Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?
is the eye-catching title of a book published in 2000 by Martin Gardner
, the mathematician
and critic who writes more books than some journalists write coherent sentences. Subtitled Debunking Pseudoscience
- two of the most important words in any skeptic
's vocabulary - it is a collection of twenty-seven columns Gardner wrote for Skeptical Inquirer
, and one for Free Inquiry
. Not all of the book is really about pseudoscience
; some of it concerns controversial beliefs held by otherwise respectable scientists, and some of his investigations are into downright nonsense with no pretence to being science.
This last category appears to be the correct one for the chapter from which the book takes its name. "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?", which opens the book, is a brief look at the history of this venerable religious question. The issue which has vexed theologists for so long is that if Adam and Eve did have navels, it would imply a birth they never experienced; but if they did not have them, they would not be perfect human beings. See this node's other writeups for discussion on the topic.
Most of the book is at least a little more serious. Gardner covers topics in "Evolution vs. Creationism", "Astronomy", "Physics", "Medical Matters", "Psychology", "Social Science", "UFOs", "More Fringe Science" and "Religion". There are too many chapters to describe each one, but some of the more interesting are as follows:
David Bohm: The Guided Wave - this is not about pseudoscience, but rather the much-maligned pilot wave theory proposed by the physicist David Bohm to resolve the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, a debate in quantum physics. Gardner is sympathetic to Bohm, mentioning his "sad life" and "depressions", and asserting that his theory deserves to be better known. (Essentially it states that sub-atomic particles are not sometimes waves and sometimes particles, but always particles, and have a pilot wave.)
Urine Therapy - here Gardner presents a brief account of medicinal urine drinking, a practice which in earlier times was esteemed by such authorities as the historian Pliny the Elder and the chemist Robert Boyle. Particularly amusing is the mention of homeopathic urine therapy, in which one's urine is diluted beyond measure and then drunk in the belief that this will bring medicinal benefit. Judiciously, Gardner admits, "I do not know whether drinking urine is harmless or not, and would welcome hearing from any knowledgeable physician on this point." But he finishes the chapter with the warning that, "I shudder at the thought of readers who are seriously ill, and who may be so persuaded that drinking urine will cure whatever ails them that they will not seek medical help that could save their lives."
Freud's Flawed Theory of Dreams - Gardner describes how Freud's dream theory - that dreams represent our unconscious desires through the use of symbolism - is unscientific, lacking in support, and generally abandoned by the modern establishment. He tells of a Time magazine piece called "Is Freud Dead?" (which concluded yes), and quotes the writer Tom Wolfe as saying "Freudianism was finally buried by the academic establishment in the 1970s, ending its forty-year reign in the United States. By 1979 Freudian psychology was treated only as an interesting historical note."
Is Cannibalism a Myth? - it has long been assumed by anthropologists that cannibalism was once widespread in traditional cultures but, Gardner notes, a 1979 book by William Arens entitled The Man-Eating Myth opened up the issue with a strong argument in favour of the belief that cannibalism has never been prevalent in any culture. Gardner notes that claims of institutionalized cannibalism have always been made by enemies, never the tribes themselves, and have usually proven hard to follow up. He refrains from taking sides but admits "My sympathies at the moment are with Arens."
Alan Sokal's Hilarious Hoax - a summary of the infamous Social Text affair, in which the physicist Alan Sokal had an article published by the Social Text journal despite the fact that it consisted entirely of meaningless postmodern babble snipped from various sources and pasted together into one ludicrous whole. The scandal revealed that much modern sociology and philosophy is either banal, needlessly verbose or anti-scientific. As Gardner puts it, "In a fundamental sense scientists and sociologists of science may not disagree. It's just that the sociologists and postmoderns talk funny. So funny that when Sokal talked even funnier in one of their journals they were unable to realize they had been had."
The Internet: A World Brain? This chapter is about the predictions of H. G. Wells. Although the correct are outnumbered by the false ones, Wells made a number of surprisingly accurate predictions on the future of mankind, including the collapse of communism, atomic bombs, "a world war started by Germany's invasion of France in the middle of the twentieth century", and a network of "projectors" called the "world brain", which would house what he called the "Permanent World Encyclopedia". As Gardner notes, this "world brain" is surprisingly close to the modern internet.
Isaac Newton, Alchemist and Fundamentalist - Isaac Newton, although a great physicist, was also a fundamentalist Christian (at least by modern standards) who believed in the literal truth of the Bible and even predicted the date of the Second Coming (at first 1876, but later revised to the twenty-first century). This was the "second Newton", beside the physicist. The third Newton, as Gardner puts it, was the alchemist, who wasted much of the prime of his life on fruitless attempts to turn base metals into gold. In fact, his forgettable writings on both Christianity and alchemy far outweigh his essential contribution to physics.
The Religious Views of Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin - although I'm not quite sure what it has to do with pseudoscience, this is an interesting summary of the two men's views. Stephen Jay Gould - who is quoted praising Gardner on the back of the book - is well known for his insistence that science and religion are compatible, although he calls himself an "agnostic inclined towards atheism" according to Gardner. According to Gardner, Charles Darwin, who had initially studied theology, was a confirmed theist who struggled, apparently successfully, to reconcile his belief in God with his revolutionary theory.
This is an entertaining little book and a generally light-hearted scientific read. Even by modern standards Gardner's writing is highly informal, often deadpan, and the parts of the book dealing with the more way-out nonsense (e.g. egg-balancing, urine therapy and the "Senator from Outer Space") are fairly amusing. He likes to end each chapter with a selection of jokes on the topic, most of them terrible (e.g. "A couple of cannibals are eating a stand-up comic. One of them says, 'Does this taste funny to you?'")
As well as Stephen Jay Gould, the book has also been praised by the sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke and the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, a trio which in modern academia would be difficult to better.