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Not The Flat Earth Myth Again!

University of Houston evolutionary biologist Dan Graur wrote in a May 19 letter to Nature [1]that he was “disturbed” by the magazine’s April 28 News Feature, “Who has designs on your students’ minds?”  

Graur objected to the fact that “the proponents of ID are mostly portrayed as a persecuted minority. They are said to be afraid to reveal their identity and to be frequently censured into silence by anti-democratic scientists and administrators. Your reporter clearly does not realize that ‘intelligent designers’ are not the only minority bullied into submission by the scientific establishment. The vast majority of flat-Earthers … cannot publish their studies in respectable journals.”

Graur is trying to be funny, of course. And he might be, except that the persecution of ID proponents is very real, as some forthcoming books will soon document. A better target for Graur’s humor would be his own uncritical reliance on the Flat Earth Myth.

Like many of his colleagues, Graur delights in comparing critics of Darwinism to believers in a flat Earth. According to the standard story, Christians used to believe for biblical reasons that the Earth is flat. When modern science demonstrated that the Earth is actually a sphere, that belief became a legitimate target for ridicule. Now, since modern science has likewise demonstrated the truth of Darwin’s theory (so the story goes), critics of Darwinism are just as silly as flat- Earthers.

But the story is totally false. It was pure fiction until it was turned into a phony historical claim by late-19th century Darwinists who used it to slander Christians.  

The spherical shape of the Earth was known to the ancient Greeks, who even made some pretty good estimates of its circumference. Christian theologians likewise knew that the Earth was a sphere. The only two Christian writers who seem to have advocated a flat Earth were a 4th-century heretic, Lactantius, and an obscure 6th-century eccentric, Cosmas Indicopleustes.

The modern Flat Earth Myth originated with the 19th-century American writer Washington Irving. In his fictional History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Irving wrote that flat-Earth churchmen had opposed Columbus on the grounds that he would fall off the edge of the Earth if he tried to sail across the Atlantic. In actuality, Columbus’s opponents knew not only that the Earth is a sphere, but also approximately how big it is. Since they (like Columbus) knew nothing about the Americas, it was quite reasonable for them to believe that a voyage to the Far East would not be a good investment.

The Flat Earth Myth remained clearly in the realm of fiction until Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Then two of Darwin’s followers presented it as actual history in books that defended Darwinism against imaginary attacks from ignorant Christians: John Draper’s The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). The pseudo-historical propaganda of Draper and White has been thoroughly discredited by twentieth-century historians.

Apparently, however, Graur doesn’t read much history. Instead, he unknowingly caricatures critics of Darwinism on the basis of a myth that the Darwinists themselves fabricated.

Now THAT’s funny!

For a thorough critique of the “warfare metaphor” of Draper and White, see James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, 1979). For an objective and very readable account of the Flat Earth Myth, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (Praeger, 1991). 


Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.