17 February 2008

Can a Creationist Teach History?

James Hanley at Uncommon Liberty writes:

And it's not that I would ban creationists from the public universities--I don't care if someone who believes in special creation teaches political philosophy, French literature, theater, art, exercise science, history, economics, etc. But not biology, because creationism isn't scientific.

Okay, maybe theater or economics--but history? Me, I wouldn't go there, since the philosophy of special creation is inherently anti-history in its formulation. History is based on hard evidence, not speculation made up out of whole cloth. Creationism, on the other hand, dismisses evidence that doesn't fit its bizarre world-view. Creationists, for example, don't buy into the (to their minds absurd) notion that human beings invented or discovered agriculture. Mankind was specially created to garden, and had agriculture forced upon him as a result of the Fall of Man. (I've had this argument before. More than once.) Hunting and gathering peoples aren't cultures that haven't taken up agriculture yet--they are cultures that have fallen from the natural state imposed by the creator. One of the historical consequences of this belief was the underestimate of the time it would take to transform hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists. Nineteenth century American policy dictated that native Americans convert instantly from a hunter-gatherer way of life--perceived as laziness--to one based on agriculture--perceived as godly industriousness. A utopian idealist named Meeker tried this notion out on the Utes in Colorado in the 1870s, and ended up dead as a result.

And this is one of the most basic facts of history. Creationists have strange notions about many other aspects of history--the development of language, the accomplishments of the Sumerians, the role of Babylon, the role of Egypt--in fact, they seem to have a distorted view of the entire history of the Near East. But what can you expect from a group that denies the validity of radio-carbon dating, of dendrochronology, and yet believes in a recent global flood? These guys aren't playing the game of History any more than they are playing the game of Science, and have no business getting into the ring, or even suiting up for it.

Given this, it's not surprising that Creationists tend to jump onto other popular historical bandwagons for which evidence is lacking--the Christian America myth for example, currently being enshrined in HR888, the Inflate Religious Pretensions Act. I've already mentioned Flood Geology, of course, but there are also Eurocentricism, the denigration of Islam, the conspiracy notions behind modern Asian history, and so on and so forth--none of which may be inherent in Creationism--but once you've agreed to voluntarily blind yourself in one area, it's easy to extend it to others. If your eye offends you, pluck it out and all that, I suppose. Of course you won't be able to see where you're going, and if you lead others you're both going to end up in a pit, but that's a small price to pay for being doctrinally correct.

Now I'm speaking here of YECs, of course--Young Earth Creationists, for those who aren't hip to the current lingo. It really ought to be YUCs--Young Universe Creationists--but for some reason that hasn't caught on. Old Universe Creationists are another matter. Some of them, anyway. I used to watch a cable-access show by an Old Universe Creationist--from his comments I believe he was an astronomer by trade--and on the whole I'd have confidence in his ability to teach astronomy at any rate. I don't know about French Literature or exercise science, but I'd have more confidence in his ability to teach them than in the average YUC's ability to teach anything whatsoever that depended upon his ability to evaluate evidence accurately. Sloppy thinking in one field carries over to another--or at least I'd have trouble believing that it doesn't. Intellectual laziness in evaluating the evidence of astronomy, biology, geology, and history--all of which are key to being a card-carrying YUC--do not suggest a likelihood for intellectual rigor in political philosophy or economics. And willful blindness in one field easily carries over to another.

As for the Gonzales issue, well, anybody who thinks that denial of tenure is persecution is living in a fantasy world. Sorry, but denial of tenure is a fact of life in academia. Most of the time the reasons boil down to cold hard cash. An institution has to think long and hard before making the long-term commitment that tenure implies. My sympathies tend to be with the instructors in these cases, not surprisingly since my mother and step-father were both professors in institutions of higher learning. In Gonzalez's case my sympathy is somewhat muted by the fact that he appears to have been spending too much time on outside interests instead of keeping his eye on the ball. The guy was working in a highly competitive field, and if he wasn't bringing in the bacon, so to speak, then I'm not surprised his employer chose to let him go. Them are the breaks. As Superchicken used to observe, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred." If denial of tenure is persecution, then I've known a lot of victims, and many of them much more obviously qualified in their fields than Gonzalez appeared to be in his.

[By the way, James Hanley's original post on the Gonzalez nonsense seems to me to put things in the right perspective. Denial of tenure is never fun; it would be lovely if every instructor in the world could find a permanent teaching position. But the dishonest campaign being run on his behalf is beneath contempt.]

02 February 2008

Earth-pigs

One of my favorite animals is the aardvark, the amazing African digging machine that eats termites and appears to be unrelated to any other mammal on the face of the earth. When I last looked, anyway, the aardvark stood alone--a single species occupying a single genus in the sole family of its order. Only when we reached its class (it is a mammal after all, and a placental at that) did it have the company of fellows. It is not at all related to other similar-looking animals with much the same lifestyle--the giant anteater, say, or the pangolin--but walks alone among mammals.

