Colonial Era World Maps Distort Worldviews
During the Renaissance people desired to travel places. As navigators wanted to venture across the globe, they needed maps to guide them on their way. It was in this environment that the Flemish man Geradus Mercator made a new map in 1569. Edwards, (2015) describes how the Mercator projection was a milestone for its time because it was a vastly better map for navigating than previous existing maps. The Mercator projection also made improvements over prior maps in representing the round earth on a flat surface. As innovative as Mercator’s world map was for the 16th Century, the reality is that it is 450 years old. Although the Mercator map has been by far the most widely used world map until very recently, there are a variety of sources in the mapmaking industry that describe how misleading that the Mercator world map is.
The Mercator projection distorts worldviews
Several cartographic leaders assert that the Mercator projection negatively impacts people’s worldviews. The Mercator projection is a leftover from the colonial era which has affected people’s worldviews to this day. Geoawesomeness.com describes how the Mercator projection shows Greenland being similar in size to Africa although Africa is a continent that is fourteen times larger. Scandinavia is also shown as larger than India, but like other issues with the Mercator Projection, India is much larger than Scandinavia. These are a couple of examples of this map’s many distortions. But the root problem was not just distortion, but the worldview that this misrepresentation fostered. The Mercator projection continues to project a dominant Eurocentric cultural approach that exaggerates the importance of the northern hemisphere at the expense of non-white areas many decades after colonialism ended. As Mercator was of German descent, he made his map to put Germany and Europe in the best light possible and provided a Eurocentric and northern hemisphere worldview. Wood, Kaiser, and Abramms tell how this ethnocentric design benefitted European colonialists at the expense of the rest of the world.
Some progress has been made, but there is still a very long way to go.
Mapmaking industry leaders have helped to bring about some significant recent progress in what map people use, as they encouraged the United Nations to adopt the Peters projection map in the 1990s. Moreover, after years of trying, Rand McNally listened to these experts last year and agreed to finally cease publishing their infamous Cosmopolitan world map which is described in the ODT Newsletter with Abrams (2018). It is a great accomplishment that the production of this most egregious of Mercator maps has finally stopped. This is because they cut Asia in half and put America in the center. Not only was this map very biased, it was one of the most widely distributed Mercator projection maps, especially in the United States. Moreover, Zubrzycki (2017) told how the Boston Public Schools have decided to use the Peters projection to shift students away from a Eurocentric worldview that the Mercator map made. Fama (2017) piggybacks on this idea by explaining how classrooms have been full of world maps that she says were “completely wrong.” She goes on to say that she does not care if a student did poorly in history because she is hoping they can begin anew by learning a better map.
As a Christian, this writer is pleased with progress in areas like these. However, progress has been faster in secular areas than it has in Christian ones. Wilhoit (1986) describes the ecological environment of Christian education as needing biblically based maps to provide direction because he maintains that the discipline is bankrupt. The picture that Wilhoit paints sounds like “where there is no vision my people perish” (Proverbs 29:18a) as he asserts that there is a lack of purpose.
Map-ism is a frame of reference that comes from being so deeply immersed in the biased worldview the Mercator projection provides that people view the world very differently than it really is. Mapism seeks to replace distorted world maps and can help Christian education’s need
for biblical direction because it gives a biblical purpose for the subject. Not only does it help to provide meaning for Christian education, but Hiebert (2008) asserts that Christian educators need to make sure that the material they are transmitting leads to the development of a biblical worldview. He maintains that Christian instructors must foster a biblical worldview instead of just a cultural perspective. Having accurate maps that represent God’s world more correctly is an area that should take on an even greater importance for Christians than it does for unbelievers.
In researching Christian sources on how maps affect worldviews, this writer found a nice article by a mission researcher Howell (2016) who did an excellent review on the secular source How maps change things that is referenced elsewhere in this paper. He felt having an accurate map like the Peters projection is very important to advancing the gospel. Unfortunately, this mission researcher was the only overtly Christian source about this subject this writer could find. Stark (2008) has written a variety of books on how people throughout history have accomplished many goals to bring God glory and this book highlights the degree to which Christians have done exploits to glorify their heavenly Father. As Christians have been able to achieve so much in the Name of Jesus, his work is a great reminder for Christian leaders and teachers to bless their students by choosing a map that brings a more objective view of the world that God created.
