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An Examination of the Research of Creationist Walter Brown
Dr. Walter T. Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the director of the Center for Scientific Creation, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is one of the most vocal proponents of creation science and travels the country lecturing on the subject. He is perhaps best known for his frequent debate challenges—challenges, it should be noted, that are proffered under such strict conditions as to preclude almost all potential opponents. These restrictions include the requirement that the opponent must have a doctorate and must sign a contract agreeing to limit the subject to scientific content only; no religion is to be discussed (see Parrish, 1987).
The main thrust of this article is not Brown's debating tactics but, rather, his scientific scholarship, as found in both his public presentations and his book, In the Beginning: The Scientific Case for Creation (1987). This book is sold as a reference work for Brown's seminars and is also available in an earlier version as the article, "The Scientific Case for Creation: 108 Categories of Evidence" (1983).
My initial research into Brown's claims led me to draft a five-page list of criticisms of a number of points in his book, which I sent him on January 6, 1987. His reply (dated January 22, 1987) is worth reprinting here in its entirety, for reasons that will become obvious in the course of this article.
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Since that exchange, I have done a great deal of research into Brown's claims, consisting mainly in checking the sources he cites and investigating the issues raised.
The "Categories" of Evidence
Brown's book is subtitled "120 Categories of Evidence," which at first appears to be quite an imposing number. However, a closer inspection demonstrates that Brown has exaggerated his case. For example, a full eleven "categories" consist of evidence for the existence of Noah's ark, sixteen are a list of allegedly "unexplainable features" of the earth that Brown asserts can be explained by a worldwide flood, and five argue for the plausibility of various parts of a flood-and-ark story. Simply reorganizing Brown's points into actually distinct categories would substantially reduce their number.
Several of Brown's categories also do not meet his description of them as "categories of scientific evidence that support a sudden creation and oppose gradual evolution." Some neither support creation nor oppose evolution; for example, category three argues against the Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics are inherited. Some categories are philosophical rather than scientific; for example, category thirty-six is an argument from design to the existence of a designer. And some simply argue for the possibility of special creation; for example, category fifteen argues that similarities between different forms of life may imply a common designer rather than a common ancestor.
The Speed of Light
I first heard Brown speak at a meeting of Campus Crusade for Christ at Arizona State University in November 1986. At that lecture, Brown made reference to creationist Barry Setterfield's claim that the speed of light has decayed. During the question-and-answer session following the lecture, I questioned Brown about his sources on this and other subjects. He gave me a copy of his "The Scientific Case for Creation: 116 Categories of Evidence" (another precursor to his book) and two references in support of the speed-of-light decay. The citations Brown supplied for this claim, which he wisely avoided making in his book, were an article and a letter to the editor in Nature from a Mr. M. E. J. Gheury de Bray (Gheury de Bray, 1927b and 1931a).
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While Gheury de Bray did, in fact, claim that the speed of light was decaying (though in Gheury de Bray, 1934b, he decided it was oscillating) and kept the debate going with frequent letters to Nature (1927a, 1931a, 1931b, 1931c, 1934a, 1934b), it turned out to be a tempest in a teapot. Ultimately, the criticisms of the discrepancies of the light-speed measurements as systematic and instrumentational errors (Birge, 1934; Kennedy, 1932; Kitchener, 1939; Vrkljan, 1931a and 1931b; Wilson, 1931) turned out to be correct, and advances in measurement technology resulted in an accurate and constant value of c=2.997924580x108 meters/second for the speed of light (Bergstrand, 1949 and 1950; Essen, 1950a and 1950b; Houston, 1949; Rossini, 1976).
Brown was not so careful, however, about the claims he made in the Australian creationist journal Ex Nihilo regarding Barry Setterfield's work. In that journal, he called Setterfield's work on speed-of-light decay "virtually unassailable" (Ex Nihilo, 1984)—after that work had already been the subject of heavy criticism in the "Letters" section of the same journal. Since then, Setterfield's data analysis has been recognized as being so contrived and selective that even the Institute for Creation Research has debunked it (Aardsma, 1988; Strahler, 1987, pp. 116-118).
