Over the years I have come across a number of interesting cases of historical slander, claims about famous people in the past that are demonstrably false. Correcting them not only eliminates false information about the victims of slander it also provides useful information about its authors.
Wael Hallaq 0/Francis Galton 2
One of the sources for the chapter on Islamic law in my most recent book was Shari'a by Wael Hallaq, a leading scholar of the field. It is a book that should be of particular interest to libertarians, since a large part of his thesis is that traditional Islamic law was decentralized, mostly out of state control, worked very well, and was destroyed during the 19th and 20th century by the rise of the nation state.
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One problem with reading such a book is that much of the argument depends on evidence I cannot readily check, since I am not a specialist in the field and do not read Arabic. I tried to check it where I could by looking both at sources he cited and translations of primary source material. My conclusion was that while his thesis might be true, he badly overstates the strength of the evidence for it, viewing what he approves of through rose colored glasses and what he disapproves of through whatever are the opposite of rose colored glasses. That conclusion was reinforced when I came across the following passage in support of an argument blaming western influence for the nationalist and patriarchal nature of modern Islamic states, and did a little online research to see if it was true:
"In nineteenth century Europe, the blood of a nation was not only a matter of symbolism and semiotics, but a scientific project. Galton, Spencer, Darwin and Gardiner, among others asserted that every part of the human body and every attribute of personality contribute, through the blood, to the formation of the sperm. ... From this logic followed the conception that it was the man, not the woman, who determined national attributes, ..."
Not only is it not true, it is very nearly the opposite of true, a fact Hallaq could have easily discovered. Darwin did conjecture that every part of the human body provided particles, which he called "gemmules," that contributed to the formation of the sperm — but also of the egg. To check that, all it takes is a google search on [Darwin Sperm egg gemmules]. And when Darwin's cousin Francis Galton demonstrated that blood did not carry heredity by doing a blood transfusion exchange between rabbits of differing appearance and observing the offspring, Darwin responded that he had not claimed the particles moved through the blood, that perhaps they were transmitted in some other way.
Not only did Galton demonstrate by experiment the opposite of what Hallaq claims he believed with regard to the role of blood in heredity, he also demonstrated the falsity of the view Hallaq attributes to him about the roles of men and women. In Hereditary Genius, Galton investigated the inheritance of intellectual characteristics by compiling lists of prominent individuals in various fields and analyzing their relationships, looking at both male and female lines. His conclusion, in the chapter on English judges:
“Consequently, though I at first suspected a large residuum against the female line, I think there is reason to believe the influence of females but little inferior to that of males, in transmitting judicial ability.”
The whole passage I quoted above from Hallaq is false, easily demonstrated to be false, and the author uses it to support one of his claims. The conclusion is that he cannot be trusted to get the facts right, at least when they are facts that he thinks support his argument.
While it is disappointing to learn that Hallaq's work, however interesting, is unreliable, I am in his debt for calling my attention to Francis Galton, who turns out to be an interesting and impressive figure. As one commenter on my blog put it,
Wow, if the innovations attributed to him on Wikipedia are accurate, it's crazy that Francis Galton isn't a household name!
A Digression on Hallaq
My main criticism of Hallaq's argument on the virtues of Islamic law concerns the Ottoman Empire. By his account, what destroyed the traditional legal system was the state seizing control over the content of the law, the training of legal experts, and the courts. But the Ottomans started doing that long before the point at which they were under pressure from the west and so had an incentive to imitate western practices.
Further, the Ottomans are the only source, so far as I can tell, of extensive surviving court records. It looks as though all or almost all of Hallaq's evidence of how well the traditional system worked, in particular its support for the weak against the strong, is from late Ottoman sources, mostly 17th and 18th c. That was a legal system with a single monopoly school of law (a complete monopoly in the core area; in areas that had been dominated by other schools verdicts had to be approved by the Hanafite chief qadi), with a government appointed official in charge of the legal system and legal education, with a ruler who sometimes told the qadis how they had to interpret the law.
In other words, his data on the traditional system is largely from a system lacking all of the features to which he attributes the virtues of the traditional system.
Darwin, Romani and Jews
From a scholar of Romani history writing about the Romani holocaust:
Charles Darwin, also writing in 1871, used racist language in referring to “the uniform appearance in various parts of the world of Gypsies and Jews . . . which contrast[s] sharply with all the virtues represented by the territorially settled and culturally advanced Nordic Aryan race;”
The sentence is footnoted not to Darwin but to Fox, another scholar of the Romani holocaust.
The first half of the supposed quote, before the ..., is from The Descent of Man. The second half is nowhere to be found in the book. Nor is the phrase "Nordic Aryan." The full passage is:
The uniform appearance in various parts of the world of gypsies and Jews, though the uniformity of the latter has been somewhat exaggerated, is likewise an argument on the same side. A very damp or a very dry atmosphere has been supposed to be more influential in modifying the color of the skin than mere heat ; but as D'Orbigny in South America, and Livingstone in Africa, arrived at diametrically opposite conclusions with respect to dampness and dryness, any conclusion on this head must be considered as very doubtful.
Various facts, which I have elsewhere given, prove that the color of the skin and hair is sometimes correlated in a surprising manner with a complete immunity from the action of certain vegetable poisons and from the attacks of certain parasites. Hence it occurred to me, that negroes and other dark races might have acquired their dark tints by the darker individuals escaping during a long series of generations from the deadly influence of the miasmas of their native countries. (The Descent of Man, (1872), Chapter VII, p. 233)
The point of the passage is to offer an evolutionary explanation for differing physical features. It has nothing to do with the virtues or lack of them of Jews and Gypsies. The quote is, in other words, an invention.
