Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Ples—Your Cabin is Number 10,587,282A

There will be some continued delays in my posts because of viruses: they are filling me, and have filled all my computer connections. I am using a spare computer in a classroom right now.

After I returned from my fun creationist weekend (see previous seven entries), I began wondering about how Noah might have sorted out the biodiversity that he had to fit into the Ark, if you believe the Flood story of Genesis 6-9 literally. In particular, I wondered about what Noah might have thought about the apemen whose existence is now thoroughly proved from the fossil record.

First, consider human diversity. Creationists commonly claim that the genetic diversity of Homo sapiens was preserved on the Ark because, perhaps, the three wives of Noah’s three sons were black/Australoid, white, and oriental/Native American. There is no Biblical basis for this, but creationists have never had a problem with just making stuff up. Sounds like a good premise for a Britcom, actually, or an episode of News from Lake Wobegon. Mrs. Shem always fixed hummus, Mrs. Ham always fixed okra, and Mrs. Japheth always fixed lutefisk.

Then, consider what Noah might have done with Homo ergaster. This species of animal looked just like us except that the entire species had brains much smaller than ours. What would Noah have done if the Turkana Boy showed up? (Actually, an adult pair of his species; the Turkana Boy died in adolescence of a tooth infection.) The answer? This species did not yet exist at the time of the Flood, according to many creationists. Their remains are only in the most recent layers, such as in Africa’s Rift Valley, so they must have lived after the Flood. Which means that they must have been (presumably degenerate) descendants of Noah. Apparently the whole species developed small brains, which means either that God miraculously microcephalized them or else that natural selection favored microcephalic mutants. But I guess this would explain why they seemed to make nothing but Acheulean hand axes. What did they use for cutting meat? Hand axes. What did they use for trimming their toenails? Hand axes. What did they use for tightening stone screws in their Flinstone-mobiles? Hand axes. Makes sense.

Finally, consider what Noah might have done with the australopithecines. These animals walked like humans but might otherwise have been chimp-like. Among the famous australopithecines who did not make it to the Ark were Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), and Mrs. Ples (Australopithecus africanus). Presumably, Noah would have sent all of these apeman species to animal quarters. Noah, like modern creationists, would presumably have had no hesitation in classifying animals into human and nonhuman categories. (I understand that creationists consider the fossils of these species to also be post-Flood.)

But Noah’s confidence may have resulted from the fact that he lived in the Middle East, where there were no primates other than humans. The other mammal species were things like cows and sheep, all of which were clearly less intelligent than humans. This is perhaps the reason that the monotheistic religions, which posit an absolute distinction between humans and animals, evolved in the Middle East, according to Frans DeWaal. The religions that evolved in parts of the world where non-human primates are common did not, and perhaps could not, make such a clear distinction, because monkeys and apes resemble us quite strongly. Queen Victoria, when she saw Jenny the orangutan at the London Zoo in 1842, declared her to be “painfully and disagreeably human.”

Creationists have no more hesitation at drawing an absolute distinction between the saved and the damned than they do between humans and animals. Anyone who has, like me, been treated as damned by a creationist will know what I mean.

Don’t miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Fun Creationist Weekend, Part Eight (final installment)

On the weekend of March 5, I visited two creationist museums (see previous seven entries). One was the museum in which Carl Baugh had displays which, he claimed, proved that humans and dinosaurs left footprints in the same layers of mud.

Before I went home, ending my fun creationist weekend, I visited Dinosaur Valley State Park to see some real dinosaur footprints, still in the river bed (see bottom photo). The water is high in spring, and only a few prints were visible: round holes that are the footprints of large herbivorous Paluxysaurus dinosaurs, and three-toed footprints of small carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus dinosaurs. Some of the prints are visible under water, especially when green algae grow inside of them (see top photo). This was the part of my Texas trip that was refreshing and realistic, and I recommend a visit to this park if you are in the area.

