You are here

The Ultra-Fundamentalism of Duane Gish

by George S. Bakken

It is not commonly known that Charles Darwin intended to become a clergyman when he studied at Cambridge, or that the Church of England honored him with burial in Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton. Many scientists hold strong religious beliefs, but read the Genesis account of creation as did Isaac Newton in his 1681 letter to Thomas Burnett:
As to Moses ... he described realities in a language artificially adapted to ye sense of ye vulgar.... Where natural causes are at hand God uses them as instruments in his works, but I do not think them sufficient for ye creation ...
Mainstream Christianity finds it perfectly acceptable that scientific studies of origins should explain creation with the natural laws that God may use as "instruments in his works." These explanations must be mechanistic, but this does not imply atheism. Divine intervention cannot be used to justify a step in solving an algebra problem, but this does not make algebra atheistic.

The ultra-literal fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis of the "scientific creationism" espoused by Dr. Duane Gish and others in the Institute for Creation Research seriously distorts both science and Christianity, and is opposed by leaders of both. In 1986, 72 Nobel laureates and 23 scientific societies representing tens of thousands of working scientists submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court to oppose teaching Biblical literalism as science. In an earlier trial, the Arkansas bishops or principal officials of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, and Presbyterian Churches, the American Jewish Congress, and many other clergy and religious groups sued Arkansas to prevent the teaching of "scientific creationism" because such teaching promoted specific fundamentalist doctrines in the schools. In declaring the Arkansas law Unconstitutional, Judge William R. Overton wrote (January 5, 1982):
"It was simply and purely an effort to introduce the Biblical version of creation into the public school curricula." [sect. II]

"The evidence establishes that the definition of `creation science´ contained in 4(a) has as its unmentioned reference the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis.... The concepts of 4(a) are the literal Fundamentalists’ view of Genesis." [sect. III]

"The creationists’ methods do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter reach the conclusions ... Instead, they take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and try to find scientific support for it." [sect. IV(C)]

"The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories that have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by creationists are not based on new scientific evidence ..." [sect. IV(D)]

Scientific Decisions

It is helpful to look at some examples of why the scientific decision-making process has led scientists to accept evolution rather than "scientific creationism."

Scientists approach a problem by first inventing a number of speculative hypotheses. Then a critical test case is chosen where each hypothesis predicts a different observation. The observation is made, and hypotheses making incorrect predictions abandoned or modified. Hypotheses that have been confirmed are used to formulate a theory, which is a higher-level explanation. Theories may change through time, even well-accepted ones. For example, Newton’s theory of motion was believed correct until it failed at high velocities and in strong gravitational fields. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity then superceded and subsumed it.

Predictions and observations are often indirect, as scientific theories often involve things that are microscopic, or far away in space or time. For example, the electron is too small to be observed directly, but the assumption that electrons exist allows correct prediction of the operation of electronic devices, etc. Similarly, history can’t be repeated, but the assumption that evolution has occurred allows correct prediction of innumerable fossil discoveries, biochemical structures, etc. Thus, there is residual uncertainty about the reality of both the electron and of evolution, but both are accepted beyond reasonable doubt.

"Creation Science" and Evolution Models

Evolution is not the study of everything, and does not consider the origin of the universe. Briefly, the theory of organic evolution holds that all organisms are related by common ancestry to one or a very few original cells. By a number of processes, including random variation followed by natural selection of successful variants, new forms arose and the number of species increased over an immense period of time. Creationists typically do not clearly state their scientific creationism "models", but the standard view can be found summarized in the July, 1980 issue of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) publication Acts and Facts. It is identical to one of the literal interpretations of Genesis.

Earth History: 4.5 Billion Years or 6000 Years?

The ICR view on the age of the earth is very clear: "The only way we can determine the true age of the earth is for God to tell us what it is. And since He has told us, very plainly, in the Holy Scriptures that it is several thousand years in age, and no more, that ought to settle all basic questions of terrestrial chronology" (H.M. Morris, The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth, p. 94). To support this, they use numerous "dating" methods based on processes with known errors. For example, many are based on cyclic processes similar to the hour hand on a clock. The time indicated on the clock starts over every 12 hours, and so cannot serve as a calendar. Similarly, cyclic processes cannot be used to estimate the age of the earth.

