In a recent Gallup
poll, only nine
evolution was a
Education’s “Missing Link”
|By Jeanine DeNoma|
Dr. William Thwaites, Emeritus Professor of Biology at San Diego State University, was the speaker at the Oregonians for Rationality winter meeting in Salem on January 23, 1998. He discussed creationism and creationists in a talk titled Creationist’s Arguments and Tactics - Or Won’t Those Creationists Ever Give Up? This article recaps Thwaites’ talk and elaborates upon some points using the references cited.
“I was like a lot of academics at the time,” said biologist Dr. William Thwaites, speaking to Oregonians for Rationality. “I thought those who opposed evolution on religious grounds might compose one to two percent of the population. Was I ever wrong! And Gallup has shown us how wrong.” In the years since Thwaites began tracking polls on the creation/evolution debate, the numbers of individuals identifying themselves as creationists have risen from about 42% to 47%. In a recent Gallup poll, only nine percent of respondents said they believed evolution was a natural process that could function without divine intervention.
The president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Dr. John Morris, writes in the January, 1998, Acts & Facts (“Do people really believe in evolution?”) about his own informal survey, made as he traveled by plane around the country. In conversation with fellow passengers, Morris identifies himself “as a researcher from a think tank interested in origins.” Then he says, “As scientists, we’re also Christians who feel the scientific evidence supports creation rather than evolution... As creationists, we are certain that you didn’t come from a fish.” Morris reports, “Never, never, has anyone responded, ‘No, I believe in evolution, I insist that I came from a fish’.” Few people really “believe” in evolution, though most claim to, writes Morris. He concludes people don’t believe in evolution “because [evolutionists] are trying to convince people of something that is foolish, offensive, and obviously wrong. Most people just aren’t gullible enough to believe they came from a fish!” According to Morris, students “believe” in evolution because “that’s the only view they’ve ever been exposed to.” Most adults “believe in evolution...[because] how could all those scientists be wrong?”
Yet when science teachers are asked about how much evolution they teach in their classes, most confess they skim over it or skip it all together to avoid trouble with parents and school administrators. Thwaites said years ago he taught eighth-grade science for one year, replacing a teacher who had been fired for making it his crusade to teach evolution. Clearly creationists are being very effective in controlling what is being taught, said Thwaites.
After watching ICR debaters defeat two colleagues, Thwaites and his office partner at San Diego State University, Dr. Frank Awbrey, decided to become anti-creation activists and take on the creationists in another debate. Between the two of them, they believed they had the expertise to address most topics creationists used in their arguments. Awbrey’s specialty was bioacoustics, the study of the noises animals make and probably one of the more physically oriented areas in biology. Awbrey also had “a love for the study of whole organisms and could rattle off names of bones much better than Duane Gish, the principle debater at the Institute for Creation Research,” Thwaites said. Thwaites had been in engineering before switching his major to biochemical genetics and taking lots of biology courses to earn his teaching certificate. He had taken enough thermodynamics to understand why the creationists’ use of the 2nd law of thermodynamics is really silly. Thwaites also thought he could cover geology, which he had learned as a child from his geologist father, and astronomy, which he practiced as an amateur astronomer.
The two of them spent a full year preparing for their first debate. Since that first debate, they have put in twenty years researching creationists claims, debating creationists, and inviting creationists to present the case for creationism to their SDSU creation/evolution classes. With this exposure to creationism, Thwaites and Awbrey gained an in-depth understanding of creationists arguments, tactics and motivations.
Fear of evolution
One characteristic of all creationists, said Thwaites, is “they all do creationism because they think evolutionary thought is harmful. That is a general position of every creationist I have met.” Creationists fear that if evolution teaches that man is an animal, then people will behave like animals. Of course that’s not necessarily all bad, Thwaites pointed out. “There are many examples where behaving like animals might be an improvement.” Elephants and porpoises, for example, take care of others of their species. Creationists also fear that because evolution provides no set standard for determining good from evil, it undermines their biblical standards of correct behavior.
