Scientific Orthodoxy: Michael Gordin – Orthodoxy on the Fringe

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Worlds in collision via Doug for creative commons flickr
by Michael Gordin 

 In 1960, Immanuel Velikovsky looked around and found himself ignored by the scientific establishment. A decade earlier, he had completed Worlds in Collision, which appeared in 1950 under the imprimatur of Macmillan Press, the most prestigious scientific publisher in the United States. It rocketed to the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists and provoked a backlash from influential astronomers and physicists, who threatened to boycott Macmillan unless what they perceived as their press dissociated itself from Velikovsky’s masterwork. Two months later, Macmillan transferred rights to the publishing smash of the year to their competitor Doubleday and washed their hands of Velikovsky forever. As far as voluble opponents of Velikovsky were concerned, they had heard the last of the delusional pseudoscience propounded in Worlds in Collision.

But even after the establishment demonized something as pseudoscience, there could be a path to legitimacy of a certain sort, and even orthodoxy. From Velikovsky’s point of view, it was essential to keep his theory uncontaminated.

In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky argued that ancient mythological, scriptural, and historical sources from a variety of cultures repeated the same descriptions of major catastrophes: rains of fire, immense earthquakes, tsunamis, dragons fighting in the heavens. These passages had long been interpreted by rationalist readers as metaphors or ecstatic visions. But Velikovsky argued that they they pointed toward two real and massive global catastrophes: one that happened around 1500 B.C., during the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt; and another in the eighth century B.C., which changed the length of the year from 360 days to its current 3651⁄4 days, stunning the prophet Isaiah and depicted in Homer’s Iliad as the battle between Athena and Ares.

Velikovsky claimed that the first catastrophe was caused by a comet ejected from Jupiter which almost collided with Earth and remained trapped in gravitational and electromagnetic interaction with this planet for decades, raining petroleum from its cometary tail, igniting the heavens, and tilting the earth’s axis. Eventually, the comet stabilized into the planet Venus. Thus, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor was born in historical times, as attested by proper interpretation of the collective memory of humanity. Venus’s movements displaced Mars, which threatened Earth in the second series of catastrophes. Velikovsky’s arguments presupposed a reformulation of geology, paleontology, archaeology, and celestial mechanics, not to mention ancient history.

The establishment might think of it as a heresy, but he knew he was right, and therefore he needed to keep it from being polluted by other, real heresies. The need was pressing. Beginning in the 1960s, Velikovsky had started to acquire a growing base of fans, some of whom wished to appropriate his catastrophism for their own ends. He thus had to assert his authority to keep the doctrines pure while still insisting on their scientific status. This problem — maintaining orthodoxy on the fringe — confronts everyone rejected by mainstream researchers.

Enter Henry Morris. In 1961 he published, with John C. Whitcomb, Jr., one of postwar America’s most culturally significant works about the natural world. It was read by hundreds of thousands and remains absolutely rejected by every mainstream biologist and geologist. The book was The Genesis Flood, and though it did not spark the instant conflagration of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, its controversy has burned longer and harder.

The Genesis Flood relaunched flood geology into the evangelical mainstream from the state of dormancy in which it slumbered since the 1925 Scopes Trial, and it remains the orthodoxy for creation-science.  Until his death in 2006, Morris was, according to one scholar of the movement, “undoubtedly the most influential leader of modern U.S. creationism,” and has been called by another “the founder, patriarch, architect, and chief proselyte of the modern scientific creationist movement.”[1]

The literature spawned by the sparring between evolution and anti-evolution spans many shelves in any research library, and shows no sign of abating.[2] One topic that rarely comes up in this commotion is the role of Velikovsky. Insofar as creationism and Velikovsky are talked about together, it is only to say that both are “fringe” movements that preach absurd stories about the Earth’s history.[3] However, there were specific links  between Velikovsky and creationism, each of which illuminates what counts for legitimacy on the fringe. Here I discuss just one of them: the inflections of Velikovskian ideas within flood geology itself, which Morris swiftly purged. The linkage between creationism and Velikovskianism was suppressed by both sides, illustrate an important lesson: when it is impossible to gain legitimacy from establishment scientists, it becomes imperative to maintain authority in your own camp.

