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Toe to Toe with Young-Earth Creationists

by Bill Thwaites

Dedicated to Frank Awbrey

Becoming Aware of Creationism

The first I ever heard of creationism was in a mailing I received from the Creation Science Quarterly in the late 1960's. It was a call for papers supporting the biblical account of creation. I saved the announcement in a file folder called “Funny Mail,” but have since lost it. I wondered what kind of journal would limit its contributions to those supporting only one conclusion?

There was a blissful hiatus of some seven or eight years. And then in 1976 two of San Diego State’s botanists took on the ICR’s1 Dr. Henry Morris (referred to as “Hank.”) and Dr. Duane Gish (referred to as “Duane.”) The debate was a first order disaster for evolution. Neither botanist had bothered to read what the creationists had been claiming as science. Neither realized that evidence for evolution in plants held no special significance for people locked into a 2000 year old world view.2

So our botanists were caught off guard at every turn. The bussed-in Christian fundamentalist audience learned that the Bible was a science book and that their taxes were being wasted in state-supported schools manned by incompetents.

During an intermission I approached Duane and told him that his probability calculations3 neglected the fact that modern proteins often consist of several shorter sequences called “domains” and that not all the positions within a domain had to be uniquely specified for the domain to function. I told him that were he to incorporate these facts into his calculations, he would find that chance and selection were entirely sufficient to form the most complex of proteins. Duane asked me what my reference was. I told him that there were many and that he should try to keep up with the literature in his field. I had the impression that Duane felt he had won the exchange because I was unable to quote the exact chapter and verse that supported my assertion.

Our First Debate

Perhaps I had mentioned the 1976 debate in the classroom, or perhaps I was overheard in the hallway, but within a month or so after the ‘76 debate I was visited by a very sincere student who wanted to line me up for a debate to be held in 1977. He told me that creationism was on the cutting edge of science since, “Scientists have no answers to the questions posed by creation scientists.”

I told the student that we had lots of answers, but that no one had felt it worthwhile to respond to claims that had been rejected by science a century or more ago.

There were several factors that led me to accept the student’s challenge to debate the gentlemen from ICR. For one, I had heard occasional snickers from my colleagues at other institutions when San Diego was mentioned. San Diego was a place that tolerated funny science. To be sure, the comments had been made in jest. But we at San Diego State were in some sense victims of guilt by association. Since our institution was the nearest secular institution to ICR, it seemed that it was our obligation to be visibly opposed to creationist claptrap.

Another factor in my acceptance of the challenge was my office partner and close friend the late Frank Awbrey. I knew that for years Frank had encouraged skepticism in his biology classes by examining the biological and physical consequences of taking Noah, the Flood and the Ark seriously. He had taken the described volume of the Ark and divided it by the number of known species and among other things had calculated the rate of rainfall required to cover Mt. Everest in 960 hours (40 days and 40 nights). Frank would be a natural for a debate with “scientific” creationists. They were asking us to take them seriously and Frank had been doing just that for years.

Both Frank and I realized that if we were to beat the creationists at their own game, we would have to do just what they were asking us to do: to know their claims and check their validity as if creation science were a legitimate science. We would have to know just what was wrong with each and every one of their claims. And should we find, per chance, that some claim actually had merit, so much the better. We would become famous overnight for being the first secular scientists to note the apparent legitimacy of a creationist claim.

We were soon to learn that this was a very slim hope. Each trip to the library revealed yet another gross misunderstanding of evolutionary theory or an apparent case of outright fraud. I use the word “apparent” advisedly because years later we both reached the same conclusion that creationists actually believe what they are saying. As we got to know creationism and creationists better and better, the number of obvious charlatans eventually fell to zero.

When March of 1977 finally arrived, Frank and I had amassed two carrousels of slides dealing especially with the claims that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, the claim that the second law of thermodynamics prevents evolution, the assertion that useful proteins can not be derived by chance mutation and natural selection, and the claim that there are no examples of transitional forms in the fossil record.4 We were ready!

Our opponents were the same dynamic duo I had seen the year before, none other than Duane and Hank. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. We pretended to take each of their claims very seriously and then called up the proper slides to show that we were intimately familiar with each claim and had found all to be completely and utterly without scientific merit. As usual both Gish and Morris made many claims that were way beyond the comprehension of most of the audience. Our refutations were given at the same level. Had we taken the time to really explain protein structure to the scientifically unsophisticated audience, we would have had time for nothing else.

We were greatly surprised when Hank folded on the age of the Earth. We knew this was one of his favorite topics. We had expected a real fight. Instead he simply asserted that we were not here to debate the age of the Earth. When my turn came, I pointed out that we had never been told that the Earth’s age was not a permissible debate topic, that we had spent countless hours in the library researching the issue, and had prepared some 80 slides refuting the many evidences5 that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. I told the projectionist to set the second carrousel aside, and announced that our opponents had conceded that the world was in fact 4.6 billion years old after all. I expected that Hank could be brought back into the debate on the age of the Earth when I claimed that he had agreed on the 4.6 billion year figure, but he just let the age issue drop.

