The good book

Whenever I sat at Joseph and Mary’s dinner table, Mary showed a great deal of interest in my work. In between her frequent forays away from the dining room table to get this or that food item, or to issue instructions to a servant, or whatever, she would sit at the table across from me and ask questions.

“So, have you found anything interesting?” which is a standard question to which the answer was always “no” … we do not want to give people the idea that they should head out into the bush with a shovel. “So, what to the Pygmies think of your research.” And so on.

I remember that during our second dinner, the fourth or fifth question was this:

“So, since Radiocarbon dating has been proved to not work, how do we really know that the earth is billions of years old?”

Well, that was not one of the standard questions paleoanthropologists like me usually hear, but it is a standard question often asked by creationists. And since Mary and Joseph were pretty hard core and traditional Christians, I could have guessed that they would also be creationists.

So I answered the question and the conversation moved on.

At the next dinner, six weeks or so later, there was more chatter, and more questions, and then one of those creationist questions popped up. I think it was about Piltdown.

“Since Piltdown was a total forgery, how do we know that all the other fossils are not also forgeries?”

I do not know how many times I had dinner with Joseph and Mary. Once or twice each time I stayed at their mission house, in their guest room for rent, and I probably stayed there four times over two years. So there were about five or six dinners. And for all of then but the first, which is when Mary found out that I studied Human Evolution, there were questions like this.

The last time I stayed in their house, things were different. Grinker and I had come into town, I think with a third colleague, and we could not stay at Bwana Ndege’s home (the inn was full, as it were) so we were assigned to the Mission. However, Joseph and Mary were gone. Their stint in the field was over and they were now back in the US, with their kids, probably not ever to return to Zaire again. Or at least not to this mission station. Such is the way of the missionaries; Other than the catholics, who may well stay for an entire life in one spot, the Evangelical missionaries were rotated in and out at various time scales ranging from weeks to a couple of years. Joseph and Mary had stayed a relatively long time as it was.

In fact, no one had been assigned to replace them at this particular station, so we were sent over to Andre’s place first. Andre, who really had little to do with the missions other than the fact that he was a neighbor and, through his retail store, supplied them with goods, was holding the key to the mission house. So we got the key from Andre and went over to the house to fend for ourselves.

Naturally, we had to poke around a bit. We needed to find bedding, pillows, to check out the plumbing to see if the water was on, and so on. The house was mostly deserted, with most of the furniture with which we were familiar removed, and virtually no evidence of Joseph and Mary themselves remained. All personal items were gone.

But there was one room in the back of the house that was of interest. I had noticed Mary frequently going in and out of this room on our visits. I assumed there was some basic household materiel stored there, or something, because she would go in there often enough, even during dinner. So, curious, I went and had a look.

It was a small bedroom converted to a library. There was a modest set of shelves about one third with books. Most were Readers’ Digest anthologies and that sort of thing, there were bibles in various languages, and some language learning textbooks specific to the region.

Then, there was this other book. This was a well worn, dog-eared volume sitting on a shelf more or less by itself, just below my eye level. It has numerous bits of paper sticking out of it, being used as bookmarks.

And the title was: “How to talk to evolutionists.”

Hmm…

Comments

  1. #1 Ticker
    June 28, 2009

    She’s probably sorely disappointed how little the material in it helped to break you down. Apparently the devil was too strong in you, but at least she tried.

    The worst thing is how my above paragraph can seem entirely without sarcasm, to some audiences, including Mary herself.

  2. #2 Jason Thibeault
    June 28, 2009

    Ticker: that’s Poe’s Law at work.

    Evidently she didn’t think the book was worth keeping, if all their personal effects were gone and that remained. Unless it was intended for the use of the next people to take up that particular missionary position (heh).

  3. #3 Ahcuah
    June 28, 2009

    I’m curious. When you corrected her about radiocarbon dating, did she accept it? Did she argue back that you couldn’t know what you were talking about? Or did she maybe pretend to accept what you said, but kept believing what she wanted to believe?

  4. #4 Bruce
    June 28, 2009

    “Since Piltdown was a total forgery, how do we know that all the other fossils are not also forgeries?”

    The same could be asked of books in the Bible. Since the Apocrypha are not considered good enough to be included, how do we know the other books were wisely included?

  5. #5 Bridget McKinney
    June 28, 2009

    You’d never seen any version of that book before? There are several similar books under similar titles, not to mention online guides at Answers in Genesis and other Creationist sites. I personally find it all kind of terrifying.

