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On Target


by Conrad Goeringer

The controversy over the decision by the Kansas Board of Education to allow creationism in public school classrooms is not only about the existence of god and human origins. It also reflects human uncertainty over the possibility of extinction, and what lies ahead in an murky future...

When the Kansas Board of Education voted last week to free local school districts from the reasonable requirement of presenting Darwinian evolution as fact, and instead allow creationism or other accounts of human origins to be taught, it unleashed another heated volley in one of the more enduring skirmishes of the modern culture war. Creationists hold that human life and the universe were fashioned by a deity as told in the Old Testament book of Genesis; most creationists further believe that the earth is only about 6,000 or so years old-- hence the term “young earth.” Phooey! declares the bulk of the academic establishment, from astronomers and geologists to paleontologists and anthropologists. They point to a more protracted drama, perhaps starting with a Big Bang billions of years ago, the gradual coalescence of matter into stars where, over time, heavier elements percolated in stellar furnaces, the gradual formation of planets and solar system, and at least on earth, a slow chemical dance resulting in self-replicating chains of molecules into simple life forms, and then increasingly more complex creatures. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) elaborated on part of this Byzantine process, suggesting the evolutionary forces -- the need to adapt and survive -- account for much of why we are the way we are today. Human beings are simply the product of one of a number of these blind experiments, with a past anchored in ancestral forms shared with other primate animals.

The view is repugnant to some who insist that it debases human beings, and suggests that there is no innate “purpose” in life. No sooner had the gun volleys ended at Columbine High School last April, for instance, than preachers and pundits were blaming evolution for fostering a mind set which supposedly deprives teenagers of a sense of existential purpose, moral values, and respect for others. They add the teaching of evolution to a longer shopping list of ills, everything from “kicking God out of the public schools” a la MURRAY v. CURLETT in 1963 to sex education, distribution of condoms, legalized abortion and what culture guru William Bennett described as a “moral sewer” of violent imagines on television and in video games.

And the debate over the origins and meaning of life is certain to heat up thanks to an article in the September issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine. In a piece titled “Scientists and Religion in America,” researchers Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham reveal that large numbers of leading academicians reject a belief in a deity, afterlife, and other artifacts of the supernatural. The study included members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. “Disbelief in God and immortality” was particularly high among those in the biological sciences (65.2% and 69% respectively). “Most of the rest,” noted Larson and Witham, “were agnostics on both issues, with few believers.”

Fun With Barney and Raquel

Creationists go to considerable lengths to point out what they say are flaws in evolutionary accounts of how life began; they remain dissuaded by a growing mountain of geological and paleontological evidence, everything from fossils to the strata record of the earth itself. Defenders of evolution dismissed the creationists as cranks and intellectual ne’er-do-wells, but that has turned out to be a serious mistake. Indeed, creationist groups like ANSWERS IN GENESIS have become vocal and well-organized, and creationist spokespersons have mastered the art of debate, often embarrassing their better educated, professional academic opponents. There are creationist meetings, publications and even museums. The creationist agenda has also been linked to other issues, and religious right groups now include the teaching of creationism as a non-negotiable demand, along with school prayer, banning gays from classrooms and boot camps, and “protecting the unborn” fetus. The result of that activism is situations like Kansas, where creationists have won a significant victory.

Which brings me to Barney and Raquel...

You see, most forms of creationism -- along with requiring a “young earth -- also claim that human beings and dinosaurs shared the earth together at some point in the not-too-distant past. Even Hollywood had the good sense to get at least some of this right, when it cast Raquel Welch in a skimpy role in ONE MILLIONS YEARS B.C. back in 1967. Ray Harryhausen, who spent decades in Tinseltown creating special effect monsters and flying saucers through stop-motion animation, provided a prehistoric stable of dinosaurs who chased after scantily-clad cave girls. It was thoroughly entertaining, yet outrageously unbelievable. Would cave women really have had bouffant hair, glistening white teeth, and the martial skills to do battle with a belligerent T-Rex? Was there any evidence that dinosaurs and human beings shared the planet at the same time? Probably not...

