Outside Darwin’s Box by W. Clayton Brumby

Outside Darwin’s Box

W. Clayton Brumby on Surviving Obsolete Science

In the May 2001 issue of Touchstone, Patrick Henry Reardon spoke eloquently about “the Errors of Determinism.” While I agree with him that fate does not somehow cause history to repeat itself, ignorance can do the job quite nicely.

James Kushiner’s editorial in the same issue, “Baylor’s Bastard Child,” chronicled Dr. William Dembski’s treatment at the hands of Baylor University’s science department and administration. Dembski’s application of information theory to the question of the origin and development of life obviously does not sit well with doctrinaire Darwinists, and for good reason. His dismissal, however, as the head of the Michael Polanyi Center was a poignant reminder of Santayana’s oft-quoted maxim that those ignorant of history are destined to repeat it.

An Eighteenth-Century Scourge

One of the great scourges of the eighteenth century was smallpox. By one estimate, smallpox took the lives of 60 million people during the 1700s. It killed one out of five of its victims, leaving others blind, sterile, or physically marred for life. An odd consolation of survival, however, was that one could never again get smallpox; survivors were immune to any future infection.

In the mid-1770s, as the story goes, a dairymaid told an English country doctor named Edward Jenner that she would never get smallpox because she had had cowpox. Cowpox is a related disease, infecting cattle but few humans. People who did contract it, however, experienced something far milder than smallpox. The dairymaid’s conviction was a known agrarian superstition at the time, but Jenner became intrigued: Did the farmers know something the medical profession did not?

After careful research, he found that the dairy farmers were right: Being infected by cowpox could indeed protect someone from smallpox. He then came up with a vaccine (from vacca, Latin for cow) using cowpox. But when he took his findings to his peers, the oddest thing happened: Instead of welcoming his research as the life-saving discovery it was, they took vehement exception to his work. They felt that, if nothing else, it was sacrilegious.

How could he even think that the disease of a common animal could be used on human beings as a protection? When he tried to persuade them that he could prove it scientifically, he was stonewalled. Further, he was lampooned in the press—cartoons showed those receiving his inoculations turning into bovines. The Royal Society (England’s equivalent to our National Academy of Sciences) refused to publish his work.

Seeing that it was futile to fight the intellectual bigotry surrounding him, he published his findings using his own funds. And, as they say, the rest is history. Supposedly, within 18 months he vaccinated 12,000 people. The Royal family, Napoleon’s soldiers, even Thomas Jefferson and his family eventually received Jenner’s inoculations.

Jenner was fortunate. By publishing, he was able to circumvent the ignorance and prejudice of his medical peers. Because of this, his findings were not held captive; the word got out, and we all benefited. Going public is no guarantee of success, however. In science, it can make you a hero, as it did in Jenner’s case, or, as in the following instance, it can destroy your career.

A Nineteenth-Century Scourge

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