The Long March of the Koalas

The Long March of the Koalas August 25, 2009

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.)

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* 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.

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  • Consumer Unit 5012, with certificate and clock

    hagsrus: “I speculate occasionally about a creator who watches with interest, …(SNIP)
    She plays Sims with the universe — and cheats. And occasionally tries to initiate a conversation with one of the Sims who has evolved some capacity to communicate.

    This ties in depressingly well with my cynical view of the RTC God as a video game player, with Satan as a wandering hazard lowering the soul-score.

  • Lori

    during my troubled adolescence I decided, based on the evidence available to me at the time, that my culture’s default God didn’t exist, dammit, and neither did any others, and nobody was going to convince me otherwise. But I still believed in the aliens. (And commas.)

    @calenturian: Did you believe that the aliens had some bearing on questions of morality or the meaning of life? Did you think that they could be called upon to solve problems that you had?
    I didn’t mean to suggest that there are no atheists who believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. I know some who do. They just don’t think that aliens are the answer to human existential issues. I’m sure those beliefs exist, but I haven’t encountered them.

  • Okay. so it’s a parody. frankly, Hopsiah the Kanga-Jew sounds like something ripped from South Park.

  • Ryan

    I don’t think it would be a bad thing for the word “creationism” to be publicly reclaimed by theistic evolutionists, if they could pull it off, so I’m happy to go along with any of them who want to self-label that way.
    I suppose that would be nice, though I worry that for a while it would sound as if more people agree with young-earth creationists than really do.

  • Malcolm

    @ neohippie Ok, but why did all the wacky animals go to Australia?
    Well, for the same reason that god decided Ken Ham’s immortal soul should be born there; isn’t it obvious? RB Muldoon (former Prime Minister of NZ; now deceased) put it most succinctly when he noted that emigration to Australia [from NZ] increased the IQ of both countries… so where does that leave people born there? [NB. Forced confession: yes, I admit it, I am a NZer.]
    @ Ted Herrlich I spent a day at Kennie’s Folly, the Creation “Museum”, and he claims that the trees uprooted by the great ‘Flood’ formed log rafts and the animals simply floated to the other continents.
    Errm. I’m trying to get my head around this so maybe you could enlighten me more? (I haven’t had the benefit of visiting the museum I regret so am relying on others’ good offices for detail here.)
    There’s this big flood. Noah puts lots of animals into his ark (2 or 7, or maybe 7 pairs, whatever, it’s a BIG ark). Trees get ripped up in the flood. Trees that are ripped out by the flood float. Now the flood recedes. Up to here I’m pretty much ok except with the size of the boat perhaps.
    The boat lands on top of a mountain – hmmm, that was some flood, Katrina had nothing on it, huh? And even it didn’t make it to the height of mountains. Anyway, the animals get out and meanwhile the flood is still receding, the trees are still floating. The water is getting further away and the trees floating on it are too. So the animals what, run like crazy down the mountainside to catch the trees so they can float on them? But Koalas can’t run. They can sort of waddle between Eucalyptus trees when they have to.
    Maybe the nice people on the boat carried them while they ran after the trees? (Well, since they were kind enough to give the Koalas a ride in the first place, I guess they had a vested interest in seeing them on their way via the trees?)
    Like I said, I don’t understand. I guess maybe I’ll just have to visit the museum and get Ken to explain.

  • calenturian

    @Lori: @calenturian: Did you believe that the aliens had some bearing on questions of morality or the meaning of life? Did you think that they could be called upon to solve problems that you had?
    No, kind of, and yes: I’ve always been a moral relativist and I’m usually inclined to the view that life has no inherent meaning, but I did try to call upon aliens to solve my problems for me. Not that they did, the bastards.
    I should clarify that my aliens were extra-dimensional rather than extra-terrestrial, but they were definitely aliens, not deities.

  • Barry Wallace

    Just came to this article via link on today’s (6/12/12) post.  Didn’t the Bible say seven pairs of each clean animal, not seven total?

  • Amy Pemberton

    NOVA recently had a special on koalas (it may still be on the PBS website).  They are distinctly unfitted to march _anywhere_.  They eat hard-to-digest, low-calorie leaves and spend most of their time hanging out, digesting and conserving energy.  They also aren’t really _built_ for  marching.  They kind of lope.  The researchers on the show were amazed to discover that they could cross highways so I think migrating from Mt Ararat to Australia in 6000 years, land bridge or no, is just out.

  • Lindsay

    Fine, I have no problem with branding Ham as an Austrian: I am AustrALian and would dearly like to disown him.
    One small issue referring to  (like going outside on a clear night), unfortunately we in the southern hemisphere look out of the galaxy into intergalactic space. I have never seen the Milky Way and cannot fully appreciate the Biblical references to the glory of the heavens. So, maybe, that might explain Ken Ham

  • Kelex

    I realize this is coming in a bit late (by over a year) and probably no one will see it, but anyway. Here’s what *my* bible (NIV) says:

    “Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.”

    That sounds like he’s identifying seven AS a pair. This might be a typo, or a mistranslation, or it might be a weird animal version of the bible’s tendency to treat females as property. Only the males count! In which case, the “two of every animal” thing would actually be FOUR. Two males, and their mates.

  • SkyknightXi

    …Crux isn’t enough? Although I think you also have Eridanus. Then again, there’s the just-barely constellations like Antlia and Horologium…