Change requires leaders to establish a sense of urgency
Kotter (2012) explains that there is a dramatic difference between leaders and managers. It takes a leader who is focused on achieving a goal to generate a great enough degree of urgency within an organization that they can bring about a successful change. Kotter describes how a managerial outlook innately opposes this process because managers are focused on keeping production going, and changing systems interrupts the work flow that managers are accustomed to. Therefore, a good leader must have a team of people in place to overcome resistance from
managers and the inertia that comes from the normalcy bias that human beings have. Leaders need to have created a degree of urgency that is able to overcome all obstacles and lead the organization into transformational change. Kotter’s leadership material that was widely discussed throughout CLED 780 is essential to develop the urgency necessary to overcome something as large as 450 years of cultural habits of using the Mercator projection map that humanity is familiar with. The Mercator world map has been widely used, long before America declared independence, and almost as far back as when Luther led the Reformation in 1517.
Abundance of Alternatives
Although the Mercator projection map was a milestone for 1569, as it was much better than what Columbus and Magellan had used, it is four-and-one-half centuries old. In the 21st Century virtually all products outlive their usefulness and are replaced in a relatively short time. Kaiser (2013) identifies that maps change how the beholder views things, so people need to be cognizant of the world map they are using to avoid getting a warped sense of reality. Wilford (1988) observed that it is impossible to project the earth’s round sphere onto a flat map surface without distortion. Wood, Kaiser, and Abramms (2001) show over 20 world maps in an appendix so there is no shortage of world maps to choose from. Bildirici’s (2015) work describes how the new mechanism Tissot developed to better measure map distortions is helpful to making less distorted maps. There is a wide variety of different world maps to choose from in 2019, most of which are vastly less distorted than the Mercator projection map.
The problem with the Mercator projection is not because of a lack of viable alternatives, as people have been trying to develop a more accurate map for centuries. It is a cultural problem instead. Wood, Kaiser, and Abramms tell how a German physicist and astronomer named J. H. Lambert published seven different map projections, including the first cylindrical equal area
projection in 1772. They also explain how the clergyman James Gall developed a predecessor to the Peter’s projection equal area map in 1885. Gall was a Christian who was motivated for 30 years to provide a view of the world that gave equal representation to equal land area so that all peoples were shown fairly on the world map.
There are many world maps to use like the equal area Hobo-Dyer projection and equal area Peters projection, the Robinson projection, or the Winkel-Tripel maps that are attractive and corrected most of the distortion but were not equal area maps. Wilkins and Hicks (2001) maintains that maps have a great influence on our worldview, asking students to consider how the Mercator maps may have given them a Eurocentric or America-centric view. They display the Robinson projection and ask students to reevaluate how they look at the world. There have become so many world maps that Boulton (2010) half-jokingly mentions that any talented teenager with a computer can now produce a map. Cartographers had developed a full spectrum of world maps as alternatives long before the mapism idea became apparent to Marshall.
Western Cultural Tradition of Distorted World Maps
Simons (2006) observes that virtually all map consumers were from the western world for centuries, so the ethnocentric bias that Mercator has is not a surprise. This article goes on to recommend that people who purchase world maps carefully examine what they are purchasing before they buy it. Sauer (2013) analyzes the differences between how suffering Christians and western Christians live, he then asks how these two different parts of the body of Christ should relate to one another. When this writer has spoken to persecuted Christians living in anti-Christian countries that persecute the church who learned about map distortion, they have repeatedly expressed that they would appreciate a map that does not demean them and their country. Kilner informs us that every human being has been created in the image of God and
Christians need to make sure that our worldviews are being transformed to be more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Using an ancient relic like this map presents a false view of the world through the lens of people from the northern hemisphere as the Mercator projection is a western cultural tradition and not the most accurate representation of God’s image in the world.
