Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Turkish Creationist Movement Tours American College Campuses
The first I heard of it was when I got an e-mail from a Turkish colleague, Cengiz Camci, in aerospace engineering, who had read an article of mine in American Scientist about the threat that "intelligent design" poses in the US. Cengiz told me that representatives from the Turkish Harun Yahya movement were coming to our campus (Penn State) to speak. He asked me to attend to support a small group of faculty and students who were opposed to the Harun Yahya sect and wanted to counter their presentation with pertinent questions and rebuttals.
Cengiz succinctly called the upcoming event "a great example of totally useless 'intelligent design' propaganda." The talk, "The Collapse of Darwinism and the Fact of Creation", was given by Dr Oktar Babuna — an acknowledged student of Harun Yahya — with a very professional-looking presentation (see the websites http://www.harunyahya.com/ or http://www.harunyahyaimpact.com/biyografi.php). Harun Yahya is claimed to be the pen name of a single man, Adnan Oktar or Adnan Hoca, to whom hundreds of books, articles, pamphlets, videos, and PowerPoint presentations are credited (see RNCSE 1999 Nov/Dec; 19 : 15–17; 18–20, 25–9; 30–5). Reportedly, Adnan Oktar was formerly a prisoner and inmate in a Turkish mental asylum, which he sees as a political imprisonment. The enormous output of Harun Yahya and the affiliated Science Research Foundation (known as BAV after its Turkish acronym) suggests that the name is used by a number of people in collaboration.
Harun Yahya espouses a strongly creationist view and is blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and anti-Freemasonry. Though Turkey's population is predominantly Muslim, the country has long been officially a secular state. Its excellent education system stands out among those of similar countries for the unusually high percentage of women who receive university educations. Harun Yahya is working hard to remove evolutionary theory from the education system and replace it with creationist doctrine. In 2006, hundreds of free copies of a very glossy text featuring numerous color photographs — entitled the Atlas of Creation — were sent to schools all over Turkey in an attempt to promote adoptions. The same book, in French translation, was sent to educators all over France early in 2007 (see "Updates", p 14–15).
In 2007, representatives of Harun Yahya have been contacting Muslim student associations in colleges, universities, and community centers offering to give presentations. In Pennsylvania alone, I was able to track recent talks by the same group, under identical or near-identical titles, at the University of Pittsburgh, Lehigh University, Villanova University, and Temple University. A similar talk was held at the University of Buffalo on January 29 and at Albany University on February 1, 2007.
I expected a slick and well-orchestrated presentation, and I was not disappointed. What did surprise me was the lack of advance publicity. As late as the day before the event, there was no posting on the Muslims Students' Association (MSA) website or on that of Dialog Forum, an interfaith group that cosponsored the presentation. I could not find an announcement of the event on any campus calendar, nor were there posters on campus. I was eventually able to confirm the identity of the sponsors by calling the registrar's office, which books campus rooms for events. On the day of the event, an announcement appeared on the MSA website. I sent e-mail notices to the departments of Earth Sciences, Anthropology, and Biology, and to the Life Sciences Consortium, in order to alert interested parties. My message apparently sparked a notice on the post-doctoral list-serve as well. The turnout was good for a bitterly cold Thursday night in January: about 50 people. I do not know how many were Muslims who normally attend MSA meetings and how many were attendees with scientific backgrounds.
Babuna is a neurosurgeon from Turkey educated both in Turkey and the United States. He and his colleague, Ali Sadun, were elegantly dressed in ties, white shirts, and pin-striped suits with handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. The PowerPoint presentation that Babuna gave was very professionally produced.
Babuna's triple threat
His talk naturally divided into three parts. The first section attempted to link evolutionary theory with evil and social injustice; the second presented calculations intended to show that the proteins and cells of living organisms were irreducibly complex and could not have arisen "by coincidence"; and the third attacked the fossil evidence that should support evolution as either absent or intentionally deceptive.
