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Scientific American

Creationism in 3-D

published May 2009 | comments (24)
A skeptic engages three types of creationists who claim science supports their beliefs, yet they contradict one another
magazine cover

During the tsunami of bicentennial celebrations of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in February, I visited the fringes of evolutionary skepticism to better understand how one of science’s grandest theories could still be doubted.

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol, England, is run by a kindly gentlemen named Anthony Bush, who insisted that I not confuse him with those “loony American creationists” who think that Earth is only 6,000 years old. “How old do you think it is?” I queried. “Oh, I’ve worked it out to be around 100,000 years old, with Adam and Eve at around 21,000 years old.” (At an order of magnitude difference that makes Mr. Bush only five zeros shy of reality.)

What about, I pressed on, all the geologic evidence for a much older Earth? All those strata of, say, sandstone — loose sand compressed into solid rock over immense periods? Those strata are laid down every season, like tree rings, Bush explained. Interesting analogy, given that we can see trees growing from year to year, but where can we find sand being annually compressed into stone?

At the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., I learned that Earth was created in 4004 B.C., about the same time that the Mesopotamians invented beer (“That’s on the secular timeline,” I was told). Dioramas feature children frolicking among vegetarian dinosaurs, including a T. rex and Utahraptor, whose daggerlike teeth and claws, it was noted, were used for cracking open coconuts before the Fall. But then the snake tempted Eve, who in turn charmed Adam into tasting the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil — after which dinosaurs became meat eaters, humans became sinners and Noah gathered the animals into the Ark (also rendered into a dioramic drama complete with screaming left-behinders on soon-to-be swamped rocks).

My tour ended with an interview with Georgia Purdom, an accommodating and bright woman (Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State University) who explained that the worldview you hold (biblical versus secular) determines how you interpret the data.

I countered by pointing out that Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, is a born-again evangelical Christian who fully accepts evolution. In his book The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), Collins describes ancient repetitive elements (AREs) in DNA that arise from “jumping genes” that copy and insert themselves in other locations in the genome, usually without any function. When you align sections of human and mouse genomes, the AREs are in the same location. “Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us,” he asserts, “the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.”

Collins is wrong, Purdom stated, because “he does not accept the biblical history in Genesis, so he’s beginning with his ideas about what happened in the past rather than what God said happened in the past, so he’s interpreting that data in light of that starting point.”

Shoehorning science into scripture was also painfully on display at the University of North Florida, where I debated founder and chief biblical cosmologist of Reasons to Believe Hugh Ross, an Old Earth Creationist who thinks that the biblical authors describe the expanding universe in such passages as Job 9:8, where God “stretched out the heavens,” and Isaiah 40:22, where God “stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” The key word in Hebrew is natah, which means “spread out,” like a blanket or a tent, and is a metaphor for the dome or canopy of the sky and fixed stars that formed the basis of the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, derived from the earlier Babylonian cosmology during the Jewish captivity in Mesopotamia.

In my opinion, Ross employs the hindsight bias when he digs through the scriptures in search of passages that vaguely resemble current scientific findings. Had cosmologists discovered that we live in a closed universe that will eventually collapse, then it seems to me that Job 9:7 would work well by confirming God “commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.”

Seek and ye shall find.

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24 Comments to “Creationism in 3-D”

  1. Troythulu Says:

    Interesting, Mr. Shermer. The inconsistency of doctrine among creationists seems typical of many pseudosciences, such as the contradictory doctrines of the various proponents of electric universe theory, all of whom are unified only in their denial of mainstream astrophysics, just as the differing flavors of creationists in your own post show unity only in denial of evolution. Very interesting indeed…

  2. Tom Laird Says:

    Could it not also be claimed that evolutionary theory has three major schools of thought(Can’t list them off hand…”Punctuated Equilibrium” being the only one I remember.)And that each contradicts/disproves the other?

  3. the_comna Says:

    In response to Tom Laird’s comment: the other major school of thought is gradualism. Gradualism was the theory proposed by Darwin, and is basically thus: evolution occurs in small changes over many years.

    The second school of thought would be Punctuated Equilibrium, which was proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. This theory is that evolution occurs in short bursts each lasting a few thousand years.

    Punctuated equilibrium contradicts with some of the original mechanisms of evolution, but it still follows the core tenements of the evolutionary theory.