There are many indications of an ancient earth. The Green River shales of western Wyoming consist of 6 million varves (alternating layers of marlstone and kerogen). The particles that form these layers are microscopic, and take many days to settle in perfectly still water. Similar varved sediments are forming today, and each cycle is known to represent 1 year. To form this one deposit in the global flood of Genesis would require the formation of about 1 layer per second! The whole 6,000 years of ICR earth history would require a rate of about 3 varves per day. And this deposit is but a thin layer in the total geology of the earth. Another indication is the presence of radioactive isotopes in rocks. That any are present indicates that the earth did have a beginning. However, of 48 isotopes with a half-life of 1,000 to 100 million years, which should still be around if the earth is a few thousand years old, only three that result from the decay of long-lived isotopes, five produced by cosmic rays, and one produced by neutrons released by uranium are found. All of the 23 radioactive isotopes with longer half-lives are present.

Because both varve formation and radioactive decay are well understood, they can be used for accurate, consistent dating. For example, P.E. Olsen (Science 234:842-848, 1986) studied sediments deposited over a period of 40 million years in the Newark Basin of New Jersey, and found excellent agreement between isotope dates and dates calibrated by varve layer counts. Remarkably, he was also able to relate regular variations in sediment layer thickness to the motions of the earth that define our calendar and clock. He found variations with periodicities of 25,000, 44,000, 100,000, 125,000, and 400,000 years. These match the Milankovich cycles of the irregularities in the earth’s motion around the sun (presently 21,000, 41,000, 95,000, 123,000, and 413,000 years, but subject to small variation caused by passing stars, etc.). The Milankovich cycles influence the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth. The change in solar radiation apparently produces corresponding changes in rainfall and sediment deposition.

Did a Global Flood Form the Fossil Record?

The first hypothesis considered by scientists was that the global flood described in Genesis accounted for the geological column and fossil record. Indeed, this explained the presence of fossil sea shells high in the Alps. However, as early as 1757, James Parsons and others attempted to deduce the season of the Flood from fossils. If spring, flowers and young fruit should predominate, mature fruit and nuts if fall. Alas, both were found. It was suggested that mature fruit had been mixed in from the tropics, but if so, then land and ocean animals should be mixed together as well. In fact, they are found in separate deposits, except for some land organisms that floated out to sea. These and other difficulties led scientists to accept the uniformitarian geology proposed by James Hutton (Theory of the Earth) and Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology).

The ICR model is simply the same old flood theory, and it, too, fails to explain basic facts. For example, if all species were created at one time before the flood, fossils deep in the geological record (early in the flood) should be identical to later forms. Extinctions might be allowed, but no new productions. Of course, the fossil record shows both extinctions and creations, with increasingly unfamiliar animals the deeper you go. The 19th century creationist geologist Georges Cuvier proposed a number of successive creation events to account for this. Henry Morris, director of the ICR, proposed that the appearance of progressive change was explained by (1) elevation of habitat, (2) resistance to gravitational settling in the flood waters, and (3) ability to flee the floodwaters (Morris, The Beginning of the World, p. 112). However, this predicts that porpoises and ichthyosaurs, both fully-aquatic air-breathing animals of the same size, shape, and density, living in the same habitat, should be found as fossils in the same strata. In fact, there is a series of transitional forms through Mesozoic deposits leading to ichthyosaurs, overlaid by Cenozoic deposits containing a series of forms leading to porpoises. Countless other specific tests are failed by the flood hypothesis, but passed by uniformitarian geology.

Gaps in the Fossil Record

The ICR´s chief debater, Duane Gish, claims that gaps in the fossil record (i.e. numerous instances where the origin of a particular species is not documented by a complete series of slightly varying intermediate forms) prove species are formed by a miraculous process. This interpretation of the fossil record assumes that the earth is ancient and new species originated through a series of widely spaced creation events. This is the progressive creation model, not the ICR model. It is odd that Gish uses this interpretation, because his boss, Henry Morris, says, "Thus, progressive creation, though presenting a better image than theistic evolution in its terminology, is even more objectionable to true creationists..." (The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth, p. 76). Gish probably uses progressive creation here because of the obvious fatal flaws in the Flood Model of the ICR.

Gaps in the fossil record are not even a critical test of evolution vs. progressive creation, as evolution also predicts gaps. There are some 2 million described species of living animals, but only 200,000 described fossil species. Thus, it is impossible to provide a minutely detailed history for every living species. This is because, first, the fossil record has not been completely explored. It is pretty hard to overlook a dinosaur bone! Yet, though dinosaurs have been excavated for over 150 years, 40% of the known species were found in the last 20 years or so (Discover, March 1987, p. 46). It is likely many more dinosaur species remain to be found. Second, sedimentary rocks were formed locally in lakes, oceans, and river deltas, so many up land species were never fossilized. Third, many deposits that were formed have been lost to erosion. Thus, a complete record is impossible.