The Dutch named it aardvark--aarde being a cognate of our own earth, and varken (I suppose) somehow related to the Indo-European porko, whence comes Latin porcus and English pork. Or maybe it's some Dutch abomination unrelated to anything elsewhere. I could look it up, I guess, but that would mean getting out of my chair and wandering around the cold house looking for reference works probably buried in the basement.

In any case the Dutch settlers named the beast an earth pig, aardvark in their defective tongue, and English borrowed it from the Dutch. Why they thought the thing was a pig I don't know. I remember some writer who described the four pigs of Africa, including the aardvark among more conventional suidae, but it never made any sense to me. Tell me, does that thing look like a pig? The earth part I've got no quarrel with, seeing that the creature out-burrows strong men with shovels, but it seems to me that you might as well call it an earth-cow, or an earth-goat, as an earth-pig.

Of course we've always had problems with pigs in English. When they're out in the pens, on the hoof as it were, they're plain old pigs, a good old Anglo-Saxon word of unknown derivation. Or swine, another good Anglo-Saxon word, this one going back through Old English to Proto-Indo-European *suino maybe, or something like that. After we've slaughtered them and delivered their roasted flesh to the table, they've turned into pork, from the Old French porc, and ultimately back to Latin porcus and Proto-Indo-European *porko. Or maybe they've turned into bacon, another Old French word I'm pretty sure, though I don't remember what it means. When we call them, however, for some reason we call them in Latin. Sui, sui, we say, and I guess they come.

Earth is a more straightforward proposition. Synonyms include dirt, ground, soil, mud, filth maybe. If we were looking for a decent English approximation of the uncouth aardvark we could do worse than start there. Dirtpig, soilhog, and maybe when we bring it to the table we could call it mudpork. Claybacon. I'm not even going to try to figure out how we'd call one. Terrasui? My Latin sucks.

I started this post a couple of weeks ago, but for some reason it seemed appropriate to publish it today. Happy Groundhog Day!

Obscure Biblical Figure Appears in the Archaeological Record--Or Not

The Jerusalem Post has an interesting story about a seal from the first temple period:

A stone seal bearing the name of one of the families who acted as servants in the First Temple and then returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to Babylonia has been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem's City of David, a prominent Israeli archeologist said Wednesday.

The 2,500-year-old black stone seal, which has the name "Temech" engraved on it, was found earlier this week amid stratified debris in the excavation under way just outside the Old City walls near the Dung Gate, said archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, who is leading the dig.

According to the Book of Nehemiah, the Temech family were servants of the First Temple and were sent into exile to Babylon following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

The family was among those who later returned to Jerusalem, the Bible recounts.

For those whose Ancient Near Eastern history may be a bit rusty, let me say that the First Temple, according to the Bible (or rather according to the Deuteronomistic History contained among the biblical texts), was built around 1000 BCE under the legendary King Solomon and destroyed 586 BCE by the historical Chaldeans or Neo-Babylonians or whatever you want to call them. A new temple (the Second Temple) was later rebuilt under the Persians. The destruction of the temple at least rests on a solid historical footing (we have ancient records of the event); since it was destroyed somebody presumably had it built, and Solomon is the name that tradition supplies. Of course tradition tells us that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War too, and the one tradition may well be no better than the other.

Stone seals were the rubber stamps of the ancient world; officials used them to impress their signature, so to speak, in clay, so authenticating something as emanating from their particular office. Like rubber stamps, they were engraved in reverse, so that the impression would read correctly. The Jerusalem Post article notes:

The seal of one of the members of the Temech family was discovered just dozens of meters away from the Opel area, where the servants of the Temple, or "Nethinim," lived in the time of Nehemiah, Mazar said.

"The seal of the Temech family gives us a direct connection between archeology and the biblical sources and serves as actual evidence of a family mentioned in the Bible," she said. "One cannot help being astonished by the credibility of the biblical source as seen by the archaeological find."

There is a small problem, however, with this identification. It only works if the text is read the wrong way around. The Baptist Press notes:

But as it turns out, Mazar was misreading the inscription. Because the seal is designed to make an impression, the letters are written in mirror-image form, similar to how the word "ambulance" is written on the front of such a vehicle.

Following critiques from scholars such as the ones associated with the Biblical Archeology Society, Mazar now acknowledges the letters should read Sh-l-m-t. (Hebrew had no vowels.) If that's the case, then scholars believe it could refer to Shelomith, a man mentioned in Ezra 8:10 who also returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, or to Shelomith, the daughter of Zerubbabel mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19.

So, apparently, whether read forward or backward this stone seal turns out to corroborate the Bible. Again as the Baptist Press observes (without irony as far as I can tell):

The archeological discovery is at least the second one in recent months to make a tie to an obscure Old Testament name and thus, conservative scholars say, affirm the Bible's reliability.

The other corroboration?

Last summer British Museum officials announced the discovery of a two-inch-wide cuneiform tablet that contains details of a financial transaction by a "Nabu-sharrussu-ukin," who is called in the tablet the "chief eunuch" of Babylon King Nebuchadnezzar. That's the same person mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3 -- although spelled differently in different translations -- as the chief officer of Nebuchadnezzar who was in Jerusalem when the Babylonians overtook the city around 587 B.C.

Go figure.

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