“…it is an inherent characteristic of common-sense thought precisely to deny this and to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience, not deliberated reflections upon it…common sense rests its [case] on the assertion that it is not a case at all, just life in a nutshell. The world is its authority.”—Clifford Geertz, “Common Sense as a Cultural System”
“Wherever we turn, there is the Face of God…” —Harun Yahya
Last week a colleague of mine in the Religion department presented me with an unexpectedly generous gift, Volume 1 of the Atlas of Creation, by Harun Yahya, which she had received, unsolicited, in the mail some time ago. The gift was unexpected, because I never expected to have my own copy of the tome, and generous because, if measured by weight alone, the book is easily the heaviest gift I have received in many years.
First published in October 2006, the atlas was written by an Adnan Oktar under the pen name Harun Yahya. Wikipedia describes him as an Islamic Creationist and makes reference to the fact that he sent thousands of copies of his book to scholars and scientists and politicians across the US in 2007.
It must have been around that time that I first heard of the book—when a physical anthropologist in our department received one in the mail. From the moment I first saw it, I wanted my own copy of the exotic and mysterious cultural tome. Where a biologist or physical anthropologist might dismiss it based on its simple and erroneous content I was captivated by its spectacular and unconventional form.
The Atlas of Creation weights 13 pounds 13.1oz. and is 11″x14″ and about an inch-and-a-half thick. It is over 800 glossy pages, most of which are full-page, full-color glossy plates. The book is massive. Its dimensions are huge and it is heavy and can only really be lifted using two hands. It was clearly expensive to publish and ship to recipients around the world.
Curiously, for being such a big book, the amount of written content small. The first 610 pages (1.3 inches of the book’s thickness!) consists entirely of full color, full-page plates of fossils and modern animals. Each page or two provides only a small bit of text following a very consistent formula, giving the name of the fossil, its age, its size and its location. Following this basic information is a sentence or two which asserts that the contemporary thing and its fossil are of the same animal separated by a large amount of time—arguing that the apparent lack of change over time refutes the tenants of evolutionary change. An example, from page 378:
Age: 208 to 146 million years old
Size: 19.5 centimeters (7.7 in) from tip to tail
Location: Solnhofen Limestone, Eichsatt, West Germany
Shrimp, having survived unchanged for millions of years, show us that they did not evolve but were created. If a living things has the same features now as it did millions of years ago, then this creature cannot have developed by way of evolution. The fossil record is proof that evolutionists’ claims are untrue.
The work of the first 610 pages is to present page after page of examples where contemporary living things appear not to have changed from their ancestors many millions of years ago. The book literally presents a weight of evidence attempting to show that change does not occur over deep time—roughly ten pounds of images.
Interestingly, the interpretation of the mostly textless images relies on the obvious—common sense—conclusions that a reader might make from looking at the collected images. They often do appear to be similar and this is the case that the book makes in its first 600 pages. There is no detailed information given about the fossils or their contemporary ancestors. The reader is left to his or her own experience to draw a conclusion. (Of course, this ignores the fact that evolutionary theory predicts that change occurs based on adaptive fitness in a given context, so in cases where the animal changes very little we can expect it is because they are well adapted to their environmental niche. Things don’t always have to change in dramatic ways. Often Yaha’s book confuses evolutionary change with popular misunderstanding of evolution as “improvement” that things get “better” or “more evolved” in each generation.)
The approach of deferring to the observations of the massive weight of creation—the “common sense” of seeing creation everywhere—is one that I observed at the Creation Museum during a two-day visit last month. It relies on providing a massive display of the variety of life—in all of its spectacular wonder, weirdness and beauty and then simply encouraging the viewer to admire the decontextualized objects as the “wonder of creation.”
In a section of the museum set up as a science lab for children, the Creation Museum presents a fantastic collection of insects—the existence of variety and beauty necessarily suggesting a creator.
Of course, collected and lined up next to one another in the museum—like products in a store lined up for consumption—the encyclopedic organization by an invisible curatorial hand certainly evokes an invisible creator. After all, pinned to a white background and in no other context than that of the other dead insects—an understandable common sense explanation for the incredible variety could be an intelligence. As the museum text suggests, “Otherwise, how could such amazing variety exist?!”
If one imagines, however, each insect not dead in a museum but in its living environmental context—where its appearance would maximize its fitness—things are different. The insects’ current forms would reveal themselves as masterful adaptions to specific environments—and, of course, one sees how equally maladapted they would be for other niches. An insect that looks like a leaf is a beautiful wonder of adaptation in a forest, but its form would be a cruel joke in a dry desert.
In short, the museum’s organization—like the book—provides a heavily curated, simple context which leads viewers to consider the “evidence” based exclusively on appearances interpreted through common sense. It is evidence, furthermore, that must rely on massive amounts—literally the weight of numbers, the amount of space, and the heft of pages. It does not encourage the viewer/reader to consider deeper complexities, contexts, and environments that might support other conclusions.
