Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Review of From Eden to Exile, Chapter 1: The Garden of Eden

Here I would like to continue my review of Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Bible (2007), The National Geographic Society. My thoughts regarding the Introduction can be found here.

In the first chapter of From Eden to Exile, Eric Cline addresses the archaeological and textual evidence for the biblical “Garden of Eden”. Of all the bible “mysteries” to be addressed in upcoming chapters, Cline identifies this as the most difficult to evaluate scientifically…and with some justification: outside of the biblical narrative there is almost no additional textual or archaeological evidence to corroborate the story.

Unfortunately, as we noted in the introduction, most ancient historians and archaeologists generally want several separate sources of evidence before they will believe something to be factually substantiated, and that is simply not possible in the case of the Garden of Eden (p. 1).

The first problem in attempting to assess any real-world historical correspondence between the biblical Garden of Eden and the current geography of that region of the world today is that of the rivers. The biblical texts refer to four rivers within Eden[1]. As Cline notes, two of the four rivers are well known: the Tigris and Euphrates and we must make of these descriptions “…what we will” (p.2). Their biblical names were not as we know them today; however, there is apparently sufficient concordance with other biblical texts to be relatively confident that these are the two rivers being discussed. The other two rivers are the Pishon (which flowed around the land of Havilah) and the Gihon (surrounding the land of Cush). It is not known to what flowing bodies of water these two place names refer, although there has been much speculation. Cline cites Scafi (Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven and Earth) who suggests that there was wide agreement among scholars from the 1st century A.D. Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (who first brought the idea forward) through the Renaissance, that the Gihon and the Pishon were the Nile and the Ganges, respectively. Later biblical references refer to the land of Cush as being in Africa, but Cline notes that the Genesis texts seem to nonetheless link its location with Mesopotamia. In effect, the biblical texts are ambiguous with reference to geographic location and (more importantly in my mind) scale.

Cline next discusses mention of Eden in Sumerian texts that pre-date Genesis and which may themselves have been borrowed from an earlier culture, the Ubaidians (approximately 7500 – 5500 BP). He also notes the existence of additional creation stories from the region that have “striking similarities” to the story found in Genesis. All of these pre-date the biblical account:
Scholars generally agree that the Hebrew Bible as we have it today was compiled from various sources, which were written down as early as the tenth or ninth century B.C. and as late as the sixth or fifth century B.C. Even the earliest parts of the Bible, such as the source called J by biblical scholars, do not date earlier than the tenth or ninth century B.C., hundreds of years after Enuma Elish was written.

Cline argues that these stories are “transmitted narratives” – oral history handed down from generation to generation and culture to culture, and eventually captured in a written language. Such narratives provide the best explanation for both the similarities and the differences between the biblical narratives and other stories from the region. This is an idea that makes good anthropological sense and is supported by anthropological, archaeological, ethnographic and historical data worldwide. We know that prior to written language (or in absence of such a language) oral transmissions of cultural knowledge were vital to maintaining cultural cohesiveness. Cline suggests that such oral traditions in the Near East were probably transmitted between cultures at a time scale on the order of centuries if not longer. I would suggest that oral traditions may in fact be passed for thousands of years. And of course, their content and concepts changed over time. It is also important to realize a primary function of such transmitted narratives: to “explain” the world around them in terms that were culturally meaningful, given their level of scientific and historic knowledge at the time. Of course, by today’s standards, this was not very much. As a result, while their explanations for world origins were culturally meaningful to them, they were not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate.

I have digressed from Cline’s theme for a moment to make a point. This is, again, an area where I perceive a primary difference of approach between the so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists”. As I have mentioned elsewhere, and as most scholars are aware, these terms get bantered around with little or no explanation or definition. But here, I think the distinction explains itself in the way in which biblical texts are used. Perhaps because of my personal theological biases, it is easy for me to set aside theological interpretations and recognize bible narratives solely in the context of cultural transmission. They are important historic texts, not because of their accuracy in identifying historical phenomena, but because they give us insight into first millennium B.C. culture. Treating the biblical narratives solely in terms of their cultural origins and evolution (including assessing cultural, societal and political motivations for constructing such narratives) makes one a “minimalist” in the eyes of most. This is especially true for those who believe the biblical accounts must be referring not just to historically accurate information, but information that is historically correct by 21st century standards. Yet this approach has nothing to do with demonstrating the “accuracy” of the bible as its primary goal. Like Gould’s spandrels at San Marcos, biblical “accuracy” is but a by-product of cultural motivations and perspective. I can fully appreciate that biblical texts may, in some cases, contain accurate historical information – but the degree of accuracy is going to be highly variable, and clearly relative to the cultural level of knowledge (or political influence) at the time of writing. And in this approach, biblical texts are no more accurate than any other ancient text, precisely because they are all share the same broad cultural characteristics: they are written by newly emergent societies, with limited knowledge of the world, that have only recently invented the ability to translate oral history into the written word. I would not expect such texts to be historically, and consistently, accurate in all details. This does not mean they are not important.