Morris came to flood geology in 1943 through reading George McCready Price. In 1957, he began collaborating with a theology student, John C. Whitcomb Jr. on a book blending Whitcomb’s theological expertise and Morris’s specialty in hydraulics. Morris and Whitcomb began exchanging drafts of chapters of their proposed book in 1957. They spent roughly two years finishing the manuscript and another year in significant revisions before turning it over to the press for its publication in 1961.[4]

While the central influence on The Genesis Flood was clearly George McCready Price, Immanuel Velikovsky lurked in the background. When Morris received Whitcomb’s first draft chapters, he was horrified to see how heavily — and explicitly — Whitcomb relied on Price and Velikovsky as authorities for geological anomalies.

In a letter of 7 October 1957, Morris chastised Whitcomb for the misstep: “Price and Velikovsky are both considered by scientists generally as crackpots, although no one ever takes the trouble to answer their arguments save by ridicule and summary dismissal.”[5] Whitcomb took the lesson to heart, for on 24 January 1959, while commenting on a significantly fuller draft, he noticed that Morris had also sprinkled Velikovsky citations over the text: “Even the references to Velikovsky should be thought through carefully,” he shot back, “because his name, like that of G. M. Price, waves a red flag immediately before some people’s eyes.”[6]

Yet, for all their care, they never managed to excise Velikovsky entirely. A careful reading of The Genesis Flood reveals two citations to Earth in Upheaval in the footnotes. The second is a block quotation of Velikovsky’s prose in the middle of their text, without direct attribution.[7]  (For what it is worth, Velikovsky returned the favor, writing to an admirer who recommended The Genesis Flood that he was not impressed “[b]ecause the intent is so childishly fundamentalist, the book has no scientific value and certainly no impact on sciences.”[8])

The reason Whitcomb and Morris were worried about Velikovsky is clear enough. Morris claimed he intended the book for a scientific publisher. Reflecting on this from the 1980s, he recalled on a different relevance of Velikovsky for his book:

Dr. [Thomas] Barnes approached the 15 leading high school textbook publishers, told them all about the manuscript, and was expecting them all to compete for the contract to publish it. But not one of them would even look at the manuscript! They said (no doubt remembering the infamous “Velikovsky affair” of the early fifties) that all of their textbooks would be boycotted if they would dare to publish a creationist book. Consequently, Dr. Barnes and I finally turned to a Christian publishing house.[9]

Velikovsky was a cautionary tale, an indication that the scientific establishment was brutally suppressive. His role in framing their catastrophic geology was elided.

Yet, despite the intertwining of the Velikovskian and creationist cases, there was an abiding asymmetry between the two, at least in the 1960s. Shortly after the publication of The Genesis Flood, Morris found himself equipped with a well-funded network of people who already agreed on fundamental principles (the Revelation of God) independent of the specifics of flood geology, which made it easy to effectively discipline the movement and keep it on message. In the early twentieth century, before the Pricean orthodoxy emerged, any attempts to enforce coherence often risked suffocating the incipient movement. Making assertions to authority while defending a fledgling doctrine on the fringe was a risky proposition, as Velikovsky would soon discover, when he purged creationists and other “heterodox” thinkers from his own ranks. Once he had disciples, he acquired the problem of enforcing orthodoxy. And without the well-heeled organization that enabled Henry Morris to so successfully police his own ranks, Velikovsky found himself torn between become popularized and becoming vulgarized.


Michael Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University. This post is a selection from his book on the history of the controversies surrounding the boundary between science and pseudoscience focusing on the career of Immanuel Velikovsky, entitled The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012) 

[1] Respectively, Christopher Toumey, God’s Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 2; and Robert Charles Williams, “Scientific Creationism: An Exegesis for a Religious Doctrine,” American Anthropologist 85 (1983): 92-102, on 95.

[2] A reasonable, though dated, guide is Tom McIver, Anti-Evolution: An Annotated Bibliography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1988).

[3] Robert Price, “The Return of the Navel, the ‘Omphalos’ Argument in Contemporary Creationism,” Creation/Evolution 2 (Fall 1980): 26-33, on 31; and Peter J. Bowler, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 205-206.

[4] George E. Webb, The Evolution Controversy in America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 159.

[5] Quoted in Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, 2d. exp. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006 [1992], 216.

[6] Quoted in Numbers, The Creationists, 222.

[7] Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Col, 1961), 98n2, 157n2.

[8] Velikovsky to F. J. Kerkhof, 21 October 1962, Immanuel Velikovsky Papers, Princeton University Library, 85:12.

[9] Morris, A History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Book, 1984), 195 (emphasis in original). Thomas Barnes was a creationist physicist and a Morris ally of long standing.

3 comments

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