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The creationists’ dinosaur problem

Dinosaurs are a headache for biblical literalists. Since religion has no rational basis, you have to build your base of believers by indoctrinating children at a young age. And because children are fascinated by dinosaurs and can’t seem to get enough of them, you need to work them into the story somehow. The fact that dinosaurs existed at one time and are now extinct is an unquestioned fact and must be faced. The catch is that dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible. It is no good for creationist adults to deny their existence the way they deny other inconvenient scientific facts because even the most trusting and naïve child is going to balk at such a counterfactual statement.

Young Earth creationists cannot accept the most common scientific explanation of dinosaur extinction as a result of an asteroid collision with the Earth 65 million years ago that changed the climate, because that explanation is too deeply integrated into an old Earth model in which dinosaurs lived long before humans. Biblical literalists believe in a 6,000 year old Earth in which humans existed from the beginning and hence were contemporaneous with all animals so it would be hard to explain why the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs did not destroy humans as well. Besides asteroids are not mentioned in the Bible either.

As a result, there has developed an entire creationist cottage industry devoted to (a) arguing that the Bible does indeed talk about dinosaurs, and (b) providing explanations as to why they are no longer around.

Blog reader David sent along a little cartoon booklet titled There Go the Dinosaurs! that gives one such attempt. As he said it is at the same time both hilarious and sad.

The booklet says that the reason dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible is that they used to be called dragons, which are mentioned extensively in the Bible, and that they were ‘renamed’ as dinosaurs in 1841. It is true that the name dinosaur was only coined in 1842 by the naturalist Richard Owen after the discovery of the fossils. But this ‘renaming’ gambit that makes dragons and dinosaurs the same is quite a neat trick because it solves two embarrassing problems at once. One is that dinosaurs existed but the Bible does not mention them and the other is that dragons are widely accepted to be mythical creatures that never existed but the Bible and other fables repeatedly refer to them. Of course, since god knows the future, it does not explain why he did not tell the authors of the Bible to use the term dinosaur. But we’ll let that go.

So why did the dinosaurs go extinct, if it was not due to a catastrophic event? The booklet said that humans hunted them for their meat. During the great flood, a pair of dinosaurs was saved in the ark by Noah and after the flood subsided they reproduced like other animals. But because the flood wiped out all the vegetation, the air in the immediate post-flood era was oxygen poor. Apparently dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air and as a result they got tired easily and couldn’t run as fast (like what happens to humans in high altitudes, I suppose) and so were much more easily caught and killed. Hence they went extinct.

What is interesting about this scenario is the attempt to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for an accepted fact that picks and chooses from the scientific universe. What creationists do is mix as much standard science as possible with evidence-free assertions. Creationists tend to use science only when it consists of either those things that are common knowledge and cannot be disputed or things that people experience in their everyday lives and seem commonsensical or it provides results that they agree with. Any science that is not common knowledge and contradicts the Bible is rejected. Radiometric dating, for example, requires esoteric and technical knowledge and thus can be dismissed and its conclusions breezily cast aside.

The way that creationists operate is to accept just those scientific facts that ‘every one knows’ (continents drift, during photosynthesis trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, the Earth moves around the Sun, the universe is vast) and then weave elaborate stories around these anchors to create ‘explanations’. The catch is that as time goes by, more and more things that once could be dismissed as esoteric start to enter the world of ‘everyone knows’ knowledge, creating more headaches for creationists, requiring more ad hoc additions. For example, creationists realize that it is futile to deny that the continents once formed a single large land mass that drifted apart. But in order to explain how that could have happened in 6,000 years, they say that they moved really fast until just recently.

The idea that trees are producers of oxygen (true) and that low oxygen content in air can more easily lead to fatigue (true) is thrown in with a purely ad hoc assertion (that dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air than humans) to arrive at the desired result. As Rudyard Kipling showed with his Just So Stories once you are allowed this freedom to be evidence-free, you can explain anything, a point reinforced by the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo.

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What is really going to destroy contemporary creationism is the age of the Earth and evolution. The idea that the Earth is really old, of the order of billions of years, is now so widely accepted that creationists will come to rue the day that they decided that a young Earth and special creation of species had to be bedrock beliefs. Even the mainstream media, ever solicitous of not offending people’s religious beliefs, no longer bother to provide ‘balance’ when it talks of the age of the Earth being 13.7 4.5 billion years old. The same is true that species have evolved.

At some point, young people will peel away from creationism because just so stories that argue for a young Earth and special creation of species will be just too far fetched for them to take.

Comments

  1. says

    Eric Hovind, son of Dr. Dino Kent Hovind, who is in jail, came to a local church in the Cleveland area about 6 months ago. I went to his talk. He had some pretty convoluted explanations for a lot of this stuff, and this was just one lecture of three he did that day. He said there have been reports of dragons/dinosaurs in some lake in Africa and that there are ancient stone carvings showing dinosaurs living with men (Ica Stones). He implied that his organization had some of the stones through some underhanded means as they are property of the South American government where they came from. If you investigate them, it becomes obvious that they are hoaxed and that no government cares where they are. It is telling that he accepted no questions from the audience. Pretty surreal experience. I wanted to laugh a few times.

  2. says

    I’m sure you meant to say 4 billion (or so) years old for the age of the Earth. It’s my understanding that our universe is 13.7 billion years old.

    It’s sad that we live in country (and a world) where adults teach their children such rubbish. Yet as you suggest, little by little this stuff becomes untenable.

    I was listening to interviews last night with cosmologists and physicists at a website called closertotruth. It’s incredible how mysterious, wonderful and awe inspiring real science and the universe are with no recourse to religion and magic necessary.

  3. Henry says

    @David

    I went through the believer-agnostic-atheist progression. I can honestly say I marvel more at the sunset now than ever before.

    The fact that science (gravity, fission, light, etc) just *works* is more amazing to me than if some invisible hand was behind it.

  4. says

    @Henry

    Agreed. I can’t fathom how some people can stick their heads in the sand and willfully live in ignorance of what science can tell us about the universe we live in and this planet we live on. It’s a constant source of depression for me that end of the world cults, creation museums and other nutters can raise oodles of money for their stupidity and causes – money that could have gone to something that would have really enriched our lives. Our life spans are so short and we’re lucky enough to live in a time when science can give us the facts about the diversity of life on this planet and tell us about the mysteries of the universe that cosmologists and physicists continue to explore. Assuming morons don’t destroy this planet, future generations will be even more fortunate.

  5. says

    David,

    Thanks for pointing out the error. I find that it is when I am writing the stuff I am most familiar with that I make careless errors. It is as if my critical guard gets let down.

  6. Jared A says

    I thought that the Mesozoic Era did in fact have a higher oxygen content in the atmosphere which led to the hypothesis that that dinosaurs would have been adapted to these levels for peak performance.

    It’s kind of hilarious that the creationists would latch on to this bit of conjecture to support a young earth hypothesis because the only reason this idea would be true is if a) dinosaurs lived in a different era than humans and b) evolution works.

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