How the Earth Became Flat

If I brought my lips to your ears and softly whispered, “The earth is flat,” what would you think?

Well, first you would probably think, “Should I call the cops or the psych ward?” But let us pretend that I (still whispering softly) manage to convince you of my sanity. What would you think about next? What images does “the earth is flat” bring to mind?

Quite a few of us, I think, would recall the story of Christopher Columbus.

File:Possible portrait of Christopher Columbus.jpg

Though nobody pays attention in history classes (I probably spent more time drawing mustaches on the faces of American presidents than taking notes), we Americans somehow finish our education believing in the same Columbus story.

The story goes something like this. I quote from’s Christopher Columbus for Kids:

“Columbus [wanted to get to India and China] and thought that he had the answer. He felt that since the earth was round, like a ball, if he sailed to the west and sailed long enough, he could sail right around the world to China in the east. He had two big problems though. First, he did not have enough money or ships to make this trip. Second, most people in those days thought the world was flat, like a table top. They thought that if you sailed too far from land, you would sail off the edge and be killed!

Great story, but—as some of you history buffs already know—the story his mostly false.

In Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity, I looked at how the historical events of Columbus’s voyage were whitewashed and edited to create a national mythology.

In this second part of the series (surprise, it’s a series!), I’ll be looking at another side of the Columbus myth—the lie of the flat earth.

To be honest, I don’t care much for Christopher Columbus or his history. Instead, the focus here is to understand how stories, dramas, and mythologies affect and shape our understanding of the world.

The Flat Earth Lie

Contrary to what I learned in school, no educated person in 1492 believed that the earth was flat.

Two thousand years before Columbus, Greek thinkers like Pythagoras and Aristotle had already asserted that the earth was round. And, despite what some think, this knowledge was not lost to the Dark Ages.

Indeed, the earth’s roundness was so accepted that it’s hardly worth debating. Or, as historian J. B. Russel puts it in a talk at Westmont College,

“ …with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.

“A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. … Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few–at least two and at most five–early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.”

What’s more, this is old news.  Historians, says Russel, have known about the flat-earth lie for almost a century (if not longer):

“Historians of science have been proving this point for at least 70 years … without making notable headway against the error. Schoolchildren in the US, Europe, and Japan are for the most part being taught the same old nonsense. How and why did this nonsense emerge?”

Even if you know zero history (and I don’t know much), there’s something not quite right about the story. Columbus never sailed around the world; he sailed to the Americas and back. It was Magellan, decades later, that circumnavigated the globe.

Something interesting is going on. We have two mysteries to solve: (1) Where did the flat-earth lie come from? and (2) Why, despite nearly a century of protest from historians, do we continue to believe in it?

How to Flatten the Earth

In his book Inventing the Flat Earth, Russel points out that the flat-earth lie is a recent invention. Before the 1830s, nobody believed it.

One of the lie’s origins, says Russel, can be found in the work of novelist and essayist Washington Irving (1783 – 1859). Among ordinary folks today, Irving is known for writing stories like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

But among professional historians, Irving is known for writing bogus history. According to one historian, his popular biography of Christopher Columbus is “pure moonshine … the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.”

Irving’s biography tells the now-familiar fictional tale of Columbus as a bold, forward-thinking adventurer facing off against backward-thinking clergymen and theologians who stubbornly believed that the earth was flat.

The story fused with other bits and pieces of fiction, entered American schoolbooks, and passed down over nearly two centuries, to us here in the 21st century.

For a more detailed history, see Wikipedia’s page on “the myth of the flat earth.” For now, let’s turn to the mystery that interests me: Why, despite a century of protest from historians, does the myth refuse to go away?

History becomes myth and myth, confused with history, is captured in paintings like this one.

History as a Soap Opera

If the flat-earth lie was an ordinary historical error, it should have been corrected by now. The fact that the story survives until today suggests that there is something more at stake here than “mere history.”

In A Late Birth of a Flat Earth, evolutionary biologist and prolific essayist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the flat-earth lie persists because it sustains a useful fiction—a mythology now so prevalent in our culture that we hardly think about it.

This mythology tells of a war between good and evil, between light and darkness:

“[The early 19th century] featured the spread of an intellectual movement … [that portrayed] Western history as a perpetual struggle, if not an outright ‘war,’ between science and religion, with progress linked to the victory of science and the consequent retreat of theology. Such movements always need whipping boys and legends to advance their claims. … How could a better story for the army of science ever be concocted? Religious darkness destroys Greek knowledge and weaves us into a web of fears, based on dogma and opposed both to rationality and experience.”

History, argues Gould, has been rewritten as an ideological drama where bold, science-loving heroes (Columbus) square off against idiotic, backward-thinking lovers of religion (flat earthers).

The drama even reveals itself in the language that we use. The “light” of the Enlightenment is set against the “dark” of the Dark Ages. All of this, says Gould, helps create the following narrative:

“…the intent of Darks and Middles could not be more clear — to view Western history as possessing a Greek and Roman acme, with supposed loss as tragic, followed by the beginning of salvation in Renaissance discovery.”

What’s ironic to me, though, is that this drama takes old Christian themes of the lost paradise of Eden and salvation through Christ and replaces them with secular interpretations: The paradise is now Greek knowledge of a round earth (lost to the Dark Ages) and salvation now comes to us through the forces of science, reason, and progress.

Every story needs a hero, and every hero needs a villain. If the hero of the flat-earth story is science, then its villain, in this case, is religion:

“The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists [in service of Darwinism]. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?’”

History is often manipulated to give false justification to why one particular group or race is superior to another. Science, I guess, is no exception.

A Very Human Endeavor

I am more or less an atheist, and I don’t doubt the truth of Darwinism. But what interests me here is how political and historical manipulation were used to campaign for the advancement scientific theory.

Pop culture likes to portray science as “nerds on blackboards”—as something sterile, rational, objective, and pure; something free from bias or worldly worry.

But science is an activity done by humans for humans. It takes incredible emotion, imagination, and passion to do well at all. If anything, science more art than accounting.

Or, as the philosopher Mary Midgley writes in Evolution as Religion,

“Merely to pile up information indiscriminately is an idiot’s task. Good scientists do not approximate to that ideal at all. They tend to have a very strong guiding imaginative system. Their world-picture is usually a positive and distinctive one, with its own special drama. They do not scrupulously avoid conveying any sense of dark and light, of what matters and what does not, of what is to be aimed at and what avoided… Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama. These dramas can indeed be dangerous. … The only way in which we can control this kind of distortion is, I believe, to bring the dramas themselves out into the open…”

Stories, myths, and dramas shape the questions that we ask and the worlds that we perceive. How could they not affect and direct scientific inquiry?

The danger comes, as Midgley points out, when we refuse to admit and recognize that all thought is in some way touched by mythology, madness, drama and story. For it is when we are unconscious of stories that they grip us the most.