The Encyclopaedia Britannica and Creationism
Ken Smith, (the Skeptic, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 11-13)
On page 46 of the December 1986 issue of Creation ex nihilo (vol. 9, no.1) there is a column headed "Old books prove creation was basis of science". The column records the donation to the library of the Creation Science Foundation [now AiG] of a reproduction of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The original was published in 1771. The column goes on:
The entries on science have a strong creation emphasis, as this excerpt from the section on Astronomy will show: Whoever imagines they [so many glorious suns] were created only to give a faint glimmering of light to the inhabitants of this globe, must have a very superficial knowledge of astronomy, and a mean opinion of Divine Wisdom; since, by an infinitely less exertion of creating power, the Deity could have given our earth much more light by one single additional mass."
The words in square brackets and the capitals are as given in "Creation Ex Nihilo". Now it is only to be expected that an article on astronomy written over two hundred years ago would, at some point, refer to the Deity as responsible for creating various things. But this is not the same as modern creationism. Almost all those who have taken the trouble to check the originals from which creationists claim to have quoted have discovered that the quotation is incorrect, or is so taken out of context that the original meaning has been completely distorted (or, commonly, both). Can they do any better when quoting from their own library? We shall see.
Before discussing the entries in the "Encyclopaedia", a general description may be helpful for anyone who cannot get access to it in a large library. The information here is taken from the copy in the Main Library at the University of Queensland. The articles in the "Encyclopaedia" are very uneven in length, and the coverage of letters of the alphabet is also uneven. Of the three volumes, vol.1 covers A and B, vol.2 from C to L, and vol.3 from M to Z. Volume 1 has 697 pages, and the letter A accounts for 511 of these. Most of the articles are very short, and consist of only a few lines. But the article "Anatomy" goes from page 145 to page 310, and so takes up nearly one-third of the space allotted to the letter A. The second longest article under A is "Astronomy", and it covers pages 434-500. The quotation above is taken from page 434.
My first action, on getting volume 1 out of the library and finding the article, was to idly turn over the pages, looking at the diagrams. While doing this I noticed a heading on page 456 which read "Chap.IX The Method of finding the Longitude by the Eclipses of Jupiter's Satellites: The amazing Velocity of Light demonstrated by these Eclipses." Aha, I thought -- some more data for Barry Setterfield to use in his work on the way the speed of light has been decreasing. On page 457, after some discussion of the technique, we read:
"... and consequently the particles of light fly about 164 thousand 494 miles every second of time, which is above a million of times swifter than the motion of a cannon-bullet."
This speed is 264,727 km/sec, which is rather lower than the current value of 299,792 km/sec. Oh dear! I hope that Mr. Setterfield has been provided with this information, so that he can revise his work to show that the speed of light has really been INCREASING since 1771, rather than DECREASING.
The quotation which started me off on this bit of research referred to the stars. The whole paragraph reads:
"It is noways probable that the Almighty, who always acts with infinite wisdom, and does nothing in vain, should create so many glorious suns, fit for so many important purposes, and place them at such distances from one another, without proper objects near enough to be benefited by their influences. Whoever imagines they were created only to give a faint glimmering of light to the inhabitants of this globe, must have a very superficial knowledge of astronomy, and a mean opinion of Divine Wisdom; since, by an infinitely less exertion of creating power, the Deity could have given our earth much more light by one single additional moon."
Note that in Creation ex nihilo the last word is given incorrectly, though the quotation, as far as it goes, is otherwise correct. But note also that the first sentence of the paragraph has been omitted. This sentence raises questions -- if the Almighty did not create the stars just to give light to the earth, what were they created for? Just what are the "proper objects near enough to be benefited ..." ? In fact the article provides us with this information, but it conflicts with what modern-day creationists would have us believe. The paragraph following the one quoted begins:
"Instead then of one sun and one world only in the universe, astronomy discovers to us such an inconceivable number of suns, systems, and worlds, dispersed through boundless space, that if our sun, with all the planets, moons, and comets belonging to it, were annihilated, they would no more be missed, by an eye that could take in the whole creation, than a grain of sand from the sea shore: ... "
Just so -- the solar system, with the earth inhabited by mankind, forms an insignificant part of the whole cosmos. The article then goes on to discuss, briefly, the planets and satellites of the solar system, since these are the only ones about which we have direct knowledge. This section of the article concludes with the paragraph:
"Since the fixed stars are prodigious spheres of fire like our sun, and at inconceivable distances from one another as well as from us, it is reasonable to conclude they are made for the same purposes that the sun is; each to bestow light, heat, and vegetation, on a certain number of inhabited planets, kept by gravitation within the sphere of its activity."