He began the first part by connecting Darwinism to the ruthless strategies of political figures such as Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Friedrich Engels. He provided images of each political leader coupled with quotations in which materialism — that is, evolutionary theory — provided scientific justification for the murder or gross maltreatment of thousands. With each image, he solemnly intoned the numbers of people who had been murdered. (He did not, of course, mention the numbers of victims of any religious movement or inter-faith conflict.) He openly blamed Darwinism for terrorism and racism. He posed a strictly dichotomous choice to the audience: either you are for Darwinism and these evil deeds, or you believe that Allah created the world and all of the life-forms in it. "There is no other choice," he said repeatedly.
The second portion of his talk was billed as an objective examination of the evidence for the creationist or the Darwinist approaches. His evaluation was based on three questions: 1) How did the first cell originate? 2) What are the mechanisms of evolution? 3) Is there abundant fossil evidence showing evidence of evolution?
To answer the first question, he gave some calculations to show the enormous complexity of living organisms, such as the number of amino acids that must be correctly assembled in a particular sequence to form a protein and the number of proteins produced by a single cell. He asserted that a change in a single component rendered the whole (DNA or RNA molecule, or protein) ineffectual and nonfunctional.
"There is no trial and error mechanism in nature," he declared, "because if you change one single amino acid or one single protein, nothing functions any more." Such irreducible complexity could not have arisen by coincidence — "and evolution works by coincidence, Darwin tells us" — and must have been deliberately created, perfect and whole in a single, sudden step.
"You see, the whole theory of evolution collapses at the level of a single protein," he concluded.
Babuna chose the (human) eye as an example of an organ that could not possibly have been created by "coincidence". I found this choice fascinating, since a good deal of work has been done on the evolution of the eye. Among other studies, mathematical modeling has shown that a three-layered tissue — with light-sensitive tissue in the middle layer — can be easily transformed into a camera-type eye with a lens and retina by the action of natural selection.
Having declared the evolution of such irreducible complexity to be statistically impossible, Babuna moved to his second question concerning the mechanisms of evolution. He claimed there was not a single piece of evidence that natural selection had ever produced novelty, illustrating his point with a photograph of a cheetah chasing an antelope. "Natural selection may make the deer" — as he called it — "run faster to escape the cheetah, but it does not turn the deer into a horse. Natural selection produces no novelty, nothing new, no transformations into other species," Babuna said.
Babuna also argued that mutations, the second major mechanism proposed by evolutionary theory, were inevitably deleterious and usually resulted in death. Mutations are only harmful, he said: "Sixty years of genetic studies on fruitflies has yet to produce a single advantageous mutation." He also showed a video clip of Richard Dawkins being asked by an interviewer to name a mutation that had been shown to be clearly advantageous. Dawkins thought for some seconds without answering before the clip ended, a bit of clever editing that made this foremost evolutionary biologist look foolish.
The third segment of Babuna's talk concerned fossils. He cited the well-known quote from Charles Darwin regretting the lack of transitional forms, and declared that "there is not a single transitional fossil known." Fossils reveal the history of life, he conceded, but new forms appear suddenly and in their perfect, complex, and fully functional state, "which is very good evidence for creation, not evolution."
One tactic was to show photographs of various fossils which appeared to be identical to their modern form, such as dragonflies and horseshoe crabs. He presented these as evidence that evolution did not occur.
Babuna also attacked the practice of making reconstructions based on fossils as intentionally deceptive. He showed several images of the noted artist John Gurche making full-flesh sculptures of fossil hominins. "These are fakes," he said emphatically as the word FAKE was stamped across each image. "You can tell nothing about the ears, the lips, the hair, or the skin of a fossil from a few bits of skull. There is nothing here but the imagination of the artist." He repeated the demonstration several times, emphasizing the word FAKE.
