Baffled by the dumping of Darwin in the Sunflower State? Bone up on creationism and Kansas.
Why the state of Kansas is not more often recognized as a seat of 20th century American literature is a mystery to me. From Langston Hughes to Truman Capote to William Burroughs, authors have long found in its windswept towns and uncluttered reaches the perfect backdrop against which to conjure remarkable characters.
The most recent fiction to emerge from the rich soil of the Sunflower State (but by no means the least eyebrow-raising), though, takes the form not of a novel but of Kansas’s new science education guidelines. These were recently rewritten by a group of conservative theorists who apparently have a bone to pick with another great writer, Charles Darwin.
That virtually all mention of evolution has been excised from the Kansas testing standards must have Darwin spinning in his grave (provided he has not yet entered the fossil record on which he based his theories). Indeed, some readers will be startled to learn that the evolution debate has never really been conclusively settled. A return to its key books — as well as to one seldom referred to in this context — is therefore in order.
“The Voyage of the Beagle,” Darwin’s annotated diary of a five-year expedition to South America, published in 1840, careens from finches to tortoises, from wounded Argentine officers to barking plovers “wrongfully accused of inelegance.” Through all of it, from Patagonia to the Galapagos and beyond, Darwin maintains an almost ingenuous
curiosity, recording the countless observations that would lead to the theories set out 19 years later in “The Origin of Species.”
But, as Henry Morris and John Whitcomb point out in their 1961 treatise “The Genesis Flood” — a creationist classic and their counterthrust to “The Origin of Species” — Darwin’s theory remains just that: a theory. Since no one was standing around watching when primitive life first appeared on the globe, they argue, who’s to say when or how — or why — it got there? To explain the variety of life as we know it, one need reach no further back than the 35,000 or so animals that Morris and Whitcomb, after some painstaking calculations, have determined were sheltered on the ark, and from which all the beasts of the modern world are, naturally, descended.
Morris and Whitcomb trot out chemical, geological and meteorological evidence to support their contentions, though most of their arguments are of the somewhat shaky “cannot be disproved” variety. Despite the fact that there is much questionable science in their book, it can be entertaining to indulge theories about the “antediluvian vapor canopy” (see Genesis 1:6-7) and the geological changes wrought on the earth during “creation week,” as Morris and Whitcomb dub the six days in which God created “the heaven and the earth” (as well as a seventh day, on which it is commonly assumed He put His feet up in front of a Saints game).
Such oddities aside, a vast sea of conflicting arguments divides “The Voyage of the Beagle” from the story of Noah’s ark. There is, however a third voyage that may shed light on the debate, one first undertaken a century ago by another Kansas literary figure: a gingham-clad young girl known simply as Dorothy.
Yes, we are back in Kansas now, with Lyman Frank Baum and “The Wizard of Oz.” What have witches, winged monkeys and a heartless tin woodman to do with the creationism debate? Perhaps only the monkeys would have much to say about the descent of man. But the rest of the cast — not least Baum’s humbug wizard — might tell us that the conflict is less one of divergent scientific philosophies than of dissonant personal psychologies.
The wizard must be the first pop psychologist in American literature. Once revealed to Dorothy and company as “a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face,” Oz, the (formerly) Great and Terrible, keeps a stiff upper lip. All set to deflate the travelers’ illusions of inadequacy, he has an aphorism ready for everyone. “You have plenty of courage,” he tells the lion. “All you need is confidence in yourself.” To the scarecrow he recommends experience, “the only thing that brings knowledge.” The tin woodman, on the other hand, is informed by the homesick wizard that he is better off without a heart at all.
But the travelers insist, and a simple bit of sleight-of-hand convinces them they have finally gotten what they were after. Only Dorothy must seek her salvation elsewhere, but here too it turns out that what was sought had all along been close at hand. Or, in Dorothy’s case, close at foot. The silver shoes she has worn throughout her adventure in Oz — transformed into ruby slippers only when Hollywood and Judy Garland stepped in — deliver her from the alien landscape only once she is informed by Glinda (the good witch of the south) of their “wonderful powers.”
Baum’s tale at first appears to be a very American fable of self-reliance, but it is really closer to an “authorization myth” of the sort so dear to Joseph Campbell. The land of Oz springs so fully formed from its author’s brow that it seems the quintessential creationist landscape (though Darwin could probably find some way to explain the plethora of “aboriginal productions” present at so remote a locale). Thus the solutions to its denizens’ problems — finding brains, a heart, courage or a way home — always lie with the local authorities.
No different from the creationists, really. But very different from Darwin, who finds his solution only after a long, hard look to nature.
Strikingly, Morris and Whitcomb seem to acknowledge as much in their introduction. “We believe that most of the difficulties associated with the Biblical record of the Flood are basically religious, rather than scientific,” they write. And here, at last, the true battlefield is identified — though Morris and Whitcomb go on to ignore their own admonition and spend nearly 500 pages advancing half-baked “scientific” hypotheses, as do those fighting the current creationist debate.
In the end, though, they tell us, it all comes down to this: Either you read the Bible as history (in which case, like the creationists, you draw your authorization from it), or you don’t (in which case, like Darwin, you look elsewhere). No amount of science can prove or disprove, say, Genesis 9:20-21, in which Noah gets drunk to celebrate the covenant God has just made with him and his descendants.
Creation, it seems, is not a scientific debate after all. Either the word of the Great and Terrible is all you need to dismiss Darwin’s theory — or you peek behind the curtain to discover it’s just a wizened, homesick humbug back there after all.
Mark Wallace is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York magazine and the Financial Times. More Mark Wallace.
More Related Stories
- Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"
- “Arrested Development,” hurry up and get here so you can stop being so annoying
- Must-do's: What we like this week
- Josh Ritter makes his "Blood on the Tracks"
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11