Cline hints at a potentially important link between the early Garden of Eden narratives, the paleoenvironmental conditions of the Middle East at the close of the Pleistocene, and the rise of agricultural systems and complex societies. This general time period (the post-Pleistocene, roughly 7-10,000 years BP) witnessed the origin of many economically prominent domesticates (although not nearly all, as we now know domestication of many plant and animal species occurred independently among societies around the world). Cline suggests, as many have, that emerging agricultural systems provided a bounty of plant and animal species, particularly after the introduction of irrigation methods, which must have appeared as something of a “Garden of Eden” to those engaged in this pursuit.

There is something, however, that nags at me regarding “Garden of Eden” stories stemming from emergent agricultural societies – contrary to popular perception, the switch from hunting-gathering economies to agricultural ones was not necessarily a natural transformation – it most likely was forced by deteriorating environmental conditions through the Holocene. Agriculture, relative to hunting-gathering, is labor-intensive, less nutritional, entails greater risk, and produces significant societal “hurdles”: although most foraging societies are aware of agricultural (or at least horticultural) practices, almost none choose that route unless forced by other circumstances. If early agricultural societies thought of their systems as a “Garden of Eden” they probably did so grudgingly. I wonder if a better Garden of Eden may have actually been delta regions to which some societies retreated during the drying Holocene. These would have been true areas of bounty, where emergent agricultural could be sustained, but also where game abounded (unglulates, waterfowl, fish) and hunting could easily supplement the economy. Deltaic regions can also be quite extensive and from the perspective of smaller human groups could easily appear in oral tradition as “one river branching into four”.

Regardless, it is probably true that such stories find their origin in the cultures of those earliest societies, be they dependent on agriculture, foraging, or some combination. Cline continues the chapter by reflecting on the archaeological and historical strengths and weaknesses of various scholarly proposals for the actual location of the Garden of Eden: Juris Zarin’s hypothesis of coastline inundation of a potential location; James Sauer’s suggestion that it was located on the Arabian Peninsula; David Rohl’s claims that it is located in Iran; Gary Greenberg’s identification of it in Egypt; and Michael S. Sanders’ location of the Garden of Eden in Turkey. Cline evaluates each of these in turn, finding the Greenberg and Sanders hypotheses the least backed by proper archaeological and historical method, and the Sauer and Rohl hypotheses plausible, but less likely. Cline clearly favors the Zarin view (originally conceived by Ephraim Speiser) that posits an area off the Persian Gulf coast, now under water. This view makes sense on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that the Persian Gulf coastline would have risen dramatically as Pleistocene glaciers melted over the course of the early Holocene. This view makes further sense for me in that such an area would have been an extensive delta – the kind of environment constituting a Garden of Eden from a forager’s perspective in the early Holocene.

This view also considers the cultural perspective of cultures ultimately responsible for the oral traditions eventually captured in early texts. Differing origin perspectives are not typically considered with current biblical “interpretations” – at least those more popularly perceived. One of the problems is making sense of the relatively different views of scale. The Jewish historian Flavius Joseph may have agreed with other learned scholars at the time that the biblical description encompassed large river systems such as the Ganges and the Nile. From the perspective of a much larger world known from the 5th century, the economic importance of such large river systems would have focused attention on these as the source of the rivers in the biblical narrative. But late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and the early Holocene farmers were often constrained by areas of economic exploitation. Their “catchment” areas were more on the scale of single rivers or, more likely, resource rich delta systems with single rivers making multiple branches at their mouth.

Ultimately, however, Cline concludes that, although there may be a kernel of historical truth to the Garden of Eden stories (the writer was, after all, referring to some kind of geographical reality, although at what scale remains debatable), the final historical “truth” will probably remain elusive:

It is hard to put the Garden of Eden into historical context, for it belongs to the realm of prehistory, if not myth or legend (p. 13).

From my perspective as an archaeologists and researcher, Cline also offers a much-welcomed assessment of current views: any future evidence announced will have to be backed by legitimate scholars following proper archaeological and historical methodology. Cline raises this important problem, too often ignored by the media and professionals in the field, in greater detail in later chapters of the book.

[1] Technically the text refers to a single river flowing out of Eden to “…water the garden”; from here the single river divides into four branches – geomorphologically speaking, this description is quite different from four separate rivers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bosnian Pyramid Update

I am sorry I missed this earlier, but Hot Cup of Joe has a great piece on psuedo-archaeology of the "Bosnian Pyramid". Check it out...