During the 1980s, map publishers and distributors from around the world gathered for annual meetings at the International Map Trade Association (IMTA), which has been renamed the IMIA. This writer (Marshall, J.) was a person from a map company who attended many of these meetings. He observed that a diverse assortment of thousands of different maps of cities, states, regions, and countries worldwide had minimal distortion and were extremely close to scale. Being close to scale means that a map depicts a city or country as a very close approximation of how it appears. There was only one exception to this rule of other maps being nearly proportionate. The Mercator projection world map was a glaring exception as it was extremely disproportionate and very far off scale. It was by far the most widely distributed world map as an overwhelming majority of map firms used the Mercator projection.
The reasons that were given by map firms for using the Mercator projection boiled down to keeping the status quo, familiarity of the user, and they liked it the way it was, etc. The response to anybody who questioned it was almost as if the Mercator projection map was a historical fact that everybody needed to accept. People like Bob Abramms of ODT Maps, Bill Hunt of Map Link, Arno Peters, James Gall, National Geographic and others do not agree. Wood, Kaiser, and Abramms provided context when they observe that most maps have been commissioned by powerful leaders who were focused on keeping their position of power. That theory applies to the Mercator projection that continues to project a dominant Eurocentric cultural approach that exaggerates the importance of the northern hemisphere at the expense of non-white areas decades and decades after colonialism ended.
Marshall noticed at the 1980s IMTA shows that not only did the Mercator projection greatly misrepresent the earth, it also minimized non-western areas and peoples. As Mercator was from a Flemish European area, he made this area much larger than it really is, which eventually prompted Marshall to start using the word “mapism” in the late 1980s to describe how the Mercator projection gave people a distorted view of the world. He began sharing the mapism concept with others in the map industry as he felt that the pervasive use of this map discriminated against non-western peoples. During this period a professor from Syracuse University’s geography department brought students to their annual visit of Marshall Penn-York map company where Marshall worked. Marshall told the professor about mapism, and Dr. Monmonier (1995) subsequently wrote about first hearing about mapism in the early 1990s, and Marshall was glad that the word was spreading.
Although he has been very busy with work, classes, and family, Marshall has always hoped the word about the distortion of colonial era world maps would spread around more to give people a clearer worldview. He never found any logical reasons as to why the Mercator projection continued to be the most widely used world map but has found Wilkins and Hicks (2001) and many others have felt that maps do impact worldviews. In 1997 Marshall was given the opportunity to write a one-page article in Mercator’s World, which was a magazine that was serving the map industry. Please see the mapism article in the world map appendix that he wrote to a secular audience asserting that the industry should no longer publish this world map that diminished non-western peoples. Response to the mapism article by critics like the Map House of London favored the status quo as they called the argument for using an accurate map a tired old argument as others had tried to dethrone Mercator before. Other degrading words were spoken by critics who wanted to keep Mercator as the status quo, but none of these provided any
geographic or scientific reasons supporting their determination to maintain the status quo of the Mercator map.
Overstaying its Welcome
The process of trying to replace the distorted world map has been an uphill battle for so long. Not only was the Mercator projection being used by a large plurality of map companies, a high percentage of these maps were using the Cosmopolitan world map by America’s largest Map firm Rand McNally that cut the world in half, so the United States was in the middle. Marshall got a large sample of the Cosmopolitan world map cutting China in half from a Chinese church that had it in the classroom for educating children. The extensive use of the latter was very frustrating to someone who knew how the world looks, especially because it has been so widely used by churches, Christian schools, and even mission organizations who otherwise treated peoples of all ethnic groups with respect. Mandryk (2010) and his predecessor Patrick Johnstone have developed Operation World which is a terrific resource for Christians praying for and missionaries going to the nations of the world. It is essential that this excellent resource be anchored by a contemporary world map that depicts the world as correctly as possible.
Most products outlive their usefulness in a matter of years, but the Mercator projection has been the primary world map for 450 years. Monmonier (2004) details the arguments that have been made over the Mercator projection as a diverse assortment of world map projections have been produced attempting to replace this legacy map. Although Mercator is so old, both the public’s habit of using the Mercator map and the traditional map companies that have served them have been hard to change. Crampton (1994) published a classic article in Cartographica that described the prior two decades as cartography’s defining moment that consisted of arguments about if the Peters projection provided a good enough of a worldview to replace the
Mercator projection. Some people pointed out distortions in the Peters projection as major drawbacks to this map, while others were so ingrained in using the Mercator projection that they treated the idea of changing world maps almost like an unspeakable blasphemy.
