Whose DNA?

The name Francis Crick will forever be associated with the discovery of the double helix of the DNA molecule.  Indeed, he co-won a Nobel Prize for that particular insight.  Of course I didn’t learn about Crick when I was growing up—we weren’t an educated family.  I first learned about him in college when his book Of Molecules and Men was required reading for one of our religion classes.  This book is highly critical of religion, and Christianity in particular.  We read it not to assent to his logic, but rather to have it picked apart in class.  (Grove City was a conservative Christian college then, but less so than it is today.)  Although it has been over three decades since I’ve read it (I found my copy again when we moved three years ago) the sharp critique has remained.  Crick was a staunch materialist.

Image credit: brian0918, via Wikimedia Commons

Although I appreciated his contribution to science, I really didn’t have too much cause to think about Crick after that.  I’m not a geneticist and there are certainly a lot of people out there who make sharp criticisms against religion.  What brought Crick back to mind was when I recently read that he had later come to the conclusion that human DNA was too complex to have evolved by chance.  The piece I was reading used the unfortunate term “intelligent design” so I had to follow up.  Francis Crick hadn’t become a Fundamentalist, had he?  No, it turns out.  Crick had come to believe in “directed panspermia.”  Panspermia is the concept that life isn’t isolated on earth—it exists in space and was brought to our planet by space dust, or some such means.  The “directed” part was what caught my attention.

For a vocal critic of religion, Crick had come to believe that extraterrestrial intelligences had engineered at least human DNA.  This is of particular consequence because until recently the idea of extraterrestrial intelligent life was a laughing flashpoint among scientists and skeptics.  In fact, it’s still regularly labelled as “paranormal.”  I was surprised to learn that a scientist of Crick’s stature had come to this conclusion while being so utterly critical of religion.  Of course, views can change over a lifetime.  No one is born with all the correct knowledge.  It is interesting that Crick believed human DNA to require some outside intervention to become what it is.  Some religious believers share this outlook, but with quite a different origin source in mind.  It just seems to me that our collegiate discussion of his work seems to have been woefully incomplete.

The Birds

While waiting for the bus, now that it’s light out that early, I like watching the birds. They have complex interactions and so many different styles of flying. They have ways that are a closed book to our species. From human eyes they seem so playful that it’s difficult to believe they participate in a struggle for survival. Evolution tells a different story, of course. Living not far from the great human nest of Newark’s Liberty Airport, it’s not unusual to see an engineered flying machine soaring high over their avian heads. Which, I wonder, are the better fliers? Birds, after all, evolved. Flying wasn’t planned, as far as we can tell. Although not so much around here, some birds don’t even fly.

I once read—many years ago and I can’t recall where—that if a person were to fly they would need an enormous chest to beat the very large wings they’d need for lift-off. Birds, apart from being naturally aerodynamic, have hollow bones which make them a touch fragile, but less tied to gravity. Our planes and jets, unlike the escape vehicle in Chicken Run, don’t flap. Bernoulli’s law keeps them aloft, along with some meticulous engineering and heavy fuel consumption. Humans may imitate nature, but they supersede it when they can. Still, I have to wonder why, if birds were a special creation as our literalist friends claim, God didn’t make them more like a plane.

Holding your wings out stiff all day, I’ll allow, would get pretty tiresome. Still, if you’re designing a critter to fly you might as well go with the best parts available, right? If not, I’m going to have a talk with my mechanic and ask for some of my money back. Birds, for all their charm, are very good illustrations of evolution at work. Dinosaurs taking to the air is so poetic that it has an organic feel. Flying is a great way to escape your land-bound predators. That step from long leaping to flying may be a doozie, but it seems to explain the shape of birds better than any intelligent design. Among bipeds, though, only one claims the place of being god-like in shape. Having said that, there are some flaws that a good biomechanical engineer might address. But then, who said God majored in engineering? When I went to college I was firmly under the impression that he’d majored in religion. And that, as many engineers might suppose, is for the birds.


The Flying Spaghetti Monster came onto my radar while teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. I was teaching a course entitled The Bible and Current Events and the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design had been gaining steam. As I addressed the evolution section of the course, I became aware of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendages. The Jesus fish had recently evolved to a Darwin fish, and the Darwin fish was being eaten by a Jesus shark, then I finally saw the Flying Spaghetti Monster on somebody’s bumper. I looked it up online and discovered a whole mythology had been developed to go with this parody of a religion. It was lighthearted and funny and had an obvious purpose—to challenge the equally bogus claims that creationism is science. Now, I don’t try to change anyone’s religion. If someone finds creationism comforting, well, the United States is based on freedom of religion and who am I to dictate what someone else believes? The problem is creationists often don’t share that courtesy and try to get their religion taught in public schools as science, which it isn’t. The Flying Spaghetti Monster was their nemesis.