This raises more questions -- the sun is made to bestow light, etc., on "a certain number of inhabited planets"? But we thought our creationist friends insisted that the earth was the only inhabited planet. Further investigation is needed. On page 436 of the article there is a brief discussion of Mercury, which includes the sentences:
"The great heat of this planet is no argument against its being inhabited; since the Almighty could as easily suit the bodies and constitutions of its inhabitants to the heat of their dwelling, as he has done ours to the temperature of our earth. And it is very probable that the people there have such an opinion of us, as we have of the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn; namely, that we must be intolerably cold, and have very little light at so great a distance from the sun."
But this is not all. The following pages discuss some of the properties of the then known planets and their satellites. This section of the article concludes with a long paragraph (on page 444) which says not only that God could have made intelligent beings for the other planets, but that he must have. The paragraph is too long to quote in full, but the first sentence is:
"Every person who looks upon, and compares the systems of moons together, which belong to Jupiter and Saturn, must be amazed at the vast magnitude of these two planets, and the noble attendance they have in respect of our little earth; and can never bring himself to think, that an infinitely wise Creator should dispose of all his animals and vegetables here, leaving the other planets bare and destitute of rational creatures."
"Rational creatures" indeed? If this is "a strong creation emphasis", then the right hand of the creationist movement does not know what the left hand is doing. In many other creationist writings the idea that there might be intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe is condemned as Evolutionism! One of the widely circulated creationist books is Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter, by Robert E. Kofahl. On page 132 of this one paragraph reads:
"It is important to remember, however, that no scientific evidence whatsoever suggests that any other planet similar to our earth exists anywhere in the universe. The whole idea of life on other planets is pure speculation without a shred of scientific evidence. But the notion is popular with both scientists and lay people who want to believe in evolution in spite of the evidence that it is impossible. God may, indeed, have created life on other planets, but He has given us no evidence of it, either through science or in the Bible."
Henry M. Morris has written the same sort of things in various places. In his The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth he devotes a whole chapter to "The Puzzling Role of the Stars Above". This has more peculiar ideas, which would need several articles to criticise in detail. Do creationists believe that there is life on other planets or not? It seems that here, as in other places, they are trying to hedge their bets. If, at some time in the future, life is found elsewhere in the universe, no doubt Kofahl's words "God may, indeed, have created life on other planets, ..." will be dusted off and produced as evidence that creationists predicted it many years ago.
There is one point concerning which the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica might be described as adhering more closely to Christian teachings than Kofahl. On pages 132-135 of his book Kofahl goes into all the standard arguments that the earth was designed specifically for human life (temperature, atmosphere, gravity, inclination of axis, etc.) and reaches the same conclusion other creationists do. But one of the major tenets of Christianity is that God is omnipotent, and not bound by any physical properties incidental to the earth. The editors of the "Encyclopaedia" specifically said this! Who is more Christian -- the ones who say God can make inhabitants for any planet, or the one who says that only the earth will do?
Enough has been written to show that there are serious doubts about the claim that the article "Astronomy" in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has "a strong creation emphasis", in the sense in which "creation" is used by modern-day creationists. Some of the other articles will be examined (in a later article) to see whether or not they could legitimately be similarly described.
What is the moral of this brief investigation of yet another creationist quotation? Exactly the same as that reached by nearly everyone who has checked on other claimed quotations from standard scientific works. In many cases the quotations are not correct (though this one is more accurate than most). But, almost invariably, the words, correct or not, have been so taken out of context that they convey a misleading impression to the unwary.
Our creationist friends claim that they are motivated by religious reasons. The ninth commandment reads "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." Do they regard this as telling lies about people, or does incomplete citation, which gives a misleading impression, also count as "false witness" against the original writer (or writers)? Perhaps they could meditate on the matter.