The Values of Science: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1997

By Wes Williams | Go to book overview
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the edge of the sword," you might ask what the citizens of Jericho had done to deserve such a terrible fate. The answer is embarrassingly straightforward: they belonged to the wrong tribe. God had promised some Lebensraum to the children of Israel, and the indigenous population was in the way:

But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.

But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perrizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.54

Now, of course, I'm being terribly unfair. The one thing a historian must never do is judge one era by the standards of a later era. But that is precisely my point. You cannot have it both ways. If you claim the right to pick and choose the nice bits of the Bible and sweep the nasty bits under the carpet, you have sold the pass. You have admitted that you do not, as a matter of fact, get your values from an ancient and authoritative holy book. You are demonstrably getting your values from some modern source, some contemporary liberal consensus or whatever it is. Otherwise, by what criterion do you choose the good bits of the Bible while rejecting, say, Deuteronomy's clear injunction to stone nonvirgin brides to death?

Wherever this contemporary liberal consensus may come from, I am entitled to appeal to it when I explicitly reject the authority of my ancient text--the DNA--just as you are entitled to appeal to it when you implicitly reject your--rather less ancient--texts from human scriptures. We can all sit down together and work out the values we want to follow. Whether we are talking about 4,000-year-old parchment scrolls, or 4,000-million- year-old DNA, we are all entitled to throw off the tyranny of the texts.


Notes

Amnesty Lecture, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 30 January 1997. I thank Dr. Wes Williams and the other members of the organising committee for inviting me to give the lecture, Lalla Ward Dawkins for help in the preparation of it, and Dr. Williams for helpful editorial suggestions.

1.
Quoted in Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World ( New York: Headline, 1996), p. 234. For a chilling collection and a justifiably savage indictment of drivel similar to that quoted here, including "cultural constructivism," "Afrocentric science," "feminist algebra," "science studies," and not forgetting Sandar Harding's "stirring assertion that Newton Principia Mathematica Philosophae Naturalis is a 'rape manual,'" see Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. 131.

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