Thursday, December 9, 2010

Encounters with Evolution....or....the Ark-etype of Ignorance

So the governor of Kentucky is supporting job creation by building an ark.  No, not just 'an' ark, the Ark!  As the New York Times reports:
The state has promised generous tax incentives to a group of entrepreneurs who plan to construct a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, load it with animals and actors, and make it the centerpiece of a Bible-based tourist attraction called Ark Encounter.
This theme park is being designed by the same people who designed Kentucky's Creation Museum, a tourist destination that, according to the NYT, has drawn 1.2 million visitors in its first 3 years of operation.  Yes, Cashing in on Christ, something surely Jesus himself would have gone to (but he'd only have gone there after chasing money-changers out of the temple).  The good Governor is surely correct that these same people would happily drop more money in his state at the proposed Ark Encounter.  Build it and they will come -- two by two.  Or was it in sevens (take a look at Genesis)?  And was it really only one male and one female of each type -- or did Noah have a don't ask-don't tell policy?. 

Some benighted citizens are wrestling with the question of whether it's constitutional to give governmental funding to a religious endeavor -- the governor says that's not an issue, it's just a jobs issue (or did he mean to say Job's).... but we'll let him battle that one out.

We would like to propose an alternative to the Ark Encounter along the lines of the replica of Lescaux, the early human cave complex in southwest France, with the 17,000 year old paintings of animals that grace the walls.  Lescaux II, the reproduction of two halls of the cave, and paintings, has drawn millions of visitors since it was opened in 1983 -- many of them even Americans.  Lescaux II is a replica because the tromping and defacing caused by huge numbers of tourists on a human ancestry pilgrimage there was destroying the very site they came to see.

We want to take a tip from Lescaux, however, and suggest that a theme park with replicas of sites around the world that have been of major importance to the understanding the real creation story, how life really got here and evolved, could create as many jobs and draw as many visitors as the Governor's Ark.  Maybe not the same visitors, granted.

But imagine it:

Exhibit A could be a replica of the stromatolites found in western Australia, as in the photo to the left, fossilized evidence of the earliest organisms yet found on Earth, from something like 3.8 billion years ago.  The foyer might be quickly passed by because it's just a  rocky remnant of what looks like layered mud.

But Exhibit B could reproduce much of the Burgess Shale Formation, in the Canadian Rockies, an extraordinary deposit of tens of thousands of fossilized organisms that represent a diversity of life from 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian explosion, that is no longer seen today.  It could be hands-on, too, with prickly trilobites for kids to play with, or video Find the Fossil games.

Next perhaps, there'd be the requisite dinosaur exhibit, beloved of kids, and a great draw.  T. rex and all that, of course.  But no halo'ed humans walking amongst them giving blessings in our exhibit, however.

And then, of course, we'd expect a Hall of Early Hominids -- replica fossil footprints would be fun, such as from Laetoli.  And a hulking, growling Neandertal or two.  Or a diarama of them sitting around a fire gnawing half-cooked moose meat or hide (to make clothing), or hammering out projectile stones or big Alley Oop clubs.  And, of course, the lazy one back in the cave daubing it with graffiti.

And of course, the pièce de résistance, a replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship that Charles Darwin spent 5 years on ship's naturalist, collecting the evidence that eventually convinced him that all life on Earth shares a common origin, and that the diversity of life he saw around him was due to descent from that common origin, with modification. Kids would love exploring the Beagle absolutely as much as they'd love climbing around on an ark. There should be a lifelike statue of Darwin  himself, with net in hand, setting out on a bug-collecting expedition.  This could be made by a contract to Madame Tussaud's.   Here, should one be generous and compromise by allowing a halo to be placed over his head?

This theme park, lets call it Encounters with Evolution, would be educational, that is, about real facts, there would be no controversy over using government funds to build it, and as for jobs, it would employ many people in its construction, and it would surely attract many visitors, as the Governor's Ark.

Of course this is just a quick imagining of such a site.  There are many many more exhibits that could be included...surely you could suggest some.  Maybe a contest for ideas could be held.