All of the examples of it I could find online seem to be associated with Romani scholarship. My guess is that either it was invented by someone in that literature or it was invented by someone in the 19th or early 20th century with racist views who wanted to claim that they were supported by Darwin, picked up by someone in the Romani literature who liked it and did not bother to check whether it was true, and picked up from him by more authors in that literature who also did not bother to check a striking quote from a readily available source.
Why does this matter? Part of the reason is that the quote, like the false claims about Galton, gives a distorted picture of intellectual history. Part is that telling nasty falsehoods about people is a bad thing to do even if they are no longer alive.
But there is another reason it matters. The author I found the quote in is also the source of an ingenious and persuasive reconstruction1 of Romani history based largely on linguistic grounds. I am not a linguist, still less a linguist of Romani, so most of the evidence for that account I have no way of checking. While on the whole it feels like competent and objective scholarship it is clear that the author's emotions are to some extent involved, that it is a story he would like to believe. I now know that he cannot be trusted to check facts he likes in work he publishes. That makes me less certain of facts I cannot check.
Did Carl Sagan Libel Christiaan Huygens?
"Consider the curious argument by which he deduced the existence on Jupiter of hemp. Galileo had observed four moons traveling around Jupiter. Huygens asked a question of a kind few astronomers would ask today: Why is it that Jupiter has four moons? Well, why does the earth have one moon? Our moon’s function, Huygens reasoned, apart from providing a little light at night and raising the tides, is to aid mariners in navigation. If Jupiter has four moons, there must be as many mariners on that planet. Mariners imply boats; boats imply sails; sails imply ropes. And ropes imply hemp. I sometimes wonder how many of our own prized scientific arguments will appear equally foolish from the vantage of three centuries." (From a Scientific American article by Carl Sagan)
I came across a reference to this claim in an online conversation and got curious enough to google for it. All of the references I found were suspiciously similar, suggesting that they all were based on the same source. I eventually concluded that the source was Sagan. None of them provided any evidence for the story in anything Huygens had written.
So I want looking and found a webbed translation of Cosmotheoros, a treatise on matters astronomical written by Huygens late in his life. It's an interesting work, combining what appears to be an accurate account of astronomical knowledge of the time with lengthy speculations about possible inhabitants of other planets. Huygens, living more than a century before Darwin, takes it for granted that living creatures are the result of divine design and, logically enough, tries to figure out whether and how a benevolent God would have populated other planets. That seems a bit odd to the modern reader but the author makes it clear that what he is offering is speculation. There are lots of references to Jupiter and one to hemp, but nothing that even comes close to supporting Sagan's story.
Huygens writes, with reference to Jupiter and Saturn:
"This Position of the Moons, in respect of their Planets, must occasion great many very pretty, wonderful sights to their Inhabitants, if they have any: which is very doubtful, but may for the present be suppos'd."
Which does not sound like a statement from someone with the view of the subject that Sagan attributes to Huygens.
Following up a comment on my blog I found an earlier and less misleading version of Sagan’s account of what Huygens wrote in Sagan’s book Broca’s Brain (pp. 177-178). The passage closely parallels what I quoted above but the first sentence reads “for example, he presented a curious argument from which we could deduce the presence of hemp on Jupiter” (instead of “by which he deduced”) and the next to last sentence ends “and, I suppose, ropes imply hemp.” ( instead of “ropes imply hemp.” He converted his own speculation about implications of Huygens argument into a claim by Huygens.
Given how close the two passages are, it is hard to believe that Sagan wrote the second without looking at the first. I conclude that the passage I quoted above was almost certainly a deliberate falsehood, attributing to Huygens things he did not say or believe in order to make a better story.
After an edited version of H.L. Mencken’s diary was published — in deliberate violation of the terms under which he left it to the library that published it — a variety of people announced that it showed Mencken to have been a racist and anti-semite. The editor of the diary to some degree agreed, although he noted the inconsistency between what he saw as evidence of prejudice in the diary and Mencken’s behavior through his life.
There is a good webbed defense of Mencken, aimed mostly at the anti-semitism charge, which points out that while he described some people as Jews he also described lots of other people by ethnic labels, including a Finn and a Dutchman. Most of what people base the charges of racism and anti-semitism on is the fact that Mencken, writing in the 1920’s, did not view ethnicity as a taboo subject as per the linguistic customs of recent decades. So far as the racism charge, I offer one piece of evidence against it and links to two much more detailed accounts.2
In the diary Mencken mentions going to visit a friend who lived some distance from the railroad station. The friend sent his chauffeur to pick Mencken up. Mencken found that the (black) chauffeur, although uneducated, was an intelligent man and had a very interesting conversation with him, finding out how the world looked from his point of view. On a second visit Mencken was looking forward to another conversation with the chauffeur. To his disappointment, there was a second guest, a white woman, and in her presence the chauffeur remained silent.
Mencken was a famous, influential, and comfortably well off man. There is no hint in his account of the incident that he felt as though that made him superior to the chauffeur. What mattered was not race, income, education, or status but that the chauffeur was an intelligent person with something interesting to say.
Ian Hancock, We are the Romani People, Chapter one.