Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Intelligent Design, Creationist and Christian Dino Comics, and The Cope/Marsh Feud: Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Tim Viereck aka Doc Ersatz -- the man who financed my first comicbook venture! -- recently emailed me an intriguing Washington Post article by Michael Powell ("Creationists 'taking the dinosaurs back' with museum", Monday, September 26, 2005) about a soon-to-open new attraction in Petersburg, Kentucky:

The guide, a soft-spoken fellow with a scholarly aspect, walks through the halls of this handsome, half-finished museum and points to the sculpture of a young velociraptor. "We're placing this one in the hall that explains the post-Flood world,"
explains the guide. "When dinosaurs lived with man."
    A reporter has a question or two about this dinosaur-man business, but Mark Looy --- the guide and a vice president at the museum --- already has walked over to the lifelike head of a T. rex, with its 3-inch teeth and carnivore's grin. "We call him our 'missionary lizard,' " Looy says. "When people realize the T. rex lived in Eden, it will lead us to a discussion of the Gospel. The T. rex once was a vegetarian, too."

This Tyrannosaurus rex as vegetarian tidbit dates back at least three decades in Creationist literature, most amusingly illustrated as 'fact' in the Creationist children's books which love to picture the formidable rex hunkering down over an outsized watermelon-like object with a bullhonker bite already out of it.

And those teeth are up to 11" and longer, Mr. Looy -- I have a casting of one on my bookshelf downstairs, and just measured it to be sure. These babies were not designed, per "evilution" or the Creator, for mushing melons, but let's not let facts get in the way.

    The nation's largest museum devoted to the alternative reality that is biblical creation science is rising just outside Cincinnati. Set amid a park and 3-acre artificial lake, the 50,000-square-foot museum features animatronic dinosaurs, state-of-the-art models and graphics, and a half-dozen staff scientists. It holds that the world and the universe are but 6,000 years old and that baby dinosaurs rode in Noah's

Hmmm, I've never found that bon mot in any edition of the Bible I've ever read, and believe me, I've been looking since I was five years old.

Furthermore, if the Creation Museum participants have anything made of plastic in their homes or offices, heat with oil, or drive internal-combustion engines, they're already more dependent on geology -- true science -- than they are willing to admit. A firm belief in a 6,000-year-old planet is inherently noncompatible and thus antithetical to the oil business, y'understand.

Oh, sorry. Continuing:

    The $25 million Creation Museum stands much of modern science on its head and might cause a paleontologist or three to rend their garments. Officials expect to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors when the museum opens in early 2007.
    "Evolutionary Darwinists need to understand we are taking the dinosaurs back," says Kenneth Ham, president of Answers in Genesis-USA, which is building the museum. "This is a battle cry to recognize the science in the revealed truth of God."

Typical of this kind of reporting of late, science is succinctly rendered a democratic process subject to ignorance, prejudice, and opinion in its final paragraph:

    Polls taken last year showed that 45 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago (or less) and that man shares no common ancestor with the ape. Only 26 percent believe in the central tenet of evolution, that all life descended from a single ancestor.

Ah, I see -- the polls say Americans are decidedly against it.

Of course, similar poll results would have been yielded in the 1890s and early 1900s, but we've come so far since then.

Opinions aren't fact, and religious fanaticism isn't science. Hell, polls also demonstrate that the same proportion of Americans still link Saddam Hussain with the 9/11 attacks, but that still doesn't make it so. Those Saudis our Prez loves to hold hands with had a greater link with the 9/11 box-cutter massacre than Saddam or Iraq did, but let's not let facts get in the way of any dearly-held belief systems. (I'm just thankful that the number of Americans who believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago finally outstrips the number of Americans supporting President Bush's policies, but let's not go there this morning.)

All of which leads me to a brief overview of three treasures in my comics and graphic novel collection. Thanks to Bob Heer and the good folks at MyComicShop.com/Lone Star Comics, I now have in my hot little hands a copy of a comic I was handed at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Waterbury, VT at the tender age of five (almost six). Treasure Chest (of Fun & Fact) Vol. 16, No. 9 from January 5, 1961 was the only issue of that venerable published-in-Dayton-Ohio comic series that really mattered to me, though we read 'em weekly. The cover (by Lloyd Ostendorf, who also drew the cover story) is a pastoral tableau featuring a trio of dinosauria and one Pteranodon soaring overhead, a flame-and-smoke bellowing active volcano behind. "The World of Long Ago... See Page 3" is the sole caption.

The cover story is actually entitled The Grandeur of God, and aside from Ostendorf's artist credit the only writing credit reads, Prepared under the direction of Sister Mary Clare, Ph.D.. Note that Treasure Chest was most definitely a Catholic publication, which by definition puts it outside the realm of fundamentalist Christian belief systems (and thus, Creationism and Intelligent Design). The title was launched in March of 1947 by publisher George A. Pflaum of Dayton, OH; James J. Pflaum was editor in chief of the Pflaum empire at the time this particular issue was published, and that empire included Our Little Messenger, Young Catholic Messenger and Junior Catholic Messenger.

