October 26, 2004
Creationism and Science Clash at Grand Canyon Bookstores
Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, is hardly a practitioner of secular humanism.
Meals at his house begin with grace, and in a recent talk on environmental politics he chided his audience for not paying enough attention to the way the wonders of nature inspire wonder at their creator.
But when it comes to selling, in stores at a national park, a book propounding the idea that God created Grand Canyon in Noah's flood, he pauses. "If there were a person, which I doubt, qualified in geological science, who said it is perfectly plausible, that would be one thing," said Mr. Kennedy, who led the park service from 1993 to 1996. But, he said, such a book would have to have "a respectable scholarly basis."
Mr. Kennedy has not seen "Grand Canyon: A Different View," but others who have, including geologists on the Park Service staff, say it does not meet that test. A compilation of photographs, biblical quotations and essays published last year by Master Books, the book says God created the heavens and the earth in six days, 6,000 years ago, and that the canyon formed in a flood God caused in order to wipe out "the wickedness of man." The geology of the canyon proves it, the books' contributors say.
Actually, the universe formed billions of years ago, Earth formed billions of years later and the Grand Canyon was shaped by millions and millions of years of hydrology, chiefly the action of the Colorado River. Other ideas, however dearly held, are myths. Or, as the Geologic Resources Division of the Park Service put it in a memo, "The book purports to be science when it is not. The book repudiates science."
Nevertheless, it is for sale at the six bookstores at Grand Canyon National Park.
Brad Wallis, executive director of the Grand Canyon Association, the nonprofit group that runs the stores, said the association did not market the book as science. The association decided to stock it, he said, because it is a professionally produced presentation of "a divergent viewpoint." In the main store, the only one large enough to have separate sections for different kinds of books, "the book was placed in the inspiration section, and we never moved," Mr. Wallis said. "It was never in the science section."
Last December, a few months after the book appeared in Grand Canyon shops, the presidents of seven geological and paleontological organizations wrote to Joseph Alston, superintendent of the canyon, to urge that the book be removed from stores there, lest visitors get the impression that the park endorsed its contents.
Now the issue rests with the solicitor's office of the Interior Department, which has been reviewing the issue for almost a year, said Elaine Sevy, a spokeswoman for the Park Service.
Asked what the review consists of and why it is taking so long, she said, "It's resting with the solicitor's office."
Until its ruling, the book remains on sale.
"Grand Canyon: A Different View" was put together by Tom Vail, who in his own contribution says he was working as a rafting guide in the canyon in 1994, "telling folks that the exquisite and varied rock layers came about through completely natural processes," when a woman on one of his trips introduced him to the Bible. Within a few months, he relates, "I had made a conscious decision to believe in the Gospel." Soon, he and his passenger were married and now he and his wife, Paula Vail, operate Canyon Ministries, leading river tours with a creationist bent.
Some have argued that because the store offers books about the culture and legends of the Navajo and Hopi tribes it is appropriate for it to sell books on the legends of creationists as well.
Rob Arnberger, who was superintendent of the park from 1996 to 2000, will have none of that.
"At Grand Canyon it is appropriate to present the culture of the Navajo and the Hopi, tribes that live in and around the canyon," he said. "But there are no books that present the culture of the Plains Indians, for example, because their culture was not associated with the Grand Canyon. To present one view does not obligate us to present another, especially when the science is so wrong."
And the fact that the book is selling well also cuts no ice with him. The store could probably make money selling Superman cartoons, he said, but that is not a reason to stock them.
Mr. Wallis said the book was not a particularly big seller, though it had been doing better lately. "People are curious about it now," he said.
Mr. Kennedy says collisions between ideology and scholarship are nothing new at the Park Service. "There are still recurring editorials in Civil War buff journals decrying any discussion of causes of the war, particularly slavery."
And he differentiates between what people learn from materials sold in Park Service bookstores and what they learn from the service's professional staff, "around the campfire," he said. Still, he worries that the Park Service may be relying too much on outsiders to research and explain its wonders - "outsourcing professional services," as he put it.
And of course, he says, many people will assume any book sold in a Grand Canyon bookstore has the imprimatur of the Park Service.
"That's the problem," Mr. Kennedy said. It is an important issue, he said, "and we need to pay attention to it."
Correction: Oct. 28, 2004, Thursday
An article in Science Times on Tuesday about a debate over the sale of a book offering a creationist view of the formation of Grand Canyon in bookstores at the national park referred incorrectly to a letter written by the presidents of seven scientific organizations to the park superintendent. The letter asked that the book be clearly separated from materials offering scientific information about Grand Canyon geology, not that it be removed from the stores. As the article reported, only the main store is large enough to have separate sections; there, the operators say, the book is shelved with "inspirational" materials rather than scientific ones.