As an appendix, The Atlas of Creation provides a written text which rails against Darwinism and evolutionary theory as a materialistic ideology that is the root of terrorism and evil. It misreads “survival of the fittest” as a battle of all against all for survival that condemns the weak to destruction—tying Darwin to Malthus and Hitler. The general thrust of the argument is quite similar in tone and approach to the arguments made by Christian creationists who see evolutionary theory as devoid of a human morality that only religion can supply. It is an approach that interprets the contemporary world’s ills as the result of a Godlessness of which “belief” in evolution is a precipitating factor. If evolution can be disproven then there is a place for God. Once again, this is a conclusion reached by simple “common sense” observation that authors must rely on readers to “easily observe” in their daily lives—a convenient opportunity to avoid considering multiple and complex reasons for visible phenomena.
Of course, as Clifford Geertz argues in his essay, “Common Sense as a Cultural System,” interpreting something as common sense relies on a shared culture. So rather than dismiss the contents of the book or the museum as simply mistaken, I am fascinated by the view of the world, here shared by Creationist Christianity and Islam alike, that creates these cultural productions and performances that are so easily read as “obvious” by their communities of belief.
I’m currently working on finishing a long post about my awesome adventure in the Creation Museum. The unexpected gift of Harun Yaha’s book, however, has given me a chance to think about some similarities to the museum—literally the aspect of argument that relies on simple common sense interpretations of a literal weight of material. It is a point that I might have missed if I had not been gifted Yaha’s spectacular 14 pound book.
Shortly after posting this, I found a video of Richard Dawkins speaking on Yahya’s Atlas of Creation. The talk is short and has some very interesting content. Dawkins also expresses amazement at the cost of sending out so many copies of such an expensive book and, what he describes as the “mind bogglingly” large operation that it took to accomplish the task. In the video (@4:30) he makes reference to a friend at Oxford University Press who estimated that publishing and shipping the book to thousands of people would have cost over half-a-million pounds (over $900,000 USD) at the time.
Dawkins spends most of the talk debunking some of the book’s errors—admittedly some very huge ones—and proving that Harun Yahya knows next to nothing about the theory that he is exerting so much effort to to discredit. Peppered throughout the talk and the Q&A session, Dawkins delivers numerous one-line personal attacks against Yahya. His contempt for the author is obvious.
The way I see it, however, the real question here isn’t one of Harun Yahya’s misunderstanding of science and evolutionary theory—a college student who has passed a basic introduction to anthropology class could surely critique the book’s many simple mistakes. Yahya is a painfully easy target in this regard—hardly worth the attention of a scholar like Dawkins.
The thing that I find interesting and frustrating about Dawkins, is that he never gets past the erroneous content of the book to address more fascinating cultural questions: Why would someone spend nearly a million dollars to publish such a book and mail it, unsolicited, to thousands of schools, professors, museums and politicians? What kind of worldview believes that the book would change any minds? Is there even one person in the whole world who, upon reading the book, immediately was swayed by its argument? Who planned, executed and backed this venture and what was the economic impact of such a massive publication effort in a place like Turkey? What, for that matter, is the significance of Turkey as the home of Yahya and the site of the publication of the book? How was the book received by the people to whom it was mailed and where are these books now? There are, of course, many others.
Watching the video, it ironically appears to me that Dawkins knows next-to-nothing about the worldview of the man he is critiquing. Dawkins basically considers the book gibberish and dismisses its many absurd errors because he makes the mistake of reading the Atlas of Creation from within his own culture of scientific discourse and analysis. Dawkins reads the photos and writing and English and mistakenly thinks he understands it. No wonder he thinks Yahya is naive. How different might it be, however, if Dawkins approached the book as an act of translation—seeing it for what it really is: an artifact in a foreign language from another culture that can only be understood on its own terms. Just from looking at the size and scale of the book it is clear that it really isn’t “just a book”—it claims to be so much more. Rather than dismissing Yahya as incomprehensible and simply being entertained by his “childish mistakes,” how about an anthropological approach—trying to understand the book from a perspective where it makes perfect sense. This would be much more involved and potentially rewarding and might tell us much about the cultural worldview of people who would look at this book and see it as “common sense” truth.
Addendum 2, April 4, 2014
This morning a college posted a crazy story on Adnan Oktar’s (Harun Yahya) operations in Turkey. Described as “a messianic leader of an apocalyptic Islamic sex cult” the article contains interesting backstory about the organization, including a link to a dissertation written about the group, The Mahdi Wears Armani. The article talks a bit about the Atlas of Creation and even makes a few points that sound remarkably like some I made in this original post. The images and links to Oktar’s TV channel are crazy—featuring his “harem” of women some with so much makeup that they hardly appear human.