Over the weekend, when I actually have time to do a little surfing, I came across the United Church of Bacon. Noticing the similar food-based theme as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I decided to check it out. It seems to have become a cottage (cheese?) industry to start your own anti-religion. A look at the United Church of Bacon’s website reveals it to be the brainchild of Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, and friends. As usual, the voice of Teller is not heard. This is a legal church which performs many of the services of traditional religions, but without the belief. Bacon, it seems, is the ultimate reality here—to quote the church on a billboard: “Because bacon is real.” They have nine bacon commandments and an impressive list of charitable works.

Looking over all of this material, I wonder what the mainstream churches might take away from all of it. For one thing, the obsession that Christian denominations have had for centuries with correct belief has become a kind of albatross. Petty differences in theology tend to lead to hatred in the name of the prince of peace. Another is the repeated emphasis on giving has taken its toll. The United Church of Bacon openly advertises that they give money, they don’t take it. While few clergy become fantastically wealthy, it is no surprise that most bishops or those of equal rank never seem to go hungry or drive cheap cars. If entertainers are rich, it is because they offer something worth paying for. And for those of us who are vegetarians, the UCB offers the alternative of praising vegetarian bacon. You are, after all, what you believe.



Legislating Reality

The follies that plague humankind come in an almost cyclical form. As old Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just finished D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteen-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Other than the fact that the subtitle accounts for a good portion of the book, this account shows just how little we’ve progressed. At the heart of the book is Maurice v. Judd, a New York case of 1818 in which a whale merchant contested an assessor’s fee on “fish oil” by claiming a whale was not a fish. In “trial of the century” style, star witnesses were called in, bringing science to the docket. It was known, even in these pre-Origin of Species days, that a whale was a mammal, but what soon became clear as Burnett laid out the facts of the case was that the Bible held sway. Genesis divides the classes of nature into beasts, birds, and fish. This simplistic taxonomy was held by many in the nineteenth century to be a sacred statement of fact. If whales lived in the water, they were fish. The fact that they nurse their young, who are born live, and that they share the skeletal template of land creatures and have warm blood, and breathe through lungs, simply did not matter. If Genesis says fish, fish it is.

My mind immediately jumped ahead just over a century to the Scopes Trial. Once again, science was bent over the knee of Genesis and poised for a paddlin’. And the challenges still have not stopped. Call it Intelligent Design, or Answers in Genesis—anything but mythology—and it will keep coming back for more. Already, in 1818, lawyers were arguing that science could be decided in the courtroom. Facts only muddy the issue. If Genesis weren’t enough, Jonah’s “great fish” was called a “whale” in the Gospels, so, QED. There is no debating Bible science. Just to prove the case, we’ll bring it to trial so that twelve people with no science training can decide the issue based on rhetoric. Disciples of dogma. No surprise that the jury found the whale to be a fish. There’s no stopping a true believer.

My wife gave me this book because of my enormous fondness for Moby Dick. In both books the discussion of killing and butchering whales bothers me immensely, but I know that Melville is running after a beast of a metaphor and that whale-boat skimming across the surface of the ocean has lanced a far greater prey than a white whale. The creationists, however, fail to see the beauty of mythic images. Anyone who’s even watched a court drama on television knows that the truth is not what courts seek. Courts seek to convince a jury, whether a person is guilty or not. No matter if it’s a while whale or a white bronco involved. Truth is much more subtle and fragile. Truth can be discerned by facts. But the Bible is a heavy book, and when dropped from a great enough height, can fracture even the laws of nature. Like Ahab, the creationists are never truly gone forever.

Don’t Need No Righting

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So the old saying goes. Besides the virtue of venerable age, this proverb has the added advantage of being true. When I first peered at a page full of complex combinations of minute, triangular wedge-marks and was told I’d learn how to read them, I needed to head outside for a few gulps of cold air. My first attempt at Akkadian was doomed to failure, but eventually I learned to read cuneiform through the gateway language of Ugaritic. After that the bewildering sprawl of Mesopotamian languages didn’t seem so threatening. I don’t exactly remember when I was first exposed to English cursive in the classroom, but I do recall that same breathless fear of the unknown. The language I’d learned to print out neatly all seemed to be melting into curly figures that looked remarkably alike. How would anyone ever be able to read this?