The five-page The Grandeur of God offered an illustrated overview of paleontology for young Catholic readers, like little skinhead moi. The narrative artifice is right out of an educational film: an unnamed professorial type male with a pipe is tour-guiding a class of pre-teen students through a museum exhibit. He sums up the science involved in reconstructing prehistoric life as "a sort of detective story, in which paleontological detectives play important roles and in which fossils are the clues." Appropo of the educational film template, by the first panel of page two said professorial male archetype is now showing the seated students a slide show, rendering the reader a passive recipient of found knowledge along with our pre-teen identifiers. The initial slide image of trilobites places The Grandeur of God and Ph.D.-wielding Sister Maria Clare in accord with the science circa 1960: "The trilobites lived in the seas over 450 million years ago -- The Cambrian Period." After a tidy definition of the term 'invertebrate,' our professorial archetype continues, "...about 300 million years ago -- during the Devonian Period -- the seas would have made a fisherman happy," thus profering a sly reference to the Greatest Fisherman of Them All without raising a feather.

Speaking of which, after a fleeting (but neatly drawn) five panels of primordial critters from Devonian fishes to the amphibian Eryops, the now-obsolete Brontosaurus, and a trio of pterosaurs, page four kicks off with a panel showing Archaeopteryx, mentioning the feathers and teeth and all without overtly referencing evolution.

That theory is eased toward, but never into: in panel five of page four, said professorial archetype refers to early mammals having "developed a hairy body to protect themselves from the cold," leading into a full-blown four-panel illustrated brief on horse evolution on page five, from the Eohippus ("...developed into what we know as the horse...") to the Pliocene's Pliohippus. And the term "evolution" is not used once.

The concluding professorial archetype balloons wrap this fleeting paleontology lesson into the religious fold. In the penultimate panel, he answers a question about Mammoths and Mastodons: "Why they became extinct is still something of a puzzle to scientists. They cannot put their finger on any one thing as a definite cause." Male professorial archetype concludes by looking out as us, the reader, and saying, "So you see the world that God has prepared for man is still full of surprises. There are so many things that we, and the scientists, don't know yet, but we do have God's greatest gift, a soul with the ability and will to get to know them."

Thus, this early synthesis of science and religion -- the earliest dino comic I've found that addresses the issue at all -- has no problem accomodating known paleontological science and the religious belief systems of the writer and reader. Science doesn't have to be turned on its head to accord with literalist readings of the Bible; dinosaurs existed; evolution, though never referred to as such, can be studied and scrutinized without threat to the soul.

In stark contrast, consider "A Special Publication from Amazing Facts" (a publication series whose samplings certainly justified that moniker), A Creationist's View of Dinosaurs and the Theory of Evolution by former-underground cartoonist Jim Pinkowski, who kindly mailed me a copy of his magazine-format comic back in the spring of 1997. Though the Jack T. Chick Christian comics and anti-evolution comic tracts and wall charts pre-date Pinkowski's comic by two decades, Jim's comic provides a handy condensation of the key points addressed in the Chick tracts with a timely late-1990s revamping of those arguments (and inventive new ones) that will suffice for this discussion.

At the time, Jim was living in Tennessee, though the Amazing Fact series was published by a three-decade old ministry out of Roseville, CA that embraced radio and television broadcasts as well as publishing books and comics. Jim sent his handiwork (he wrote and drew the comic) in response to my own project Tyrant, and revisiting the comic today one finds a compelling transition between the Creationist and Intelligent Design non-sciences. For what it's worth, let me also state that my analysis here is not meant as a personal attack upon Jim or his beliefs; as a comic, A Creationist's View of Dinosaurs and the Theory of Evolution a well-executed piece of work, condensing almost all of the key Creationist assertions of the period and fusing those with some lively material unique (by my experience, anyway) to this comic.

The inside cover bemoans the vehicle for evolution that Jurassic Park provided as "a built-in sales pitch for 'evolution'!" I hope Jim finds some comfort in the above-quoted Washington Post poll findings; despite the enormous boxoffice grosses of all three JP films, science is still suspect.

"Life is far too complicated to have happened 'just by chance,' nor could it have 'self-propelled' itself over millions of years into the animals and living organisms that we see all around us. The truth is that a Master Designer is the Creator of everything -- God created this world, our Universe, and all the life within it. It's time to listen to the FACTS and make the right decision!"

After a glib dismissal of science per se as "our new thrill," Jim's authorial voice (augmented by a bald Charlie-Brown-patterned sweater-wearing Creationist professorial archetype who is never named, but was based on a then-prominent Christian fundamentalist archeologist; Jim also cites the writings of Robert V. Gentry in this comic) that "'Truth' takes time to be studied, researched, and proven! The trick has been to balance our understanding of science and religion."

Ah, yes, that's the trick indeed.

[To be continued tomorrow ]