Debunking New Myths

Creation Evolution Journal
Title: 
Debunking New Myths
Author(s): 
Michael Zimmerman
Volume: 
9
Number: 
1
Quarter: 
Fall
Page(s): 
1–4
Year: 
1989

As is so often the case, the more frequently a story is told, the more likely it is to be accepted as fact. Creationists are particularly adept at practicing this mode of persuasion. For example, claims that the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible have been repeated so loudly and so often that vast numbers of scientifically illiterate people have come to accept this as fact. Similarly, large numbers of people have been led to believe that the gaps in the fossil record pose an insurmountable problem for evolution and that hordes of perfectly reputable scientists no longer accept evolution as fact.

While it is difficult to combat such patently ridiculous ideas once they have become established, it is imperative that those of us who care about science education continue the fight. Given that it is awfully difficult, in the Kuhnian sense, to overturn even absurd paradigms once they have become established, it is even more important that we combat creationist myths in their earliest stages. With this in mind, I would like to point out two new stories that have the potential, if we are not careful, to be elevated to the status of myth. Both of these stories are easy to debunk at this stage, and, by so doing, we gain the additional advantage of demonstrating the embarrassing state in which "creationist scholarship" finds itself.

Mystery Testimony

The first myth is being advanced by televangelist Dr. James Kennedy. In talks and on videotapes, he has presented his own view of the Scopes trial—a view that has remarkably little basis in reality. An article entitled "Evolution's Bloopers and Blunders," written by Kennedy in the March 1987 issue of Bible-Science Newsletter, is reasonably representative of his ideas. In that article there is a section entitled "Scopes Trial." The first paragraph of that section reads:

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There was, of course, the famous Scopes Trial. Most people do not realize it but a most damaging piece of testimony came about when Clarence Darrow put William Jennings Bryan on the stand. Darrow, who was an atheist and an evolutionist, asked Bryan if he realized that in his home state of Nebraska there had lived a whole race of men a million years ago. Bryan said he didn't realize anything of the sort and he didn't believe it either. So Darrow brought in Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, the most respected paleontologist in America at the time. He testified that just three years prior, in 1922, evidence of a whole race of men had been discovered to have lived in Nebraska a million years ago. Bryan was dumbfounded.

The myth being promoted here is that the only reason Bryan was humiliated during the Scopes trial was because Darrow and Osborn resorted to a reference to the soon-to-be-discredited Nebraska Man. In fact, Kennedy's "history" is just plain wrong.

Quite simply, Henry Fairfield Osborn never testified at the Scopes trial. He was not even on the list of scientific witnesses that the defense team organized. The front page of the New York Times for July 14, 1925, has a boxed article entitled "List of Scientists and Ministers to Aid Scopes if Evidence Is Admitted on Evolution and the Bible." This article begins with the statement: "The complete list of witnesses for the defense in the Scopes trial called so far and who are either here or on the way was announced today as follows. . . ." The article goes on to list the names, positions, and affiliations of fifteen people; Osborn is not among them. The article does conclude by saying:

The defense counsel said it had more witnesses in reserve who might be called if Judge Raulston would consent either to permit scientific evidence to be presented to the jury or him alone to aid him to decide on the motion to quash because the theory of evolution does not conflict with the Bible.

This last sentence is of importance to the thesis of Kennedy's article because, in 1925, the use of expert witnesses was not nearly as common as it is today. Late in the day on July 15, 1925, the defense called and questioned Dr. Maynard Mayo Metcalf, a biologist from Johns Hopkins University. (My present affiliation requires me to point out that Dr. Metcalf previously taught at Oberlin College and that many newspaper reports of the time simply say that he was from Oberlin.) After some testimony, the state challenged the legitimacy of expert testimony in the case, and court adjourned. On July 17, 1925, Judge Raulston ruled that no further expert testimony would be allowed but that the scientific witnesses would be permitted to submit written affidavits. Osborn, incidentally, was not among the scientists who submitted written testimony. (Quite as an aside, it is interesting to note that John Washington Butler, the legislator who authored the "Scopes Law," was upset that certain testimony would be limited. The New York Times on July 18, 1925, ran a front-page subheading saying that Butler "Regrets Barring Scientists, Declaring Evidence Would Be a 'Right Smart' Education.")

