Fun with Kiwis
If you’re interested in making fun of creationism, it’s not too hard to do it. Indeed, there have even been a few book-length efforts, such as Robert S. Dietz and John C. Holden’s Creation/Evolution Satiricon: Creationism Bashed (1987) and Barrett Brown and Jon P. Alston’s Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design & the Easter Bunny (2007). And if you work at NCSE, where you’re professionally obliged to keep your eyes on the steady stream of creationist silliness...well, the phrase “spoiled for choice” springs to mind.
A particularly tempting opportunity crossed my desk recently. A correspondent reported that he regularly dines with a retired Lutheran pastor, a creationist, with whom he frequently argues about evolution. Plotting the argumentative strategy of their next meal, my correspondent consulted Genesis 1:21, according to which “God created…every winged bird according to its kind” (NIV), and decided to deploy the awesome power of the kiwi—the wingless birds (genus Apteryx) native to New Zealand. His plan, apparently, was to argue that either kiwis were not created by God or the Bible isn’t free from error.
“That’s a good observation about kiwis!” I answered. “I suppose that his response will be that in the Garden of Eden, the kiwi had wings; it’s due to the Fall that it lost them. Why the rest of the birds didn’t lose their wings I couldn’t say—but this is a standard young-earth creationist explanatory scheme: if it functions well, then it was created by God to do what it does do, while if it doesn’t function well or functions in a way to cause pain and suffering, it was corrupted by original sin.” (Fancy syntax there: I figure that I was subconsciously thinking of the creationist children’s book It’s Designed to Do What it Does Do.)
So between us, I think that my correspondent and I identified a leading research question for creationists: why did the kiwi lose its wings while (most of) the rest of the birds didn’t? A plausible hypothesis—well, “plausible” within the context of creationism—that instantly suggested itself was that the kiwi was complicit with the serpent in the temptation of Eve and was deprived of its wings as punishment. Confirming the hypothesis is the undisputed fact that there are no terrestrial snakes native to New Zealand: obviously the conspirators are not permitted to associate in the post-Edenic situation.
I was tempted, I really was, to submit a paper expounding the hypothesis to Answers Research Journal or Journal of Creation. Kiwis are interesting birds—for instance, their eggs are the biggest, proportionally, of any bird in the world—and the prospect of opportunistically connecting their various idiosyncrasies with various bits and pieces of scripture beckoned. It could have been the Sokal hoax of young-earth creationism. (Alan Sokal, it will be recalled, was the physicist who wrote a parody of what he regarded as postmodern gibberish about physics and successfully submitted it to Social Text before revealing the hoax.)
But beside the fact that it would have been a whole lot of work to do it right, with no guarantee of success, and beside the fact that a certain amount of dishonesty would be involved, I was worried that, even if it were published, it would backfire. I could imagine the creationist bloggers proclaiming: “So powerful is the creationist paradigm that even when a jackbooted enforcer of the Darwinist establishment tries to ridicule it, he winds up making a serious contribution to creation science despite himself.” So when it comes to thoughts of publishing papers about ratites in creationist journals, I have decided to say “no moa.”
A version of the present exercise in poking fun at young-earth creationism was originally published in the print supplement to Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2013;33(4):7. Had you been a member in good standing of NCSE when it was published, a copy of the supplement, lovingly printed on recycled paper, would have been delivered to your mailbox, and you wouldn’t have had to wait for it to appear on the Science League of America blog. So why not take a moment to join NCSE, or renew your membership, right now? It’s only $35, $40 for foreign addresses, and $700 for a lifetime membership. Such a deal!