A Book, Stunning in Both Its Beauty and Its Ignorance

A few months ago, my boss (a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford) received a strange package in the mail, unsolicited. It contained a rather large and colorful book that was quite stunning in appearance. Inside, though, spread across hundreds of color-illustrated pages, was one man's case for creationism: an absurd, unconvincing, misguided, and fundamentally unscientific argument. We passed the book around in the lab, admired its aesthetic values (and the unimaginable expense surely incurred in producing it), and then forgot about it. My boss is out of the lab for an all-day seminar today, but I'll ask him tomorrow where it is. My guesses are (1) in a landfill, (2) hidden away somewhere in his office, or (3) in Turkey, having been returned to the sender.

The book is the Atlas of Creation, and it was written by an Islamic creationist in Turkey named Adnan Oktar (who writes under the name Harun Yahya). As The New York Times pointed out yesterday, we certainly weren't the only ones to receive it, and our reaction was far from unique:

"In our country we are used to nonsense like this," said Kevin Padian, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who, like colleagues there, found a copy in his mailbox.

He said people who had received copies were "just astounded at its size and production values and equally astonished at what a load of crap it is.

"If he sees a picture of an old fossil crab or something, he says, 'See, it looks just like a regular crab, there's no evolution,' " Dr. Padian said. "Extinction does not seem to bother him. He does not really have any sense of what we know about how things change through time."

Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, said he and his colleagues in the life sciences had all received copies. When he called friends at the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago, they had the books too, he said. Scientists at Brigham Young University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Georgia and others have also received them.

The big questions, then, are how much did this cost, and who paid for it? Neither has a clear answer yet.

While they said they were unimpressed with the book's content, recipients marveled at its apparent cost. "If you went into a bookstore and saw a book like this, it would be at least $100," said Dr. Miller, an author of conventional biology texts. "The production costs alone are astronomical. We are talking millions of dollars."

And then there's postage. Dr. Padian said his copy was shipped by a company called SDS Worldwide, which has an office in Illinois. Calls and e-mail messages to the company were not returned, but Dr. Padian said he spoke to someone there who told him SDS had received a cargo-container-size shipment of books, "with everything prepaid and labeled. It just went all over the country."

Fatih Sen, who heads the United States office of Global Impex, a company that markets Islamic books, gifts and other products, including "Atlas," would not comment on its distribution, except to describe the book as "great" and refer questions to the publisher, Global Publishing of Istanbul. Repeated attempts by telephone and e-mail to reach the concern, or Mr. Yahya, were unsuccessful.

In the book and on his Web site (www.harunyahya.com), Mr. Yahya says he was born in Ankara in 1956, and grew up and was educated in Turkey. He says he seeks to unmask what the book calls "the imposture of evolutionists" and the links between their scientific views and modern evils like fascism, communism and terrorism. He says he hopes to encourage readers "to open their minds and hearts and guide them to become more devoted servants of God."

He adds that he seeks "no material gain" from his publications, most of which are available free or at relatively low cost.

Who finances these efforts is "a big question that no one knows the answer to," said another recipient, Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in Missouri who studies issues of science and religion, particularly Islam. Dr. Edis grew up in a secular household in Turkey and has lived in the United States since enrolling in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where he earned his doctorate in 1994. He said Mr. Yahya's activities were usually described in the Turkish press as financed by donations. "But what that can mean is anybody's guess," he said.

All of this begs another question: what was the point of all of this? Production values aside, I can't imagine that Oktar was expecting to wow biological scientists into rejecting scientifically-sound evolution for religious creationism. Certainly one would expect the book to be much more effective if targeted at the less educated, or at least at members of society who are less science literate. More likely, this was not a rational campaign, but one motivated by blind ideology.

Regardless, I'm going to see if I can dig up the book when my boss gets back tomorrow.


Pharyngula and Gene Expression give their thoughts on the book, and Thoughts from Kansas has a nice post on Muslim creationism from April of this year. Ali Eteraz (via Gene Expression) has a detailed post about the funding of Harun Yahya, although some of the connections it comes up with sound exaggerated and downright unlikely.

Update (21 July 2007): Note the following correction from The New York Times:

An article in Science Times on Tuesday about the widespread distribution of "Atlas of Creation," a book with an Islamic creationist point of view, misstated the name of a company that shipped some of the books. It is SBS Worldwide Ltd., not SDS Worldwide.

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I can clear up one part of the mystery, at least: SDS was a parcel service based in Ireland, but they were absorbed in to the state postal service, An Post. If you go to www.sds.ie you get redirected to An Post now. I've had them deliver e.g. credit cards to me in the UK in the past.