What does creationism have to do with Christianity per se? The average person reading the Bible wouldn’t pick up on this, said Thwaites, but if there was death before the fall of Adam and Eve, that would mean death is not a punishment metered out by God at the time of the Fall. And if death isn’t a punishment, then Christ’s sacrifice was not a sacrifice and Christianity has no basis. Creationists believe this is the real teaching of evolution and, therefore, real Christians must be creationists.
In the words of creationist John Morris, “You see, evolution holds that suffering and death are ‘good,’ and have been on earth for hundreds of millions of years, long before man. In fact, it was the death of the ‘unfit’ which was paralleled by the ‘survival of the fittest’ and allowed man to evolve from the animals. In evolution, our ancestors possessed animal desires fueled by animal instincts; thus, evolution is specifically used to justify sinful behavior” (January, 1996, Acts & Facts, “Is there such a thing as creationist counseling?”).
In fact, creationists emphasize time and again throughout their literature that evolution is the root of all evil. At the ICR’s Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee, California, an exhibit shows how only “harmful philosophies” and “evil practices” grow from the evolutionary tree, while the creationist tree produces “genuine Christianity” and “correct practices” such as Americanism, morality, good family life, and true history and science (McIver, Skeptic 4(1):32-41). Creationists hold evolution responsible for all manner of social evil, including humanism, secularism, communism, socialism, terrorism, suicide, crime, alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion, pornography, even rock music! This kind of rhetoric sustains the creation movement.
Continuum of creation beliefs
Creationists run the continuum from young-Earth biblical literalists to theistic evolutionists who believe God guided evolution through natural laws. The young-Earth biblical literalists, like those of the ICR, hold the extreme view that the universe is no older than 10,000 years, that all organisms were created in the Garden of Eden during six 24-hour days as described in Genesis, and that fossils are evidence of a worldwide Noachian flood. According to Tom McIver (Skeptic 4(1):32-41), there are old-Earth creationists who accept the geological age of the Earth, but also believe in a single special creation. There are even “gap theory” creationists who believe in an old Earth, but that fossils are from creation events which predated the Genesis creation of Adam and Eve. And there are “day-age” creationists who interpret the biblical days of creation as ages instead of the current 24-hour day, but deny that organisms evolve into new species. Still others seem to accept all of evolution, but hold that the origin of life was a special act of God. Each of these brands of creationism conflicts, at least to some extent, with modern scientific knowledge.
Theistic evolution, on the other hand, which holds that God works through natural processes, has no such conflicts with science. It is accepted by the majority of Christians and Jews, including the Anglican and Catholic Churches and most Protestant denominations such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and the United Church of Christ.
Theistic evolution, of course, is particularly unpalatable to fundamentalist creationists. John Morris refutes the idea that God would work through evolution saying, “Beneath Adam’s feet would lay the fossils of billions of animals, many giving evidence of traumatic death. ... Had God been experimenting, trying to find something He could call His image? Was he not powerful enough to create it without so many missteps?...And why did He use the process of extinction of the unfit to create? ...No, the righteous God...would create just as described in Genesis One.” (March, 1998, Acts & Facts, “Is the God of theistic evolution the same as the God of the Bible?”)
The real enemy of creationists are not evolutionists, but the majority of Christians who find no conflict between religion and evolution, said Thwaites. Creationists especially dislike people like author and Trinity Broadcast Network program host Hugh Ross, who believes there must be some accommodation between creation and evolution. “He’s talking to their people - we’re not ... People like Ross are the real threat to creationism. And it is through spokesmen like him that this conflict eventually will be resolved. When fundamentalist conservative evangelical Christians realize that by beating evolution to death they are losing children who leave the church after finding out just a little bit about evolution and concluding ‘Creation can’t be literally true...maybe nothing I learned in church makes any sense at all’.”
