Baffled by the dumping of Darwin in the Sunflower State? Bone up on creationism and Kansas.

Published August 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Mark Wallace

Mark Wallace is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York magazine and the Financial Times.

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