Two- to Twenty-Celled Life Forms
Category seventeen of Brown's book states, "There are many single-cell forms of life, but there are no forms of animal life with 2, 3, 4, . . . or even 20 cells" (1987, p. 3). One of the sources he cites for this claim is Five Kingdoms by Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz (1982). The pages he cites are a description of Mesozoa, described as having twenty to thirty jacket cells enclosing a long cylindrical axial cell. The description also notes that Mesozoa is possibly intermediate between protoctists and more complex metazoans.
But this does not support the claim that there are no forms of life with two to twenty cells. It appears that Brown has assumed that Mesosoa, being the simplest form in kingdom Animalia, is the simplest multicellular organism. But in Margulis and Schwartz's taxonomy, the kingdom listed before Animalia is Protoctista, rather than the usual Protista. The reason for this different term is because protist is usually taken to imply a unicellular organism, but Margulis and Schwartz's taxonomy recognizes multicellular forms in the kingdom (1982, p. 69). And, in fact, some multicellular forms may be found in earlier pages of the book. They state that Bacillariophyta (diatoms) "all are single cells or form simple filaments or colonies" (1982, p. 94) and that of class Desmidioideae (desmids) of phylum Gamophyta, "Most are single cells—more precisely, they are pairs of cells whose cytoplasms are joined at an isthmus" (1982, p. 100).
It is possible that Brown noted this and for that reason made use of the qualifier "animal life" in his claim (since protoctists are not animals). But if this is the case, his statement is quite misleading.
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One of the criticisms I made in my original letter to Brown was regarding his footnote to category twenty (missing links), in which he states: "A strong case can be made that on the two Archaeopteryx specimens where feathers are clearly visible, it appears that the imprint of the feather was added after the fossils were discovered" (Brown, 1987), implying that both specimens are poorly disguised reptile fossils. Brown cites only articles supporting this view and none from peer-reviewed scientific journals. In my letter, I referred Brown to several anti-fraud articles, including a rather decisive rebuttal by Charig, Greenway, Milner, Walker, and Whybrow (1986). Yet, judging by his reply, Brown remained unconvinced. I am unaware whether or not the newly discovered Archaeopteryx specimen (Wellnhofer, 1988) has changed his mind.
It is worth mentioning that Brown's stance on this puts him in direct confrontation with many of his fellow creationists, including Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, who insist that Archaeopteryx is "100 percent bird."
Brown, like most creationists, claims that fossils of early humans are either apes or modern humans. In category twenty-three of his book, he states: "Stories claiming that fossils of primitive, ape-like men have been found are overstated" (Brown, 1987). In addition to the usual examples of Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man, Brown attacks Ramapithecus, Java Man, Peking Man, australopithecines, and Neandertal. Some of his attacks are warranted; for example, the primitive appearance of Neandertal was exaggerated due to reconstructions from skeletons of individuals with rickets, and it is indeed now doubtful that Ramapithecus was an ancestor to humans. Others, however, have a much less firm foundation.
Homo erectus. Brown states: "The discoverer of Java man later acknowledged that Java man was similar to a large gibbon and that he had withheld evidence to that effect" (1987). He cites an article by Eugene Dubois in which the claim is made that "Pithecanthropus [Java Man] was not a man but a gigantic genus allied to the Gibbons" (1973). The quote is genuine, but Brown fails to note that hardly anyone agreed with Dubois then and few but the creationists agree with him now. An article of response by W. E. Le Gros Clark (1937), which Brown does not cite, describes many of the problems with Dubois' view. The evidence today is that both Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus (Peking Man) are properly classified as Homo erectus. Yet, Dubois maintained that, while Java Man was a giant gibbon, Peking Man was Homo sapiens (Le Gros Clark, 1937, p. 60).
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It should be noted that Dubois was rather eccentric. When his discovery of Java Man near the village of Trinil in 1894 was greeted by a public uproar directed against him, he locked the bones up in strongboxes and refused to let anyone see them. At this time, he believed his discovery to be the "missing link," and anyone who disagreed with his interpretation was viewed as a personal enemy. In 1923, he finally consented to allow Dr. Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution to examine them, and Hrdlicka determined them to be an early human. By 1930, more discoveries made it clearer that Java Man was Homo erectus. But Dubois rejected any connection between Java Man and other finds, culminating in his opinion that it was simply a giant gibbon. Brown does not specify what evidence he thinks was withheld, but other creationists (for example, Eads, 1979, p. 147; Pitman, 1984, p. 90) claim that Dubois withheld evidence of two Homo sapiens skulls and human femura he found in Java before he discovered Pithecanthropus. Whatever the case may be, Dubois did mention one of the femura (which he claimed was part of Java Man, an identification which was questioned from the beginning since it was found fifteen meters away from the skull cap) and did publish articles about the skulls (1927, 1931). What the creationists fail to note is that the skulls were found in Wadjak, not Trinil, and that there are at least two stratigraphic levels at Trinil (Day, 1986, p. 338). Further finds in Java have confirmed the presence of Homo erectus (Day, 1986, pp. 341, 345-365. See also Jurmain, Nelson, and Turnbaugh, 1987, pp. 378-385; Strahler, 1987, pp. 489-490).
