Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

Heresy Collection

Geology isn’t a great avocation for those of us with an unsettled existence. Having grown up with a fondness for fossils—maybe because they were so transgressive—my initial collection was tossed out because of a family move. Rocks are too heavy to take with you. I made the mistake of thinking, back in my Nashotah House days, that I was settled enough to let my rock-hounding sensibilities loose. Not that fossils were common, but Wisconsin has some great geological formations and I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society and even dragged my family along on some field trips. By the time Nashotah informed me my talents were no longer required, I’d amassed a few boxes that I was embarrassed to admit to the movers that, yes, contained rocks. New Jersey also has some great locations for rock-hounding, but my sense of being subjected to sudden, geologic career shifts has kept me from picking up nearly as many stones as I’d like to bring home.

The Museum of the Earth, here in Ithaca, is a dangerous place for someone like me to visit. I thought I had my fossil-collecting habit under control. The gorges in this region are famous for their fossils. Wandering through the museum, reflecting, as it does, the immense stretch of prehistoric time, it was obvious how arrogant humans are for assuming “control” of the planet. We’re so terribly late as to be classified as invaders on this planet. The world got by just fine billions of years without us. Perhaps that’s why I experienced transgressive fossils so captivating as a child. Ironically I found them in the creek bed right behind the Fundamentalist church we attended and where we were taught that evolution never occurred. I was fascinated by what I’d now call the juxtaposition of evidence and faith. We never questioned the reality of fossils. It was their interpretation that was the problem.

You can hold in your hand the most solid evidence that life evolved and call it heresy. Those delicate impressions of creatures dead for millions of years argue eloquently against Genesis and its mere 600 decades of world history. For me the fossils always won. On trips home from the seminary I would gather more fossils to add to the growing museum of time I’d been amassing in my basement. Then a Fundamentalist administration took the same approach as my exasperated mother trying to pack to move. Jettison the fossils. They’re heavy and they kind of make us uncomfortable anyway. Maybe the idea of too much time is something the biblically constrained simply can’t face. And when I see a fossil right there on the surface in one of Ithaca’s many gorges, perhaps I need to learn simply to let it lie.

News from around the Universe

In the last couple of weeks two large-scale news items caught my attention. One describes how a newly discovered galaxy is made up of mostly dark matter. The other tells how a new fossil find in Greenland may push the origins of life on earth back to 3.7 billion years ago. If you read my blog, you know that I’m a frustrated scientist. I’ve always tried to follow the developments in the field and even considered it as a profession until I ran into the wall of mathematics. Ran into the wall, banged up the car beyond repair, and was barely able to walk away. That’s the breaks in a world where ambition and ability aren’t the same thing. So I have to take my science like baby-food, mashed and strained before it makes its way to my brain. I know I’m not alone in this—the whole field of “humanities” proves that. (Originally science (astronomy) was one of the humanities, but oh how we’ve grown!)

Into the storm

Such frightening things as mathematics aside, these are exciting stories. I’ve been looking around this galaxy quite a bit, and I can believe dark matter outweighs light matter and I’ve never even been off the earth. The story is encouraging because it shows just how much we have yet to learn. Nothing could be more exciting for an erstwhile educator. The opportunity to stretch one’s mind should never be taken lightly. At the same time as dark matter is growing, so is the age of life on earth. I have to admit that I’ve not even been to Greenland, but the idea that life began so soon after the earth formed has cosmic implications. If we were such fast starters, doesn’t that suggest that elsewhere in the universe the same may be true? Ironically, here on earth uniformitarianism is considered a foundation of science. But once you get off earth scientists are reluctant to say the same processes could have happened elsewhere. But what do I know? I’m still trying to figure out trigonometry.

Earthbound I may be. Humble humanities specialist from start to finish. Nevertheless it is an amazing time to be alive. Once we’ve figured out that human brains—products of evolution that they are—aren’t capable of ultimate comprehension, we’ll be able to bask in the light of billions and billions of suns and raise a glass with our cosmic neighbors, made of light matter or dark, and proudly say that we’ve made some real advances at last.

Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

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The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.

Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Brave Old World

WorldFromBeginningsAs we continue to evolve, it is helpful to learn where we’ve been. Besides, the title, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is difficult for an old Genesis reader to pass up. I knew Ian Tattersall’s book was about human evolution—a subject that has made me feel naughty ever since being raised to believe, quite opposite of reality, that evolution was a myth and Genesis fact. I remember the strange disconnect from my earliest years. Standing under the 13th Street Bridge, just before French Creek joins the Allegheny River, the main tributary of the Ohio, and, in turn, the Mississippi, my brothers and I would look for fossils. And find them we did. If you found the right kind of rock, preferably with a recent fracture, you could find the impressions of dozens of sea shells jumbled together in a glorious, fluted profusion. These were the exoskeletons of animals dead for millions of years, and thinking myself a budding scientist, I stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to make of it all. At church I learned the earth was young—not even a teenager in geologic terms—and yet, in my hand, encased in rock, contrary evidence.

Indeed, Tattersall begins his book, as many college-level texts do, apologizing to the culture that still somehow believes that the earth is just 6000 years old, despite the Tyrannosaurus towering over your head at the Carnegie Museum. Humans are latecomers on this scene, however. Tattersall gives a solid introduction to the current human family tree. Instead of being ashamed of our heritage, I’m more inclined to feel a little pride. Our ancestors, prey to large carnivores, took a distinctive evolutionary track that enlarged our brains to help us outwit our natural enemies and learn how to destroy the very planet we inhabit. Well, maybe pride is a little too strong a word. Good and evil, it seems, always stroll hand-in-hand. So we evolved, but not yet to perfection.

Evolution always makes me think of the future. A strange sense of accomplishment makes prominent thinkers, particularly those who declare themselves bright, marvel at our greatness. I can’t help but to think that something better must lie ahead. We’re told that evolution has no direction in mind—traits that help to survive until reproduction are all that really count—and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on. Have we built all this merely to have sex and die? Glorified May-flies? Isn’t the future a wonder of what we might become? Evolution takes so long, even with punctuated equilibrium, that we’ll never live to see it. I have a suspicion, however, that if we give it enough time, we might offer our as yet unimagined offspring a world as full of wonder as it always has been. And they’ll still be standing by the river, staring in amazement at animals made of stone.

The Science of G-d

ScienceGodWhere, exactly, do science and religion come together? Since both are human mental enterprises, they must at some point at least glance off one another. Both religion and science attempt to make sense of human experience in the world, and, given the limitations of human time, being a true expert in both may be impossible. The John Templeton Foundation, as any religion scholar knows, supports research and awards handsomely those perceived to have succeeded, at least somewhat, in bringing the two together. A single lifetime, however, is not long enough for either, let alone both. Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Science of God illustrates this point. Subtitled The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, and produced by a major publishing house, the pitfalls of applying the Bible to a scientific worldview become apparent almost from page one.

Somewhat unusual in the field, Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew addressing the questions that the Bible raises for science. He is also a credentialed physicist. Most attempts to force religion and science into bed together come from Christian researchers—secular scientists usually have a headache—and a hidden agenda is often not too difficult to discern. I read The Science of God knowing nothing of Schroeder’s religious sensibilities. By narrowing the focus from science and religion to science and Bible, however, I knew the enterprise was doomed without even opening the cover. The Bible is one of the least scientific of all human writings. That’s not to say it has no value, but it is an honest observation by a lifelong reader of the Bible who believes science has a proven track record for making some sense of the world. Schroeder begins with that most specious of arguments, the anthropic principle. Few ideas raise such ire in my limited scientific understanding. The suggestion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a moot point in principio. Who are we to say that life wouldn’t have emerged if the Big Bang were one degree cooler or hotter? It might have been life with different parameters, but the anthropic principle seems to point to nothing more than the tenacity of life.