When the debate was over we had the feeling that we were one of the first, if not the first fully prepared evolutionist team that they had taken on. Hank and Duane had previously depended on the element of surprise and a friendly audience. With those two aces they had handily won every debate. We took away the first advantage, but could do nothing about the crowds of fundamentalists our opponents had bussed in for the occasion. Our student union should have been evolution-friendly academic turf, but the bulk of the publicity, the creationists’ vital interest in the subject and the free bus rides belonged to the fundamentalists.

The “Two Model” Course at San Diego State

Both Frank and I had spent countless hours in the library getting ready for the debate. Our studies had given us an expertise that virtually no one in the secular world of science possessed. It would have been a waste to have spent all that time and effort for a one night stand.

Creationists were always writing about “Two Model” courses where both the creation and evolution “models would be discussed and the students could make up their own minds.” Obviously they had assumed that such a course would result in overwhelming approval for the creation model. After all, there was quite a bit of material written in favor of creationism. But no biology text says much that would directly refute creationist claims. Thus a “two model” course taught with existing materials would have resulted in a near total defeat for evolution.

But we knew what the creationists were saying. And we knew just what was wrong with it. We could offer a real two model course in which creationism would be exposed for the sham that it is. We wanted to offer a creation versus evolution course where each side would be presented by its own well prepared proponents.

As I recall the biology department did have one rumored creationist on its faculty. But her expertise apparently did not include any detailed knowledge of “scientific” creationism. She was by all accounts a creationist sympathizer only. To get authentic creationists we would have to approach the ICR. We were quite sure that they would accept the challenge. If they refused, it would expose there “two-model” advocacy as a sham. And we already sensed that that they felt that the logic of science was on their side, not ours.

Well, we need have had no fears of their turning us down. To put it mildly, they were ecstatic. This was their first big break, the first time they had ever been taken seriously.6 They would line up creationist speakers from not only ICR but from Loma Linda’s Geoscience Research Institute as well. Our campus bookstore happily agreed to take and publish notes for a course they thought would set attendance records.7

During its infancy Creation vs. Evolution was taught as an experimental course. Eventually, however, we had to have it assigned a regular course number and have the idea pass muster with the curriculum committee. It was in that connection that we found out what our colleagues at SDSU thought about the course. They were not very enthusiastic. I recall one assessment described the course as “tendencious.” From the context of the comment it seemed as if the complaint really was that the course was controversial and confrontational - two attributes no course should have lest it become interesting. But in the end we were given the go ahead to operate as a regular course. The course was given the title of: Analysis of Evolutionary Criticism. This rather cumbersome title was abbreviated in the course catalog as “Anal. Evol. Crit.”

Our most pointed criticism came not from our SDSU colleagues, but from a Professor Ralph Lewis (a retired professor at Michigan State). He wrote passionately about our giving the creationists credit for being scientists and for giving them a “platform” to peddle their form of insanity (or words to that effect). His criticism was not unique, but Lewis was unusual in that he became our ally after we explained in a four or five page reply the rationale for our version of a “two-model” course.

Lewis, it turned out, had meticulously organized “Origin of Species” into formal sets of postulates under the headings of “Descent with Modification” and “Modification by Natural Selection.” These are listed here as follows:


Darwinian Postulates

A. Descent with modification

  1. All life from one or a few ancestors.

  2. Later forms are the modified descendants of earlier forms.

  3. Change is gradual.

  4. Small changes accumulate to make large changes.

  5. More similar forms had a more recent common ancestor.

  6. New forms arise in only one geographic locality.

  7. Extinction is permanent

B. Modification by “natural selection” (genetically-determined differential reproduction) and “genetic drift” (random differential reproduction).

  1. Life forms have the potential to expand their numbers exponentially.

  2. Usually life forms do not expand their numbers exponentially.

  3. Populations are stabilized by mortality, and infertility.

  4. Mortality and infertility are to some extent determined by hereditary factors (i.e. by genetics).

  5. Therefore, individuals with genes for higher viability and lower infertility (i.e. higher fitness) will pass on these genes to the next generation. (This is natural selection).

  6. Reproductive fitness is determined in complex ways when organisms interact. (Altruism -- the "Golden Rule" -- can sometimes increase reproductive fitness. So can the formation of symbiotic relationships. And group selection may also take place.)

  7. Differential reproduction also can occur because of reasons that are not due to genetic differences (genetic drift).

Lewis’ version of Darwinian postulates became the theme of our creation vs. evolution course. Both of us later used the postulates heavily in General Biology classes.