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It was frustration stemming from the fact that the scientific case of the defense was dismissed without hearing that led defense attorney Arthur Garfield Hays to call Bryan to the stand. Kennedy implied that the most damaging testimony centered on the existence of Nebraska Man. Again, the New York Times is a useful source. The July 21, 1925, issue devoted almost three-quarters of a page (of very small print) to "The text of the salient points in Mr. Bryan's testimony in reply to Mr. Darrow's questioning on the stand in the Scopes trial today." Nebraska Man was not mentioned once in the testimony reproduced by the New York Times. The front-page headlines focused the reader's attention on a number of points: "Bryan Fixes Flood's Date and Defends Jonah and Joshua. Admits Some Allegories. " Bryan quite clearly said, for example, that he did not believe that the days mentioned in the Bible were twenty-four-hour days, although he also claimed that Noah's flood took place in 2348 BC. Court was adjourned for the day with the conclusion of Bryan's testimony. The trial concluded the following day with the defense team accepting conviction and without the opportunity for closing remarks on either side. There obviously was no opportunity for Henry Fairfield Osborn to "dumbfound" Bryan.

This example of shoddy scholarship is particularly important because there can be no doubt about the facts of the Scopes trial. The issue is not one of interpreting complex or controversial data; Kennedy is just plain wrong. His revisionist history attempts to place Bryan in the best possible light while at the same time imply that the issue of Nebraska Man was in some way central to the case for evolution.

Open and Shut Minds

The second attempt by the creationists to champion a grossly inaccurate myth is also easy to refute. This example deals with the willingness of the scientific community to undertake critical investigations. On pages seven through ten of the August 1988 Bible-Science Newsletter, contributing editor Nancy Pearcey conducted an interview with Ian Taylor. On page eight, there is a section entitled "Queer Bird" that deals with Archaeopteryx. The implication in the early portion of this section is that the publication of Darwin's On the Origins of Species led to rampant speculation about what an intermediary between a bird and a reptile might look like and that this speculation almost immediately led to the fabrication of fossils of Archaeopteryx. Conveniently ignored in this scenario is the fact that the first Archaeopteryx fossil was found in 1855, four years prior to the publication of Origins of Species.

But I consider this point only a trifling mythette. The full-scale myth that the creationists would like to perpetuate occurs in the final paragraph of the section. This paragraph is set up by reporting that Sir Fred Hoyle believes "that the Archaeopteryx fossils are really fossils of a small dinosaur called a Compsognathus, with feather impressions stuck on by a forger." The final paragraph then goes on to say:

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Since Sir Fred Hoyle published his finding of the Archaeopteryx fossils, the British Museum has closed off all further investigations of its specimen—an instructive example of the open, scientific attitude. Interestingly, neither Darwin nor Huxley nor any of the other early evolutionists accepted Archaeopteryx as a genuine transitional fossil. Maybe they knew something modern evolutionists don't know.

The point is, however, that the British Museum did no such thing. A large-scale study, using a variety of techniques, was conducted by the British Museum staff after Hoyle and his coworkers made their charge of forgery. The results were published by A. J. Charig, F. Greenway, A. C. Milner, C. A. Walker, and P. J. Whybrow in the May 2, 1986, issue of Science ("Archaeopteryx Is Not a Forgery," 232:622-625) over two years before the Taylor interview in Bible-Science Newsletter was published.

I would have no problem whatsoever had Taylor decided to criticize the study or to disagree with its conclusions or methodology. Such disagreements are, after all, what science is all about. But for Taylor to say that no such studies were ever conducted and that the British Museum refused to permit such studies is an outright error. Sure it makes for a better story to say what Taylor said—but it just isn't the truth.

These two examples are a fair representation of the state of "creationist scholarship," and proponents of scientific literacy should not be timid in pointing this out. If these developing myths are not debunked early, they may, in the not-too-distant future, come to be accepted as fact by an uninformed public.

About the Author(s): 
Dr. Zimmerman is a professor in the Department of Biology at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.