While Schroeder does raise some valid points, it is clear from his challenging of the fossil record that the Bible will only ever sleep uneasily with science. For a physicist, Schroeder spends an awfully long time using God-of-the-gaps reasoning to fill in biology. In a disguised day-age “hypothesis” he gives us the creation order of Genesis 1, while skirting around Genesis 2 where humans are created before animals. And, I’m sorry, but the Bible does not mention dinosaurs anywhere. It’s a pity really. Schroeder’s book addresses some important issues, but using the Bible as a measure of scientific credibility fails every time. The science of God, it seems, is more a concluding unscientific postscript, but without the philosophical sublimity.

Intelligently Deceived

One of the most difficult things about the life of the academic gypsy is having tons of books. Literally tons. Having been cast from institution to institution in search of that mythical full-time teaching post, we’ve put books in storage and sometimes even forgotten that we’ve had them. So it was that when I was looking for a copy of Great Expectations for my daughter’s English class assignment, I was in the dusky attic, hoping the upstairs neighbors didn’t burst in on me, up to my armpits in boxes of books, that I rediscovered a treasure. Taking a leaf from Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop, I decided I would review a few of the Creationist books I grew up with. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to keep them although I’d long dismissed their facile, often juvenile, point of view. They have provided great entertainment and even some poignant instruction in the ways of manipulating the minds of the young. Fear of Hell is a great motivating factor to a kid who sees ghosts in every corner and finds bats on his pillow!

So, without further ado, I present the top 5 creationist books of my youth. (Those that I purchased as an adult I bought from used bookstores so as not to add any royalties to the fundamentalists’ already bursting coffers.)

Textbook

We’ll begin with the textbook. Scientific Creationism makes no pretense, such as the “Intelligent Design” school does, about being non-(necessarily-but-we-all-just-happen-to-be)Christian specific. Here Henry Morris begins with the assertion “the Bible and theistic religion have been effectively banned from [public school] curricula” and offers the present book as a corrective to the situation. A better title for the content, however, might have been Scientific Fiction.

GenFlood

The work that really opened the flood-gates, so to speak, was The Genesis Flood. This craftsterpiece was penned by Henry Morris (again) and his compatriot John Whitcomb. Both proudly proclaiming themselves “doctors” they point out “evidence” designed to confuse the unsavvy into believing that there is a physical way the world could be entirely flooded. They even make room for dinosaurs on the ark, noting that they would have been juveniles of the various species. I’ve been in academics long enough to know that a Ph.D. does not guarantee credibility (or even sanity) on the part of the holder. The fact that Whitcomb’s doctorate is from Grace Theological Seminary ought to speak quite plainly as to its objectivity.

Gish

Written by Duane “the Fish” Gish, Evolution, the Fossils Say No! is an attempt to demonstrate that since not every single phase of the fossil record has been uncovered, the whole theory of evolution is in shambles. Gish, one of the few authentically scientifically credentialed Creationists, should have been able to see that his “back-and-fill” technique was going to fall on hard times as new fossil forms were discovered. As the fossil record grows more complete each year his book becomes more and more outdated.

EvolutionHS

Evolution and the High School Student terrified me in my delicate years. This booklet intimated that when I reached high school the unending assaults of the atheistic non-believers would be unrelenting. I feared for my very soul. Instead, in high school I found nose-picking, pocket-pool playing, and chalk-print-on-the-pants-seat teachers were among the openly committed Christians. Some even kept Bibles on their desks. (This was a public school.) The book lost its teeth.

GooZoo

My personal favorite is How Did It All Begin? (or From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo) by Harold Hill (obviously when he was not out swindling River City, Iowa folk of their hard-earned cash to start a bogus boy’s band). This booklet, complete with cute, cartoon drawings, convinces grade-schoolers that evolution answers no questions at all. He had me going as a kid, until I got to the part where he claimed scientists had invented a machine that could indicate if you were “saved” or not. Even as a gullible child I couldn’t buy that.

The efforts of the Creationists are tireless. Even this brief survey of books that I happened to chance upon is nowhere near a comprehensive survey of what is out there. What it does serve to demonstrate is that all reasonable people should be wary. After all, even Jesus knew that a person in the wrong, if persistent enough, could convert even a hard-hearted judge.