However, there is a critical test. Evolution predicts that some complete series should be found, while ICR or progressive creation predicts that none should ever be found. In fact, many excellent series exist. The evolution of the horse is known in exquisite detail from Hyracotherium (Eohippus) to the modern horse (G.G. Simpson, Horses, 2nd ed. Oxford, 1961). Scientific creationists have been forced to claim that the series is but allowed variation within a created "kind." If so, then rhinoceroses, tapirs, and horses are all the same "kind," as they can be traced to ancestors nearly identical to Hyracotherium! All of these fossils lie in the correct order by both stratigraphic and radioisotope dating.

Another critical test is Darwin’s prediction that "...our early ancestors lived on the African continent..." (The Descent of Man, p. 158). An excellent, detailed series of skulls and some nearly complete skeletons now connect modern man to African australopithecines. Some of the extinct australopithecines had brains about the size and shape of those of chimpanzees.

New Species Forming Today?

Another critical test for evolution vs. ICR, or evolution vs. progressive creation is that evolution predicts that new species are still evolving. Unlike the creationist "kind," whose definition is changed as needed for the immediate argument, a species is easily recognized as a population which (1) brings forth fertile young similar to itself, (2) if it reproduces sexually, does not interbreed with other species and (3) usually looks distinctive. New plant species are produced routinely in agricultural work. A new genus with many new species, Triticosecale (Triticale) is now an important agricultural plant (A. Muntzing, Triticale Results and Problems. Parey: Berlin, 1979). A fly (Rhagoletis pomonella) that normally eats hawthorn fruit during its larval stage gave rise to a race that infests apples (apple maggot) about 170 years ago. This race originated in the Hudson River Valley, and then spread over the eastern and midwestern U.S. The apple and the original hawthorn races now mate and lay eggs at different times, and so interbreed only rarely. Clear genetic differences exist, and the apple maggot may now be on its way to becoming a new species (Nature 336:13-14, 61-67, 1988). Most people with pet dogs know about a new species of microorganism. Canine parvovirus, a lethal disease of dogs, evolved from feline parvovirus in the 1970s.

Real Gaps in the Fossil Record?

In Evolution — the Fossils Say No! (1979, p. 171-72), Gish quotes Stephen J. Gould of Harvard: " little later he [Gould] states: `The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change...´." What Dr. Gould actually wrote was, "The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change, and the principle of natural selection does not require it — selection can operate rapidly." (Natural History 86:22, 1977) This is but one example of the ICR’s routine use of out-of-context quotes to "support" their positions. Always check the original source! They also like to use outdated sources or papers later found to be in error.

Gould´s real position fully supports evolution, and is fully supported by the examples of recently-evolved species, above. Fossil transitions between species generally appear abrupt because in the past, as now, new species evolve quickly in restricted are as. One must be very lucky to find continuous deposits from the area and time where a new species evolved. Nevertheless, the rapid, gradualist evolution of a number of new snail species over 5,000 to 50,000 years has been completely detailed (P.G. Williamson, Nature, 293:437-443, 1981). Again, both ICR and progressive creationism predict the total and complete absence of such transitional series.

The gaps between species are trivial in any event. For example, one supposed gap is the apparently abrupt replacement of Neanderthals by fully-modern humans in Europe. There is increasing evidence that both evolved from a common ancestor, and coexisted for tens of thousands of years as distinct, largely non-interbreeding groups that can be considered different species. Nevertheless, Neanderthals buried their dead with grave offerings of tools and flowers, suggesting religious beliefs. And if religion does not define humanity, what does?

Entropy

Gish claims that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes evolution impossible. The argument is based on classical thermodynamics which only apply to closed systems which are near thermodynamic equilibrium. If you look at the entire system, energy goes from a form able to do work to low-temperature thermal energy unable to do work. This is very loosely associated with the idea that a closed system becomes more disorderly as time goes on. If this argument were true, life would be impossible! Consider an egg, which starts out as a simple mixture of liquid yolk and white, but which organizes itself into a chicken if kept at 100 degrees F for three weeks! The Second Law is obeyed throughout, and the chicken contains less useful (chemical) energy than did the yolk - the difference being the heat produced by the metabolism of the developing chick. The secret is that the egg is far from thermodynamic equilibrium, and only part of the system becomes organized — the part not converted to chick becomes very simple carbon dioxide gas and water vapor.