Brown also states that "Peking man is considered by many experts to be the remains of apes that were systematically decapitated and exploited for food by true man" (1987), but he cites only creationists in support of the claim. To Brown's credit, he does not make the more common claim that Peking Man is a fraud because the remains found between 1927 and 1937 were lost during World War II. This claim doesn't hold up since plaster casts of these finds still exist and additional pieces found in 1966 fit the casts (Scott, 1985, p. 2). Furthermore, fossil evidence for Homo erectus has been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa (Jurmain, Nelson, and Turnbaugh, 1987, p. 375).
Finally, Brown states: "Furthermore, Skull 1470, discovered by Richard Leakey, is more human-like and yet older than Homo erectus (Java man and Peking man) and the Australopithecines." Leakey's skull ER 1470 is generally classified as Homo habilis, which is less advanced than Homo erectus. While Leakey claimed a date for this skull as old as Australopithecus, there was controversy over the results of dating tests. Some found the beds where the skull was discovered to be as old as 2.41 million years, while others found the skull to be only 1.87 million years old. Further tests have recently resolved the controversy in favor of the younger date (Lewin, 1987, pp. 189-252).
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Australopithecus. Brown makes a number of claims regarding australopithecines. For example, he states, "Detailed computer studies of the Australopithecines have conclusively shown that they are not intermediate between man and living apes" (1987). Brown is referring to Charles Oxnard's studies of Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus (1975). These studies are not conclusive and did not take into account Donald Johanson's "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) skeleton. It should be noted that Johanson now believes, along with Oxnard, that Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus are not in the human lineage. Instead, he thinks Australopithecus afarensis is the common ancestor of both modem humans and the rest of the australopithecines.
Brown further states, "Lucy, a type of Australopithecine, was initially believed to have walked upright in a human manner. Studies of Lucy's entire anatomy, not just her knee joints, now show that this is highly improbable. She probably swung from the trees" (1987). In support of the first two sentences, Brown cites an article by William L. Jungers (1982). While it appears Brown is claiming that Lucy was not bipedal, he qualifies his claim with the phrase "in a human manner." This is because Jungers quite clearly states that "the bodily proportions of Lucy are not incompatible with some form of bipedal locomotion" (1982, p. 676). Jungers suggests, however, that Lucy's bipedal motion would be of short stride and slow pace compared to a human being.
In support of the third sentence, Brown cites articles by Jeremy Cherfas (1983) and Jack T. Stern and Randall L. Susman (1983). Brown's implication is that Lucy swung from the trees instead of walking upright on the ground, but these sources do not say that. Instead, both sources argue that, while Lucy was primarily arboreal (in itself a controversial claim), there is also very good evidence that she walked upright on the ground. The subtitle to the Cherfas article says, "Our ancestors undeniably walked upright before they became brainy. But how good was their posture?" (1983, p. 172) and Cherfas himself notes, "They did not walk upright exclusively" (p. 173). He also acknowledges the bipedal footprints attributed to Australopithecus afarensis (pp. 176-177) and states, "The evidence that Lucy was a proficient climber is very good, that she was an inefficient biped less so, but still persuasive" (p. 178). Stem and Susman conclude, "The bipedality practiced by the Afar hominid was not entirely modem-like" (1983, p. 280. See also Jurmain, Nelson, and Turnbaugh, 1987, pp. 339-344; Strahler, 1987, pp. 482-485).
