Warning: This post contains mild profanity some readers may find objectionable.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) made headlines this weekend when a videotape shot Sept. 27 showed him claiming that evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” While this may seem a standard issue belief for certain segments of the American population, this was especially distressing because Broun chairs the oversight and investigations panel of the House Committee on Science.
(Before readers start commenting and emailing about my alleged political bias because Broun is Republican, please note that I also criticized President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid, both Democrats, last month for their efforts to grant national status to a Nevada museum promoting Roswell UFO conspiracy theories.)
Broun, who previously tried to designate 2010 the “Year of the Bible,” claims to be a scientist because he holds a medical degree. He told the Sportsman’s Banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga. last week:
This does force the question of how Rep. Broun thinks medicine works if he doesn’t believe in evolution. But from a cultural point of view, his statement reminds me of the widespread early creationist idea that fossils were planted in the ground by Satan. Today, it is common to hear it told that creationists believe Satan buried dinosaur bones to fool us into thinking that the earth is older than 6,000 years. However, the attribution of fossils to Satan dates back before the theories of evolution or even geological gradualism. Medieval and early modern people attributed anything strange or unusual to Satan, including Roman ruins, weird shaped rocks, and, yes, fossils. Such claims dragged on into the modern era, though creationists today prefer to envision dinosaurs traveling on board the Ark rather than the devil flitting across the globe with pick axe and shovel. Early creationists claimed that fossils—of which only a few examples were then known—were “archetypes,” or what we would today call prototypes, the rough sketches and plans for God’s later, living creations. Some thought these fossils were not themselves ever living beings.
Such claims were one of the first lines of attack against geological naturalism. When scientists first realized that stones are laid down in layers, implying an ancient earth, some of the most conservative clergy exploded in rage, seeking out Biblical reasons why geology must be a satanic science. The first line of attack was, almost literally, bullshit.
Specifically, Victorian clergy seized upon the fact that geologists had turned up ancient carnivores’ coprolites, fossilized pieces of excrement, complete with the teeth, claws, and scales of the animals thus consumed. This was, at first, a problem for the religious because the “archetype” theory suggested that fossils were plans, not living animals, and thus would not pass feces.
Thus, as related in Hugh Miller's Works: The Testimony of the Rocks, a mid-Victorian writer calling himself an “English clergyman” wrote in a widely-distributed pamphlet that the coprolites were not actual pieces of shit but rather shit-like rocks created specially by God in a fit of artistic whimsy!
Thus, since God would not allow the earth, His creation, to be built of shit, the shit found buried in it must therefore not be shit. Anyone who claimed otherwise, he wrote, was working for Satan.
Geologists of the nineteenth century batted away these silly claims and did yeoman’s work establishing the factual grounding for the age of the earth. And yet 150 years later, we’re still dealing with the same old bullshit.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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