Being Blunt

I can appreciate bluntness. (I work for a federal agency where we avoid being blunt like the plague - otherwise it might be interepreted as a "hostile work environment"). So I really enjoy it when someone quits beating around the bush and tells it like it is:

There is this old myth about a god who has sex with his human mother to give birth to himself, who grows up to be killed (but not really), and this depreciated sacrifice somehow means everyone else gets to go to heaven when they die. If they believe it, that is; otherwise they go to hell and suffer for eternity.

Now I'm supposed to…

…believe in this fairy tale myself;

…believe that accepting this fairy tale helps people be better human beings;

…believe that accepting this fairy tale helps people be better scientists;

…regard people who swallow this fairy tale with the same respect I do those who see through the nonsense;

…refrain from criticizing this fairy tale; and/or

…pretend this fairy tale isn't a load of ridiculous bullshit.

No, it's never going to happen. I will never accept or even respect your fairy tale.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are the Critics of Evolution Just Maintaining Cultural Boundaries?

Both Abnormal Interests and Afarensis picked up on my previous posts regarding Richard Colling and I notice that Professor Colling also left a message at Chris Heard's blog, Higgaion. (By the way - I noticed that every comment, email, etc. written by Rick Colling and posted online somewhere was mostly original in content. In other words, he is not simply "cutting and pasting" the same message at numerous locations to get the word out. I think there can be no criticism of Professor Colling's professional integrity - he just wants to continue to educate students in the best science possible; a science, furthermore, that Colling has personally found supportive of his faith).

Afarensis draws an important anthropological consideration regarding all the furor over Colling teaching evolution at an evangelical university. Afarensis writes:

In essence, those "...few profoundly scientifically ignorant individuals..." have decided that Dr. Colling is no longer christian enough to teach biology at the university. This is a good example of why framing won't work. Dr. Colling comes across as an intelligent individual with a sophisticated grasp of christian theology, yet he has run afoul of fundamentalist members of his community.

I am afraid I have not kept up with all the commentary on "framing" going through the science blogs of late, so I cannot really comment on whether this incident runs counter to the idea of framing. However, I fully agree with Afarensis' assertion that this is an example of groups maintaining their cultural boundaries:

It all gets back to boundary maintenance (a mechanism to prevent ideas from eeping across porous cultural boundaries - in effect boundary maintenance mechanisms serve to separate culture groups and provide a rigid, well defined marker between "us" and "them") and Dr. Colling strayed too far across the boundary. For his local community Dr. Colling has become one of "them".

Afarensis cites Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Again, I have not read the book, but the idea of a sort of "cultural immune system" is talked about with some frequency in anthropological circles. I would argue from my own currently limited understanding of boundary maintenance in anthropological theory (including its archaeological applications) that political motivations are often underwritten (or masked) by other aspects of culture, including religion. I can easily see much of the creationist movement (particularly "intelligent design") being fueled more by political and economic considerations than by sincere belief. As an example, I sometimes wonder if Ken Ham's creationist position has more to do with the ability to talk donors out of $28 million dollars for a museum (plus, no doubt, a healthy lifestyle for himself) than a sincere commitment to the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old and tyrannosaurs were vegetarians prior to The Fall. Ken Ham, Rick Warren, Bill Donahue and others have far more to lose (in terms of economic and political power) than a scientific argument. And I find it interesting that those opposed to Rick Colling seem to be wielding financial threats (read: economic power) in a way that is more suggestive of a concern to maintain a cultural boundary where they are in control on one side. Put another way, I am very suspicious of those with power (economic or political) espousing religious or other cultural "values" - one has to constantly wonder whether they do it out of a sincere belief, or simply to maintain their economic "base".

I've rambled here, but I think Afarensis has hit on an idea that deserves further reflection and comment.

More News on Richard Colling...And A Good Idea

Richard Colling has also been exchanging comments on Henry Neufeld's blog, Threads From Henry's Web. I would recommend adding Henry's blog to your blogroll lists, particularly if you are at all interested in thoughts on the intersection of science and theology. Colling's comment to Neufeld is another straight-from-the-heart account of the current situation at Olivet Nazarene University, where his book has been banned from classroom use and he is no longer allowed to teach the biology class - simply because he has a theistic view of evolution. Colling has also been posting at The Panda's Thumb...with some encouraging news:

Actually, the feedback I have received in the past few days has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Only one hate mail this morning. I thanked her for taking the time to communicate her views to me.

The students and alums who know me are really beginning to mobilize. I heard that the president’s office is receiving many very upset phone calls and emails from people supporting me and my work. Remember, I have been here for 26 years loving and caring and investing my life in the lives of my students. Calculate ~25 major graduating each year for 26 years. This translates into a large number of alumni who know that these accusations of eroding the faith of students with my book or teaching is a complete fundamentalist fabrication.