Lewis’s postulates provided an especially sharp contrast with creationism. Nowhere were creationist postulates listed. In short there was no creation model. Well, there was a creation model, but no one had ever formalized the model into a set of postulates. Frank decided to do for Hank and Duane what Lewis had done for Chuck (Darwin). Frank published the creation model in a 1980 issue of “Creation/Evolution” the forerunner of “NCSE Reports” under the title, “Yes Virginia, There is a Creation Model.” Each “postulate” in the creation model was referenced to a specific statement in “Scientific Creationism” by Hank, The Genesis Flood also by Hank, or “Evolution: The Fossils Say `No’” by Duane.

With postulates for both “models” we would be able compare observations with predictions based on each of the two “models.”8 We spent a great deal of time in our creation vs. evolution classes doing just that.


The Creation Model

According to Hank and Duane

I. The creation.

  1. Supernatural creator.
  2. Everything from nothing relatively recently.
  3. Earth was perfectly designed for life.
  4. Vapor barrier protected earth.
    1. Climate was uniformly warm.
    2. Cosmic radiation kept out.
    3. No wind or rain.
    4. Irrigated by water from the ground.
  5. All kinds created separately.
    1. Each kind unique and fixed.
    2. Each kind highly variable genetically.
  6. Humans created uniquely to exercise dominion over all creation.
  7. No decay.

II. The fall.
  1. Second law of thermodynamics invoked.
    1. Perfect order began to degenerate.
    2. Death, decay and disorder began.
  2. People began to populate earth. All are descended from the original couple.
  3. Vapor barrier enabled great longevity.

III. The flood.
  1. Simultaneous worldwide cataclysm.
  2. All land covered within 40 days.
  3. Flood water from two sources.
    1. Vapor barrier.
    2. Underground reservoirs.
  4. Flood began 1656 years after creation.
  5. Flood formed and deposited the geologic column.
  6. Flood split the land mass into present continents.
  7. Only flood survivors were aboard one boat.
    1. Eight humans.
    2. One pair of most kinds but seven of some.
    3. Aboard boat for 371 days.

IV. Post flood period.
  1. Leftover flood energy caused ice age.
  2. Flood survivors repopulated earth.
  3. All living species are descended from the flood survivors.
    1. Modified by horizontal change to fit the earth.
    2. Modification used the original created genetic variation.
  4. Vapor barrier gone so longevity decreased.
  5. All species are degenerating. Disorder must increase.
  6. Present geological processes differ from those of the flood.

When Frank published the creation model in Creation/Evolution we encountered some interesting reactions from the ICR people. We had expected them to regard our version of the creation model as a form of mockery. We thought they would be pretty upset with us. Instead they were almost thankful. They had never seen nor apparently ever thought about seeing their model laid out in such a succinct format. Some, at least Ken Cummings of the ICR, seemed relieved to find that they had not been referring to some vague abstraction but a real flesh and bones model. He asked if ICR would be allowed to use the model in the form that Frank had outlined it.

Others such as Gary Parker of ICR were a bit less enthusiastic. Parker claimed that we had commingled the “Biblical” and “Scientific” creation models. To this we asked him how it would be logically possible to have two dissimilar models that each explained the same set of observations. “Shouldn’t it be possible,” we asked, “to decide which of the two models fit the observations better?” Gary didn’t see the problem with having two equally valid yet dissimilar creation models.

Anecdotes from the Creation vs Evolution Course

Frank and I taught Creation vs Evolution for about 15 years usually once per year. Rather than trying to reconstruct a chronology of what happened each year, I’d rather just relate anecdotes and organize them according to personalities starting with Duane. I should point out that what follows are my recollections and my opinions. The reader should not use this account to substantiate or refute others’ statements about historical happenings.

Duane Gish

Duane was the most enthusiastic and good natured of all the participants in our creation vs. evolution classes through the years. I would like to count Duane as a friend, but fear that I may have insulted him during our last correspondence in early 2002. The issue revolves around an old question that Frank and I initially had about Duane. Namely, was he a lying charlatan or did he actually believe what he was saying and writing?

At first both Frank and I were absolutely convinced that Duane had a good grasp of reality and was willing to stretch the truth in the name of bolstering Christianity. We supposed that fighting evolution was as important to Duane as fighting Hitler was for the Allies during WWII. Would we have faulted a secret agent behind German lines for lying to German authorities in an attempt to capture or “neutralize” Adolf Hitler?

We felt that we had proof positive that Duane knew that he was lying. We cited the account of an Ames, Iowa debate between Duane and John Patterson. This account seemed to form an open and shut case showing that Duane was an out and out charlatan. Duane had always disputed the significance of the Miller-Urey experiments in which amino acids were produced in what were thought to be primitive Earth conditions. Duane maintained that one could in fact get amino acids in the laboratory, but that the same thing could not happen in nature. As evidence of this Gish said that the equilibrium constants of the various syntheses were strongly in favor of the smaller molecules, and that one could never get amino acids from these smaller molecules. Oh, to be sure! -- it happened in the laboratory, but the laboratory apparatus and conditions were designed by an intelligent creator. It would not happen in nature without the Creator’s direct intervention.

