A row that goes all the way back to creation

 

WHEN THE Ulster Museum in Belfast closed several years ago for a major makeover, curators didn’t plan on a blazing row in advance of the grand reopening over plans to host a Darwin exhibition in its new science galleries.

But as the museum gears up for business again in the summer, it says it has no intention of slotting in Adam and Eve alongside Charles Darwin – despite born-again Christians in the North demanding that the new evolutionary science exhibits be offset with a literal reading of the origins of life straight from Genesis I in the Bible.

DUP Assembly member Mervyn Storey, a vocal advocate of creationism and intelligent design, and chair of the Stormont education committee, says it’s a matter of fair play, tolerance and equality.

“All I’m saying is that there should be a balance because there are other views out there. I am not against the museum promoting Darwin’s theory, but I think it would be in the public’s interest to give them an alternative theory as well,” says the North Antrim MLA.

“Because of the anniversary we are being bombarded with Darwin’s theory but there are other equally credible scientists who question that. Those interpretations should be on a par with the perceived wisdom of evolution, and heard in publicly funded institutions like the museum.”

The Ulster Museum, however, states that it has no plans for a Genesis I room but within its permanent science galleries it will explain “the conventional scientific theories internationally accepted by scholars and scientists to describe life on earth from the earliest evidence of fossils”.

Dr Mike Simms, curator of palaeontology at the museum, says: “Evolution explains the past, the present and it also explains the future, and I’ve tried to cover all of this in the new displays. This is not just about Darwin – he’s just one man, we mustn’t make him into a superhero – but about the tens of thousands of other biologists, palaeontologists and geologists since then who have strengthened the theory of evolution.”

Storey, who campaigns to have creationism and intelligent-design theory taught in Northern Ireland’s schools, has no truck with the objection that he’s mixing up a faith-based approach with evidence-based science.

“You can’t say that one is for the science class and one is for the RE class. And anyway, it’s easier to believe in a God who created these things than trying to believe that out of matter came new life, . To believe that order came out of chaos is as credible as believing that St Paul’s Cathedral happened as a result of an explosion in a brick factory.”

Storey also sees the hand of God in the curious basalt rock formations at the Giant’s Causeway in his North Antrim constituency, and has written to the National Trust complaining about notices on the site stating that the stepping stone-like structure was formed about 550 million years ago.

A confirmed biblical literalist, Storey believes that the Earth was created only several thousand years before the birth of Christ.

But doesn’t that raise some ticklish issues with his Ulster Museum proposal and the ever-popular dinosaur exhibition, which places tyrannosaurus rex several million years BC?

“It’s a fallacy that creationists don’t believe in dinosaurs. Yes, there were dinosaurs, but what’s a million years among friends? It’s an inexact science, and the process of dating these things is questionable. The fossils are all the same, the stones are all the same – it’s the interpretation that’s the issue here.”

The museum row mirrors confrontations in recent years in the US between Christian creationists and evolutionary scientists. In fact, curators in science museums there are now receiving special training in dealing with the growing numbers of visitors who challenge museum staff on religious grounds. One company, BC Tours – “because we are biblically correct” – even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, where participants can hear creationist explanations for the exhibitions.

Creationism in Northern Ireland has not reached that level of influence yet. But in 2007, Lisburn City Council wrote to post-primary schools in its area to ask what plans they have to develop teaching material on “creation, intelligent design and other theories of origin”.

A PRESSURE GROUP known as the Causeway Creationist Committee was recently set up, calling for “the truth of biblical creation [to be] presented as an alternative theory in a new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre as well as in museums, schools and any other centres where relevant”.

Youth worker Stephen Moore, who organises the committee, says that they are trying to get their message to as wide as audience as possible, going into primary schools and Bible study groups across Northern Ireland.

“These antediluvian views are all part of the narrow Ulster puritan mindset, going back to the 17th century,” says Brian McClinton, of the Northern Ireland Humanist Association. “It’s a kind of anti-intellectualism, a subservience to ‘The Book’. Teaching creationism? That’s ridiculous. Even the Pope has accepted evolution now.”

Malachi O’Doherty, author of Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion, adds: “Mervyn Storey and others speak of Darwinism as if it is a cult founded on reverence for the man Charles Darwin. They project their religious cast of mind on to science and treat it as an alternative religion. It strikes me that the creationists don’t actually know what science is: they identify what they see as a weakness in it – that it is open to changing its theories – though this is its strength.”

Non-creationist Christians are concerned too. Rev Dr Ron Elsdon, rector of St Bartholomew’s church in Stranmillis, close to the Ulster Museum, worked as a geologist at UCD before he was ordained. He has serious reservations about Storey’s plan to place a creationist account alongside mainstream evolutionary science.

“There is no comparable scientific merit between the two, not by a long way,” says Elson, who recently held a Darwin anniversary event at his church. “The issue of the relationship between science and faith seems to be largely seen in terms of the question ‘who wins?’. If some have their way, it will be the Bible; if militant atheist Richard Dawkins and his allies have their way, it will be science and science alone.

“There are others who prefer a properly constructed dialogue between science and faith . . . But all of this gets lost, sadly, in needless controversies over creationism.”