Cartographers have been working to rectify the great distortion of the Mercator projection world map by developing different projections for nearly 250 years. Jenny, Savric, and Peterson (2015) tell how the work to replace Mercator’s map with a more accurate projection continues as they describe a new type of cylindrical projection map called the Compact Miller projection. Mapmakers have worked to develop new projections in the hope that eventually the Mercator can be retired and a projection that provides equal coverage to equal area with less distortion than even the Peters projection can take its place as the primary world map. Sun (2016) tells about using inscribed circles in polygons as a better way of treating map distortion as the science of cartography continues to improve and develop towards correctly depicting things.
Despite these ongoing design and production efforts and continuous educational effort from industry leaders like Ward Kaiser and Bob Abramms, this writer just received an interesting Jewish heritage map in the mail in 2019. It is called the “Lost tribes of Israel” Around the World map by Christians ministering to Jews with www.jewishvoice.org website. This is a fascinating subject for Christians as Israel is so important in the Bible and Jesus’ ancestors were Jewish. But, this intriguing 2019 map unfortunately uses the Mercator projection map. This obsolete map continues to be the map of choice, almost instinctively, as if it were by default.
Progress is needed in Christian circles
There have been a couple Christian leaders who have tried to do something about how the Mercator projection distorted people’s worldviews. In the latter half of the 19th Century pastor James Gall became very concerned about how much the Mercator projection
misrepresented God’s creation. Gall described an overview of the Peters projection at an 1855 science fair and wrote a paper about it 30 years later in 1885 as he had been wrestling with the idea. Pastor Ward Kaiser became a principled voice for the Peters projection in the latter part of the 20th Century and he continues to be concerned about this issue in the 21st Century. Besides these two voices and a few prophetic voices mentioning it to Christians who were really interested in missions, very little has been done about this problem within the Christian community. But this issue has caused a great deal of harm to people’s worldviews.
Would the church leaders who told William Carey to not care for the “heathen” in India and who were against Hudson Taylor’s caring for China’s multitudes have been as strongly opposed if they were not surrounded by the colonial era view that the Mercator projection conveyed? It is probably not possible to find out, but it is very likely that this distorted map has impeded, if not dramatically slowed, the spread of the gospel to all nations by diminishing non-western areas. God only knows, but many people may not have come to know Jesus Christ because of the ethnocentric view this map projected. Moore (2017) is from Liberty University and has observed a different Christianity among Christians who live in areas that persecute the church. Johnnie Moore has spent enough time traveling the globe to know there are so many people and places beyond the western world. This writer would like for Moore to become familiar with the injustice of the Mercator map as he could be influential in advocating to change world maps.
There are hundreds of Bible verses commanding followers of Christ to love all peoples. God made every human being and commands us to be ambassadors to people of all the nations of the earth as described in Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 28:19, and Revelation 5:9-10. Christians from all backgrounds need to consider the implications of this distorted map as to whether it helps us obey Jesus’s mandate to bring the gospel to all the ethnic groups of the earth. Is the
comfort we get for using this 1569 world map that we are familiar with more important than the negative impact it gives to our worldviews? Or is the peace of mind we experience by not having to go through the uncomfortable process of changing our world map worth misrepresenting the image of God in the world? A fundamental question we should ask ourselves is: are we more concerned about how the map we use makes us feel or are we more concerned with how an accurate world map can enhance the spread of the gospel in the earth?
The Mercator projection is a leftover from the colonial era which has affected Christian worldviews to this day. As this writer is a Christian who wrote about mapism to the secular map industry, he has desired to write a follow up to Christian leaders and educators for a very long time. Viewing a world map that has equal treatment for equal areas can be shocking to somebody who has gone through many years of education with this distorted map. In many cases, it is almost as if the more advanced degree a person has attained, the more deeply they have been indoctrinated to believe the false worldview that the Mercator projection provides. Besides that, the advent of new technologies that have replaced most traditional maps has not helped correct distortions as many computerized types of maps have reflexively adopted the Mercator projection. Furthermore, GPS and online maps have tended to exacerbate what was already a big problem. The lack of geographic awareness had National Geographic and others establish Geographic Awareness week decades ago because geography had been de-emphasized. It appears the growth of these new map technologies that has increased map illiteracy in the process, are creating even large obstacles to the process of trying to rectify this problem.