In his rebuttal Patterson claimed that the equilibrium constants claimed by Duane were for impossibly high temperatures and that at somewhat lower temperatures the formation of amino acids would be favored.

When it came time for Duane to respond to Patterson’s rebuttal, Duane said that equilibrium constants were not a function of anything. I can hear it now, “Ladies and gentlemen, they wouldn’t call them constants if they could change. Would they?” And the sympathetic audience ate it up. Patterson knew his science and presented it well, yet Duane had trounced him with skillful rhetoric.

The next day, however, there was a sort of a rematch on television. Patterson came armed with an armload of chemistry books with the relevant pages marked. He played a tape of Gish claiming that equilibrium constants were not a function of temperature. Then he showed Duane the many equations showing K (the equilibrium constant) on one side the T (the temperature) on the other. He asked Duane what that meant and Duane calmly replied that the value of the equilibrium constant was dependent on the temperature. BUT! He went on to say that he had never said that they were not. And he said that he had no idea how the tape was produced.

Well, when Frank and I considered the happenings in Ames, we thought we had proof positive that Duane was a liar and that he knew that he was one. But it was this second part of our conclusion – that Duane knew when he was lying – that we eventually began to doubt. I suppose our doubts were fueled by Duane’s gregariousness and his openness. And there were other clues as well.

One time I invited Duane to visit my lab before his appearance in our class. In my research I was trying to track down the enzymatic steps involved the break down of a common compound. This sort of thing is like what one learns when biochemistry is first mentioned in high school. The task wasn’t turning out to be quite as easy as I had expected but understanding what I had done and what I was trying to do was easy. Duane’s training at U.C. Berkeley was in biochemistry, so I started to show him my progress, or lack thereof. He quickly cut me off saying he had forgotten all that stuff. This was a little like talking to a chemist who had forgotten the difference between elements and compounds. I was shocked!

But that was a clue. If Duane understood that little about his own field of study, he probably understood even less about fossils, thermodynamics, natural selection, and the other subjects that he wrote and talked about. Thus he might not know when he wasn’t making sense and might not have recognized the logical inconsistencies in his rhetoric.

Duane and the Bombardier Beetle

I can’t let Duane drop until I tell about “Beetle Bailey” the bombardier beetle. This story was an all-time favorite in Duane’s debate package. It turns out that bombardier beetles can shoot a little puff of steam in the face of would be predators. It turns out that the chemical ingredients (hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide), the enzyme that makes the reaction proceed violently, and the two chambered reaction vessel are found in many arthropods.

But Duane added two parts to the story and with these two additions was able to demonstrate to friendly and biologically unsophisticated audiences that the beetle’s defense mechanism could not have evolved. The first added part was the claim that the reactants would explode if anyone mixed them together in a laboratory. The second addition was his claim that a specific inhibitor was needed to keep the reactants from exploding.

According to Duane, natural selection could not select for an inhibitor in the absence of the reactants because the inhibitor would have nothing to inhibit. Likewise natural selection could not select for the reactants in the absence of the inhibitor. The beetle would have had to evolve all three components at one time. If the reactants were selected first – BOOM! – no more Beetle Bailey. I can still hear Gish say, “So, you see, ladies and gentlemen, the evolutionist has a lot of explaining to do.”

So one day in class, Frank and I played a tape of Duane going through his Beetle routine. Then we had everyone move to the back of the lecture hall. We put up protective shields and donned protective clothing and face shields. We told the class that the reactants should react slowly and peacefully in the absence of a catalyst. Nevertheless we had just heard a man with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California tell us that the reactants would explode, so a certain level a caution seemed appropriate.

When we gingerly added the hydrogen peroxide to the hydroquinone the mixture promptly turned brown. That semester we were making audio tapes of all our lectures and sending them to ICR. Following this it took a year or so for Duane to modify his debate routine, but in due course he added one phrase to the presentation. Now it went, “Ladies and gentlemen if you or I mixed these two chemicals together in the laboratory they would EXPLODE! or turn all brown and yucky.” The rest of the act was unchanged.

The UCSD debate

From time to time I would debate Duane as a one on one show. One time we gave our show for a group of mostly engineering students at the University of California at San Diego. They were also fundamentalists, but a cut above the masses that were bussed in for the larger debates. I made several slides about probability just for the UCSD debate. They were just like Duane’s probability slides and they allowed me to pretend to be Duane for a few minutes. I gave all his silly probability arguments and even used Duane’s delivery habits with lots of “Ladies and Gentlemen’s thrown in here and there. And I even used his silly example that had to do with the time it would take a snail to crawl across the universe. It was word for word Duane Gish all the way. But then I followed my impersonation with an explanation of what was wrong with the argument.

I sort of thought that Duane might be a bit put out by my mocking of his mannerisms. But he didn’t look the least bit upset when I had finished. Then an amazing thing happened. Duane proceeded with his standard probability argument in an almost word for word copy of what I had just presented. He must have been asleep during my presentation!

I don’t think that the students were greatly impressed with Duane. After the debate they crowded around me asking why UCSD insisted on using graduate students from Pakistan to teach their courses? Why couldn’t UCSD hire more people like me who could be understood? The question of creation or evolution seemed to take second place to getting out, getting a degree and getting a good job.

Hank (Morris)

Hank just isn’t fun the way Duane is. Hank always seemed nervous around Frank and me. But in the early years of the Creation vs. Evolution course he did consent to give several lectures. He was always talking about the second law of thermodynamics and how it prevents evolution. It prevents it, Hank says, by not permitting any increases in “complexity.” He really means the opposite and should use the word “organization.” But beginning biology books have erroneously claimed that the fossil record shows a steady increase of complexity from trilobites to man. I don’t know where this idea started, but obviously the first person to write it down had no idea what was meant by complexity.

Anyway Hank went on and on about how humans could not have arisen from ape-like ancestors since that would involve an increase in complexity and the 2nd law won’t allow that. So I asked him how he knew that people were more complex that apes. And Hank replied that people build bridges, airplanes, etc. That anyone who couldn’t see a difference between apes and people was sadly lacking in powers of observation.

So I asked Hank that if he knew how to rate animals according to the level of complexity, he should tell me which was more complex – a dog or a whale. Hank admitted that there was no physical test for complexity, so he didn’t know which of the two was more complex.

During the last few years a crude measure of complexity has emerged. We can now count the number of unique coding sequences in the DNA of a number of organisms. It turns out that people have about 30,000 of these sequences (genes). Banana trees have about the same number of genes. And what is more about 50% of the banana’s genetic make up is essentially identical to that found in people.

The newspapers thought these findings were pretty amazing, but to this old biochemist they were not. When one constructs an evolutionary tree for all forms of life (mostly bacteria) from the sequences found in very highly conserved molecules such as ribosomal RNA, you find that all the organisms with “true nuclei” (yeasts, molds, alligators, redwood trees and people) are closely related to one another. They comprise just a few twigs on one end of a branch of the entire tree of life. This is why I have long said that if you have seen one eukaryote (a true nucleus organism), you’ve seen them all.

So has all this new knowledge about the similarity of eukaryotic genomes affected Hank’s thinking about the possibility the humans might be related to apes? Take a wild guess.

Gary Parker

Frank and I had already been doing battle with the folks and ICR for a year or more when Gary Parker was taken into the ICR fold. Our first impression of him was based on his cultivated public persona. Gary was the personable backwoods sort of guy who had just stepped off the turnip truck. “Aw shucks, folks, there’s just little old me here.” I don’t know if he ever said that in so many words, but that was our initial impression of Gary.

Then one day Gary was talking to our class about amino acids. He said that some of the simpler ones were found in interstellar space. So Frank asked him how such an observation could square with Duane’s assertion that amino acids would only form in organisms or in the laboratories of famous scientists. When Gary beat around the proverbial bush, Frank asked him point blank, “Who’s right, you or Duane?”

A new volatile side to Gary’s personality immediately became apparent. Gary was close to tears. And he blurted out “Frank! Frank! You never listen to anything I say!” But somehow he pulled himself back together and finished his presentation. We got a letter from Gary a few days later saying that Frank and I were no longer welcome at the ICR museum. Our students were still welcome, but we would not dare allow them see the museum without us being there to supervise.

A year or so later we heard that Gary had left ICR. We were never able to find out what had motivated the exit. Duane told us that Gary was “out of line” for excluding us from the museum. The museum was advertised as open to the public, so Gary had no right to exclude us he said. But this incident was not the reason that he had left ICR. At least I don’t think it was.

Steve Austin

Steve was a little difficult for us to figure out. At first it seemed as if he was primarily a geologist who just happened to find a job at ICR. At least that was the impression he tried to project. His first lectures to our class were about catastrophism – not Biblical flood geology, but natural catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. He said one time that asteroid-generated tsunamis of gigantic proportions must have washed over the continents on numerous occasions. I asked him how this idea of multiple floods sat with his boss (Hank Morris), who insists that there was only one world wide flood. Steve replied that he was giving a geology lecture, not teaching Sunday school.