(Anyone surprised that fundamentalists are fabricating issues and evidence?). The good news is that Colling seems to now be getting support from students, faculty and parents who actually know something about the subject of his courses rather than his critics who are largely making it up as they go. An anonymous reader on my previous post suggested another good strategy that Colling's supporters might want to try:

If I were a student on Dr. Colling's campus, I'd try to organize a peaceful gathering on the quad or under the flagpole, where his book would be read aloud, paragraph by paragraph, to anyone who would listen.

An absolutely fantastic idea! We have enough prayer-around-the-flagpole events anyway...why not one is support of an earthly cause for a change?

There is another theme running through all these emails, posts and comments regarding Colling's situation - his teaching is not at odds in the least with Church of the Nazarene theology. Another anonymous reader indicated the following:

THERE IS NOTHING IN OUR DOCTRINE OR MANUAL OF BELIEF THAT CONTRADICTS EVOLUTIONARY THEORY! We believe that God created the Earth, but we have never had the small-minded, rather stupid view that He could not use evolution to do that. And no one I know, at least in our local church, holds to a 'young earth' viewpoint. Nor is that view an accepted one in our doctrine. That is one of the saddest things about Dr. Colling's plight--that he is being pilloried for teaching biology in a way that does not even contradict our doctrine.

Professor Colling said as much again in his comment on Threads From Henry's Web:

They can’t stand the apparent public endorsement of evolution in spite of the fact that our denomination and university statements are fully accepting of verifiable scientific discoveries - including evolution. I teach all my biology courses with accuracy and integrity, and then encourage those students who come from the more conservative homes to keep an open mind. I try to help them explore ways in which these remarkable evolutionary mechanisms might actually be considered compatible (or at least not inconsistent with) with belief in God. This approach to teaching is shared by all the biology faculty here.

This is really the crux of the problem. Whether or not you believe in a deity, the fact is that MOST theologies do not have an issue with evolutionary theory, or the fossil record, or the fact that Lucy may have been one of our ancestors. The problem starts when an ignorant few suddenly decide they are going to re-interpret standard theology to make it appear that churches have an issue with evolution. I know a lot of people often cite my former, Catholic Church as a light of evolutionary acceptance, but I can no longer accept that description. Despite Pius (who was lukewarm toward evolution, I grant you), despite John Paul, despite Benedict's recent proclamations, there are many(mostly American) Catholic writers who seem to still insist that, "No, that's not what they meant....the only science Catholic doctrine really supports is intelligent design". And these writers are gaining more ground within the Catholic pews than all three popes put together. They are, in effect, attempting to re-package theology so that it is more accepting of their personal views.

And Colling and others are right to worry about the long-term effect this theological insistence on anti-science will ultimately have on the long-term survival of Christianity. Many of us were pushed toward atheism (or at least, out of organized religion) largely because the loudest voices in the church still promote faulty science (be it creationism, erroneous "biblical" archaeology, or something else). If church leaders (and supporters) can fabricate science, then what other aspects of doctrine (historical, theological, or otherwise) are they also fabricating?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Richard Colling: Scientist, Christian...and Martyr

Some of you will remember that I previously posted on Dr. Richard Colling, a professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, who defended evolution as God's process, contrary to the strict literal interpretation of Genesis preferred by the Church of the Nazarene, the denomination in control of ONU. Colling is a man of faith who also clearly recognizes that the real world tells a story that may ultimately be closer to God's truth than that portrayed in primitive biblical texts. In a 2004 article, Colling describes his perspective:

Colling is one of a small number of conservative Christian scholars who are trying to convince biblical literalists that Darwin's theory of evolution is no more the work of the devil than is physicist Isaac Newton's theory of gravity....

Usually, the defense of evolution comes from scientists. But Colling has another motivation.
"People should not feel they have to deny reality in order to experience their faith," he says.

Since that time, however, the forces of darkness and ignorance influencing the administration at ONU have decided that Richard Colling should not be allowed to teach science when it contradicts stubbornly held myth. Colling's personal struggle to bring peace between science and religion has come to a head, and now Professor Colling faces a situation more reminiscent of conditions in Iran than America. A pre-release Newsweek on Colling and other scientists of faith shows how these courageous individuals are being persecuted for their ideas, much in the same fashion as Galileo was persecuted for his. Because of his attempts to reconcile faith with the facts of science, ONU, under pressure from some "irate parents, pastors, and others" has brought the inquisition to Professor Colling:

Colling is prohibited from teaching the general biology class, a version of which he had taught since 1991, and college president John Bowling has banned professors from assigning his book. At least one local Nazarene church called for Colling to be fired and threatened to withhold financial support from the college...