It is a known fact that children who are taught evolution often leave the faith and split with their families over the issue. While this split is tragic when it happens, arguably it is a problem of creationists own making. It certainly doesn’t need to happen, if people would realize they can keep their biblical literalism along with evolution, said Thwaites. How can they do this? “The same way they did with the round, spinning Earth, instead of the flat, stationary Earth. The Bible was based on a flat, stationary Earth model. You can see this in passage after passage. It doesn’t spell it out, but it assumes it. The Bible doesn’t spell out that people didn’t evolve either. ... You have to be told how to interpret Genesis to know it means that people didn’t evolve. You don’t need to be quite so imaginative to find out that the Earth just sits there and everything goes around it.”
Debates and arguments
One audience member asked why scientists always seem to “get creamed in debates with creationists.” The main reason said Thwaites is the “friendly audience” factor. Audiences almost always consist of 90% to 95% creationists. However when Duane Gish, the main debater for ICR, debated at the Berkeley Paleontology Department and the Institute for Human Origins, it was in front of a large crowd that “knew their skulls”; they could distinguish an Australopithecus africanus from an Australopithecus aethiopicus. Gish had written books about these fossils, but it turned out that he couldn’t identify them. In front of this knowledgeable audience, he made a fool of himself. Someone handed him a skull and asked him what species it was. He lost terribly. His public response later was that Berkeley had treated him rudely.
Thwaites was also asked if he had ever been successful in getting a creationist to say, “I’ve never thought of that; you have a good point”? Thwaites replied that it hasn’t ever happened that easily, but they had been successful in getting Duane Gish to modify his argument on the bombardier beetle.
Gish argues the bombardier beetle is an example of a species that could never have evolved because it would have blown itself up in the process. The beetle mixes hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide, a mixture Gish said blows up. (The mixture actually requires a catalyst to react explosively.) In order to evolve, argued Gish, the beetle would have had to develop an inhibitor compound before evolving the two “explosive” chemicals, but it would have had no need for an inhibitor until after acquiring the two compounds, whereupon it would have blown itself to pieces. Therefore, Gish has triumphantly declared, the beetle must have been created.
Thwaites and Awbrey’s creation/evolution class listened to a portion of a debate in which Gish enthusiastically described “Beetle Bailey” blowing up. Then Thwaites and Awbrey actually did the experiment “with great fanfare, taking all the appropriate safety precautions and asking the class to move to the back of the room and hold their ears,” said Thwaites. “We added the hydrogen peroxide to the hydroquinone - and it turned brown. Just as it had done earlier when we had tried it ourselves. And just like our chemistry colleagues had told us would happen without the enzyme needed to make the chemicals react rapidly and explode.” In researching the original bombardier beetle paper, Thwaites had learned there was no inhibitor, and the chemicals are produced separately before being mixed with the catalyst in a separate chamber. All the components of the system are present in many of the bombardier’s relatives. There is absolutely no reason the beetle could not have evolved.
Duane Gish, who used the bombardier beetle argument repeatedly in his debates, must have heard the audiotape of this demonstration and realized the compounds don’t explode - they don’t even react quickly or produce steam. “We didn’t follow every debate after that,” said Thwaites, “but several people reported Gish’s argument was completely unchanged. Apparently the word started getting out, however, and audience members would ask, ‘What about what Thwaites and Awbrey did in class?’ Eventually Gish did change - kind of. Instead of saying the compounds would explode, Gish began to say that if you or I mixed hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide in the lab they would explode - or at least turn brown and icky.”
Smart guys but...
“One thing I can say about most creationists we met is that they did well very in their studies,” said Thwaites. Many are Phi Beta Kappa members. Henry Morris, founder and former head of ICR, is a fellow in the National Academy of Sciences and wrote a best-selling hydrology book that is still in print and selling after 30 years. These people are not ignorant or uneducated.