Steve was always reticent to frame his talks to our classes in creationist terms. We were about ready to stop inviting him because of this. But one time he was going on and on about how Mt. St. Helens showed that the Grand Canyon could have been formed in a few days or weeks. One of his slides kept sticking and several times I had to remove the carrousel and extract the slide from the projector. I was successful the first couple of times, but he kept backing up to the bent slide and it would stick anew. I got a little careless the third time around and forgot to put the retaining ring on the carrousel when I turned it over. All of a sudden all 80 slides were on the floor.

It would have taken Steve 15 or 20 minutes to get all the slides in order again. Rather than go on with his Mr. St. Helen’s travelog Steve graciously agreed to answer questions from the class. A student asked how old Steve was when he first realized that he might have creationist tendencies. I guess Frank and I may have thought the question was a little too personal and off the topic of the “science” of creationism. But Steve fielded the questions with good humor and even some apparent enthusiasm. It turned out to be one of the best lectures we had ever had from a creationist – a rare insight into the dilemmas that a fundamentalist student faces when he develops an interest in geology.

Ted Ribka

Ribka supposedly had a degree in physics. He was a nice enough sort of guy, but was awfully unsure of himself. His claim to fame in the world of creationism was the thought that the Milky Way, Andromeda and some of the other galaxies in our neck of the galactic wood might be as big and as far away as astronomers say they are. Apparently Ribka understood that the relationship between the period of Cepheid variables and their intrinsic brightness permitted accurate distance measurements to all places in the universe where individual stars could be resolved by telescopes. This would make the universe hundreds of thousands of years old if light from these galaxies had had time to reach Earth since the creation.

But Ribka wanted desperately to show that the universe was a lot younger than the 10 to 20 billion years scientists at the time thought it was. So Ribka proposed what we called the “diorama model of the universe.” Museums of natural history typically have dioramas. In the foreground of these the stuffed animals are actual size, but as one looks off into the “distance” behind the animals the appearance of distance is created with smaller and smaller animals, rocks, etc. At the limit of vision the distant hills are paintings on the back wall of the diorama.

In the Ribkonian Universe everything in the foreground is actual size, but as soon as one looks beyond the distance at which individual stars can be discerned, what one sees is not more of the same but miniatures to give the illusion of distance. Frank and I thought this was pretty silly and we let the class know what we thought of the Ribkonian Universe. Ribka made matters worse for himself by consistently saying “star” when he really meant “galaxy.”

But what surprised both Frank and me was the rating that the class gave Ribka when we asked whom they thought was the most convincing creationist. Ribka got most of the votes. For many of the students the fact that Ribka’s hands were shaking and his voice wavering were true signs of sincerity. Someone who was that sincere couldn’t be as off base as we said he was. Well, most of our students were biologists, I doubt if astronomy students would have been quite as impressed by Ribka’s obvious sincerity.

Ribka didn’t last very long at ICR. Perhaps the other creationists were not impressed by Ribka’s efforts to make the universe smaller and younger than is generally agreed upon.

Ken Ham

When I was in graduate school I used to listen to the Reverend Carl MacIntyre on the radio. At the time MacIntyre was really pulling in the donations. He was in the process of building large resort/hotel/conference centers in Cape May New Jersey and at least one other location as I recall. Carl hated almost everyone, especially those in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), liberal Presbyterians and of course communists.

During the first years of our contacts with the Institute for Creation Research, Hank’s fund raising letters and the overall modesty of ICR’s physical plant gave the impression that it was a shoe string operation. I used to remark to Frank that what ICR sorely lacked was a good hate and fear line. All they had was this long list of ways in which biologists, geologists and astronomers had erred.

Then Ken Ham got fed up with the secularism of his native Australia and gravitated to the friendly halls of ICR. “He just showed up on our doorstep” Duane confided to me as we were leaving a radio talk show. Ken brought instant hate and fear to the ICR message and the results were spectacular. The old kind and gentle ICR would brag if they got 50 people to turn out for a creationism talk. (They did get good crowds to their debates.) But Ken would often draw 5,000 people and donations to match.

The old ICR building was instantly paid for and a new building was paid for as soon as it was built. Then one day Ken branched off on his own forming an organization called “Answers in Genesis.” ICR has tried with some success to keep Ken’s momentum going. I think they have learned the lesson that hate and fear are highly profitable. But for people like Duane hate and fear don’t come quite as naturally as they do to Ken Ham. For Ken life is a series of battles in which one side or the other is vanquished. Military metaphors flow out of Ken’s mouth like water from an artesian well. And his audiences eat it up. I am frightened by people like Ken Ham. I have never met him face to face and I don’t care to.

The Creationists from Loma Linda’s Research Institute

We only had the pleasure of listening to the 7th Day Adventists from Loma Linda for the first couple of years that we taught our two model course. It turned out that ICR was subsidizing the Geoscience Research people’s visits to our class. When the ICR folks realized that creationism was not fairing as well as had been anticipated, the visits from Loma Linda stopped.