According to a story in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, schools are moving away from teaching cursive. Beginning next year 46 states will no longer require it. Beyond that, some politicians are questioning why teachers should be wasting their time instructing students in printing, or even keyboarding. The gold standard they are worried about is identity. Can you sign your name (to endorse this campaign check)? If we have another way of identifying you—eyeball scans seem to be very popular suggestion—why should you bother to scrawl your name? Keyboarding, well, kids already know that by the time they start school these days. If the texting craze really takes off we may evolve future generations with just thumbs. School is for teaching students science, math, business—practical stuff. Oh yes, and intelligent design. (Got to keep the gods, or anthropic principles, happy.)

In a world where languages are dying out at a disturbing rate (each language is a thought process as well as a way of stringing sounds together), we have become very cavalier about the very innovation that has allowed us to develop as we have. I used to tell my students that less than seventy years separated the Wright brothers from the moon landing. A human lifespan where technology outstripped our ability to think. And the pace has only accelerated since then. Are we premature in leaving out cursive from the curriculum? There is coming a day when future archaeologists will discover a strange substance that seems to have been manufactured from wood pulp. On it they will find scrawls with loops and curls that form a pleasing pattern in the repetition, but from which no intent can be discerned. And if they are like modern technocrats, they will quickly realize the utility of the wood pulp for starting a fire.

What's it say?

Religion Al Dente

I first learned of the Flying Spaghetti Monster while teaching a course on the Bible and Current Events a number of years ago at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Being freed from the confines of my humorless seminary teaching post, I was free to explore innovative ways to approach my subject matter. When discussing evolution, it was helpful to bring in Pastafarianism as an example of how some highly intelligent—and very creative—people deal with the ridiculousness of Creationism. Lest I be accused of unfairness here, Pastafarianism is also ridiculous. That is precisely the point. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) was formed to demonstrate that any inane idea might pass as a religion and should be given equal time with those who use ultra-conservative views on the Bible to effect public policy.

A friend sent me a link to a BBC story of an Austrian man who has finally been successful in his attempt to wear a pasta-strainer on his head in his driver’s license photo. Claiming the headgear to be demanded by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Niko Alm wished to have his official ID photo taken with the symbol of his faith. I sense an evolution taking place here. The Church of FSM has gone mainstream in many respects; there is a Bible available, you can buy a bumper-magnet to rival a Jesus fish, adherents have designed a slick website, and it boasts many, many followers. While the website of the Church of FSM defiantly refuses to be taken seriously, it makes legitimate claims—religions do not require literal belief, and therefore Pastafarianism is a true religion with believers not being held to any particular doctrine.

The outcry against the FSM movement (which began roughly early in the new millennium) demonstrates its effectiveness. Are there really people who believe this religion? A tour of the website should be proof enough. The claims made by the group have analogues in traditional religion; many major religions teach events and doctrines that are equally unbelievable in the confines of the physical world in which we find ourselves. It is difficult to believe that Niko Alm actually takes this seriously, but who are we to judge? The FSM has moved from making fun of Intelligent Design to casting the very definition of religious belief into sharp relief. Who’s to say we haven’t all been touched by his noodly appendage?

Touched by his Noodly Appendage

Sister Christian

“They heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his woman hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden.” That’s what the verse says. Perhaps it is just one of the dangers of a literalist upbringing, but when I saw the above ad in today’s newspaper I automatically took it as a scriptural reference. There were, however, no books of Accent, Elantra, or Santa Fe (the last nevertheless being named after a saint). Genesis has become a secular word. In fact, all words are secular, but many have been co-opted by their biblical context.

Every year I ask my students what Genesis is about. Every year the first answer is “creation.” This is, naturally, incorrect. Genesis is the story of Israel’s ancestors. 39 of the 50 chapters in the book are concerned with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The creation takes up only three chapters at the beginning. It is the Bible’s “once upon a time,” not the whole story. In an over-stimulated society, however, glib responses are mandatory. Genesis means creation and let’s just tell our kids about intelligent design and evolution and let them make up their own minds – I’ve got an important text to respond to! How far the Bible has fallen!

“Genesis” is a Greek translation of the very roughly “in the beginning” (translation issues abound here, but I’m just trying to make a point) in Hebrew that opens the book of Genesis. It was the convention in olden days to entitle books after their incipits; all fairy tales would have been titled “A Long Time Ago” under this rubric. And yet we are perfectly content, in the context of a “Christian nation” to go about misunderstanding the Bible from the very beginning. The Bible need not be understood as long as it can be thumped. And if you’re looking for a good deal on a Hyundai, why not make it biblical? Naked man and woman hiding behind the tree, however, will cost you extra.

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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.