Ah, well.  A pipe dream.  The sad fact that it's an Ark and not our dream that's being proposed by the Governor of Kentucky (yes, elected by a majority of the state's population!) goes a long way toward explaining why American students score so poorly in science when compared to much of the rest of the world (such as Shanghai).  Science education is failing us.  (Note to the governor: Google and Intel are looking at graduates from legitimate colleges, not setting up recruiting desks outside revival-meeting tents.)

In the foreseeable future, it'll be us Americans who are sitting around a meagre campfire gnawing raw meat (probably rat-meat, or maybe just McBurgers), while people in other countries, who value real education, will be dining on caviar.....and smiling patronizingly at our plight.


Anne Buchanan said...

While discussing the whole Ark issue with a friend, he sent the following:

So, okay, when I talk to the people of the ArkPark my concern is this: the desert grassland whiptail. They are all female and reproduce parthenogenetically. Some do engage in "pseudo-copulation", in which the 'dominant' female does not lay eggs, but the 'receptive' female becomes more fertile. Technically not lesbian (or are they - they have no choice and how is one to determine their depth of pleasure? segue: do reptiles have orgasms?). But should there be one or two on that blasted ship?!?!? Prime time to ask: WWJD ?

Anonymous said...

Oh, Brother :-) ! ! !
I'd like to send a chas donation to your park project.

James Goetz said...

You peaked my curiosity. I don't know the finer points of parthenogenesis. What does "more fertile" mean?

Nate Davis said...

The footprints of Laetoli bring up a possible quandary. How committed should the Evolution Experience be to the resistance of fairytales?

The romantic imagining of afarensis parent and child walking along hand-in-hand has long been popular...

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Anonymous! We have a long way to go here, so every little bit helps!

And Jim, I think it just means fertile, though I don't know the finer points of parthenogenesis myself!

Nate, good question -- of course, much of what we think we know about why traits evolved verges on the fairy tale, with adaptationist stories posited but impossible to test, so probably they are unavoidable, if not charming. We'll put you on the Board of Directors charged with working this out, though.

Ken Weiss said...

A common problem with evolutionary scenarios is that they assume how, when, and why selection molded what we see. Rarely is the difference heeded between a 'hypothesis' in the more rigorous sense of the word that implies some actual testability, and a 'Just-So' story which is just a plausibility guess.

Bluntly put, evolutionary Just-So stories often haven't got much more cogency than other kinds of Ark-etypes. 'How the Australopithecines got their upright posture' isn't much different from Dr Pangloss's assertion in Voltaire's Candide that the reason we have legs is to hold our stockings.

Even in science we tend to believe things that we'd like to believe, even on flimsy evidence.

Of course, there is one difference: There really _were_ Laetoli people. But there really _wasn't_ an Ark as described in the Bible, in which two of everything took a 30-day cruise.

The challenge in science should be to stick to the truth.

Nate Davis said...

Dr. Weiss, I agree. But I think it also underlines something that is a real problem: to the "Joe on the street", the simple story of the Ark is far more cogent, sensible, and - should I say it? - humane, than scientific facts.

Science is messy, complicated, often mysterious. It's a much harder 'sell to the public, while still remaining honest. Of course, it can be satisfying and very beautiful (see: Sagan's more mystical work, Dawkins' rainbow, etc.), but the cost of entry is just so much greater.

Of course, it's a bad loop: the worse science education is, the higher the cost of entry is into science. And the higher that cost of entry is, the more we'll have guys in Kentucky building multi-million dollar Arks with state money.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, Nate, the job of science in society, as opposed for its own sake, is to inform people about the nature of the world. That was the role of religion in times past (and some would argue still is, in regard to ethics and morals etc.). If the world is more complicated than an Ark, people should be made aware of it.

Sagan's and Dawkins' mystical treatment, as you put it can be viewed as a disservice of a sort, if it misleads understanding.

There is no simple answer, but perhaps part of the science of anthropology is at least to understand how people are. If the way we are is that we respond to emotion and simplicity over realism, well knowing that (and, perhaps, knowing why) is a gain of knowledge--the object of science.

Hank said...

More fertile is, well, instead of the usual clutch of say six eggs (don't know the exact number for Whiptails), she lays ten. Check is in the mail.