I suppose I could look up names and perhaps even find class notes. But I would rather just generalize about the folks from the Geoscience Research Institute.

My overall impression was that the Adventists seemed almost reasonable along side of the ICR “scientists.” They had it firmly in mind that science involved research, not just library research digging up partial quotes for the next debate, but actual laboratory research that could be published in refereed journals. They realized that they had a long – very long – uphill task ahead of themselves. They were, however, absolutely convinced that eventually science (especially that going on at Loma Linda’s Geoscience Research Institute) would show Scripture to be scientifically correct.

A fellow by the name of Brown told us that dendrochronology was reliable and during the entire length of time that could be accounted for by studying tree rings, C-14 dating could be shown to be very reliable. He showed us a slide showing an almost steady production of C-14 during the period that could be checked with tree rings. Just beyond the tree ring limit, however, C-14 production was shown to fall off suddenly to almost zero. This would make C-14 dates older than the tree ring limit appear to be far older than they actually were.

When we asked Brown about the evidence for this sudden change in C-14 production, he admitted that there was none, but neither was there good evidence that the rate had remained essentially the same for vast periods of time.

In the hallway after class Brown admitted to Frank and me that he could find nothing wrong with Rubidium/Strontium dating, but that he knew it must be wrong. He just hadn’t figured out what was wrong yet.

Someone from Loma Linda, perhaps it was Brown, was really enthusiastic about the fact that Steve Austin had gone to work for ICR. Steve might make them get serious about science and start doing some real research.

Another Loma Lindite had forced animals to make underwater tracks. This was to show that the Coconino Sandstone could have been laid down under water. Well, there are a lot of other problems with this interpretation, but, no one said that evolution could be disproved in a day.

Still another fellow from Loma Linda was big on Specimen Ridge, a location in Yellowstone Park that shows a long series of petrified forests, one on top of the other. The usual interpretation is that successive forests were covered with volcanic ash and the next layer of forest had time to grow before the next ash deposition. The guy from Loma Linda came up with the idea that the layers of forests had been deposited all at one time during the Noacian Flood. We asked him if there was any evidence of soil horizons in the various layers. And he admitted that there was such evidence. So we asked him if that observation didn’t falsify his notion of Flood deposition of the trees. As I recall he said that that was an interesting question that he would have to give serious thought to.9

Miscellaneous Creationists I Have Met Along the Way

Hugh Ross of “Reasons to Believe”

I can’t recall if we ever had Hugh Ross visit our class, but Genie Scott and I once appeared on Hugh’s “Reasons to Believe” program that is carried by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Hugh looks at the fundamental physical constants of the universe and sees “personal creator God” written all over them. As I recall he admits that the earth is 4.6 billion years old. The last I heard Hugh thought that our possible relationship to chimpanzees was still an unresolved question in science. On the TBN program Genie, Hugh and I talked of the futility of arguing the creation/evolution question. We should instead be looking for areas of agreement. That was nice. AND we were being watched by who knows how many fundamentalist viewers.

Henry Morris of ICR has written a number of scathing articles about Hugh. Their tone suggests that he regards us secular scientists as agents of the devil (perhaps unwitting agents?), but Hugh evidently is an agent who has been granted special powers and even a satellite network by Satan. He is a real threat since he teaches tolerance and compromise. Horrors!

Phillip Johnson

I met Johnson just one time. We were guests on a radio talk show in Los Angeles. Johnson was promoting his book. Was it called Darwin on Trial? If not, it should have been. Johnson was rather new on the creation scene at the time (1994?) and I didn’t think he would amount to anything. He had almost zero understanding of science and thought that it was supposed to work like a court room. (Johnson is a renowned law professor from the University of California at Berkeley.) Johnson also wanted science to consider supernatural hypotheses as well as those based on ideas about the material world.

Johnson seemed to have confused the word “materialism” as used to describe collectors of wealth with “materialism” as one might use it to describe the limitations of scientific inquiry. More recently the debate about materialism has become codified with “methodological materialism” used to point out that science can deal only with physical reality. This definition is contrasted with “philosophical materialism.” Philosophical materialism is used to describe the thinking of those who claim that there is no reality outside of physical reality. When one embraces philosophical materialism and also accepts the validity of biological evolution, it can be inferred from this that God had nothing to do with evolution. By further extrapolation from philosophical materialism one can categorically deny the very existence of anything supernatural including God.

The methodological naturalist on the other hand will not make such an extrapolation. The methodological naturalist realizes that for scientific ideas to be testable they must deal exclusively with the physical things. Ideas involving the supernatural are by nature not testable, and so fall outside the scope of science. Thus science in the eyes of the methodological naturalist can say nothing about such subjects as the existence or non-existence of God.

