God's Own Scientists
The following article was published in Natural History magazine (1994).
by Christopher Toumey
n the second Thursday of the month, for nine or ten months each year, a small number of men gather at the comfortable suburban home of a science professor at a major North Carolina public university. The group's object is the serious study of the scientific case for creationism, and its regular members include another science professor from the same university, a computer engineer, an electronics technician, two lab scientists, and two medical doctors. Others who attend occasionally are college students, electrical engineers, and more lab scientists. Preachers come by rarely.
The participants begin to arrive about 7:15 in the evening and proceed to a paneled den at the back of the house. There they chat about jobs and families, trading comments about computer software, laboratory procedures, and their children's schools, or they browse through National Geographic, American Scientist, or evangelical magazines such as Christianity Today and Moody Monthly. When all who are expected have arrived, the second science professor begins the meeting with an evangelical prayer, in which he asks God to bless their evening together and enlighten them.
Since many in the group also attend weekly Bible study groups on Wednesday nights at their homes or churches, the lessons from those meetings often influence the Thursday sessions. For example, over many months (while I attended as an anthropologistand evolutionistresearching creationism in modem America), they kept up an irregular commentary on the meaning of the Hebrew word yom, which is the word for day in the six days of Creation in Genesis. In modem creationist orthodoxy, as handed down by Henry M. Morris, a former engineering professor in southern California, the days of Creation are literal, twenty-four-hour days. To discourage figure-of-speech interpretations of yom, Morris teaches that yom has the same meaning in every biblical verse in which it appears. Members of the study group follow Morris's teachings, and some attend conservative Bible study groups that take a similar, literalistic interpretation. Others, who attend less structured Bible study groups, say they, have heard that yom usually means twenty-four hours, but that it sometimes could be a figure of speech, as in, "In the day of prosperity be joyful" (Eccl. 7:14) or "the day of the Lord" (Isa. 2:12).
Mostly, however, the meetings are technically oriented, as the participants seek to relate scientific evidence to creationism. At the first meeting I attended, the topic was the cosmological theory of the inflationary universe as proposed by physicist Alan Guth. The leader of the discussion, the science professor who hosted the group, began by summarizing several articles he had read recently in American Scientist, Science, and Scientific American. Neither he nor anyone else in the room claimed any special expertise in astro-physics; they behaved like any other curious group of intelligent nonphysicists trying to understand new developments in physics. No one tried to make Guth's model conform to biblical imagery; no one even mentioned the Bible during that evening's discussion. Henry Morris and his followers believe that the six-day Creation and Noah's Flood were historical events whose authenticity supports a conservative interpretation of Judeo-Christian morality. They also believe, however, that scientific evidence for the Creation and the Flood can be distinguished from the words of Genesis. This data, they argue, can be honestly studied and taught as science in the public schools without violating the constitutional separation of church and state. With this reasoning, the members of the discussion group want their arguments on behalf of creationism to be scientifically credible, and they worry about this very much.
For example, one of the participants became interested in the theories of Barry Setterfield, an Australian creationist who asserts that the speed of light was much greater in the past, but that it has since decreased, leveling off fairly recently at the rate we know today, about 186,000 miles per second. Setterfield's calculations dovetail nicely with certain creationist chronologies that say the universe is less than 10,000 years old. But one of the group leaders cautioned against Setterfield's theory. He had asked Henry Morris about it, he said, and Morris had told him that the staff physicist at Morris's Institute for Creation Research was very skeptical about Setterfield. After that, they did not raise the subject again.
Often the evening emphasizes an educational program, of about an hour's length, produced by Henry Morris's institutea film, tape, or, most typically, a slide show. These packaged programs tell the group little that they have not already heard, but the members nevertheless study the messages carefully, for they will be expected to bring these programs to their own Bible study groups, Sunday schools, and churches. Five or six of the members have spoken often in public on behalf of scientific creationism, so they are comfortable rearranging and editing these materials to suit themselves, but otherwise they defer very modestly to Morris's authority, which they never challenge.
The creationists turn to Henry Morris for more than just technical expertise: he is their hero, their inspiration. One of the founders of the group, an electronics engineer, traces his commitment to scientific creationism to the time he met Morris in San Diego. He says he was greatly impressed that Morris, a distinguished fellow engineer, explained creationism and the problems of evolution in terms of their common professional standards; before that, he had thought that creationism was only a religious idea.
These creationists also admire Henry Morris for several biblical commentaries he has written, one on Genesis and another on Revelation. They play no role in the group's scientific discussions because their content is traditional biblical exegesis, not technical information, but these volumes remind the local creationists that Morris is a spiritual leader, as well as a scientific authority. They say to one another that it's amazing that one man can do so much. This kind of comment then leads into folklore about the life of Henry Morris. According to one story I heard several times, Morris is a workaholic who, fortified by strong coffee, often stays up all night writing. Another tells of Morris's anguish over a son who was dissolute and disrespectful, but who, because of Morris's perseverance in his ministry, had a change of heart and became a reputable Christian.