Similarly, open thermodynamic systems can be organized by importing energy. Your bedroom tends to get messy, but may become more organized if you import your energy and clean it up. The entropy in the room is decreased by your efforts, but by far less than the amount associated with the energy your body used during the cleanup. The Earth imports vast amounts of energy from the Sun, and a minuscule amount of this is used to produce biological order.

Ilya Prigogine received the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that a thermodynamic system that can import energy, or one that is far from equilibrium (i.e. with lots of available energy) not only can, but often must, form organized structures. Only the usual laws of chemistry and physics are needed. Consider a drop of salt water evaporating due to imported heat. The salt changes from a liquid to a more-orderly solid. The net result is increased entropy, but the salt part has nevertheless become more organized. This is a direct consequence of the Second Law (Prigogine et al., Physics Today, Nov. 1972, p. 23ff, Dec. 1972, p. 38ff). The Second Law of Thermodynamics thus appears to be an instrument of creation.

Probability

Creationists claims that, even if not forbidden by the Second Law, the formation of even one functioning biological molecule (enzyme) is hopelessly improbable. A typical enzyme consists of 100 amino acids, and 20 different amino acids are available. Thus, 20 raised to the 100th power combinations are possible, and the probability of one particular sequence forming in one step by chance is about one in 10 followed by 130 zeros. Pretty impressive, but remember that a calculation is only as good as the assumptions that went into it. For many years, the best available aerodynamic theory proved that the bumblebee could not fly! Seems the bumblebee used a trick early aerodynamicists didn’t know about (T. Weis-Fogh, Scientific American 233(5):80-87, 1976).

Just as the bumblebee flew regardless of aerodynamic theory, new functional enzymes form all the time. Microorganisms have acquired new enzymes that allow them to metabolize toxic industrial wastes never occurring in nature (e.g. chlorinated and fluorinated hydrocarbons), and are an increasingly important method of pollution control (Ghosal et al., Science 228:135-142, 1985). Susumi Ohno (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 81:2421-2425, 1984) found that one such new enzyme, nylon linear oligomer hydrolase, resulted from a frame-shift mutation. Frame-shift mutations scramble the entire structure of a protein, and so the enzyme is a random construct! As would be expected, this new enzyme is imperfect and has only 1% the efficiency of typical enzymes, but the important thing is that it works.

The error made by Gish is to require a specific sequence to form all at once and give a perfect result. He omits the gradual improvement of usable but imperfect enzymes by natural selection. Intermediate steps can be functional, because many amino acid sequences may give the same enzyme function. Two amino acid sequences, almost totally different except for the cystine bridge (2 amino acids) in the active site, yield the same enzyme, thioredoxin-S2 (Homgren, Ann. Rev. Biochem. 54:237-271, 1985).

Molecular Taxonomy

Because it makes no difference which amino acid is used at many sites within an enzyme, "silent" mutations that have no noticeable effect on function occur frequently. A family tree can be constructed by examining a specific enzyme, such as cytochrome-c (Fitch and Margoliash, Science 155:279-284, 1967). Species with enzymes differing by few amino acids are placed on nearby branches, while those with many differences are placed on distant branches. This routinely gives the same family tree as the fossil record! Such studies place humans and chimpanzees on adjacent branches. This is an excellent example of a prediction of Darwin’s theory being beautifully confirmed on the laboratory bench.

In July of 1982, Dr. Gish debated Dr. Russell Doolittle on Public TV. In response to the above argument, Gish claimed that some blood proteins were more similar between bullfrogs and man than between chimpanzees and man. His source was a story told by Garniss Curtis (UC-Berkeley) at the July, 1971 Wenner-Gren conference in Austria. It seems there was a rumor of a study comparing blood proteins of humans and bullfrogs that gave the above result (perhaps from the Transylvanian Academy of Sciences?). Curtis predicted (correctly) that the result would not be published or repeated, because it was a dreadful tragedy — the frog was actually an enchanted prince!

Gish defends himself by saying he thought Curtis was serious! I, for one, believe Gish — he has made a career out of going around telling jokes and calling them science, and I find it easy to believe he can’t tell the difference. This is another example of why you should always require and check the original source for claims made by the Institute for Creation Research. The results are often very interesting! For that matter, check out my sources as well.