However, creationists seem to act as if they come from another culture, Thwaites observed. One example of this was their response to the well - known Noah’s Ark Hoax. In November, 1985, George Jammal wrote a hoax letter to ICR describing how he had been on Mt. Ararat and had brought back a piece of Noah’s ark. He gave his exploration companions scatological names, identifying his Turkish guide as Mr. Asholian, the guide’s son-in-law as Allis Buls Hitian, and a Polish friend as Mr. Vladimer Sobitchsky. Jammal said he could not believe that with names like these ICR members would not immediately detect a hoax (Skeptic 2(4):13). “Every biologist I showed the letter to immediately burst into laughter,” said Thwaites. “But John Morris, head of ICR, read it and said, ‘They’ve found a piece of the ark’.” Eventually the infamous documentary, The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark was produced by Sun International Pictures and aired on both CBS and NBC.
“The charade probably continued too far,” said Thwaites. “But how did it ever get past this letter? It was essentially labeled ‘I’m a joke.’ This was a case where creationists demonstrated their extreme naivete ... This is what I would call some kind of basic cultural difference, that someone could not see through such a letter when he read it.”
Evidence against creation
The evidence against creationism is clear and strong, but most high school teachers are scared to death of what would happen to them if they came right out and said, “We know Genesis is wrong about all organisms being created in the Garden of Eden in one week. Who can tell me what paleontological observations tell us it is wrong?” The observation of faunal succession shows that animals have come into and gone out of existence over time. The early paleontologists who discovered faunal succession were creationists, at least in the 19th century meaning of the word; their explanation for this observation was that from time to time God created new organisms.
“The fact that new organisms came on line throughout the history of the Earth defeated the idea that they had all originated at the beginning of the Earth’s history. In fact, the idea of extinction was hard to swallow because, according to the Bible, the organisms that were first created were perfect. Many biology books still talk about how organisms are perfectly adapted to their environment. This is a throwback to the notion that organisms were created perfectly,” said Thwaites. “Most of us know this isn’t quite true or we wouldn’t choke to death or need eyeglasses.” It took a mountain of evidence to shake this biblical notion and acknowledge that organisms were not created perfectly, that they could go extinct, and that mass extinctions occurred from time to time, after which new organisms took their places in a few million years.
The fossil record also shows there was no single place, such as the Garden of Eden, where all creatures were created. This is especially obvious for landlocked mammals formed after the continents, as we now know them, split apart. When new organisms came on line, they always originated in the area where the previous organisms looked the most like them. This tells us organisms have changed through history, adapting from local organisms with only relatively minor changes and no big innovations. “The fossil record shows nothing analogous to the appearance of quartz watches, which had no predecessors in watchmaking but nevertheless appeared suddenly and fully formed. You see from the fossil record that nature never does anything radically different from what was already there,” said Thwaites.
It was these observations, the places where new organisms arose and how they always seemed to be simple modifications of previously existing local organisms, that were crying out for an explanation in Darwin’s time. And that is what Darwin did. Early biologists were so steeped in religious tradition that other scientists of the time considered biology a non-science. “Darwin recognized, quite correctly, I think, that a branch of science that was willing to have ‘Oh, it was a miracle’ to explain things, was not a real science. He did a good job of explaining one of the biggest enigmas - an explanation for the modification of species,” said Thwaites.
Some creationists, especially Attorney Philip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, are now pushing the view that biologists should allow for the possibility of miracles. “Of course no one argues for theistic chemistry or physics,” said Thwaites, but Johnson argues that evolutionists are pushing for something that didn’t used to be pushed in science, namely that all explanations needed to be naturalistic. This was the case, but it was because early biologists were so careless in their science and so steeped in religious tradition.
When acceptance of evolution comes, it will come from the conservative theological thinkers, not from scientists, predicted Thwaites. When conservatives “come out and simply say ‘People evolved, let’s go from there. Scientists have proven their point and it’s silly for us to challenge all this obvious, clear-cut physical evidence.’ When you look at the fossil record as a whole, rather than as little bits and pieces of it as Duane Gish does, organisms have changed. That’s evolution!” To deny the straightforward observation of biological modification in the fossil record and elsewhere is destructive to creationists’ families and followers. Many conservative Christians now realize there are issues far more important to them than wishing away millions of observations that disprove creationist interpretations of Genesis.
Return to Archive Index