Dead white men: What have they ever done for us?

William Reville: We have good reason to be proud of our European heritage

About one year ago a Twitter post dismissed something I wrote as a “typical contribution from an old white man”. This got me pondering the “dead white men” syndrome – the charge made loudly by some campus activists that the western world exclusively celebrates white civilisation; a history mainly enacted by dead white men.

What about the achievements of other civilisations, they ask? What about the exploitative nature of white civilisation? What about the contributions made by women? These questions are worth pondering but we must be fair-minded, judging the past in historical context and giving due credit to impetus towards improvement.

In the present context, “white” specifies light-skinned people of European descent. It contrasts with black people and other “persons of colour”. However, these visible differences between people reflect little more than how our ancestors adapted to exposure to the sun.

All humans are closely related – all are descended from Africans – and the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis. But, of course, there are cultural variations among humans across the world.

Modern science uniquely arose in 16th-century Europe, and its classical achievements were largely made by dead white European men, including Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Charles Darwin (1809- 1882), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and so on.

Science has been hugely successful in uncovering the natural mechanisms that underpin the natural world. Science has shown us how the universe began, how the elements form in stars, how life began on Earth and evolved from its simple beginnings, and much more. And the entire modern world now runs on science-based technology.

Women’s minds

Until recent times the ridiculously stupid notion that women's minds were unsuited to science and mathematics held sway, largely excluding women from science. Nevertheless, some women broke through this barrier, notably two famous female scientists: Marie Curie (1867-1934), the Polish-born physicist and chemist who discovered the elements radium and polonium and won two Nobel Prizes, one for physics (1903) and one for chemistry (1911). And Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), an American geneticist who discovered that some genes can jump about in the genome. She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

The historical barriers excluding women from science have been dismantled, and women nowadays enrol on science degree programmes as freely as men.

Those who criticise our educational system for concentrating so heavily on the “western canon”, including – in addition to science – philosophy (Aristotle, Burke); music (Bach, Beethoven); literature (Chaucer, Shakespeare) and the visual arts (Michelangelo, Picasso), profess to feeling great shame about the many serious flaws that also existed in European civilisation; slavery, oppression of the poor and of women, promotion of white supremacy and more.

But such faults existed in all civilisations. For example, the Arab slave trade out of Africa both predated and outlasted the European slave trade according to George Pavlu in The New African Magazine, and slavery continues today in several regions of the world. Western critics who obsess about historical European faults also seem reluctant to acknowledge the many great achievements of European civilisation such as modern science, the Renaissance, and Enlightenment values.

Ethical behaviour

Modern humans first emerged about 200,000 years ago in Africa and have been evolving/developing ever since. Human societies didn’t spring into existence complete with laws and codes of practice protecting human rights and specifying ethical behaviour.

So, all we can reasonably hope for at any stage of human development is that we struggle to improve ourselves. And we have improved. For example, although Europe established a cruel slave trade in the 1400s, it subsequently outlawed slavery in the early 1800s.

Of course, exposure to the achievements of other civilisations should be included in our educational syllabuses, but what is wrong with European students, Chinese students, Muslim students, and so on, primarily studying the classics of their own traditions? How else can people appreciate how their own culture developed to the present day? And this doesn’t seriously limit anyone’s horizons because the best of all classical learning produced knowledge of universal application. For example, the objective knowledge produced by modern science and the insights of Shakespeare have universal application for all people.

In summary, while acknowledging historical faults, we still have good reason to be proud of our European heritage.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC