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Answers to the Standard Creationist Arguments
This spring, a pre-recorded debate between Dr. Russell Doolittle of the University of California at San Diego and Dr. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research will be aired over national television. In this debate, produced by Jerry Falwell and taped this past October, Dr. Doolittle made an excellent case for the exclusion of creationism from science classrooms. He argued its religious nature and its failure to meet the standards of scientific investigation. Dr. Gish, in a stunning presentation, made an effective summary of the standard creationist debate arguments. Because his performance will be so widely viewed, the points he made will become the creationist arguments most familiar to millions of television viewers. We will see them crop up again and again in school board controversies, legislative battles, and court cases. It would be practical, therefore, that answers to these standard arguments be made available. The purpose of this article is to provide them.
Such debates, of course, are neither part of the scientific process nor a contribution of anything to scientific understanding. Their purpose is political; so scientists participate only in the hopes of making them educational. The Doolittle-Gish debate was no exception. While many in the overwhelmingly one-sided audience may have been delighted with Dr. Gish's performance, it fell sadly short of anything that could be recognized as scientific argument.
The Creation Model
The most remarkable failure—and the most obvious—was Gish's lack of a single sentence during the entire debate which described "the creation model." He made his whole presentation a game of "hide the ball," never once revealing what his "theory" or "model" was. The closest he came was when he said:
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Dr. Gish did not say when that creation event occurred, and he did not say whether all the animals and plants were created in their present forms at the same time or whether they were created in different forms and at different times. These are not trivial points because, without them, "creation science" does not make a single scientific statement. Without any details on the creation "theory" being presented, Dr. Doolittle had no way to discuss it.
While this tactic may be an excellent debating strategy, one that keeps one's opponent on the defensive due to a focusing of the attack on his ideas alone, it is very bad science. A theory that is kept hidden from discussion cannot be analyzed on its own merits. Therefore, if we were to declare that Dr. Gish had "won" the debate, we would only be saying that evolution had been questioned, not that a case had been made for creation.
Gish, of course, would disagree. His opening statement was, "There are two fundamentally different explanations for the origin of the universe and the living things it contains." This statement implies that, if he can disprove or cause people to doubt evolution, he has proved creation. But such a view constitutes cultural arrogance. There are a number of different hypotheses concerning origins that have been postulated by scientists in the past. One could name spontaneous generation, for example. The hypothesis of panspermia is the suggestion that life originated elsewhere and came to this planet through space. Various cyclical hypotheses propose fluctuation or change back and forth. And the number of religious ideas are legion.
The only time we find ourselves limited to just two "fundamentally different explanations" is when we compare naturalism and supernaturalism. But Gish is foolish if he thinks that he represents the infinite number of supernatural explanations and that Dr. Doolittle was to represent all the naturalistic possibilities. Furthermore, for Gish to take such a position, he would have to deny that creationism is a part of natural science. This would effectively bar it from any natural science class and thereby end the debate. Supernatural science must depend on supernatural evidence—not evidence from the natural world. To the extent that creationists argue from natural evidence and propose naturalistic mechanisms for their creation model (the model Gish did not state in the debate), they place themselves in the naturalistic camp with the evolutionists.
After misstating the controversy in his first statement, Dr. Gish went on to misstate the theory of evolution in his second and following statements. He said:
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Such a clear and effective misrepresentation of his opponent's position was a beautiful rhetorical maneuver—one which was almost guaranteed to win the approval of Gish's audience while at the same time placing Dr. Doolittle in a very awkward position. This is a classic case of winning an argument by distorting the idea you are challenging. The key issue in this debate should have been whether living organisms on earth have changed (evolved) through the hundreds of millions of years for which science has excellent fossil records and other evidence or whether living things have remained unchanged from an initial creation even which occurred no more than about ten thousand years ago. Instead, Dr. Gish made the key issue of the debate a theological question over whether or not Got exists. His arguments for a creator involved appeals to the second law of thermodynamics, design, the supposed mathematical improbability of things arising naturalistically, and "gaps" in the fossil record. He seemed to maintain the view point that, if he could prove the existence of God, he would thereby have disproved the theory of evolution. Since Dr. Doolittle did not come to discus theology and as that is not his specialty, the result was that the two debaters found themselves talking about two different issues.
The reason evolutionary science does not make references to a creator is for the same reason that mathematics, cell biology, organic chemistry, and hydraulic engineering do not make references to a creator: none of these are theological subjects. They are nontheistic, as all scientific and mathematical systems must be. Imagine how ridiculous Dr. Gish would have sounded had he declared, "Thus while not all those who do long division are atheists, the practice of long division is an atheistic practice." After all, "no supernatural intervention of any kind" is involved. It must be that elementary school teachers who instruct our children in nonmiraculous math are teaching "a basic dogma of agnosticism, humanism and atheism."
I would like to add that Dr. Gish's suggestion that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive ideas is insulting to me personally (I am a Roman Catholic) a well as to the great majority of scientists of Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu Buddhist and other faiths who understand quite well that biological evolution is a scientifically supported fact. The theory of evolution is not inconsistent with the belief in a created universe per se. However, it is inconsistent with the creationist belief in a universe that was created no more than ten thousand years ago in which all living things were created at the same time in essentially the same form they take today. But this is the very "creation model" that Dr. Gish would not discuss.
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The Nature of Science
After misrepresenting the controversy and evolution, Dr. Gish then went on to misrepresent science, which he accomplished admirably.
It is crucial for creationists that they convince their audiences that evolution is not scientific, because both sides agree that creationism is not. So, Dr. Gish proposed this ingeniously stringent set of requirements for a scientific theory. He seems to say that not only is science based on observation (which is true) but that it requires eyewitnesses to all events (which is false). This is a strange suggestion. No one has ever seen an atom, just its effects. Do atoms therefore not exist? The wave and particle aspects of electrons have only been determined by the images they leave on film when certain experiments are performed. These images record past events, not present realities. Is subatomic physics then a faith? The same questions could be asked of astronomy, chemistry, and geology—not to mention much of the rest of science. Dr. Gish's overly limited interpretation would wipe away most of the world's evidence for anything.
In fact, even creationism could prove nothing. This is why Dr. Gish had to contradict himself in the debate by saying:
Although there were no human witnesses to any of these events [of creation], creation can be inferred by the normal methods of science: observation and logic. . . . Creation and evolution and inferences based on circumstantial evidence and predictions based on each model can be tested and compared with that circumstantial evidence.
So which is it? Or perhaps it is neither. Perhaps the creation-evolution controversy should really be a debate over which act of faith is best supported by the circumstantial evidence. This is a strange mixture of religion and science—a mixture that denies we can ever attain knowledge of historical events. Imagine what would happen if Gish's requirements were followed in our courts of law. We could only convict criminals who were directly observed committing their crimes. But since crimes are rarely committed in full view of others, our courts have to take this into account. In both law and science there is a common-sense precedent to use circumstantial evidence carefully to resolve questions about natural
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events, even when they are historic, unique, and unwitnessed. Dr. Gish's narrow definition of science is simply self-serving. It is a way of promoting confusion about evolution and bringing the acquired data of hundreds of years of scientific research down to the level of Dr. Gish's brand of faith. Only by such questionable thinking can creationism be seen as an equal and alternate model.
If we ignore the creationist's arbitrary rules of science and compare the two models in the normal way, we find that evolution is scientifically testable, right along with many aspects of creationism. For example, there is observable evidence for evolution. This evidence is found in the fossil record, the phylogenetic trees for living and extinct animals, the geographic distribution of organisms, the phases of embryologic development, observed mutations, observed natural selection, observed geological changes, and laboratory experiments in biology, among other things. Both evolution (which predicts that the evidence will show life has changed through time) and creationism (which predicts an absence of change, except for extinction) are scientifically testable. Dr. Gish would like to pretend this is not true because creationism fails the test of evidence while evolution passes it.
Evolution also predicts a consistent pattern of relationships between animals. This prediction is also testable. For example, if humans appeared to be most closely related to chimpanzees by one criterion, but to butterbeans by another, to chickens by a third criterion, and to bullfrogs by a fourth, there would be no consistent pattern, and evolution would thereby be disproved. But all techniques for determining relationships have consistently given results that fit with the evolutionary prediction. Creationists have recently tried to claim that some data go against the prediction (which shows that creationists also see this prediction as significant), but their arguments are all based on incorrect data. After a century and a quarter of strenuous questioning and testing in many fields, the theory of evolution stands stronger than ever. It could be falsified if it were wrong, but efforts to falsify it have continually failed. Evolution unites genetics, physiology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, systematics, and geology into a coherent whole. And this is another reason why evolution is a good scientific theory.
The Nature of the Universe
Dr. Gish next implied that the theory of evolution says that the universe created itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Notions of how the universe originated are altogether outside the province of science. Such questions of first cause properly belong to the realms of philosophy and theology. Evolution speaks only of change through time. The universe could have begun in any number of ways, and yet we would still have to separately learn whether or not biological evolution
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takes place and existing life forms evolved from ancestral ones.
Nonetheless, Dr. Gish spent a great deal of time insisting that the universe could not have created itself and that a creator must therefore exist. He simply ignored the possibility that a creator might have formed a universe in which evolutionary processes then brought about the formation and development of living things. Yet, if such events actually did take place, Dr. Gish's particular brand of creationism would be falsified—a possibility he refused to consider.
"According to evolution theory," he said, "disorder spontaneously generated order" by means of the "Big Bang." That is to say, a cosmic explosion created the orderly cosmos we see today in a manner that is actually contrary to the second law of thermodynamics. Dr. Gish was wrong again, but this argument went over well because people naturally visualize an explosion as disorderly and the present state of the universe as orderly. Yet, in a thermodynamic sense, order means "energy available for work" and disorder means "energy unavailable for work." Therefore it is actually true that the universe was more orderly at the time of the "Big Bang" but has grown progressively more disorderly as it has expanded. Dr. Gish was simply playing on the popular meaning of these words while speaking of the science of thermodynamics which uses them differently.
Astronomers are well aware that the universe, taken as a whole, is "running down" in accord with the second law of thermodynamics. Evolution harmonizes with that. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that states the universe has ordered itself. Cosmic evolution is what happens as the universe runs down. It is the second law in action. Biological evolution is what happens in pockets of the universe where the process temporarily reverses itself due to greater losses of energy elsewhere. For example, in our pocket of the universe there is an increase in complexity associated with living organisms and their evolution. This is made possible by the decrease in available energy in the sun. The energy loss of the sun provides thousands of times the energy demanded by the second law to account for the increase in complexity on our planet. Dr. Gish therefore set up a straw man with his claim that the second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution.
In his rebuttal, however, Gish argued that receiving energy from the sun was not sufficient to create life. He. claimed that there must also be an "energy conversion machine," much like a car's motor, and a "control system," much like a car's driver, if there is to be an evolutionary increase in complexity. He argued that life has these properties infused into it by the creator but inanimate matter does not.
However, in actual fact, the raw, uncontrolled application of energy does, under certain conditions, cause the formation of complex molecules (although not automobiles!). Stanley Miller and Harold Urey demonstrated this in their famous experiment nearly thirty years ago. Furthermore, inanimate matter can often increase in complexity in nonbiological ways. Snowflakes form from water
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and dust all by themselves, and complex and energetic whirling wind storms also arise spontaneously from random converging wind systems. Where are the divine "energy conversion machines" and "control systems" in these phenomena?
The Laws of Probability
The next argument was an old standard. Dr. Gish noted the great complexity of living cells and the various other forms of life on earth. He argued that the mathematics of probability would render it impossible for life to develop from nonlife all by itself, no matter how much time was allowed:
He backed up this claim by citing calculations by Hubert Yockey. But these calculations are based on two false assumptions which stack the deck against evolution: first, that a particular nucleotide or amino acid sequence must assemble completely by chance—and only that specific sequence will be accepted—and, second, that no small nucleotide chains are capable of self-replication.
Yet, in the globin protein sequence (the polypeptide part of hemoglobin) only seven amino acids, out of more than one hundred, are always the same when we examine the many globins which are used by different organisms. If the creationist calculations are done with this fact in mind, we would discover that such sequences form very quickly. Second, the sequences would not have to assemble from scratch. Recent work by Orgel and Eigen and others has shown that RNA nucleotides can spontaneously form small chains. Furthermore, these small chains can proceed to self-replicate. Often when such organic molecules get to be twenty to twenty-five amino acids long, they can spontaneously double their lengths through this replication process. (Indeed, many of the molecules found in living things bear evidence of having evolved in exactly this way.) The net result is thousands and thousands of variant copies being produced quickly. Therefore, the sequences that Dr. Gish says could never form would in fact self-assemble in a few months or years, given the whole earth as a laboratory. Since Yockey's calculations do not allow for this replication, his mathematical results are light years away from the truth.
Gish argued next that hundreds of different functional proteins would have had to form simultaneously. He assumed that this also would be another impossibility. Yet, there are numerous papers with copious data showing that the
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many modern proteins appear to have derived from a few ancestral proteins. He also assumed that, if modern cells have two hundred proteins, the earliest protocells also had two hundred proteins. A wealth of experimental results refutes that assumption as well. However, in spite of the open availability of all this data, the creationists go right on making these same tired old statements.
Reading these creationist impossibility calculations always brings to mind other impossibility calculations, some made by eminent scientists of their day, which were also based on erroneous assumptions. Lord Kelvin calculated that powered aircraft could never fly. Others calculated that steamships could never carry enough fuel to cross the Atlantic. One should always keep in mind the computer-age dictum: "Garbage in—garbage out."
The Fossil Record
The key claim of evolution is descent with modification, the idea that animals alive today evolved from earlier forms. All the previous talk about the supposed impossibility of life evolving from nonlife says nothing about descent. Evolution is not really a concept of origins. A creator could have created life and then everything could have evolved from there. Such a fact would still falsify Dr. Gish's unstated creation model.
In order to defeat the notion of descent, Dr. Gish claimed that "the missing links are still missing," that there are gaps in the fossil record so severe that the record simply does not show evolution. This is a shocking set of untruths.
The fossil record not only documents evolution but the very existence of the fossil record was the force that drove unwilling scientists to admit nearly two centuries ago that living forms had changed (evolved). This record shows intermediate form after intermediate form. There is a long series of intermediates linking reptiles with mammals. There are evolutionary sequences showing the evolution of the horse, the elephant, sea urchins, snails, major groups of plants, and many other animals now extinct. Furthermore, these fossils show an orderly succession which fully documents the evolutionary tree of life.
The reason Gish says that intermediate forms do not exist is because his model requires that he explain them all away. For example, Archaeopteryx, a clear intermediate between reptiles and birds which in some ways is more closely linked with the little dinosaurs of the period than with later birds, is declared by Gish to be "100 percent bird." Why? Because it has feathers. This is where he draws the line. Yet, if one really wanted to discuss the Archaeopteryx fossils in detail, one should be aware that several fossilized Archaeopteryx skeletons were discovered before one was found with feathers preserved. How were these specimens first classified? They were thought to be reptiles and were placed in museums alongside other small dinosaurs. In short, Archaeopteryx was an animal
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whose skeletal structure was reptilian but upon whose skin the first feathers had appeared. Just how much more intermediate does something have to be?
Since the fossil record is actually very complete and is getting better all the time with continuing new discoveries, it is only by refusing to see what is plain that creationists can deny that the fossil record supports evolution. And even if these gaps were as profuse as Gish claims, the fossil record would still reveal an impressive lineage for animals living today. It would still reveal that the further back one goes in time, the more numerous the extinct forms and the less similar they are to modern forms.
Nonetheless, Gish made an impressive-sounding case by citing "authorities' supportive of his claims. In a classic out-of-context quote he voiced the words of Dr. Corner, a Cambridge botanist, who wrote, "Much evidence can be adduced in favor of evolution, but I still think that to the unprejudiced the fossil record of plants is in favor of creation." However, what Dr. Corner actually said was that "... the fossil record of higher plants is in favor of special creation" (emphasis added). What did Corner mean by that? He meant that the major form of higher plant (the angiosperms or flowering plants) appeared on earth about 135 million years ago, and we have no good fossil evidence as to what forms they evolved from. Corner meant to emphasize in his statement just that lack of ancestral evidence and pointed out that the higher plants appear so suddenly that one could almost believe that they had been specially created—just as if a creator had said "Let there be angiosperms," and so they appeared.
One might get the impression that Dr. Gish's creation model suggests exactly that: that the appearance of the angiosperms represents a specific and individual creative act in which they were formed from scratch by a creator 135 million year ago. Although Dr. Gish seemed quite willing to leave that false impression with his listeners, he in fact holds to a radically different view.
His real position is that all animals and plants were created at the same time, (or in six solar days) only about ten thousand years ago. Such a view means that angiosperms were always present and their fossils should be found in the oldest rocks available. However, there is no evidence of their existence prior to 135 million years ago, while other land plants appear in the record hundreds of millions of years earlier. The fact that various life forms appear in various places along the geologic column is actually deadly evidence against Gish's notion of a single creation event. But he gets away with implying this evidence is consistent with his creation model because he never really presents this model.
The big emotional issue among creationists is human evolution. It might be safe to say that all their previous arguments exist only to support the notion that
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humans are in no way linked to the other animals. To this end, Gish quoted Sir Solly Zuckerman in order to claim that Australopithecus did not walk upright. The quote is dated 1970. Since then, several pelvic fossils and one nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton have been found. There is now not the slightest doubt that this animal walked upright, much as we do. But Dr. Gish quoted from a decade-old source and therefore ignored the latest findings.
His information on Lucy is no better. Gish declared, "Since Johanson describes this creature as totally ape from the neck up, the only basis for the idea that this creature was a link between man and ape is a notion that it did walk upright. "
But Johanson never claimed that Lucy was an ape. He simply stated that from the neck up she was essentially a hominid with a number of apelike features. And, from the neck down, she should be linked with the human family due to her fully upright stature. She and her colleagues walked just as we do today. This is clear from the detailed anatomy of the hip, knee, and ankle, not to mention the 3.7 million-year-old footprints in the volcanic ash at Laetoli, Tanzania. Extensive comparative anatomy and biomedical analysis render this judgment of Lucy's locomotion to be far more than a guess. The value of this discovery is that it shows how hominid bipedalism preceded both tool use and the modern human cranial capacity.
To conclude his attack on human evolution, Dr. Gish reminded his audience of the Piltdown Man hoax. This is surprising since the hoax was revealed and exposed not by anti-evolutionists but by scientists. The same techniques that exposed the Piltdown hoax now verify the authenticity of the work done by Johanson and others. However, Dr. Gish refuses to accept in one case the same sort of dating evidence he is delighted to use against evolutionists in another.
Gish also mentioned Nebraska Man, for which the evidence turned out to be a number of fossilized pig's teeth. However, what he failed to mention was that since the discovery of Nebraska Man in 1922, it was contested by scientists worldwide. In fact, in every case that creationists have pointed out that scientists made errors, the errors were originally discovered by scientists themselves—not by creationists who have made no significant contribution to the literature of evolution.
The Age of the Earth
In his rebuttal to Dr. Doolittle's remarks about "scientific creationism" requiring a young earth and universe, Dr. Gish declared, "This debate is not about the time of origins, but about the `how' of origins. These are separate questions." Not only was there no agreement to ignore the question of time made prior to the debate but the idea that the earth and universe are only a few thousand years old is a major plank in Gish's model.
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It is true that some creationists accept the theory of an old earth and universe. But are they the creationists who are pushing for equal time in the public schools? It doesn't seem so when one reads the definitions of creationism that appear in the Arkansas law. Creationism is defined there as including "explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood and a relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds." This view is considered the only valid form the creation model can take. It is seconded in the major creationist public school text books, particularly Origins: Two Models by Richard Bliss and Scientific Creationism edited by Henry Morris. These books argue for an earth and universe that are only ten thousand years in age. To gain admittance into the Creation Research Society, one must swear to a statement that includes the words: "All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during Creation Week as described in Genesis.'
Creationists should therefore be willing to answer critiques of this aspect of their model, even if it is the weakest plank in their platform. It is to Gish's credit that he did make a concession and speak about the age of the moon. He declared that, when scientists dated the moon rocks, "they got ages of all kinds—from over a few thousand to many multiplied billions of years. They simply selected the date that had to be right, which had to be 4.6 billion."
But Gish was wrong on two counts. First, every single rock from the moon for which rubidium-strontium isochrons could be determined (the most sensitive and reliable way of radiometric dating) showed an age of formation of billions of years. Second, the "picking and choosing" of dates, which he criticizes, is not to find dates that fit with evolution. The "picking and choosing" is really over which rocks have not been altered by outside factors in such a way that they would yield inaccurate dates. Just as you don't give up on the notion of ever knowing what time it is because some watches are broken, those who do radiometric dating don't give up determining the age of the earth and moon just because some rocks are known to be unreliable measures.
The Public Schools
In a stunning close that appealed to the audience's sense of fair play, Dr. Gish compared creationists to Galileo facing opposition from the "stifling dogma" of the establishment. He claimed that there could only be two reasons why scientists were against equal time for creationism in public school science classes: either they were practicing an insulting form of paternalism designed to protect students from error and indoctrinate them in evolutionary ideas, or they were fearful that evolution could not survive in the free marketplace of ideas.
What the audience may not have realized is that this appeal is common to
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every pseudoscientific group. The very same arguments could be used to intimidate the schools into giving equal time to astrology, hollow-earth theory, "ancient astronauts," and the search for Atlantis. Furthermore, if creationism is being proposed in the name of academic freedom, why is legislation involved? In not one of the fifty states has evolution been legislated into the classroom. Evolution is taught for the same reason that the cell theory and germ theory of disease is taught: each theory successfully fought it out in the scientific arena and convinced the scientific community (including the teachers of science in public schools). What Dr. Gish is trying to encourage is the use of public pressure to determine what is and what is not science, and he is trying to force creationism into the schools through the back door without first winning the scientific debate in the way that all past theories have had to do.
Creationists are not being persecuted by scientists; they have deliberately avoided the scientific community. And here we could reverse Dr. Gish's claim: creationists must be fearful that creationism cannot survive a careful scientific scrutiny in the free marketplace of ideas. This must be why creationism is the only hypothesis in need of special legislative protection. Most scientists, on the other hand, support the freedom of local school boards to determine the scientific content of their instruction. It is ironic that the only state in which citizens are not free to make such choices is Louisiana, where a law supported by creationists has taken that freedom away.
The reasons, then, that scientists are against equal time for creationism are that it would remove academic freedom and local control from the public schools and that it would unconstitutionally promote sectarian religion.
That religion is the real issue behind the scenes is made plain by a statement by Dr. Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, of which Dr. Gish is associate director. In a February 1979 cover letter mailed with the Institute's publication Acts & Facts, Dr. Morris wrote:
Dr. Gish stated on page twenty-four of his book, Evolution, The Fossils Say No!:
This is the hidden creation model. So now we see why Dr. Gish didn't wish to mention it in debate. It would have revealed the real purpose behind the
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creation movement: to bring biblical fundamentalism into the science classroom.
Dr. Gish's audience was made up of sincere and well-meaning Christians who desired to defend God and promote fairness. They were not aware of how his appeals would effectively misdirect their energies in ways harmful both to science and religious freedom. Yet, this is how far creationists must go in order to buoy up a discarded and disproved theory of science and a minority position in religion. Citizens should not be misled into subsidizing sectarian religious pseudoscience in the public school science classroom.
I give special thanks for the valuable input, ideas, and arguments provided by Frank Awbrey, Frederick Edwords, Donald Johanson, William V. Mayer, Wayne Moyer, Philip Osmon, Robert Schadewald, and William Thwaites in the preparation of this article.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.