In any event, Johnson regards biologists as philosophical naturalists. And he can find many examples of well known biologists who are quite obviously philosophical naturalists.10 Johnson exploits the existence such scientists to substantiate his own claim that evolution is nothing more than a poorly substantiated philosophical view and that there is a need for science to open up and consider evidence that suggests divine intervention in the formation of species.

When Johnson argues that evolution is likely to be wrong, he assumes that if he can create doubt about the validity of some portion of evolutionary theory that evolution will lose the case and be thrown out of court. He has, to my knowledge, never picked up on the idea that in science accepted ideas are replaced by even more acceptable ideas. Rarely, if ever, have scientific theories been replaced by voids filled with question marks.

I never would have predicted it, but Johnson has picked up quite a following among the barely scientific fringe that we now know as the “Intelligent Design” people. These IDers must lead a lonely life. The scientific community rejects their claims and their scientific worth because their “science” makes no testable predictions. On the other side, the young earth creationists seem to regard the IDers as heretics since they refuse to identify the authorship of what they accept as “intelligent design.” Furthermore some IDers seem to be comfortable with the idea that the world might really be 4.6 billion years old.

Frank Awbrey and I used to refer to the nascent IDers whom we met as “origin-of-life” creationists. The only scientific finding that the origin-of-life creationists had trouble with was a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.11 It seems strange to me that yesterday’s almost scientifically-respectable creationists (today’s IDers) could eventually take on the role of being principal antagonists of organizations such as NCSE.

I suppose this climb to importance of the IDers has been occasioned by the perception by anticreationists that young earth creationism has been knocked out of the proverbial ring. Such a view is difficult to maintain by a recipient of ICR’s newsletter “Acts and Facts” who lives in the small rural town of Tillamook, Oregon.

NOTES

1. Institute for Creation Research, then located on the campus of Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, CA. ICR now has its own campus in Lakeside, CA located just to the north of El Cajon.

2. Recall that the Genesis account of the flood makes no mention of seeds for plants on board the Ark. Likewise recall that the dove returned to the Ark with evidence that proved that an olive tree had somehow survived the Flood on top of Mt. Ararat.

3. One of Gish’s favorite arguments involved the protein ribonuclease. The protein consists of just over 100 amino acid residues, thus it is one of the smallest enzymes. Gish argues that getting all 100 amino acids in the proper order by chance would have a probability of (1/20)100. There are twenty amino acids to choose from. Getting the “right” one by chance thus has a probability of 1/20. Gish’s calculated probability is essentially zero. Thus, Gish argues: “If the simplest of proteins couldn’t be formed by chance, how could life have started without a miraculous intervention?”

4. By 1992 we had accumulated 965 slides dealing with the refutation of claims made by creationists. The collection was donated to NCSE in 1998, the year of Frank’s death. If you are interested, I can send you a complete list of the slides. Just write me at wthwaite@sunstroke.sdsu.edu and request the list. Please let me know if you use Word Perfect (Corel). Otherwise I will send you the list as e-mail.

5. Christian fundamentalists routinely pluralize the word “evidence.” Scientists speak in terms of evidence; the theological field of Christian apologetics (arguments to support the faith) uses evidence in the plural (“evidences”) as a term of art. When creation scientists (and the occasional intelligent design creationist) talk about “evidences”, they are reflecting their essentially religious orientation.

6. Later we were to learn from Brent Dalrymple, who was then with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, that the USGS had once invited Gish and Morris to address a dinner gathering held at the facility. Brent said they had been invited as entertainment. The two creationists, on the other hand, apparently thought they were on the verge of completely revamping geological orthodoxy.

7. No one ever said so, but we quickly developed the impression that the bookstore people either thought that we were creationist sympathizers or that we would lose due to the overwhelming logic of the creationist challenge to science. No doubt the course would have been immensely popular had we let the creationists run all over us. There is an undercurrent of anti-science sentiment on many campuses due perhaps to such products of science as atom bombs, and chemical and biological warfare.

8. Use of the word “model” to refer to evolutionary theory is a creationist invention. Models are usually nothing more than working hypotheses. So by referring to evolutionary theory as a “model” the creationists hope to convey their idea that evolution is just one working hypothesis among many.

9. ICR’s Steve Austin has taken the Geoscience Research Institute’s flood deposition hypothesis seriously and has noticed trees floating with their roots down in Spirit Lake near Mt. St. Helens. That’s good enough for Steve. He has yet to show the formation of underwater soil horizons or the formation of multiple layers of trees during a single event. But when you know you are right, the details will take care of themselves.

10. Richard Dawkins (author of “The Blind Watchmaker”) is a classic example of a philosophical naturalist.

11. We still don’t have a well developed theory for the origin of life, but we have far more good ideas than we did when Frank and I originally decided to take on the good folks at ICR.