...Yet with the new term, Bowling banned "Random Designer" [Colling's book] from all courses; it had been used in at least one history class, an advanced biology course and the general biology course.

The science blogosphere has picked up on Colling's current plight. Although Richard Colling is a lifelong member of the Church of the Nazarene, a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University and believes in a God that is "...bigger, far more profound and vastly more creative than you may have known", the reaction from Church of the Nazarene despots would lead you to believe he is another Christopher Hitchens. As PZ notes at Pharyngula:

He must have done something truly horrible! Why, he sounds like some kind of godless atheist who is trying to pry his students away from the loving embrace of the church.

At EvolutionBlog, Jason comments:

You would think that even at a Christian university a person's religious views are not really relevant to what gets taught in science class. And I wouldn't have thought that theistic evolution was such an outre position among Christians that Colling would come in for this kind of flak for writing a book about it.

Panda's Thumb comments on the expected (and so far, attained) Discovery Institute hypocrisy over "teaching the controversy":

ID proponents are quick to argue ‘viewpoint discrimination’ whenever their attempts to introduce their scientifically vacuous ideas fail....
So when can we expect a cry of outrage from the Discovery Institute, demanding that Colling will be allowed to teach his usual classes?
Has Hell frozen over? Oh the irony…

Yes, where is Casey Luskin? Anika Smith? Michael Egnor? Denyse O'Leary?

Henry Neufeld, however, cuts right through to the main issue in a post entitled "Where Teaching the Controversy is Prohibited". The "Teach the Controversy" argument is nothing but pure propoganda - there is no expectation on the part of its advocates that any sort of "controversy" be taught. It is only the first step in getting control of the curriculum and weeding out evolutionary science altogether. As Neufeld argues:

I have suggested many times before that before one believes what IDC (intelligent design creationism) advocates say about their goals, one should look at the way they handle the matter where they are in control....

This action shows some of the destructive potential of ignorance, but it also removes any fig-leaf of respectability from the “teach the controversy” argument. The advocates of creationism generally do not want the controversy taught. They want to win. If they were to win a court case allowing their materials into the public school classrooms, their next move would be to prevent critical examination of those ideas, and then to prevent the teaching of evolutionary theory itself....

I believe that the Olivet example is what theistic evolutionists such as myself can expect from the ID movement. They want to shut us out. They certainly don’t want to “teach the controversy” about ID, a controversy that is very much alive amongst Christians.

You see, “teaching the controversy” is good when you want to wedge your way into the public schools, or force your way into universities. It’s not so good when someone wants to fairly examine the controversy inside a Christian school. They want a “heads we win, tails you lose” situation.

Other good discussions of Colling's situation can be found at Metacatholic and Higgaion. And while I'm sure other bloggers have also commented, we all can do no better than to let Richard Colling speak for himself. I have been privileged to have exchanged emails with Richard Colling over the past few days and he has written eloquently on his perspective, his plight and his desire to do nothing more than to teach students that they do not have to fear science in order to maintain personal faith. With Professor Colling's permission, I post the entire message I received this morning:

Hello Chris,

This article tells only the tip of the iceberg, but will give you a flavor...


Here is the actual truth. All I have ever wanted to do is to communicate and then cultivate a message of peace and harmony between Science and Faith. Unfortunately, what I have learned over the past two years is that some profoundly scientifically naive fundamentalist Christians only want war - apparently intent on destroying and discrediting anyone who does not conform to the fundamentalist creationist mindset.

I truly feel that I can empathize with Galileo of 1633 when the Catholic church placed restrictions on him. I suppose it was inevitable that it would someday come to this: The battle fought against the scientifically naive religious authority and won by Galileo (albeit it took 400 years for vindication) was in the physical sciences. (The earth is NOT the center of the universe.) In contrast, regarding the emancipation of evolution (biological sciences) from the self-appointed religious authorities has not yet occurred in the United States. Perhaps it is time.

I believe that it is a matter of when, not if, the evolutionary paradigm WILL be integrated into the evangelical Christian theology. If not, the Christian faith will be relegated to cultural obsolescence. With the genetic data derived from the human genome project and other sources, the evolutionary connectedness of life on earth can no longer be denied. Therefore to build the foundation of the Christian faith on opposition to evolution is not only silly, it is suicide for the long-term viability and credibility of the faith.

It has been a rude and very unsettling experience. While promoting a message of peace, and after 26 years of faithful devotion to Christian higher education and investment in the lives of thousands of our college men and women, it is difficult to describe the depths of my disappointment that a few profoundly scientifically ignorant individuals have been allowed to create such discord and damage to to me and the university in the public's eye - by convincing a university president to acquiesce to their demands. (even though the president privately continues to say that he has identified nothing in my teaching or writing that is scientifically or theologically deficient.) The truth is this: My students love me, I love them, and we are all getting along fine. The outside critics notwithstanding...