Implications for Christian Educators and Leaders
Bob Abramms of ODT Maps deserves a great deal of credit for breakthroughs in replacing the Mercator world map. Although momentum is finally starting to accelerate towards
a change, the fact that Bob is retiring and selling his business is indicative of how painfully slow progress has been made. This writer has first hand experience with how difficult it is to spread the message of distorted maps to educators and leaders, as they are mostly in a transmissional mode in which they can point to maps on their walls or in the textbooks, which makes it harder to consider new ideas. Marshall has met with leaders of churches and schools about the importance of avoiding inaccurate world maps, donated maps that cost him money, only to often find out that the Mercator maps were eventually put back up. This was largely because of their normalcy bias that favored the status quo of the colonial era maps they were familiar with over less ethnocentric maps. When he tried revisiting the subject, he was sometimes given an appeal to authority type of response. There has been significant resistance over the years, with many unreceptive to considering information from a source that did not have a certain type of degree.
Christian leaders and educators should have the humility to read this paper, consider the attached maps and information in the World Map Index, and allow the Holy Spirit to change their worldview to reflect what God wants it to be. It may not be comfortable if one has been accustomed to this map that has misrepresented God’s creation for so long. But the Lord did not call us to be comfortable, He called us to take up our cross and deny ourselves as it says in Luke 9:23-24. It is infinitely better to correct an injustice now than to have to tell the Lord that we did not have humility to address the issue later.
Although this is strong, something boldly needs to be said to finally create what Kotter (2012) calls a great urgency for change that this ancient world map is finally replaced. Hiebert (2008) stresses the importance for seminaries to ensure that they are fostering a biblical worldview, and not a western cultural worldview. Leaders and educators should try to not misrepresent the image of God in the world by transmitting a false perspective that diminishes the “third world.” These areas are more than “two thirds” of the world’s land mass and
population. This writer is hoping that the Lord can accelerate the pace at which institutions and book publishers are updating their maps, especially within Christian circles.
In reflecting on three decades of this issue of the erroneous Mercator world map, this writer realized that this idea arose out of a concern for map accuracy. Marshall had a zeal for making maps accurate maps that had begun with a knack for spotting errors on own his company’s maps. This in turn led to the development of a system to ensure that whenever a new edition of a map was published, the mistakes which had been found were subsequently corrected. It was an imperfect process, but systematically the accuracy of these maps increased.
He remembers that at an IMTA meeting at which the Defense Mapping Agency boasted how they had used the most advanced technologies and enormous amounts of money to make the best possible world map. Marshall looked at their huge map with his analysis skills and immediately found an error, then another, and in what seemed to be like locations on a map, he found a great deal of mistakes. Defense Mapping was speechless because these were real errors. Repeating this story is not done to say anything bad against them, it is simply an example about how Marshall seemed to be able to spot errors on maps from whomever the source was. They subsequently worked to improve their maps and never came back to the map trade show as proud again. Remembering this background reminded him that the roots of his deep frustration with the status quo of the Mercator projection was from his observing that saw the Mercator map was the biggest error that he has ever found in the map industry. He has wanted it fixed like he has all other errors he found on all maps, and it is very frustrating that it has never been corrected!
Kotter (2012) tells readers how leaders need to generate such a sense of urgency that an organization will overcome inertia and make a change. An urgent desire for a change is needed
to teach the next generation an accurate view of the world. Jane Elliott is a person who creates this level of urgency that really gets people to change. She makes a presentation on the distorted Mercator map is and her link is as follows. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whvrFkImT5o. Elliott she repeatedly says “racist” to describe those who use this map, and this writer finds the overuse of this pejorative word inappropriate, and incorrect in too many instances. Despite her draconian approach, her efforts have made a difference as she gets people motivated to change.
The following is a free online book that is a great place to learn about how maps change things using the password: mapism99 https://manywaystoseetheworld.org/collections/free-downloads/products/how-maps-change-things-e-book-9-99-personal-use-only. Please join Bob Abramms, Ward Kaiser, this writer and others in helping to transform this colonial map that greatly misrepresents the world to do something that is far better for the future.
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