Glenn Branch's picture

In the Orbit of McLean

From Peter Apian, Cosmographia, 1524 via Wikimedia Commons

There was a minor anniversary recently: June 19, 2014, was the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching creationism in the public schools. I opened the box of materials in NCSE’s archives on the Edwards case to see if there was anything interesting, and what should I find but a list of prospective witnesses...from McLean v. Arkansas, a similar case decided by a federal district court in 1982. Whoops. But the list was interesting anyhow. There were two parts to it: the Defendants’ First List of Witnesses, listing Henry D. Voss, W. S. Morrow, Margaret Helder, Dean Kenyon, and Donald Chittick; and the Defendants’ Second List of Witnesses (PDF), listing Larry E. Parker, John N. Moore, Edward Boudreaux, Gerardus D. Bouw, G. Russell Akridge, Larry Vardiman, Hilton Hinderliter, Vern McMahon, Iftikhar Khan, Gerald Van Dyke, Terrance L. Smith, Wayne A. Frair, Ariel A. Roth, John Lankford, George F. Howe, Norman Geisler, Jim Townley, Harold G. Coffin, and David McQueen.

With such a long list of prospective witnesses, it is not surprising that not all in fact testified. The First List of Witnesses was dated October 15, 1981; the Second List of Witnesses was dated October 26, 1981. By December 2, 1981, when a Statement of Qualification of Defendant’s [sic] Witnesses was submitted, on it were only G. Russell Akridge, Donald Chittick, Harold G. Coffin, Wayne A. Frair, Norman Geisler, Margaret Helder, Hinton Hinderliter, John Lankford, David McQueen, W. Scot Morrow, Larry R. Parker, Ariel A. Roth, Jim Townley, Cecil Gerald Van Dyke, Larry Vardiman, Henry D. Voss, and N. C. Wickramasinghe. With the exceptions of Wickramasinghe, clearly the scientific superstar for the defense team, and Roger V. Gentry, added later, all of the witnesses were on one of the previous lists (with minor variations in the names of Morrow, Parker, and Van Dyke). But then “a serious case of disappearing witnesses set in as the second week [of the trial] wore on,” as Roger Lewin, writing in Science in 1982, reported, with Voss and Kenyon not testifying as expected.

But I digress. Hark back to the Second List of Witnesses, to Dr. Bouw, to Gerardus D.—for Dingeman, if you were curious—Bouw. The list says that “Dr. Bouw will testify that neither creation-science nor evolution-science can be proved absolutely. He believes that in the interest of academic fairness both models should be presented in the classroom, and that creation-science can be taught in a secular, scientific manner. Dr. Bouw holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Case-Western University in Cleveland, and currently is employed as an instructor in astronomy at Baldwin Wallace University in Cleveland.” There’s nothing unusual about the description here (although there are a few minor errors: “Case Western” isn’t hyphenated and should be followed by “Reserve”; Baldwin Wallace was a college, not a university, in 1981; and Baldwin Wallace is in Berea, a western suburb of Cleveland); it’s of a piece with the summaries of the proposed testimony and the biographical sketches of the other prospective witnesses for the defendants. Here’s the thing, though: despite his astronomical credentials, Bouw is a geocentrist.

And, indeed, Bouw was a geocentrist—as well as a creationist—in 1981. According to his autobiography on the Official Geocentricity Website, Bouw was born again in 1975 (having been led to the Bible by way of the science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, of all things). Then a theistic evolutionist, he became a young-earth creationist after reading Duane Gish’s tract Have You Been ... Brainwashed? (1974) and joined the Creation Research Society. Alas, he “soon ran into some differences with them because many, though not all[,] of the members of that learned society are scientists first and biblicists second.” Through the society, however, he learned of the work of Walter van der Kamp, a creationist geocentrist, after which he became convinced that the Bible endorsed geocentrism. He had, he explains, “taken enough relativity theory to know that neither heliocentrism nor geocentricity could be proven or disproven” scientifically, but the Bible, presumably, clinches it for him. It would have been interesting, to put it mildly, for him to have taken the stand on behalf of the Arkansas law challenged in McLean.

Strangely, there’s a claim in Bouw’s autobiography that contradicts the description of his proposed testimony. While the description promises that he will testify that both “creation-science” and “evolution-science” ought to be presented in the classroom, the autobiography registers as a point of difference with the Creation Research Society that “I still cannot go along with the two-model approach: that creationism and evolutionism should be taught side-by-side as theories.” Perhaps Bouw didn’t write the description of his testimony; perhaps, indeed, he balked at it to such a degree that he was unwilling to take the stand at all—although the obvious explanation of his absence, that the Arkansas attorney general was leery of calling a geocentrist to the stand, cannot be lightly discounted. Still, the Association for Biblical Astronomy, with which Bouw is associated, recently began to circulate “Notes on Geocentricity for Homeschooling Pupils” (PDF), which in effect enable homeschoolers to teach geocentrism side-by-side with heliocentrism in the two-model style that his autobiography deprecates.

Geocentrism is in the news from time to time, of course, but Bouw seldom is. Today, the most mediagenic geocentrist—try saying that ten times fast!—is Robert Sungenis, the author of Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right: The Scientific Evidence for Geocentrism (2009), the organizer of the First (and so far only) Annual Catholic Conference on Geocentrism (2010), and the producer of the geocentric film The Principle (2014). In the past, it was Marshall Hall (1930–2013), who was picketing the White House about evolution in 1977 and who was influential enough thirty years later for a memorandum of his, which called for the teaching of evolution to be banned because it is “derived concept-for-concept from Rabbinic writings on the mystic ‘holy book’ kabbala,” to be circulated by a Texas legislator to all of his colleagues in the state House of Representatives. Bouw seems modest and retiring in comparison: hardly someone you would accuse of thinking that the whole universe revolves around him...