  4. Don Powers Says:

    Gradualism / punctuated equilibrium. Depends upon the time scale you use and if viewing short time periods, which periods. In some short time frames little evolution may occur, or much depending upon the situation. Viewed over a many 10′s of millions of years you might assume gradualism. It seems to me that there is no contradiction.

  5. Isserfix Says:

    Here’s something everyone can do to help.

    I am a big supporter of Shermer, but sometimes he’s just too nice. This is one example.

    Hugh Ross and his compatriots are engaged in an attempt do incalculable damage; most of you who read this will understand why.

    What they do is not cute. It is not funny. It is not harmless: they make great efforts to undermine our ability to teach science at a time in world history when we most need clear thinking and well-trained people. I for one am quite sick of it: their selfish need to spread the 4,000 year-old-superstitions of a desert tribe seems more important to them than the welfare of our planet.

    Talking snakes. Resurrection from the dead. Walking on water. Hideous violence, failed morality, transmutation of the elements, Velikovskian astronomy, abuse of women and children, bigotry, death … these are the seeds that have grown into what they attempt to feed us.

    It’s not enough to make reasoned arguments against their silly positions. While that is a battle we must engage, it is one we may never win, because our only weapon is reason while they also have unreason. While we must debate Ross and those like him, I suggest we also spurn them.

    We must use social media to communicate clearly that, while anyone is free to believe anything and to discuss anything, we do not find attempts to undermine education and public policy for such selfish reasons acceptable.

    I urge everyone to visit iTunes, where Reasons to Believe attempt to slip their superstitions in as “science podcasts”. Hammer them with bad reviews and low rankings. Give the negative reviews many stars.

    The goal is to get them move their childish silliness over to the “Religion” section where it belongs.

    The goal is to see that any podcasts from Reasons to Believe in the science and medicine sections of iTunes receive the lowest-possible rankings.

    Among these podcasts are:
    * I Didn’t Know That Podcast
    * Why the Universe is the Way It Is Podcast
    * The Cell’s Design Podcast
    * Reasons to Believe Creation Update
    * Science News Flash
    * More Than a Theory

    You can see their strategy. They have SIX podcasts in the Natural Sciences section (at least). They have cast a net, hoping to catch young minds and ruin them.

    Unacceptable. Nasty. Dangerous.

    Visit iTunes every week. Vote them down. Give them bad ratings. Bury the positive reviews.

    Just HAMMER them.

  6. David Sirrine Says:

    Isserfix: I understand the need to combat creationism in its various forms, but don’t you think you’re going a little over the top to blame all of the world’s ills on creationists? Don’t you see that your blistering rhetoric is simply the polar opposite of the Christian fundamentalists’ — in fact, turn your statements around and you sound exactly like Ken Ham or Duane Gish or Kent Hovind. And your indictment of the Bible and Christians and Creationism for all the unspeakable evils of history has overtones equivalent to Ben Stein’s tripe in the pseudo-documentary “Expelled.” It’s just nonsense, proves nothing, and convinces no one. Hate breeds hate, whether their kind or yours.

    What’s needed in this debate is not more fiery denunciation of the demons on the other side (and they’re much better than you at that); it’s sensible, rational, respectful conversation that seeks not to defeat the opponent (because you’ll never accomplish that), but to persuade the rational moderates and open-minded neophytes. “HAMMER”ing them in the sense of attacking the most egregious offenders head-on is a losing proposition that only highlights your resemblance to those you so despise. Shermer’s approach of education and reasonable conversation is the only way to win creationists over and turn the tide of scientific ignorance that truly drives most creationists. I know — I was one.

    — David Sirrine, recovering fundamentalist, now evolutionary creationist (i.e. science tells us how; God tells us why)

  7. Isserfix Says:

    The goal isn’t to convert creationists, nor to blame the world’s ills on them.

    The goal is to give them a bad review in iTunes.

    There’s no hate. I’m simply pointing out a bit of what happens in the Bible, and drawing a line in front of the minds of our children, saying, “No, don’t bring that in here”. The fact that you SEE it as hate is a comment on the content of the Bible — a truly hateful book — but not much else.

  8. Dan Lynch Says:

    Could it be that we are all engaged in a huge fool’s errand? Creationism (like everything else) has evolved. In Mr. Darwin’s day, it may have been a legitimate religious reaction to his ideas but, today, it is entirely political. Fifty-years-ago, as a budding geologist, I noticed a distinctly authoritarian bent to the creationists but figured that just went with being a fundamentalist.