To emphasize this point, he brought up the case of Ernst Haeckel, a renowned 19th-century biologist who was charged with drawing embryos of various species incorrectly to heighten their resemblance to human embryos. Babuna showed a quote from Haeckel saying that he had done nothing that other scientists did not do, implying that this was an admission of deliberately misleading the public. A more knowledgeable assessment of Haeckel's words would be that he felt he was justifiably generalizing from individual specimens and leaving out unimportant details to make his point clearer.
As a final strategy, Babuna cited various fossils that had at one time been claimed to be human ancestors that were then re-assessed. These including Hesperopithecus (a single pig tooth found in Kansas that was briefly thought to be a hominin tooth), the forged Piltdown skull, Ramapithecus, and Zinjanthropus (now called Australopithecus boisei). With each example, he would quote a scientist claiming the fossil was a human ancestor, and then the date of its revision, saying sarcastically, "Then they apologized" for the discredited claim.
In the case of several fossils (including Zinjanthropus), Babuna incorrectly implied that they are no longer considered to be hominins. In fact, Zinjanthropus or Australopithecus boisei and others are clearly hominins but are no longer thought to be direct ancestors of modern humans.
The audience responds
A very lively, sometimes heated question-and-answer session followed the presentation, and the questions were as far-ranging as Babuna's talk.
One member of the audience, George Chaplin, challenged Babuna "You say God created perfect and complete organisms," he argued. "If God created me, then I am perfect." A silence fell over the room as Babuna confronted this challenge.
"I didn't say perfect," Babuna replied. When the audience reminded him that he had used that very word repeatedly, Babuna said, "I didn't mean perfect perfect."
Asked what his definition of evolution was, Babuna replied "the definition of evolution is that living things come into being by coincidence." A biologist challenged this, saying it was not a suitable definition of evolution, nor was it one that was used by scholars in the field. "Since you don't define evolution in a way that any evolutionary biologist I know of defines evolution, your disproof of evolution isn't very convincing," she said.
When I cited Archaeopteryx as an excellent example of a transitional form, Babuna — who admitted he had never seen a fossil — disagreed. I told the audience about the teeth, wings, tail, brain, claws, tail, and sternum of Archaeopteryx, not to mention the many species of feathered dinosaurs now known from fossils. Babuna countered that there is a bird in South America with claws on its wings, which he suggested refuted all the evidence I had cited.
I also pointed out that his diagram of an eyeball was as "fake" as Haeckel's embryo diagrams or Gurche's hominin reconstructions. "Does an eyeball look like this?" I asked, pointing to his image. "I've dissected them and never seen those things like piano keys that you say are retinal cells. And what about that yellow stuff filling the eyeball? I've never seen that either, or those green arrows. This is as much a fake as the other illustrations you labeled fakes."
"No," Babuna answered. "This is just a diagram from a medical textbook."
A question of credibility
My friend Cengiz asked from the back of the room what had happened to the 80 000 blood samples and all the donated funds that had been raised in Turkey for Babuna's leukemia cure. When asked how that pertained to Babuna's talk, he replied, "It is relevant to his credibility."
Cengiz referred to a massive movement in Turkey started by Babuna and his family in 1999, when Babuna had been diagnosed with leukemia and needed a marrow transplant to save his life. According to Turkish newspaper reports, as many as 160 000 people, attracted by the promise of a large reward if they were suitable donors for Babuna, contributed blood and marrow samples. A great deal of money was also raised to test and process the samples, but both the funds and the samples remain unaccounted for. Turkish legal authorities are investigating.
Babuna has not been entirely open about this matter. In October of 1999, he told the Turkish newspaper he had cured himself of leukemia by prayer (Turkish Daily News, 1999 Oct 3; available on-line at http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/archives.php?id=14352.) However, Babuna does not mention in public that he also received treatment and transplants at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and later at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (http://www.seattlecca.org/patientsandfamilies/international/OktarsStory.htm).
Babuna promised after his cure to "go into politics" and it would seem that he has.
By Pat Shipman, Pennsylvania State University
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.