RNCSE 18 (6)

Articles available online are listed below.

Vine Deloria Jr, Creationism, and Ethnic Pseudoscience

Vine Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux, has been an important advocate for American Indians for more than 25 years. He has defended Indian claims in the courts; he has acted as an Indian spokesman in Washington. Deloria is also a professor of history, law, and religious studies at the University of Colorado.

His books have brought Indian concerns to a broad audience. He burst upon the scene in 1969 with Custer Died for Your Sins, and he has continued to write about injustices done the Indians by the government, the schools, the church, anthropologists, and the courts. Most recently he has taken on the scientists in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Imagine how Deloria's own people must have felt when this distinguished man returned to the Standing Rock Reservation to talk — no, to consult — with them about science. Deloria describes just such a scene in this book. He returns to the reservation and delivers a speech. In this speech he discusses a problem in paleontology that he is currently working on. Deloria believes that a certain sawtooth-backed "monster" in one of the Sioux tales is really a stegosaurus:
After my speech a couple of the traditional people approached me and said that the next time I came, if I had time, they would take me to see the spot where the people last saw this creature, implying that it was still possible to see the animal during the last century before the reservations were established. I gave their knowledge credence (p 243).
Deloria is telling us that he believes that these "traditional people" have helped him to prove that the scientists are wrong — that dinosaurs did not go extinct millions of years ago; a hundred years ago the Sioux saw the stegosaurus walking in the Badlands. He "gave their knowledge credence." Imagine how these "traditional people," these Standing Rock Sioux, must have felt to have Vine Deloria, a university professor and one of their own, talking with them seriously about paleontology — and giving credence to what they were able to tell him about the stegosaurus, what they were able to tell him out of the storehouse of their traditional knowledge. Anyone who knows anything at all about American Indian history must understand what a moment this must have been.

Red Earth, White Lies was written in the spirit of that evening — the book promotes not just the value of American Indian oral traditions, but the scientific value of American Indian oral traditions. And the book is also a heady indictment of the white man's science. The only problem, of course, is that Deloria is wrong. He was wrong on that memorable evening — whatever the beast in the tale might be, the Sioux could not have seen a stegosaurus a hundred years ago. And he is just as obviously wrong on almost every page of Red Earth, White Lies. Some examples follow.

On the Earth as a Youthful Planet

Deloria doubts that the earth is billions of years old; indeed, he writes, "Most American Indians, I believe, were here 'at the beginning' and have preserved the memory of traumatic continental and planetary catastrophes" (p 251). The geologists are simply wrong in their reading of the geological record. For example, "vulcanism was a onetime event" (p 235).

Dinosaurs and Human Beings

Indians tell stories about a time when there were monsters on the earth. Some of these monsters Deloria recognizes as dinosaurs: "That is to say, humans and some creatures we have classified as dinosaurs were contemporaries" (p 241). Deloria is inclined to credit one western tribe's belief that they have in their possession "an unfossilized dinosaur bone" (p 241). And as we have seen, he believes that the Sioux saw the stegosaurus walking in the Badlands a hundred years ago.

On Noah's Flood

Deloria believes in the historical reality of the biblical flood, because "Indian traditions also spoke of a great flood... and they had their own culture heroes who followed the same procedure as Noah" (p 61-2). In fact, the Old Testament account of Noah's flood "may very well provide evidence of the basic accuracy of the Indian story" (p 207). Just as his forefathers built their encampments in a circle, so Deloria builds his arguments.

On Pilgrims and Mammoths

Deloria argues that "there were mammoths or mastodons still living in the eastern United States at the time the Pilgrims landed" (p 143).

On the Mormon View of the Origin of the American Indians

Deloria gives credence to the Mormon contention that the American Indians came from the Middle East (p 62).

