It has been brought to my attention that Ken Ham, the man behind the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis, is originally from Australia and not the United States. So when I wrote last week of America as "the land of P.T. Barnum and Ken Ham" the general point about hucksterism here in the U.S. was correct, but technically …
Wait, hold on — Australia?
You can't be a young-earth creationist and be from Australia. I think if you're a young-earth creationist, you're not even allowed to believe in Australia. That continent is evolution's playground, it's showroom. Ken Ham couldn't have built his Creation Museum in Australia because they already have a thriving Evolution Museum there — it takes up the entire island. The displays are fantastic.
Are we sure that Ham isn't from Austria? I mean, the biology and geology of Austria aren't particularly compatible with young-earth creationism either, but it's not like Australia with its crazy-quilt of unique and uniquely adapted species. I just can't think of a crazier place for a creationist to have come from.
Well, OK, maybe Madagascar. But still.
I just can't fathom how someone could have lived in Australia believing the world is only 6,000 years old. There are all sorts of things you can't do while believing that (like, for instance, going outside on a clear night), but living in Australia would seem near the top of that list. The indigenous Australians have stories, dances and paintings that are far older than 6,000 years. They've got jokes that are older than that. But even if Ham managed to spend his years in his native land without ever encountering or learning of its ancient cave paintings, he surely must have seen or at least been aware of all those wonderful native species that every kid here in America learns about when we study Australia in elementary school — the kangaroos and koalas, bandicoots, echidnas and platypuses.
So how does Ham account for these wonderful creatures? His abbreviated timeline of the universe has Noah's ark landing on Mount Ararat along about 2300 BCE. Then what? Do the seven* koalas walk to Australia from there?
Seems rather a long walk. Followed, I suppose, by rather a long swim. All without encountering a single eucalyptus tree — the basis for their exclusive diet — until they arrived at their destination on the other side of the world.
If you ever encounter someone who, like Ken Ham, believes the earth is only 6,000 years old, don't bother asking them about the Long March of the Koalas, or about kangaroos or island biogeography more generally. Such questions will only prompt their fight-or-flight instinct to kick in and that doesn't lead anywhere constructive. (They can get quite nasty when cornered, baring their teeth, snarling and getting elected to school boards.)
You have to appreciate what such people think is at stake, namely, the Meaning of Life. More than that, actually, the very possibility that life has or can have meaning.
The real problem with Answers in Genesis can't be found in Genesis, or in their tortured reading of it. The real problem is that they've somehow become convinced that there exist two and only two possibilities. Either their particular, smallish reading of Genesis is "literally" true and the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago by their particular, smallish notion of god, or else the universe and human existence within it are meaningless, a realm violence and death in which kindness, goodness, justice and beauty are nothing more than illusion. They believe that either the history of the universe is a brutally short 6,000 years, or else life in that universe is nasty, brutish and short and nothing but. They prefer the former, understandably. And any challenge to it — by argument or by exposure to science or reality — is thus interpreted as an affirmation of the latter view.
You'll never get anywhere talking to these folks unless you confront that fundamental error. Their hostility to science and their appalling theology are big problems — unsustainably life-distorting problems — but they both derive from this deeper mistake. If you can't get them to accept that their fundamental false dichotomy is, in fact, false — that they are not forced to choose either impossible antiscience or cruel nihilism — then they will never be able to consider any other possibilities.**
Those of us who aren't trapped in that frightening and disorienting false dichotomy, have the luxury of appreciating that while their earnest and urgent need to believe in the Long March of the Koalas may be tragic, it is also, undeniably, kind of funny. And so you may be tempted, at this point, to click over to the Answers in Genesis Web site and browse about through the alternate universe they've constructed there to read more about these brave marsupials and their heroic journey southward after the great flood. But trust me, the more time you spend on that site, the more the balance tips from funny to tragic until it ultimately just becomes depressing.
And anyway, when it comes to the extraordinary topic of island biodiversity, reality is far more interesting than delusion. So let me recommend, again, David Quammen's fascinating book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. A much more interesting and productive use of your time than spending it reading the Answers in Genesis Web site. (Or, for that matter, this Web site — but please do come back when you're finished with Quammen's book.)
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* That's right, seven. The story of Noah in the book of Genesis says that he took "seven of every kind of clean animal" and seven of every kind of bird onto the ark. The "two of every kind" limit was only for "unclean" animals. Even the AIG folks tend to overlook or ignore this strange detail in the story. First there's the problem of anachronism — the distinction between "clean" and "unclean" animals hasn't been invented yet. Then there's the question of what happens to the poor odd-one-out among the clean animals and birds. Perhaps Noah and his family enjoyed fresh meat during their voyage. Or maybe the clean animals are just a bit more open-minded, sexually, than their unclean counterparts. Anyway, I'm counting koalas with the clean animals here because, A) they don't have cloven hoofs, and B) they're adorable.
** Other possibilities including, for example, everything that nearly everyone on the planet believes. Most people, after all, are neither young-earth creationists nor nihilists. You yourself, for instance, are neither a young-earth creationist nor a nihilist. (I know this because you've read this far in this post. A nihilist wouldn't have bothered to do so and a young-earth creationist wouldn't have been able to do so.) Ken Ham would explain to you that this is because you're not being intellectually honest enough to recognize that his false dichotomy is logically inescapable and he would be happy to lecture you further on how you can learn to follow his sterling example of intellectual honesty — a lecture delivered, for Alfred Russell Wallace's sake, in an Australian accent.