Before I left Glen Rose, I did one more thing that altered my mind. I stopped at a barbecue place. It is well known that you can throw a rock anywhere in Texas and it will hit a barbecue place better than almost any other in the world. I had the brisket. The waitress brought me a pile of meat. It was pretty good, but it usually takes me a week to eat this much meat. I quite literally left Glen Rose feeling like what I thought a Neanderthal would have felt like. Neanderthals, you may know, ate mostly meat, according to scientists who have studied their coprolites. But recently a scientist studied Neanderthal tooth deposits and found that they also ate grains. Well, I suppose they must have had a piece of Texas toast with their barbecue.

Don’t miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Fun Creationist Weekend, Part Seven. The Ghost of Marlyn Clark

It is not with fondness that I remember Dr. M. E. (Marlyn) Clark, who was an engineering professor at the University of Illinois while I was a plant ecology graduate student there. Marlyn was, to put it mildly, grim. He scowled, and looked incapable of smiling. We were both members of Twin City Bible Church in Urbana, although in that large church our paths had not crossed. That is, until I was asked by the Board of Leadership to teach an adult education class about Christian views of creation and evolution in 1982. Having recently left creationism, I presented the theistic evolution side; I invited Clark to present the creationist side. This was a mistake. When he found out that there was another side other than creationism being taught at this church, he and his associates began a campaign of disinformation against me, about which I later heard from student members even of other churches in town. He demanded a sort of trial to be arranged against me at the church, at which I was not allowed to speak. I knew, of course, that Clark and the other creationists (who were militant members of Phyllis Schlafley’s Eagle Forum and strong supporters of bloody terrorist raids by Nicaraguan contras against the Sandinistas), but I expected at least a modicum of fairness from the church leadership. It turns out that, after this trial, the church leadership took no further actions and even insisted that the creationists not cause the class to be cancelled. However excruciating an experience this was for me, it was formative: it was the beginning of my transformation from comfortable Christian evolutionist to passionate Christian anti-creationist. Perhaps I have Marlyn Clark to thank for that. It is regrettable that Clark left this kind of negative memory. He did some fine engineering work with computer models of the human circulatory system; this part of his legacy remains a blessing to many patients with cardiovascular disease.

Then, 29 years later, I encounter him again, posthumously. On March 5, as I left Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidences Museum (see previous entries), I saw Marlyn Clark’s “Wall of Truth.” It was (see bottom photo) a model of geological strata from a creationist “Flood geology” viewpoint. That is, it was an attempt to fit the geological record into a creationist viewpoint. Creationists believe that all fossil deposits were produced during the Flood. Therefore, there could be human artifacts at all levels of the strata, from Paleozoic to Recent. And some creationists believe they have found evidence of this very thing. Clark donated money to build a wall, near the museum entrance, that summarized this evidence: a bowl that was found in a coal deposit, and which he assumed had to be the same age as the coal, as well as the hammer and footprints found elsewhere in Baugh’s museum. One thing you will notice right away about this wall: the putative human evidences are found at different levels. This means that humans had to emerge from their hiding places and run around on hundreds of feet of mud, without sinking in, several times during the Flood, leaving footprints at two different levels, and dropping a hammer at yet another. Whatever the putative evidence of the Wall shows, it does not demonstrate a Flood. The skulls and tusks at the top represent post-Flood australopithecines and mammoths. (The figure looking out over the Wall is a nine-foot-tall statue of Tom Landry. Baugh intends it as an example of what magnificent specimens of humanity the Homo bauanthropus men were, at least from the viewpoint of Texas creationists.)