Out-of-Order Human Fossils
In category twenty-four, Brown says:
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Contrary to Brown's claim, the Swanscombe, Steinheim, and Vertesszollos fossils can typically be found in introductory physical anthropology textbooks (for example, all three are discussed in Jurmain, Nelson, and Turnbaugh, 1987: Swanscombe on pp. 416-417, Steinheim on pp. 414-415, and Vertesszollos on p. 395). It is not clear what problems Brown thinks these fossils present. The Vertesszollos skull fragment is classified as Homo erectus and may have some archaic Homo sapiens traits, while the Swanscombe and Steinheim fossils are both classified as early Homo sapiens. All three are considered to be transitional forms. While the Vertesszollos fragment was thought to be rather advanced for its age, new studies have come up with a more recent date for it (Day, 1986, p. 100). The problems these fossils create are for the creationists who claim there are no transitional forms in the fossil record.
Among the "many other" examples of "modern-looking humans" cited by Brown is Oreopithecus bambolii. Brown cites two articles by William L. Straus, Jr. (1957 and 1958). These articles describe findings of skeletal fragments in Italy of a "possibly hominid" creature. The fragments are estimated to be from the upper Miocene (perhaps ten million years old). Brown fails, however, to cite a later article by Straus and Schon (1960) in which the brain capacity of Oreopithecus is estimated to be in the 276- to 529-cubic-centimeters range, about the range of chimpanzees and orangutans. In this later article, Straus and Schon state that Oreopithecus is "probably hominoid" but that it is unclear if it is a pongid, hominid, or in a family by itself. Jurmain, Nelson, and Turnbaugh simply identify it as an Old World anthropoid possibly related to Apidium, an Oligocene anthropoid (1987, p. 242). It should be noted that none of these classifications presents any particular problem for evolution. The article Brown does not cite makes it quite clear that this organism was not a "modern-looking human."
"Reck's skeleton," better known as Oldoway Man, was a skeleton of what was apparently a mid-Pleistocene hominid discovered in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa in 1914 by Hans Reck (Reck, 1931. See also "Notes," 1914). Its most unusual feature is the number of teeth it possesses—thirty-six instead of the usual thirty-two. While Reck and Louis Leakey thought that it was a very early instance of Homo sapiens, it was later found to have been intrusively buried in older ground (Boswell, 1932; Leakey et al., 1933; Lewin, 1987, p. 131). Another intrusive burial case cited by Brown is a skeleton found in 1971 in Moab, Utah. This skeleton has been recently dated at two hundred to three hundred years. Details may be found in Strahler (1987, pp. 470-471).
The Calaveras Skull. The Calaveras skull was taken from a California mine shaft on February 25, 1866. It was identified by California state geologist James D. Whitney as a modernlike human skull. Whitney dated the auriferous gravel from which it was excavated as from the Pliocene epoch (Whitney, 1867, 1880). This find, if genuine, would certainly present problems for evolution, since Homo sapiens is not only post-Pliocene but is not believed to have entered the New World until thirty thousand years ago at the earliest and probably not until about twelve thousand years ago.
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In support of Brown's claim for the Calaveras skull as a problem for evolution, he cites articles by W. H. Brewer (1866), Whitney (1880), and William H. Holmes (1899). Brewer's article (as well as another by Whitney, 1867) is simply an announcement of the find. Whitney's 1880 article, along with articles by George F. Becker (1891) and Sydney B. J. Skertchly (1888), argues for the authenticity of the skull and other artifacts found in the mines. However, the article by Holmes and another uncited article by William P. Blake (1899) provide convincing arguments that the Calaveras skull is that of a modern Indian and had recently been placed in the mine. In brief, the evidence against the skull and other artifacts is as follows:
MacDougall further claims that Scribner confessed the hoax to his sister and pastor before his death (MacDougall, 1958, p. 206; see also Weber, 1981, p. 21), but I have not been able to substantiate it and I am generally skeptical of deathbed confession stories. In any case, the evidence does point toward a hoax by Scribner and his associates.
What is remarkable is that Brown cites the Calaveras skull while at the same time citing a convincing debunking of it (Holmes, 1899). It makes one wonder if Brown even reads the articles he cites.