I have been told in essence in a letter from the president of the university that although it may seem unfair, the truth and facts will not matter here. Perception is what is guiding his actions. I am still numbed by these words coming from a university president when discussing the teaching of biology in a university setting. Therefore, it seems that the only tools allowed for this discussion and commitment to truth and principle are political tools. Sad. I have always held that it is truth and education that sets us free, not uninformed political perceptions.

I am under no illusion that certain members of the board of trustees who have been uniformly hostile toward my teaching and writing may now attempt to manufacture something to use to retaliate against me. Oh well. I stand on truth and principle.

I include here for you a written statement I provided to the local newspaper. The article should come out today. Feel free to disseminate any of this commentary and information.
All I have ever wanted in my 26 years of writing and teaching is to communicate a message of peace and harmony between science and faith. I believe I have faithfully fulfilled this work in a manner that models the stated ideals of an Olivet Nazarene University faculty member. Therefore, I am very disappointed by these unwarranted and unnecessary actions which seem to suggest otherwise.

I believe these measures, made in response to off-campus scientifically uninformed critics of evolution, cannot help but cast a negative, and up until this time, an undeserved reflection on Olivet's reputation as a bona fide institution of higher education. As a proud ONU alumnus (Class of 1976) and veteran faculty member of 26 years who devoted my entire professional career to upholding the Olivet mission of "Education with a Christian Purpose", this seems like a medieval blow to the university's dedicated professional faculty and the institution's educational standing in the greater academic community.

In a culture and society increasingly driven by advances in science and technology, it is a sad day in the life of a Christian university when new understanding and insights into God's creation revealed by biology and genetics are viewed as a threat to faith. Students deserve better. Those who continue set biology at odds with the Bible do a terrible disservice to both.

Let the whole world know. It is time for truth and transparency.

Rick Colling

Not much else to say. Professor Colling is another of those rare men of honor and integrity who might just bring someone like me back to the fold. I will tell you one thing: I no longer believe creationism is merely misguided...in many manifestations (such as this) I think it is actually evil. I can no longer give creationism or its proponents any quarter....

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Science Cafe in Susanville?

I just received my E-newsletter from American Scientist and saw that WGBH Boston and Sigma Xi have teamed up to help promote the idea of Science Cafes:

The joint venture is the product of an ongoing partnership that began in 2004. That's when Sigma Xi chapters around the country started holding informal public discussions in restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, science museums and other venues, drawing on themes presented in the PBS television series NOVA scienceNOW, produced by WGBH.

At Science Caf├ęs, scientists and engineers share their expertise in a relaxed, friendly setting. Topics have been wide-ranging, from bird flu, human space flight, chaos and global warming, to the Irish Potato famine, green building, the ivory-billed woodpecker, honeybees and dark energy/dark matter.

I'm thinking it might be a good idea to get one of these going here in Susanville (I'm thinking Starbucks...). More information on organizing and maintaining a science cafe can be found at the Science Cafe website.

An Opportunity for Lassen County Libraries

Here's a unique opportunity from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) for librarians in Lassen County to add back issues of Creation/Evolution and NCSE Reports to their shelves so that area students can get accurate information regarding evolution and the various forms of creationism (like "intelligent design"):

Tell your librarian...

NCSE is now extending a special offer to libraries. Both because we are eager for libraries to maintain holdings of our journals, and because we are eager to make space in our storage facility, we are offering free copies of any or all of the back issues of Creation/Evolution (ISSN 0738-6001, nos. 1-39, 1980-1996), NCSE Reports (ISSN 1064-2358, vol. 9 through vol. 16, 1989-1996), and Reports of the NCSE (continuing both, ISSN 1064-2358, vol. 17 ongoing, 1997-present) to libraries. Libraries can take advantage of the offer to replace missing or damaged individual copies or to extend the range of their holdings.

Probably academic libraries will be most interested -- and we urge our members and friends who work at colleges and universities to bring the offer to the attention of the periodical departments of their libraries -- but the offer is open to public and school libraries as well. Interested librarians should write to Archivist, NCSE, PO Box 9477, Berkeley CA 94709-0477, fax (on letterhead) to (510) 601-7204, or e-mail the NCSE archivist at archivist@ncseweb.org to request further information or order back issues at no cost to their libraries. The offer is good only while supplies last, and may be withdrawn at any time at NCSE's sole discretion.

I certainly hope Susanville Library and Lassen Community College library take NCSE up on their offer. I would hope other Lassen County libraries consider adding these important issues to their collections.

