Forgotten Falsifications pt 1: Antipodeans

In the 1st and 2nd century Greek and Roman geographers, such as Crates of Mallus, Pomponius Mela and Strabo described the world as a sphere divided into four quadrants, each with an island of dry land surrounded by ocean. At the poles were zones of uninhabitable frigidity and at the equator was an uninhabitable and unbreachable torrid zone. In between these there were two temperate zones, one northern and one southern. The hypothesis that humans may exist at the antipodes was discussed by ancient writers, such as Aristotle and Plato. This hypothesis was an unproblematic one for the early Greeks and Romans to put forward, given that there was no religious injunction or taboo against such a speculation, and it was in keeping with a notion of geographical balance that the Cratesian model suggested. But in any case, the hypothesis was believed to be an unprovable speculation, given that, as the theory said, the torrid zone was so hot that to breach it was an impossibility. The existence of antipodean peoples, then, was an acceptable, if purely speculative, hypothesis. It was an indulgence of the imagination, never to be certainly established.

But this classical speculation that the antipodes might harbour human life was untenable for early creationist writers to entertain. By the 5th century, St. Augustine pressed that since scripture never mentions anything about the antipodes being populated, it is unlikely, if not blasphemous, to entertain the idea that they actually are. Augustine also assumed that it was impossible to travel through the torrid zone. Therefore, if any inhabitants of the antipodes did exist, they could only have been there ab initio and so could not possibly be the descendents of Adam and Eve. This implies that they could not have inherited original sin, and so they would be immortal, and they would have no need for salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.

Jumping forward a millennium or so, by the late medieval period, the very existence of the antipodes was denied altogether, with natural philosophers such as John Buridan promoting the view that the known land masses of the medievals, that is, Eurasia and North Africa, were the only ones, with the rest of planet blanketed by ocean. This new geography of imbalance, in contrast to the Cratesian geography of balance, came to bear weighty theological significance. For example, world maps of the 12th and 13th century, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi and the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, see Jerusalem placed at the centre of the world. The model was defended on theological grounds by theologians and natural philosophers such as Gregory of Palamas and Paul of Burgos. This was the standard model of the medieval era.

After over a thousand years of pure guesswork about the antipodes, evidence of distant continents began to be collected. Indeed, the torrid zone was breached in 1474 by a little known Portuguese navigator named Lopes Goncalvez, and Columbus pointed to his achievement as conclusive evidence against the theory that the torrid zone was uninhabitable. But more importantly, the southern temperate zone was discovered, and it was inhabited. The model preferred by theologians was proven wrong, and the hypotheses of the Greeks and Romans  proven right. They may have been merely speculating, but they were nevertheless, almost miraculously, correct. The landmasses in the southern temperate zone were inhabited. And this caused no small difficulty for the creationist story.  

The inhabitants of the Americas, of Australia, of the Pacific, had no history of Adam or Eve, no stories of Noah, no idea about original sin. Some communities had chronologies stretching back much further than the mere 6000 or so years proposed in James Ussher’s biblical chronology in 1650. It was implausible that these people could have arrived in these lands only recently as descendents of Noah’s sons, since many of the people encountered didn’t have the available maritime technology to traverse vast oceans. Most important of all, the Bible made no mention at these strange distant people, whereas the Greeks and the Romans had.

Furthemore, if God had forgotten to mention these people in revelation, many wondered, were they even people at all? Perhaps they were mere brutes. Such opinions were so widespread that Pope Paul III felt compelled to issue the papal bull sublimus dei in 1537 asserting that American Indians, and any other yet undiscovered peoples, were indeed “truly men” and that it was wrong to believe that “the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service.” Certainly, one ought to commend the Pope for defending their humanity! But the papal bull of 1537 carries an unintended implication: once it is established that these alien races are indeed races of men, it is also established that the biblical history of mankind is incomplete. The creationist story, and in particular the stories of Noah’s flood and the dispersion at Babel, could not account for these distant and very different people. The flood theory and the dispersion at Babel, rather than explaining the distribution and differences between human beings on the planet, became new problems in their own right. Something was very badly wrong with the creationist account.

The important point of all this is that divine revelation had failed to predict the existence of these people, and the rational conjecture of ancient writers had. Groundless scientific conjecture had succeeded where the revealed word of God had failed. This was a falsification of creationism and biblical literalism. But the epistemic impact of that falsification has been forgotten, and for the modern young Earth creationist, the fact that antipodeans exist is hardly ever thought to be a problem for the theory. And tellingly, if it ever is considered to be problematic, it is usually explained away by means of a miracle or some other ad hoc bit of divine intervention. The inscrutability of God provides the escape route for any such troubling evidence. But the reality of antipodean peoples, nevertheless, has been absorbed into the background knowledge of the young Earth creationist, despite the history behind its discovery, and despite the blow to the theory that it originally was.

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