We seem preoccupied with extinction and creation themes, from ecological catastrophe, cloning and fertility and the Biblical stories of our origin, to the possibility that an enormous asteroid or some other cosmic body could strike earth and that humanity, too, could go the way of the dinosaur.
Creationists do, in fact, argue that confrontations between bands of human beings -- sans the Hollywood starlets -- and dinosaurs likely took place, and that certainly people coexisted in some regions with these enormous creatures. There is the discovery of the so called “giant man tracks” in the limestone beds of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas. Even some creationists now grudgingly admit that evidence in support of the “tracks” is tenuous, and the Paluxy and other sites were likely caused by erosion, carving, or the human imagination working on indistinct markings.

But perhaps the five members of the Kansas Board of Education who consider creationist accounts to be sufficiently robust and worthy of academic study should, after seeing a late night re-run on ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. -- preferably with some commentary by Joe Bob Briggs -- also meditate on the cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere. Discovered in 1940, Lascaux is an underground cave in southwestern France which is perhaps the most elaborate presentation of Paleolithic art. “Mainstream” science informs us that Stone Age artists from 17,000 years ago, using ladders, scaffolding, paints and tools decorated the enormous chambers with over 1500 engravings and 600 paintings in shades of black, yellow, red and brown. They depict a bevy of animals including horses, bulls, deer and ibex and even a now-extinct species of wild ox.

But nowhere at Lascaux -- or at any other similar Paleolithic sites -- are their representations of dinosaurs, especially dinosaurs being hunted by bands of human beings. There certainly isn’t anything resembling a Ray Harryhausen story board with the likes of Raquel Welch spearing an ichthyosaur for dinner, or some helpless fellow being squashed by a brachiosaurus out for an evening stroll in the swamps.

While their remains are millions of years old, dinosaurs are, in a sense, a modern invention. The Hollywood imagination has often departed from the more sober historical record -- witness Raquel and other cave denizens on the celluloid screen -- and a complex process of semiotic coding has provided us with a slew of images that fit these enormous beasts into the modern setting.

Ironically, creationists take up an intellectually indefensibly position arguing the Biblical account of human origins and endeavor to snip away at the edges of this growing body of evidence and knowledge about human origins. There is a lot about dinosaurs we simply do not know about -- scientists even argue over whether they were hot or cold blooded (the consensus favors the latter). Did they “flock” and nest like birds? What colors were their skins? We suspect that Barney’s purple exterior takes liberties with the truth, but at this point we can’t know for sure how accurate the “living reconstructions” are in many museums. Horn-billed dinosaurs may have evinced haunting sounds only now being duplicated by computers.

None of this uncertainty has prevented us from transforming these extinct creatures into logos, symbols and totems of modern culture. W.J.T. Mitchell explores this in his latest work, THE LAST DINOSAUR BOOK (University of Chicago Press, 1998), a delightful romp through some of the sociology and cultural history of these puzzling creatures. “For animals that have been dead millions of years, dinosaurs are extraordinarily pervasive in everyday lives.” Mitchell points to the profusion of ads, books, novels, movies, toys, television programs and other graphic representations of these “terrible lizards.” At some point, like the creationists, we depart from the science behind the dinosaurs in search of something else -- their symbolic meaning as icons of creation, power and extinction.

Mitchell, a professor in the Department of Art History at University of Chicago, musters considerable evidence that we live in a time of virtual dino-mania. The dinosaur appears as a symbol nearly everywhere, selling hamburgers or gasoline (remember the Sinclair Oil dinosaur?), to entertaining youngsters. Godzilla, a variant of the “terrible lizard,” terrorized Japanese theaters at the height of the cold war when images of nuclear holocaust lingered pervasively in the post-Hiroshima consciousness. And these enormous creatures turn out to be pliable, adaptable icons; some represent “family values” in their nesting behaviors in Jurassic Park, while others tap into the modern angst over issues such as cloning. Mitchell also sees the dinosaur as “a massive eating machine” which “provides a spectacle of rapacious consumption” -- not altogether inappropriate with the Dow now over 10,000.

