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"Seeing creation and evolution in Grand Canyon"


"Two groups examining the same evidence. Traveling nearly identical itineraries, snoozing under the same stars and bathing in the same chocolate-colored river. Yet, standing at opposite ends of the growing creation-evolution debate, they seemed to speak in different tongues." Thus Jodi Wilgoren's story "Seeing creation and evolution in Grand Canyon," published above the fold on the front page of the October 6, 2005, issue of The New York Times. Wilgoren reported on her experiences rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, first with a group of young-earth creationists led by Tom Vail -- the compiler of Grand Canyon: A Different View -- and then with a group of science aficionados led by NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott and Alan Gishlick.

Wilgoren stressed the detailed scientific content of the NCSE trip, describing it as a "floating geology seminar, charting the canyon's evolution through eons of erosion," and noting that "Dr. Scott's rafters, nearly half with Ph.D.'s in science, had evening discussions of tidal patterns and plateau shifts, as well as tutorials on tactics in the evolution debate." "After each 'geology moment,'" she added, "Dr. Scott play-acted the creationists, saying sarcastically of their evidence, 'My part of the lesson is always a lot shorter and less detailed.'" Also mentioned was a singalong featuring the old biologist's song "It's a Long Way from Amphioxus."

Especially in contrast to Vail's group, the NCSE group was portrayed as "ardently secular" in the main. Yet Wilgoren noted that "six of the [twenty-four] rafters said they belonged to churches or synagogues, four attending weekly," and quoted Gishlick, a devout Christian, as saying, "Ultimately, creationism is not just bad science to me, it's bad Christianity, it's Bible worship." Susan Epperson, the plaintiff in Epperson v. Arkansas, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the teaching of evolution for religious reasons is unconstitutional, added, "The more you learn about science, the more magnificent God is."

Whether religious, agnostic, or atheist, the NCSE rafters were agreed on the scientific facts about the Grand Canyon in particular and the history of the earth in general. They agreed, too, on the need to present them in the public schools, accurately and uncompromised by religious dogma; NCSE member Charlie Webb offered the memorable slogan, "You're messing with something important when you mess with evolution." And hearteningly, not everyone in Vail's group accepted his message as gospel: Paul Phillips, a pastor, told Wilgoren, "Whatever he says, I'm just trying to think: There's a really smart person, there's tons of really smart people, that think the other side."