On science blogs: Origins

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE ARE FOUCAULTIAN CREATIONISTS. AND YOU'RE ONE OF THEM. Essential to discuss "Why I'm a creationist." That's the piece by technology writer Virginia Heffernan in which she declares that the Biblical account of creation in a few days seems as plausible to her as theoretical astrophysics. The tales of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, are about people — and therefore, Heffernan states, preferable because they are better stories than the Big Bang.

Result: horror and hand-wringing. This heresy from a technology writer? One formerly of the New York Times and Slate and now at Yahoo! News? Except that Heffernan has a history of taking on science topics she seems to not quite understand, and — unpardonable sin — of not remedying her ignorance by doing her homework. Three years ago she wrote an ignorant piece about science blogging, discussed here as the Science-writing Flap of the Week.

Hamilton Nolan argues at Gawker that while the principle of religious freedom means that anybody can believe anything about origins, it's not OK for a technology writer. Laura Helmuth's rebuttal at Slate recaps Heffernan and some of the indignant commentary. Helmuth comes down firmly on the side of science as the search for objective truth, and judges the piece a disaster for public education.

Heffernan is simply wrong … Creationism and evolution aren’t equivalent stories to be believed or not. Creationism is magic and evolution is facts.

But the Heffernan position isn't true religious creationism. She doesn't believe, as creationists tend to do, that the Bible is a history book and a factual account of the origin of the universe. Her preference for the Biblical origin tale is, she says, an aesthetic one. It's just a better story than the incomprehensible natterings of cosmologists.

Credit: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

This literary judgment surely rests on the magisterial King James version rather than pedestrian modern-language renderings of the Testaments. But considered purely in terms of story, it's a judgment that is most certainly debatable. I've just finished Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?. Now there's an origin story. Several stories, really. As products of human imagination, today's Creation narratives from unforgettable scientist-characters leave the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim Deity in the dust, along with all His multiple personalities. Instead we are invited to wonder how many universes can dance on the head of a pin. An infinite number, perhaps. Or maybe somewhat fewer. Whoeee!

THE ORIGIN OF FOUCAULTIAN CREATIONISM. Here in the 21st century, it wouldn't be a controversy without Twitter. Carl Zimmer has Storified 140-character exchanges with Heffernan about her creation manifesto. I hate to admit that a string of tweets can be revealing, but this one is.

Heffernan apparently has an English Ph.D. From Harvard. I think Carl is correct that she's a child — I would say maybe a prisoner — of the 20th century academic fashion for structuralist and post-structuralist modes of social and literary criticism. (In fact, in her tweets Heffernan brings up Michel Foucault, one of its luminaries. Leading Carl to invent the delightful term "Foucaultian creationism.")

These ideas dead-ended, in the last century, in declarations that reality is entirely a matter of interpretation, that there is no such thing as objective truth, that everything is relative, that, as Heffernan declares, what you believe, what you should believe about the nature of the universe, is the story you find most aesthetically appealing. She employed the same outmoded deconstructionist analysis in the science-blogging piece three years ago. Quite old-fashioned, really. Heffernan needs to move on.

THE CREATIONIST COMING-OUT: JOKE? PARODY? SCAM? Jerry Coyne, of Why Evolution is True, asks whether Heffernan's coming out was a scam or joke or parody. He concludes that it was not, that she was serious.

I agree that it was not a joke or parody. But a scam? In the sense of If-I'm-outrageous-then-I-can-raise-my-profile-and-get-better-gigs? On that I am agnostic. She wouldn't be the first writer to reach for the moon by posing as a loony. I suggest this somewhat seriously partly on the basis of her tweets about her piece, which have a jocular and teasing tone. That is, until she switches stagecraft, becoming the persecuted little girl accusing Carl Zimmer, with his rationality and his evolutionary facts, of being a big meanie.

I'm not at all sure, despite what Laura Helmuth and others have said, that declaring herself to be a creationist must be a bad career move for a technology writer. Heffernan is sure to be idolized by many, including some who don't yet grasp this fact: She is not affirming that In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.

Nope. People, she's engaging in lit crit.

Passé lit crit.

So long as she sticks to disputable premises and doesn't invent easily refuted Bob Dylan quotes like Jonah Lehrer, Heffernan may become something other than a yahoo at Yahoo! Maybe she'll follow in the footsteps of another heroine of the fantasists, the vaccines-cause-autism tale-teller Jenny McCarthy: Move to "reality" television as a host on The View.

SASQUATCH REVEALED: THE BIGFOOT GENOME PROJECT. It should be easy to mock the Bigfoot Genome Project, right? But if you read the two accounts described below, it's hard to laugh at this misguided genetic research without squirming. The analysis of DNA purportedly from the apelike creature said to roam the Pacific Northwest appears to be painfully sincere. Those involved in it are fortunate to have fallen into the talented hands of a couple of intrinsically polite and patient science journalists.

Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle's SciGuy, checked the Bigfoot data with an anonymous geneticist who reported that the genome was a mishmash that included possum. A few days later, Berger reported on reaction from the lead author of the Bigfoot paper, which appeared in an online journal hatched for the occasion and titled, appropriately, DeNovo.

And then there is John Timmer's careful, almost gentle, investigation for Ars Technica. He concludes also that the Bigfoot genome is a mishmash, one heavily contaminated with human DNA. The researchers have a different interpretation of the several kinds of human mitochondrial DNA in the samples, which are mostly mtDNA haplotypes that arose in Europe plus a couple from Africa. These they see as evidence that Sasquatch is a hybrid of humans and another primate, and that it crossed the Greenland ice sheet from Europe to North America some 13,000 years ago.

Sasquatch? Credit: Tree & J. Hensdill

The Sasquatch of folklore, it has generally been argued by believers, is an unknown great ape, perhaps even a hominin. But as long as we're entertaining improbable hypotheses like European origin and Greenland crossing, let's add another. The possum DNA identified by Berger's expert got me to wondering: Perhaps Bigfoot is not a primate after all. Perhaps it's a marsupial.

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