Another Archaeology Blog

I have been remiss in pointing out a wonderful blog I discovered, Looting Matters. The blog deals with "Discussions of Archaeological Ethics Regarding the Collection of Antiquities" and provides some interesting perspectives on this topic.The blog is owned by David Gill, Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology at Swansea University, Wales. Check it out....

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The War To Rescue "Biblical" Archaeology

Following Jim West’s recommendation on his blog some time ago, I listened to Eric Cline’s interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Cline is Chair of the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literature at George Washington University and has written several books on the subject of biblical archaeology. After listening to the interview I immediately ordered his new book, From Eden to Exile, and started reading through it this week.

In the introduction, Cline clearly spells out a dilemma facing serious scholars of biblical archaeology today. The field of biblical archaeology, at least as its results are presented to the general public, has been largely confiscated by charlatans with little or no training in archaeology (or serious scholarship in general) and yet who present their views as “scientific”:

While doing the research for this book, I became amazed and, frankly, appalled by the amount of pseudoscientific nonsense that has been published on these topics, especially on the Internet but also in book form. The vast majority of this work has not been produced by professional scholars but rather by amateur enthusiasts…These enthusiasts…all work outside of academia. As such, they are not held to the same standards of rigor, peer review, and scrutiny as professional scholars employed by colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning.

Cline is, of course, referring to the usual array of the intellectually vacuous who appear to speak authoritatively on the subject of biblical archaeology, but who in reality have not the foggiest clue about the nature of archaeological research: the Ron Wyatts and Bob Cornukes of the world, for example. But there is a continuum of problem enthusiasts here, some not as extremely ignorant, who nonetheless uncritically use archaeological data to advance their proselytizing efforts:

Some biblical maximalists – particularly those working outside of mainstream academia – seem to be closer to the enthusiasts in setting out with their own a priori set of assumptions, which are often stated outright in the mission or message statements on their Web sites. Others dilute their good and careful analysis of archaeological material and ancient literary sources with uncritical thinking or blatant proselytizing. In addition, both the maximalist and minimalist camps harbor individuals who abuse and occasionally distort the information.

It is refreshing to finally hear a professional archaeologist recognize the fact that spokesperson responsibility for the serious discipline of “biblical” archaeology has to be rescued from the public malfeasance that typically passes for legitimate commentary these days (I continue to use quotations around “biblical” only because I personally prefer the term Syro-Palestinian archaeology). This includes the local minister providing uncritical “archaeology proves the bible” assessments as equally as the crackpot Noah’s Ark investigators or creationists masquerading as archaeologists. Cline intends to raise the needed alarm:

Thus, one of the reasons I have written this book is to sound both a word of warning and a call to arms, because I believe that the general public deserves-and wants-better. It is high time that professional archaeologists, ancient historians, and mainstream biblical scholars take back their fields from the amateur enthusiasts, psuedoscientists, uninformed documentary filmmakers, and overzealous biblical maximalists and minimalists who have had, for the most part, free reign to do what they wish, without any regard to scientific method or an unbiased investigation for the truth.

Forgive my over-generalizing passion for this, but it is about time the battle cry was sounded. Archaeological science has been polluted by those Cline describes and we professional archaeologists should start being blunt (and public!) about the danger posed by both charlatans and proselytizers. Some of you know I have fought my own battles here in Lassen County with a local media willing to portray ignorance as science and I am pleased that the call for a rigorous defense of archaeological integrity is being made internationally. I look forward to continuing with Dr. Cline’s book. I am sure it is just the first salvo in the upcoming war to reclaim archaeology.

UPDATE: My apologies to Jim West - if I had been paying a little closer attention I would have realized he commented on some of the very same issues in an initial assessment of Clines book way back in May. Whoops...I'm just excited about the book!

A Lesson In Creationist "Kinds"

My current edition of American Scientist has a wonderful article by Elaine Ostrander entitled “Genetics and the Shape of the Dog”. The piece generally focuses on the results of the dog genome project and its implications for understanding the genetics of canine diseases and potential changes to dog breeding programs. More specifically, the article discusses how an understanding of the dog genome demonstrates how tiny genetic changes lead to tremendous physical variation within the species.

In reading the article I could not help but be struck by the potential implications for creationism (both kinds – young-earth and intelligent design). Most creationists trot out the “kinds” argument for explaining the differences they see between different species: God created the basic kinds of animals (dogs, cats, horses, etc.) and all the species we see today are essentially variations on a theme. In other words, they can accept the relationship between genotypic change and phenotypic change only to the extent that these changes are limited to the same “kind” of animal. Dog variation (stand a Chihuahua next to a Great Dane, for example) can easily be the result of minor fluctuations in the genome – but the differences between a Chihuahua and a Siamese cat are the result of God’s creative separation of the species.

