Monday, February 19, 2007

T-Rex versus the sphinx

Sean O’Driscoll of the Associated Press just published a short article comparing two major museum events this spring that both deal with evolution. In one corner, we find the Hall of Human Origins, which opened last weekend at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is the most comprehensive exhibit on human evolution ever to appear in the United States. In the other corner, we have Ken Ham's Creation Museum which will be opening near Cincinnati in May. It will be, undoubtedly, the most elaborate creation museum in the country.

O’Driscoll does a rather tongue in cheek comparison of the two shows, which will be sure to add to the persecution complex that fundamentalists feel whenever they show too much of themselves to "the liberal mainstream press." That can't be helped. Far from attacking Ham's entire show, I want to zoom in on one statement in O’Driscoll's description and comment on what it tells us about modern American Creationism.
[The Creation Museum] exhibits present genetic variation as occurring rapidly in the past 6,000 years. Various types of dinosaurs were saved by Noah’s ark and larger ones mutated from those. Dinosaurs died out in the last few thousand years, but some might still be around. Polar bears mutated from bears saved by Noah’s ark.

Notice the strategic use of the word, "mutated." This is the key to making it all work.

My first point involves fitting animals into the ark.

Ever since the book of Genesis became known to a broad audience, some twenty-four centuries ago, skeptics have questioned the possibility of fitting two of all species of land animals into a single boat. In the early days of the Church, apologists made a careful count of the number of species in the world (arriving at a laughably low number*), made the largest possible estimate of the size of the ark**, and carefully arranged the animals into that space along with enough food for a year and Noah's family. These methods were sufficient to satisfy the faithful until the Renaissance, when sailors began bumping into entire continents with hundreds, even thousands, of new species. Then scientists began finding hundreds of very large, extinct species. How did they fit into the story?

Biblical literalists have really been constrained by their core principle on this. They believe every word of Genesis is completely true and scientifically accurate as understood in common English. By their own rules, using a sophisticated linguistic gloss to say "that's not quite what the Bible means." If the Bible says the whole world was flooded and God commanded Noah to take all of the animals on board, it must be so. No fair saying it was a local flood and Noah only had to save Middle Eastern farm animals. The ark had to carry Argentine anteaters, Irish elk, Australian kangaroos, Congolese gorillas, Kansas buffalo, and Siberian woolly mammoths. And dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are a special problem. Dinosaurs, and other extinct animals known only by fossils, create a special problem. Not only do fossils multiply the number of animals that need to fit onto the ark; many of those fossil animals are very large. Some Biblical literalists chose simply to deny that they really existed. Others have suggested that fossils are the remains of a couple of practice creation that God did before making us. That idea has fallen out of favor, because it breaks the rules of taking the Bible at its word. No, the only real answer must be that dinosaurs were on the ark. This is the solution that Ken Ham embraces for his Creation Museum.

Modern Biblical literalists have found two loopholes that allow them to dramatically reduce the number of animals on the ark.

Their primary loophole is the concept of "kind." In most translations of Genesis, God commands Noah to take two (or seven) of every "kind" onto the ark. Creationists argue that "kind" is a different concept than "species." Species, they argue, is a false Darwinist concept that inflates the number of animals necessary for Noah to take. Kind is a much broader concept. If "cat" is a kind, then Noah only needed to take two "cats" on the ark. He did not need to bring a pair each of lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars, leopards, and kitties on board.

Their secondary loophole is hybridization. Just as horses and donkeys can crossbreed to create mules, so, they argue, other pairs of species must have crossbreed to create third species. In those days, "dogs" and "cats" could crossbreed to create "dats," a species much beloved of creationists.

The sum of these two loophole is a narrative of Noah only taking a few hundred species of animals on the ark. After the flood, Noah released all of these animals, who spread across the world in a wild burst of non-Darwinian speciation that only lasted a few hundred years. During that time all of the thousands of modern known species were created, along with thousands more who went extinct almost as soon as they appeared.

This, rather indirectly, brings me to my other point: when did this happen? The classic date, used by most American Biblical literalists, for the expulsion from Eden and the beginning of history is Bishop Ussher's 4004 BC or something close to it. If we read Genesis 4-7, and apply a little basic math to the generations of Adam, we can see that the flood happened in the 1756th year after the expulsion. That works out to 2248 BC, counting forward from Bishop Ussher’s date. For comparison, the accepted historical dates for Egyptian history have the pyramids being built around 2800-2600 BC. That is, four to six centuries before the flood of Noah.

We can push the construction of the pyramids forward, but we have a limited amount of space in which to work; by about 1400-1200 BC, we have to cover all of ancient history up to the Exodus of Moses and the Hebrew children from Egypt. In the mere 1000-1200 years that we have to do that we need to build the civilization of Babel and destroy it, confounding the languages of man. Some of those confounded men must move into the Nile valley and become numerous enough to become the original Egyptian civilization. That civilization needs to build the pyramids, collapse, rise again, collapse again, rise again, and enslave the Hebrews.

Meanwhile, during that same ten to twelve centuries, a couple of species of medium sized-dinosaurs need to speciate into hundreds of species of dinosaurs, some of them have to grow into enormous monsters, and then most of them need to go extinct and fossilize. The Egyptians and all other ancient civilizations had to accomplish everything the did in a very short time, all the while avoiding being eaten or stepped on by dinosaurs.

Ham teaches that a few dinosaurs hung on to provide dragons, sea monsters, and lake beasties right up to the present. Behemoth, Leviathan, and St. George's dragon were all dinosaurs according to Ham.

This is what he writes in his books and this, presumably, is what he will teach in his museum. He has confidence that this story makes more sense than Darwinism with all of those years. Personally, I like years.

* Citing Aristotle, they claimed there were only 550 species in the world.
** Origen wins hands down, making the ark twenty nine miles long. He did not explain how Noah found that much lumber in the Middle East.

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