One memorable evening, in place of the usual format, the group arranged for space at a church and invited the public to a special presentation by a man they had heard was a good creationist speaker. About fifty people came to hear Arleton C. Murray, a short, pudgy man with receding gray hair, who called himself Mr. Fossil. He appeared wearing a khaki bush jacket with a Tyrannosaurus rex embroidered on the left breast, a small badge reading "Creation scientist" on the right lapel, and a Gideon's badge on the left lapel (the Gideons, are Christian businessmen best known for distributing Bibles to the public).
After the opening prayer and a vague introduction, Mr. Fossil explained that many years earlier he had been a fossil preparator in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution. He had been very interested in nature ever since childhood, he said, but he was told that "it never had God behind it." While at the Smithsonian, "I didn't know about Jesus Christ as my savior. I used to annoy prayer meetings; I was interested in drinking liquor and smoking cigars." One night, he continued, he went to, an evangelical revival in Greenbelt, Maryland, intending to scoff at the preacher. Instead, he told us, he was moved by the things the preacher said and became a Christian that night. Soon afterward, he started speaking out against evolution.
He went on to say that the Smithsonian paleontologists heard about an antievolutionary talk he gave at Washington Bible College. His boss confronted him the next day, demanding that he cease such activities. "He said I had to, but I said I didn't have to, and I just walked out and never went back." From this point on, Mr. Fossil illustrated his talk with exciting slides of his finding dinosaur fossils, excavating them, and reassembling them at the museum. As he related his fossil-finding experiences in Nebraska and Panama, he easily won the respect of the audience: here was a creationist who undoubtedly was a scientist.
Next he launched a venomous attack on evolution. "All museums teach the doctrine of evolution," he said. "They're all Karl Marx." He declared that "Fossils are the Waterloo of evolution," that the fossil rooms of the museums are "taboo to the public, they might find out something. Evolution is a fake and a lie of the Devil. Evolutionists actually believe a watch would evolve from a hairspring and filings."
This was fundamentalist preaching at its finest, faithfully following the classic pattern of first confessing a sinful life, then describing the personal conversion, and finally atoning by exposing the lurid secrets of the evildoers. But Mr. Fossil was not through yet. After dismissing evolution, he led the audience through his own scientific case for creationism. Fossils, he said, are evidence of the Flood. For example, the deposits at Agate Springs, near Carnegie Hill, in Nebraska contain numerous species together. "Only a great catastrophe like a flood could mix them all together like this." Furthermore, the fossil forms of leaves, shrimps, tapirs, and starfish are just like today's forms, showing no sign of change.
By this point, the members of the local creationist group were beaming, enjoying every minute of this presentation. But as he neared the end of his talk, Mr. Fossil declared that dinosaurs and men had never lived together. Dinosaurs did not become extinct in Noah's Flood, he explained; they perished in a previous catastrophe he called Lucifer's Flood. After that, the world became "without form, and void" (Gen. 1:2). The six-day Creation, according to Mr. Fossil, was consequently a recreation of the earth and its creatures, now including man.
I don't think many in the audience noticed anything amiss in this explanation, but I saw that the local creationist leaders were aghast. In terms of Henry Morris's creationist orthodoxy, Mr. Fossil was presenting the heresy called Gap Theory, meaning there was a long period of time, a gap, between the events of the first and second verses of Genesis. Thus many geological changes could have happened before the six-day Creation. Still worse, Mr. Fossil then attacked Henry Morris personally, saying, "Morris and his friends know nothing about fossils; Morris is an engineer, not a paleontologist."
Mr. Fossil justified his own theory of Lucifer's Flood by saying it came to him "as the spirit moved me." This was a perfectly credible explanation to most in the fundamentalist audience, but wholly out of place to those sensitive to issues of scientific evidence. After a very brief question-and-answer session, the moderator, who was plainly rattled by Mr. Fossil's comments, abruptly ended the evening's program by saying meekly, "Well, uh, this shows you that not all creationists agree on everything."
At the group's next meeting, the previous month's debacle was the first item of discussion. One of the leaders said he had asked some people about Mr. Fossil and had a story to tell. It seemed that Henry Morris had once been on the verge of having Mr. Fossil run the Institute for Creation Research's Museum of Creation, which at that time consisted of four small rooms at the back of the institute's headquarters. Morris apparently did not anticipate Mr. Fossil's views on biblical floods, and Mr. Fossil had not yet seen the museum displays, which categorically excluded Gap Theory and Lucifer's Flood. At first the two men hit it off well, but when Mr. Fossil saw the exhibits, he sized up the situation and left quickly, never to return. At this, the local creationists listening to the story laughed. The tension had been broken. True, they had let themselves be hoodwinked by Mr. Fossil, but so had Henry Morris. With this perspective, their embarrassment wasn't so bad after all.