    Over the years, it has become clear that activist creationism (that bedevils legislatures and school boards) is the thinly disguised assertion, “My god is better than yours!” with the corollary, “My worship deserves special consideration in the community.”

    But there is a secondary function to evolution denial as a fraternal handshake or mating call among authoritarians, a way of saying, “I will believe and defend anything I am told.” (A little North Korea in our own back yard.)

    One recent example: May 30 All Things Considered (NPR) had a story on Kevin Roose from Brown University who took a semester off to enroll at Liberty University. The lead for that story was a question he encountered on a true-false exam: “Noah’s Ark was big enough to accommodate various species of dinosaurs.” Few saw this as the big test of fealty to Liberty’s authoritarian philosophy.

    None of this is religion as I understand it and it sure as hell isn’t science.

  9. Baloney Detective Says:

    I am a huge fan of Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, and everyone who puts reason front and center. I must agree that we will never change the minds of these self-proclaimed “faithful”. They will continue to keep their god constrained by their interpretation of The Bible. I consider myself a rational man, and yet I happen to believe in God. His existence will never be proved or disproved conclusively so I made a “leap of faith”. God is greater than these creationists try to make Him. Creation described by science is the way that it happened. What’s a few billion years to a being that is eternal?

  10. J. Gravelle Says:

    Alternate article headline:

    “Thy Rock, Thy Paper, and Thy Scissors”


  11. john Says:

    Baloney Detective Says:

    “I consider myself a rational man, and yet I happen to believe in God.”

    Perhaps the Baloney Detector should find another line of work for which he is better suited…..or at least come up with a more accurate handle, like Leap of Faith…

  12. Wildcat Says:

    Y’know, I second the idea about iTunes.

    I’ve always been bothered by “the hand of faith cloaked in a glove of science”.

    I think I’ll head over there now and give a few podcasts some bad reviews.

    Sneaky creationists, watch out!

  13. Michael J. Gonzales Says:

    Am I the only one who realizes that,By trying to shout ones own message louder than the others that, you forget we have to listen to each other first; And maybe lessening all the hate that zealots feel we can be open to our adulthood, instead of the Gods of our youth.

  14. Dan Lynch Says:


    If your god is better than mine and you are better than me as a consequence, then there is nothing I can say that would be of the slightest interest to you.

    Reasonable people are so unrealistic!

  15. Asteroid Miner Says:

    That’s why every high school student should be required to take 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology, 4 years of geology and 8 years of math.
    If you want to know about the creation of the universe, get your post-doctoral degree in physics. Study the Creation Theorem from Quantum Mechanics, the same science that makes desktop computers, lasers, digital cameras, etc. possible.
    Clearly, ONLY science can save us from our impending extinction due to global warming. That is the dire message: Give up religion for science or go extinct.
    The first encountered kill mechanism is an old familiar one: famine. Climate change moves the rain. Agriculture has already failed in Australia.

  16. epicurus Says:

    There are an infinite number of possible imaginary beings (or gods if you’re religious) you can believe by faith. If you can’t even detect them, disproving their existence is unnecessary since there’s no reason to postulate their existence in the first place (except by faith). The real challenge is to prove even just one god’s existence. Of course you can always say it’s impossible to prove and take a ‘leap of faith.’ Voltaire said “if god did not exist, man would be obliged to invent him” and “doubt is not a pleasant state but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The will to believe is easy. The will to doubt is harder.

  17. Unfiltered Says:

    For those proposing or endorsing war on the creationists by way of iTunes crowdsourcing, I caution you to consider whether mob rule for the cause of reason is better than mob rule for any other cause, and also whether you really think you can win?

    They took American Idol, and they can probably take you too.

  18. ex-pastor Says:

    I came close to walking away from my faith years ago, but Hugh Ross sounded like the voice of reason. I latched onto his old earth, old universe theory, complete with pre-human soul-less upright bipeds…
    Then I worked for a church who embraced the young-earth Ken Ham type creationism, who actually held the opinion among many of the staff that Hugh Ross is a demonic influence in the Cristian community.
    I won’t even talk about Kent Hovind…I have walked away from all of it, have a real job, and am “out of the cave” for about 2 years now.
    It is only through the calm, rational presentation of “the other side” evidence by guys like Paulos, Shermer, Dawkins, etc. that I was able to get past vilifying the opposition, listen to their story, and make a rational decision.
    In an environment where so many are expected to live by blind faith, there are just as many who want to see (and will give credibility to) something tangible instead–presented by calm, rational, patient people. Guys like Michael Shermer (who never started pounding on the table during the Kentucky museum interview, even though several occasions might have triggered such behavior).