When I left the deliberately-created psychological delusions of Baugh’s museum (described in earlier entries), and emerged into the fresh air, I thought I had left creationism in general and Marlyn Clark in particular behind. But I got into my car and looked up through my windshield. I saw what looked like a green merry-go-round (see top photo). It was not labeled but I recognized it instantly. It was Marlyn Clark’s Flood Tank. Over thirty years ago, Clark built a merry-go-round that was supposed to prove something or other about Noah’s Flood. It was no ordinary merry-go-round. First, it had the ability to lurch, not just spin. And around its perimeter is a water-tight ring into which water and sediments could be placed. Once the machine is running, you can watch the water slosh around and mix up the sediments. Clark’s hypothesis was that, if there was a worldwide flood, it would not have produced a uniform slurry of sediments (his null hypothesis), but would have made distinct layers (the creationist hypothesis). Of course, you don’t need a giant merry-go-round to prove this. If you mix soil into water, the sand will settle out first, then the silt, then last of all the fine clay. Soil scientists do this with their sedimentation columns all the time. Clark’s machine did in fact produce distinct sediment layers, and he proclaimed the triumph of his theories. Only in the most alternate of alternate realities might one consider an eight-foot-wide merry-go-round to be a realistic simulation of the Earth during a Flood. At the moment, the Noachian merry-go-round is non-functional. But maybe Baugh will set it up outside his museum. I doubt that he would let the kids ride it. But maybe a frog will get buried in the sediments and fossilized. Maybe a giant will leave a footprint.

Don’t miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Fun Creationist Weekend, Part Six. Lies and Damned Lies at the Creationist Museum

On March 5 I visited Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidences Museum near Glen Rose, Texas. In the previous entry, I described some of the displays. But the most prominent display of all, nestled among scriptural scrolls, is the Darwin display. All it has in it is a few of Darwin’s book, one of which has one of his more lugubrious photos on the cover, and a collection of slave shackles and handcuffs (see photo).

The message is clear, just as it was in Bill Gordon’s museum in Oklahoma: belief in evolution causes human oppression and slavery. If you believe we evolved, then you think people can be treated like animals, but if you believe humans were created, then you will treat them like fellow children of God. The footprint displays were lies; but this one was a damned lie.

First, consider the clear message that it proclaimed: Darwinian evolutionary science causes such things as slavery. As anyone knows who has read the masterpiece 2009 book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, both sides of Darwin’s family were abolitionists, and Darwin detested slavery. Moreover, Darwin transferred his early belief in the common origin of all human races from Adam and Eve into his later acceptance of the common evolutionary origin of all human races. Desmond and Moore’s book also documents the creationist beliefs of American slaveholders and their scientific sympathizers. Louis Agassiz was most notable among them, but there were many others. If we must draw a causal inference, it would be that because slavery was forced out of existence during the period of history in which scientists and some societies and churches accepted evolution, then evolution deserves the credit. No causal inference either way is, however, justified. Certainly Darwin did not cause black American slavery. This is something only hypnotized victims of Baugh’s sermon could believe as they glanced at the displays.

Second, consider what the display did not mention. The history of Christianity in the western world for the last two millennia has, until very recently, been the story of murder and oppression. Ask any Huguenot victim of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre if Lamarck caused their plight. And nearly all of the five hundred sovereign Native American nations had been conquered, and many exterminated, by Darwin’s time. It was religious zeal (and greed and plunder) that caused the Spanish settlements started by Columbus to enslave, then torture and kill, the Caribbean natives, against which the lone Christian voice was Bartolom√© de las Casas. The Pilgrims, so much revered by creationists and other Christian conservatives, surrounded Pequot villages, set them ablaze, and shot anyone attempting to escape. Here is what William Bradford wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the colonists] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully.” While massacres based on the Christian religion are today rare, the uncomfortable fact remains that one of the conservatives’ favorite books of the Bible is Revelation, which depicts a violent Jesus making the Earth run red with blood.

Baugh’s display added stupidity to dishonesty. It was not until I got home and looked at the photograph (look at it again!) that I noticed that one of the slave shackles was from the “Georgetown County Plantation Police.” The printing seemed awfully crisp to be on a real, well-used slave shackle. So I googled the name. It turns out that fake Georgetown County Plantation Police paraphernalia are sold on the internet. Badges are more popular, but you can get the shackles on Amazon for $39.99. (“Customers who bought related items also bought Wild Planet Spy Gear Night Goggles!”) If Baugh just stopped at being a fraud, and satisfied himself with entertaining lies about giant humans and about how moonlight allowed pre-Flood humans to live almost a thousand years, it might be funny; but he has slipped into the world of attempting to stir up hatred of evolutionary scientists.

Don’t miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.