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Out-of-Order Human Artifacts
Brown's category sixty-three contains reports of artifacts found buried in rocks that formed before the origin of humans. Of the dozen or so examples cited, I found primary sources for two. The first of these Brown simply mentions in his list as "a doll." This refers to a clay figurine found while drilling for water in Nampa, Idaho, allegedly at a depth of three hundred feet (Wright, 1889). A year later, the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, which first reported the find, stated, "There are no evidences against its genuineness" ("The Nampa Image," 1890, p. 366). However, by 1892 it was generally regarded as a hoax (Brinton, 1892; McGee, 1892). D. G. Brinton, in a review of a book by G. Frederick Wright that promoted the "Nampa image," stated:
W. J. McGee (1892) felt that Brinton was too generous to Wright's book and called the Nampa image a transparent fraud—a charge to which Wright did not bother to respond. On the other hand, Wright asked Brinton to provide details in support of his clay toy claim (Wright, 1893a), but I was unable to find a response.
Another object Brown lists is "a strange hammer"—the "Ordovician Hammer" of creationist Carl Baugh, found near London, Texas. This hammer is apparently a nineteenth-century miner's hammer that was dropped into a crack in the rock (Cole, 1985), but nothing conclusive can be said about it; Baugh has consistently refused to allow the hammer to be radiocarbon dated, a process that would settle the matter once and for all.
As noted previously, eleven of Brown's 120 "categories" of evidence are alleged sightings of Noah's ark on Mount Ararat (Agri Dagi). These items consist of evidence presented by Brown to the effect that, among other things, Marco Polo "stated that the ark was reported to be on a mountain," that it was discovered by a British team "but the British scientists threatened to kill the guides if they reported it," that Russian soldiers found the ark "but before they could report back to the Czar, the Russian Revolution of 1917 had begun," and that aerial photographs have been taken of the ark "although the pictures have not been located" (Brown, 1987). Brown concludes this section of evidence with unintentional humor by stating,
"There are many other stories. . . . Only the most credible are summarized above" (emphasis added).
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Most, if not all, of Brown's ark sightings are of questionable value. For example, category ninety-four describes a case:
A Russian pilot, flying over Ararat in World War I (1915), thought he saw the Ark. The news of his discovery reached the Czar, who dispatched a large expedition to the site. The soldiers located and explored the boat, but before they could report back to the Czar, the Russian Revolution of 1917 had begun. Their report disappeared, and the soldiers were scattered. Some of them eventually reached the United States. Various relatives and friends have confirmed this report.
This story apparently originated as an April Fool's Day joke in the April 1, 1933, edition of the German newspaper Kolnische Illustrierte Zeitung (Parrot, 1955, p. 64). The story was then printed by several magazines, including the November 1941 issue of The King's Herald, the March 1942 issue of Prophecy, the October 1942 issue of Defender of the Faith, and in an article by Floyd M. Gurley in a 1940 issue of the Los Angeles-based magazine New Eden. By 1945, New Eden and two of the other magazines had retracted the story, but it continues to be repeated. Howard M. Teeple notes that varying versions of the story existed (1978). In some versions, such as the one Brown reports, the soldiers explored and took measurements of the ark. In other versions, they were unable to get to the ark because of water, poisonous snakes, and insects. The ark is also reported as being either in a swamp or on the shore of a lake. Either way, the story contradicts several others also mentioned by Brown (see also Bailey, 1978, p. 55; Moore, 1981, p. 8; Temple, 1978, pp. 103-106).
I have addressed here only a few of Walter Brown's 120 "categories" of evidence challenging evolution, but the results do not inspire confidence in the reliability of the rest. I suspect that the results obtained from investigating the rest would be similar to those obtained from examining these few. Indeed, books such as A. N. Strahler's monumental Science and Earth History (1987) have already demonstrated this. Under close scrutiny, it is doubtful that more than a dozen of Brown's claims would remain, and these would simply constitute a catalogue of some current controversies in science.
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There appears to be a more serious problem, however, with Brown's research and possibly with his entire attitude toward science. In my initial five-page criticism of Brown's work, I referred to Brown's list of sixteen allegedly "unexplainable features" of Earth and stated that, according to a graduate student of Arizona State University's geology department, all sixteen of these features are not only explainable but have well-known and commonly accepted explanations. Yet, as one can clearly see from Brown's response, he has rejected the possibility of explanations sight unseen. Given such lack of interest on Brown's part, there seems to be little hope that the quality of his research will improve significantly in the near future.
I would like to thank Robert P. J. Day of the Ontario Skeptics for reviewing several earlier versions of this article and Stephen L. Zegura, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, for reviewing the sections on human evolution.
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