Creationists engaged in a cursory reading of Ostrander’s article (and can we expect creationists to engage in anything but a cursory reading?) will find the vocabulary necessary to proudly proclaim that “science” has verified the “kind” hypothesis of speciation. Of course, the “kind” hypothesis can only be supported if your knowledge of the animal world is extremely limited. Scientists working with either morphological (physical) or genetic variation among species understand that this discrete categorization of animals doesn’t work. One can easily envision the variation among dogs (most of us own one or more) and think that the “kind” hypothesis makes sense; but how many completely understand the range of variation within the genus Canis? The Family Canidae? The Order Carnivora? It’s easy to envision the “kind” separation between cats and dogs, but where does one “kind” end and another begin?

Ostrander provides an interesting figure showing the phylogenetic grouping of “dogs” based on a comparison of genetic sequences. Our domestic dog is grouped with an impressive array of wild species and the question to creationists begs itself: when is a dog not a dog? Wolves are clearly “dog-like”, as are coyotes. That’s easy. What about dholes and jackals? How about foxes? Certainly dog-like, but clearly some differences (to make it easier on our creationist friends reading this, we’ll follow their preferred methodology and ignore the morphological differences that don’t quite “fit” the “kind” hypothesis – foxes are dogs!). But we’re not even close to the end of the dog-like animals within the Canidae. Hyenas? What “kind” would they fall under? How about mustelids (mink, ermine, weasel, ferret)? Mephitids (skunks)? – are skunks more like dogs or cats? Or are they a separate “kind”? On Ostrander’s diagram “raccoon dogs” are listed. What about raccoons? Are they dogs…or are they bears? Some bears are awfully dog-like (particularly the smaller ones).

Of course all of my evolutionary biology friends understand this dilemma perfectly – and it is one reason we buy into evolution as an explanation for this huge variety of life we see around us. Taxonomy, like Sesame Street, certainly reflects the human propensity for grouping animals that are not like another. Very basic groups (dogs and cats) are simple to understand. But when you have knowledge of the entire range of animals represented in a group (Carnivores, for example) you spend a lot of time scratching your head (or arguing in the literature!) over a huge number of animals that do not quite fit in one group or another. And here I am just talking about living species. Add in the fossil record and (contrary to creationist claims) transitional species – species that don’t easily fall within one group or another because they share characteristics of both - are suddenly a dime a dozen. Of course the Ken Hams of the world are not interested in explaining the totality of the evidence – their only interest is in sifting the data for the few nuggets that support their own ideas. Contrary to Ham’s claims, creationists and evolutionary biologists are not looking at the same set of data!

In my college courses I generally prohibit students from writing papers on creationist ideas (unless it is from a strictly historical comparative perspective). I sometimes wonder if that is not a mistake. If the idea is to get a creationist student to “think outside the box”, then perhaps allowing a paper on creationism would be a better learning tool, provided it adhered to strict scientific guidelines. Could a creationist student learn something from the following assignment?...

Write a term paper on the creationist “kind” model. Compare and contrast a minimum of three family level groups of animals within the same order (Ursidae, Canidae, Procyonidae, for example). Re-group all genera and species from these families according to biblical “kinds” and then justify, in detail, the characteristics you used to organize them into separate kinds and why these characteristics are discrete for each kind.

For the intelligent design creationists out there I would modify the essay requirements:

Write a term paper on the creationist “intelligent design” model of species origins. Compare and contrast a minimum of three family level groups of animals within the same order (Ursidae, Canidae, Procyonidae, for example). Discuss, in detail, the mechanism for species divergence within each. At what taxonomic level is the designer likely to have intervened to define a new group of organisms (what criteria would you use to define the point at which a designer intervened? What drives the mechanism for the divergence (why did the designer intervene at this particular point and not another?).

It would certainly be interesting to see the results of such an exercise.

Atheist Convention Sold Out

For anyone who is interested...

Apparently the Atheist Alliance Convention in DC September 28-30 is SOLD OUT. However, the Alliance is providing an alternative for you to listen to the incredible lineup of speakers through streaming video:

The Atheist Alliance International's Crystal Clear Atheism 2007 convention is a complete sell out. That's the bad news. Now for the good news--AAI is pleased to offer you an opportunity to view all of the convention proceedings as a live Internet video stream. You will be able to see speeches by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Julia Sweeney and many others from the comfort of your own home (at 1/10 of what it would have cost for you to attend in person). For more program details, please see the convention schedule at:


(click on the "Download Schedule" link)

You must receive a password by September 19, 2007 so please go to the following link to connect to the AAI Convention Live Video Stream Website where you can make your password purchase through Pay Pal or credit card. http://www.onsitestreaming.com/