  19. Daphne Elliott Says:

    Just to read such ideas pro, con or otherwise is a privilege. I live in an assisted-living situation where the most serious disease is BOREDOM. The residents have long forgotten how to think, let alone converse. What a joy to read cogent conversation. Thanks!

  20. edwin thomas Says:

    The science education situation looks to me like a side show for the attempt to make the US into a fundamentalist, Protestant Christian nation. Creationists seem to be one political victory from converting science class to their purpose. The science education establishment is in fits about how to resist. What to do?

    Some suggestions.

    First, realize we are wasting our time arguing science. The other side can’t be persuaded, because they don’t care. The audience, the neutrals are that 50% of Americans who don’t believe a word of evolution, but are willing to allow it to be taught alone in science class. We are in danger of losing them. Talking science to them doesn’t help.

    They call themselves christians. Which gives creationists a leg-up. But, they also believe in sepatating church and state. Which is our fingerhold.

    Second, realize that the other side’s verbal judo beats us most of the time. We’re all serious, and dedicated, and professional. Then they throw in some bafflegab and we tie ourselves in knots trying to answer it. What to do?

    Well, first remember the audience. Its that 50% who are neutral that we are after. DO NOT ARGUE SCIENCE with creationists in public. Point out errors, but don’t argue science. Have easily understood published information on hand, to hand out (out in the lobby), if necessary. Don’t argue science.

    Second, try a little judo ourselves. When challenged between two scientific theories, for instance? In one sentence, describe both theories, and tell which one is now standard. Then, stop talking science. (If you can’t do that, stay home.) The judo? Mention how that situation is similar to two opposing views on some biblical analysis, and ask the creationist expert which one he/she prefers. Get them talking BIBLE! (Watch “Inherit the Wind”, again.)

    Third, always leave the audience thinking about why we want the state separate from all religion, and how creationism in science class defeats that.

    Its way more complicated than that, but its a start.

  21. Peter Cross Says:

    I’m looking for actual arguments to knock the creationists over not just opinion.

    This article takes a very patronising tone and starts with the conviction that you are right and they are wrong.

    I share this conviction; I was a born again fundamentalist Christain and now am a committed atheist but when my enemy claims that Polystrate fossils exist that extend between rock strata and that rock strata similar to the Grand Canyon was created in months after Mt Helena than I NEED science to refute these claims not just the repetition of essentially the argument that ‘rocks are hard so growing rocks must take a long time’.

    Why? some rocks take a little time to form (don’t they?), what exactly is it that is different about the others?

    If we don’t have an answer yet then we do we have the honesty to admit it? It seems that if there are legitimate questions then sometimes we don’t have the courage to ask the questions. I wish I knew enough to know whether the are legitimate (creationist) questions.

    I left one religion because I could no longer take it’s tenants on trust I don’t want to find that I just replaced my old religion with another!

  22. ineke Says:

    Is it not time to remember the “wedge Strategy” the leaked document of the Discovery institute? Because this is not really about science, but about politics,and an attack on modern life, and the Arts .Its about infiltrating the media,and changing opinion,chipping away at the evolution theory,step by step,read their plan,which of course , they are now downplaying.

  23. Stan Toler Says:

    Whatever religion one espouses, it is specific to that one individual. Yes, there are probably others who claim to believe in that same religion, but there will always be specific differences in the details of exactly what they believe, even within the same church. This is clearly evident in the fact that there are so many different religions in the world, that there are two different schools of Christianity, the Protestants and the Catholics, and there are so many different denominations of Protestantism. People who believed strongly enough in their specific views of what the Bible was saying simply started their own version of Christianity based on that difference. Who is to say who is right?

  24. Mike Says:

    “Collins is wrong, Purdom stated, because “he does not accept the biblical history in Genesis, so he’s beginning with his ideas about what happened in the past rather than what God said happened in the past, so he’s interpreting that data in light of that starting point.””

    Can’t Purdom see that she’s doing the very same thing she’s accusing Collins of doing?