The same evening, they turned to a slide show that discussed adaptation in the natural world. The show had two things to say about adaptation. First, adaptation is evidence of God's design. When a creature's behavior and anatomy are intimately related to the environmental conditions around it, this can be interpreted to mean that God has planned the natural world very carefully. Second, the slide show distinguished adaptation from speciation, calling the first "microevolution" and the second "macroevolution." It accepted that adaptation occurs, and that it is observable, giving the classic example of the English peppered moths, wherein scientists documented a dramatic change in the proportion of darker colored moths in the population. The creationist position was that this was only microevolution, and provided no support for the view that new species evolve.
In the group's discussion following the slide show, one of the creationists surprised me by saying very emphatically that the case of the peppered moths proves what the evolutionists allege about adaptation; he went on to say that he believed in some evolution, that some evolution does occur. Another then chimed in to say that natural selection occurs regularly in nature, just as the evolutionists claim it does. From this exchange and others, I saw that the members of the creationist study group could be flexible in their beliefs when gathering privately, although in public appearances and public statements they tended to close ranks in defending their orthodoxy.
One evening we viewed a creationist film about hominid fossils. Its narrator discussed the Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man hoaxes to make the point that evolutionary assumptions lead to foolish mistakes. He also compared the teeth and jaws of a young girl with those of a chimpanzee to suggest that it was easy to overemphasize superficial similarities and overlook important differences. The movie concluded with the idea that anatomical similarities between species should be interpreted as functional similarities designed by God, not as evolutionary links from common ancestry.
After the film, one of the leaders turned to me, saying, "Chris, you're an anthropologist. You probably know these fossils better than we do. Maybe you can tell us what weaknesses the film had that we didn't notice because we're creationists." As tactfully as I could, I replied that this film, like much creationists literature, described differences between hominid fossils in terms of two extreme polarities, labeling them either as obvious apes or as modem humans, with nothing transitional in between. However, I went on, there is a credible continuum of fossil features between the apelike early australopithecines and the recent Cro-Magnons.
One of the creationists responded that he'd heard that Neanderthal skulls fit within the range of modem human variation, and asked if this were true. "The largest and most rugged modem human skulls," I replied, "are probably Eskimo skulls. Neanderthal skulls are probably more rugged than those." At that point another of the creationists, a veterinarian, commented that if Neanderthals were within the modem human range, as creationists say, even if at the end of the range adjacent to Eskimos, the creationist scientists ought to be able to find some Neanderthals in the world's population today. None of us knew what to say to that.
Next, I was asked my opinion about studies of chimpanzee communication. "They show chimps are very clever," I responded, "but they don't prove chimps have human language capacities or that chimp communication is a prototype of human language." I added that many anthropologists are less skeptical than I am about this. The veterinarian observed that many animals are clever, but that this does not prove evolution. He then went on to emphasize how intelligent some animals are, telling us of his familiarity with animals and his concerns about animal welfare in research labs. He almost seemed on the brink of acknowledging a continuum between humans and animals. Suddenly, however, he switched to a rambling tirade about how evolutionists do not want to admit that they're living in sin.
Now the discussion had come full circle, back to hearty denunciations of evolution. A doctor remarked, "I've studied Darwin and the other evolutionists carefully, and I've found that there's nothing in it worth believing. Sure, the peppered moths changed, but that's just genetic variation, not evolution."
At this point, the meeting came to its logical end. To my surprise, I was invited to lead the closing prayer. I thought to say no, I'm the anthropologist, the observer, the evolutionist, the guy you don't really want to lead you in prayer. But I saw that they were showing appreciation for my words about fossils and chimps, or at least their honesty, if not their substance. This meant that the creationists' discussions in response to my comments had been good, that I hadn't derailed the meeting.
I stifled my instinct, as a Catholic, to blurt out a Hail Marynot the kind of prayer I had been invited to lead. In my mind I reviewed the common pattern of evangelical prayerI had heard many hundreds over the previous yearsand began in a calm, clear voice:
God our Father, as we gather here tonight in your heavenly presence, we're really glad to be able to come together again to study the wonders of your Creation, and to share fellowship with each other for this purpose. We're happy that these folks have been able to be here tonight. We don't always understand what you mean in the Creation you've given us, and we don't always agree about it. But we're thankful for this wonderful gift you've given us. We say this. in Jesus' name. Amen.
When I got home that night, I wondered whether by leading the prayer I had in some way deceived these creationists about my work or my beliefs. I had told them many times that I was not a creationist and was not trying to pose as one. When pressed about my personal views on evolution and science, I'd say that I was a Catholic, that I got my faith and morals from revelation and inspiration, not from biology or geology or anthropology. To me, I would explain, evolution is an empirical fact, not a spiritual truth; I do not search it for God or godliness.
But since I seldom volunteered my own views at the group's meetings, and did not argue against creationism, they might have thought I agreed with their creationist beliefs, or was drifting toward them. With this in mind, I was concerned that saying the prayer could have added to that impression. But I needn't have worried. Following that evening, they took to introducing me to other creationists by saying, "This is Chris Tourney. He's an evolutionist, but he's our friend."
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