Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Equal Time in Northern Kentucky (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of a three-part series detailing some of my experiences on a recent trip I made to Lexington, KY. Part 1 outlines my resistance to the warfare thesis, that is that religion and science are not reconcilable. By that position, as long as they both exist as prominent components of society, S&R will be at war with each other. Unfortunately, this perspective is often used to frame media representations of science and religion – most notably in the conversation about evolution and creationism. Even though I firmly deny the legitimacy of selecting one creationist scientist as an equal opponent to a shouting evolutionist who defends all of science, I recognize that we humans like to categorize our arguments. Therefore, today I will grant equal time to my science and religion experiences in northern Kentucky. Should you be accustomed to presentations in the form of a scientific reports, think of this post as field research composing the methods and data sections for this paper.


Yesterday, I hinted that I was considering a visit to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. This decision was not without its dilemmas. First, there is principle. How could a God-fearing scientist such as myself justify the blasphemy of setting foot in a temple of wrongness? Please see the figure at left for a summary of my gut reaction to the museum. My regular readers know that I am a Christian and a scientist. One of the ways I reconcile this is to approach both theology and scientific empiricism with intellectual honesty. I previously alluded to my view that young earth creationism is at worst dishonest, and at best fanciful. Why would I then be willing to step inside? Many out there (6th Century BC Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, for example) would contend that we need to know the enemy so as to not be imperiled in battle. But wait a minute – I'm no fan of the warfare thesis. So why visit? Well, there's the curiosity of it all. According to the traffic director in the museum's parking lot, more than 500,000 people have visited the museum since it opened six months ago. That's a whole stink of a lot of people to see a little animotronic cavegirl feeding velociraptors carrots. Maybe I don't see them as enemies, but if ever I am going to be an informed contributor to the dialogue on science and religion, shouldn't I have visited the crown jewel of creationist science? The guy (Matt) who checked my paperwork as I left the Alamo rental car lot told me that the museum was totally worth my time. Museums are, after all, the place where (insert topic here) comes alive. Just when curiosity nabbed me, I was deflated by: 1) The lines – it was to take 30 minutes just to get in to the place! and 2) The price tag – on a graduate student's budget, $19.95 is a steep price to pay for an hour's amusement. Rental car Matt saw the museum for free because his brother worked construction there - I forgot to ask him whether the visit was worth my money. I am guessing that $19.95 goes toward anti-science propaganda. Even though I didn't buy a ticket, the people at the museum were nice. They let me check out the gift shop, look at some of the dinosaur animatronics and didn't prevent me from documenting my visit.

My pilgrimage was handicapped from the start. I needed to get to Lexington by 7:00 PM for the first meetings of the conference I was attending there, and I heard that there was nice scenery between Cincinnati and Lexington that I wanted to enjoy before dusk. I headed south on I-75 and quickly encountered a sign that jogged memories from more than a decade ago. In my eleventh grade American history class, each student adopted the personality of one historical figure. I was Lewis and Clark. (Some of the personalities were schizophrenic.) Naturally, I was drawn to the scientific missions the two pursued in the midst of their cross-country adventure. I also remember reading about a scientific collecting expedition William Clark led after the Corps of Discovery returned from their adventures. The destination of the voyage was a little valley now designated Big Bone Lick State Park. Native Americans knew for ages of the place with big bones and French trappers discovered it in the middle of the 18th Century. The place soon became a well guarded outpost – for nearby salt springs, not the fossils. When Thomas Jefferson heard of the enormous fossils being recovered at the site, he sent Gen. Clark to recover the bones. I think that some mastodon teeth are still at Monticello.

Back to my story. It was still light out, and I decided that interstate driving was not fulfilling my quest for local scenery. I took the 7 mile detour to the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology. Call it providence, but I happened to run into the park's naturalist in the visitor center parking lot. Todd Young is an anthropologist by training and is an expert in Native American sign language. State Parks are notoriously understaffed, so he wears many hats at Big Bone Lick. One of which was to teach a curious traveler a little about local geology. I am still on the lookout for a personal copy of the local geology field guide he recommended. Thumbing through it at the University of Kentucky library provided me with a profound connection with the place I was visiting. It also pointed to the great irony that the Creation Museum is built on one of the most fertile fossil beds in all of North America. The Ordovician strata is the remnant of the great inland sea that inundated much of the Midwest 500 million years ago. It is the purple region on the map from yesterday's entry. The rock strata are so close to the surface that just about every road cut, stream bed and construction site offers an opportunity to discover fossils. At these disrupted sites, you can expect to trip over corals, crinoids, brachiopods, nautiloids and trilobites. Todd and I scrambled through a creek bed and found some crinoids and brachiopods. Before I hit the road, he pointed me in the direction of a recently built Wal-Mart. Evidently, folks had been finding some nice trilobites there recently. Growing up, the trilobite was a symbol of fossil hunting for me – I always hoped to find one 'in the field,' but had to settle for one purchased from a museum shop.

In the end, I was happy with my decision to drive to, but not pay for entry at the Creation Museum. That decision enabled my encounter with the naturalist at the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology. In a way, viewing the mammoth skull and scrounging for some little fossils was cleansing. It balanced out the queasiness I felt standing in the Creation Museum's bookstore.I hope you will find your way back here tomorrow for a final installment of my three part series: Unearthing Truth in Northern Kentucky.

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