The rampant pop-culture fixation with dinosaurs, especially among youngsters, may be a poignant synchronicity with other issues exploding on the cultural landscape. Children, of course, are legally enthralled to the parental and institutional constraints of simply growing up; it should be natural that dinosaurs, those indestructible titans who simply cannot be controlled whether in Hollywood or Tokyo, become representations of the ultimate freedom. Parents are fixated on controlling their dino-children, and turn to Dr. Laura, James Dobson or “tough love” strategies when all else fails. Even Bill Clinton plays surrogate parent, assuring us that the V-chip or censored internet content can rein-in defiant juveniles. And what of these dinosaurs running amok in our streets? They become symbols of things out of control and time itself, nature out of balance, our lives in havoc.

So, we tame these enormous beasts, at least symbolically. The oil conglomerates remind us that these creatures died so we may drive; McDonalds suggests that even an extinct fossil cannot resist the lure of a Big Mac. They become enlisted in morality plays like KING KONG, or they are tamed to the point of absurdity, their plated hides becoming soft and fuzzy in BARNEY & FRIENDS.

But the dinosaur’s notoriety and status as a popular icon interplays with the culture war divide over issues like creationism and the status of human beings. Creationists see history as young, a mere six millennia or so according to the prescription laid down by Archbishop James Ussher, author of the famous 1650 chonricle ANNALES VETERIS TESTAMENTI A PRIMA MUNDI ORIGINE DEDUCTI, (“The Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origin of the World”). It was Ussher, Anglican Primate of All Ireland, who after laboriously tracing the chronology of descendants from Adam in the Old Testament, pronounced the moment of divine creation at 4004 B.C., noon on October 23. Four millennia thus separate that creation from Annus Mirabilis, the alleged birth of Jesus, and using the notion of “ages,” a believer in such a temporal tapestry would conclude that the world shall end at exactly 6000 Annus Mundi, the new millennium.

All of this, then, becomes a larger tale about creation and extinction: and what better symbol of extinction that those “terrible lizards” that once walked the earth? They were the “lords of creation” of their time, become extinct despite their awesome power and presence; is there a parallel here with the human condition? We might wonder. It may be no accident, then, that at the cusp of a new millennium, our culture seems to embrace the dinosaur, this ambivalent symbol of extinction. We seem preoccupied with extinction and creation themes, from ecological catastrophe, cloning and fertility and the Biblical stories of our origin, to the possibility that an enormous asteroid or some other cosmic body could strike earth and that humanity, too, could go the way of the dinosaur. This is a secular Armageddon (along with killer viruses, nuclear war, political upheaval), but there is also an abundance of religious prophecy which modern doomsdayers believe is coming to fruition, as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse bolt the church corral to run amok through the global metropolis of Enlightenment culture at the end of the twentieth century. The evening news is, for many, confirmation that the prophecy d’jour is certain to be true; subjects like the Anti-Christ, Final Judgment and Armageddon no longer are safely confined to the supermarket tabloids, rantings in mental wards and tent revivalist meetings, but have spilled over into the mainstream magazines and television networks.

All of this may account for why creationism, this belief in a literalist Biblical account of human origins, refuses to retire into the cabinet of historical curiosities along with flat earth theories or trumpet meeting spiritualism. As many as forty percent of Americans are receptive to creationist ideology according to the Gallup survey, which may explain the 5-4 vote of the Kansas Board of Education. Indeed, school boards across the country are bedeviled with the clamor that we open the classroom doors to “other theories,” a not-so-subtle code for Old Testament creationism.

There may be a creationist explanation for why, at Lascaux and elsewhere, there are no representations of people interacting with dinosaurs. More so than the questionable footprints at Paluxy, such a depiction would certainly turn modern paleontology upside down, and suggest that a “young earth” compressed historical timetable was likely, or that there were serious and profound flaws in evolutionary accounts. But like the celluloid offerings of Hollywood, or the more prosaic depictions of the “terrible lizard” on oil cans or in ads for the Discovery Channel, the claim that humans and dinosaurs shared the same time and geography on earth remains an illusory tale, one rooted more in doctrinal belief than demonstrable fact. So again, the dinosaur -- a creature which existed for millions of years, and became extinct only to be discovered in the nineteenth century -- assumes a Janus-like role, reminding us of the ambiguities of origins, and the pervasive inevitability of extinction.

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