    There is an incredible amount of anti-intellectual propaganda designed to undermine people’s trust in science and medicine. I visited the Creation Museum a couple of weeks ago and was saddened to find that it’s a systematic effort. Basically they disseminate misleading, incomplete, and sometimes just wrong information while at the same time shaping people’s beliefs about science such that there is a sort of rabid distrust of scientists. The implication is that evolution is basically a massive hoax being pulled off by rabidly atheist scientists who want to murder babies and have anal sex and be friends with Muslims or something.

    I would love it if you would write a bit more about her responses when you answered her questions. Did she accept your answers or change her mind? Did she start asking better questions? Or was she a brainwashed robot?

  6. #6 Hypatia's Daughter
    June 28, 2009

    “Since Piltdown was a total forgery, how do we know that all the other fossils are not also forgeries?”

    I like this kind of question. It is an example of how shallow is the scientific knowledge of creationists.

    We know Piltdown was a forgery because we used scientific processes, and accumulated scientific knowledge to test it – the same thing tells us that the other fossils are real. A small proof that science is both critical and self correcting.

    They sometimes point out that science got the heliocentric solar system wrong for centuries. Ignoring the fact that the Church controlled science until Gallileo defied them by publishing his works in Italian (not Latin), it was SCIENCE that got it right. It corrected the mistake. No one flipped through the Bible to find the truth (Even though they now claim that the passages can be interpreted as supporting a globe hung in space.)

  7. #7 Susannah
    June 28, 2009

    The same could be asked of books in the Bible. Since the Apocrypha are not considered good enough to be included, how do we know the other books were wisely included?

    We don’t.

    This was one of the questions, the shape of the argument taught me by my creationist family, that was instrumental in destroying my faith in an inerrant Bible.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2009

    You’d never seen any version of that book before?

    Well, I certainly didn’t say that I hadn’t, but in truth, no, I had not at that point, 25 years ago, seen that book. Answers in Genesis did not exist, the Internet did not exist. This was in 1985.

    But there was of course a lot of material on both sides of the debate, and when I heard the question, I knew they were coming off the standard list of creationist questions.

    No, there was no mind changing. She did not ask better questions. She just kept asking more questions, and I think she believed that by asking me questions a) I would change MY mind and b) her children would be impressed.

  9. #9 Bridget McKinney
    June 28, 2009

    “This was in 1985.”

    I often wish I had been born about 20 years earlier. So I could have enjoyed a youth when Answers and Genesis didn’t exist. Also, it would have been nice to have good music when I was in high school. The ’90s were pretty lame in that regard.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2009

    Yea, but in the 80s we had not burned all the 70s music yet, so there was that.

  11. #11 Cactus Wren
    June 29, 2009

    This is the phenomenon called the Stumper Question: Mary no doubt was certain you would be unable to answer. She wasn’t really listening to your answers: all the time you were talking, she was trying to figure out why you hadn’t panicked and run out of the room, like the Evil Atheist Professor when his chalk didn’t break.

  12. #12 MadScientist
    June 29, 2009

    Wow. Who wrote the book? I wonder what religious nonsense book will come up next. There seems little going on other than parroting that bozo who invented his own version of geology – what was his name again?

    I’ve noticed even with the catholic propaganda texts, the religious folks take words and phrases used in scientific fields, then claim they mean something else and proceed to attack their straw man. They also like to take facts, perhaps distort them a bit, then put them into an entirely fictional setting and proceed to argue how their distorted facts in their imaginary setting is all wrong. It’s all very convincing to people who have never had the opportunity to learn the true facts, and unfortunately the people thus brainwashed are usually very difficult to educate. It doesn’t only work for religion though; politicians seem to love that ploy and it has even been adopted by the climate change deniers.

  13. #13 gwen
    June 29, 2009

    Please write a book!

  14. #14 zayzayem
    June 29, 2009

    Oh dear. At least she had the courtesy to bide her time and ask only one question each visit.

  15. #15 catgirl
    June 29, 2009

    MadScientist,
    Actually, the Catholic church holds the official position of accepting evolution as real and compatible with their faith. Of course, not all Catholics agree with each other or with the Pope, but Catholicism is generally less hostile towards evolution than Evangelical Christian groups. Catholicism had its own special brand of evil, but it often differs significantly (both for better and for worse) from Evangelical groups and we should be careful about lumping them together.

  16. #16 Monado
    July 13, 2009

    Yeah, the other day I was trying to sort out the difference between Green Ash and Black Ash trees, and discovered that what my mom told me was a White Ash when I was 13 was really a Box Elder. It totally destroyed my faith in Botany.