proof in order to accept the plain fact that the earth is round. He knew nothing of Hampden and his ilk, or he may never have accepted the wager. But in addition to wanting to win a cool £500, he believed “that a practical demonstration would be more convincing than the ridicule with which such views are usually met.” He was about to find out that practical demonstrations have absolutely no effect on these truest of true believers.

And that’s when the fun begins. Except for the motivation of winning £500, Wallace’s naïveté reminds us of Bill Nye. Surely you see the analogy.

We’re not going to tell you any more about it, because we know you’re going to read the article for yourself. It’s the best thing we’ve seen in a long time on the subject of debating with charlatans and maniacs.

Also, as you know, because Wallace went crazy near the end of his life and wrote some stuff that seems congenial to the idea of an intelligent designer, the Discoveroids have adopted him as their intellectual founder (see Klinghoffer: “Alfred Wallace Is Ours!”) Poor Wallace — it seems to have been his unfortunate destiny to be abused by intellectual charlatans. He was scammed by flat-Earthers in his lifetime, and he gets no rest even now.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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7 responses to “Alfred Wallace and the Flat-Earthers

  1. “a practical demonstration would be more convincing than the ridicule with which such views are usually met.”
    Ah, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
    The reason I disagree with our dear SC on debating creationists is because I love to ridicule them.

  2. Talking about creationism is interesting because it is wrong in so many ways. Beginning with it being so vacuous that it is not even wrong.

    Talking about a flat Earth is not so interesting. It is wrong, but it does not touch on so many different topics. It is consistent in that it takes the Bible on its face word, ignoring the evidence. (While creationism picks what it cares to believe and adds whenever it wants.) And I don’t think that there are any serious groups of flat-Earthers any more.
    Talking about geocentrism is a little more of a challenge. They, unlike creationists, have an alternative theory. And they are almost as consistent as the flat-Earthers about taking the Bible seriously. There hasn’t been enough attention paid to geocentrists to have built up a body of counter-arguments. My limited exposure to geocentrism is that they are not quite clever enough to build up the case that could be made. Let them get enough exposure and we’ll see them self-destruct.

    The problem with giving in to the temptation to talk about all of the topics where creationism is wrong is that it can give the impression that creationism has something interesting about those topics. No, it’s just that the topics themselves are interesting. The fact that creationists have something stupid to say about – say, the 2nd law of thermodynamics – does not distract from there being something interesting about it.

  3. Creationists, whether in the 19th or 21st century keep using the same tactics realizing that there are people out there who do not know or can not believe how thoroughly dishonest creationists are. Before he was sent to prison in 2006, Kent Hovind claimed he would pay $250,000 dollars to anyone who could provide evidence that the Theory of Evolution was true.

    A number of people naively accepted Hovind’s challenge, did considerable research and provided overwhelming evidence that the Theory of Evolution was indeed correct. However, they did not realize what a dishonest, deceitful and thoroughly despicable person they were dealing with in Hovind. Hovind had rigged the wager in a way that he would never have to pay no matter what evidence was presented.

    One has to understand the creationists are charlatans who are masters of using dishonest means to push their dogma.

  4. Interesting — not only for the history but also for showing that the essence of fundamentalism hasn’t changed in more than a dozen decades. It would seem that old dogmatism can’t be taught new trickeries…

  5. While Bill Nye won the debate, a word to the wise he only did so with a lot of preparation. (Bill Nye on what he thought of his performance: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/bill_nyes_take_on_the_nye-ham_debate )
    He also got a lot of attention for Ken Ham and his creation museum and the Ark Park. By raising Hambo’s profile, who knows maybe that brings in donations and investors?
    Love the Wallace article. The book of his opponent: http://www.sacred-texts.com/earth/za/

  6. TomS,

    Geocentrists, at least the ones I am familiar with, use the Tychonic system (from Tycho Brahe). Their “A Geocentricity Primer” by Bouw and Bane is available for cheap on Amazon if you want the torture of reading the source material.

  7. One reason that Darwin is remembered so much more favorably than Wallace is that the latter, while endorsing the idea that the human body had evolved, thought the human mind must have been specially created. Darwin made no such exception to evolution.