On the Effects of Increased Levels of Carbon Dioxide

Deloria is convinced that increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to gigantism; this explains the size of the mammoths and the giant sloths — just as it explains the increasing size of human beings since the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Indeed, Deloria sees the increase of carbon dioxide (which most of us worry about in connection with global warming) as one reason for the increased size of football and basketball players since he was in high school (p 172-7).

On the Change in the Coefficient of Gravity

Deloria is inclined to think that the coefficient of gravity has fluctuated so widely as to account (with the increased levels of carbon dioxide) for the gigantism we find in the age of the dinosaurs and again in the age of the mammoths and giant sloths (p 174).

On Ecology

By way of dismissing the idea that such animals as the mammoth might have gone extinct because of climate change, Deloria writes that "It hardly seems possible that any animal, living in a more benign region for a change, would promptly expire" (p 164) — as though penguins, for example, would really be better off in San Diego.

On Evolution

Evolution is a failed theory: "[E]ven the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in the rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages" (p 40). At one point Deloria refers dismissively to "the outmoded sequence of alleged human evolution" (p 217). Once Deloria has considered the evidence he asks, "Where is evolution?" (p 238).

On the Character of Science

Scientists are virtually incapable of independent thinking; they are hobbled by their reverence for orthodoxy (p 42-4, 50-1, 154-5, 180, 202, 231-2). Scientists characteristically persecute those who dare to advance unorthodox views. Science is thus essentially a religion (p 17-8, 41, 87, 178, 251) — and scientists are in the thrall of their scientific myths. In many areas science is nothing more than "a hilarious farce" (p 202).

Most readers will recognize in much of this the lineaments of "creation science". But for those who have (quite reasonably) paid little attention to "creation science", here is a good, brief characterization of the movement:
The creationists have learned a lot in their long struggle to unseat evolution. Trial and error has shown them what doesn't work: Anti-science doesn't, efforts to ban [the teaching of] evolution don't, and purely religious invective is also a losing proposition. The idea of being open-minded, religiously neutral, and scientific has gained such wide credence (or at least lip service) that creationists can't successfully oppose it, no matter how much they might like to. So, their new tactic is to declare creationism scientific, then join in with the majority and espouse the virtues of the times in their own name. In this way they can pose as latter-day Galileos being persecuted by "orthodox" science (Edwords 1980: 4-5).
Add to this a large measure of standard-issue American Ethnic Invective, and you have Deloria's method exactly.

Ethnic Pseudoscience

Of course Deloria is not the first American ethnic to question mainstream science and scholarship. Deloria's closest pseudoscientific cousins may be in the Afrocentric movement. African-American "melanin scholars", for example Martin Bernal, have as their basic tenet that melanin (the pigment found in all humans) has remarkable properties (Ortiz de Montellano 1991, 1991/1992; Griffin 1996; Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996). So those who have lots of melanin have large powers.

Thus it is melanin that is responsible for the athletic prowess of African-Americans and for the superior intelligence and extra-sensory potential of blacks in general. Melanin also accounts for the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, who were black, according to the melanin scholars. This allows the melanin scholars to provide pseudoscientific underpinnings for an Afrocentric creation myth. According to the melanin scholars, then, it was melanin that allowed Africans to "invent" fire, language, and time.

None of this would matter much if scholars who know better would respond to such arguments on their merits. But educated people of good will recognize in such scholarship the aspirations of disadvantaged peoples for a place at the table of learning. Sympathizing as they do with the yearnings of the dispossessed, educated people of good will often pretend to see real contributions to learning in ethnic pseudoscience and pseudoscholarship.

I was struck, for example, by the dust jacket blurbs for Red Earth, White Lies. Leslie Marmon Silko writes that the book "shoots down a whole herd of sacred cows — from Charles Darwin's cow to Samuel Eliot Morison's bull." Goodness; does Silko — who is a university professor, after all — really believe that Deloria has disposed of the theory of evolution? In genuine puzzlement, I wrote to ask her this question, but I received no response. (I am not certain that she received the letter.)

Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the best known books on American Indian history, wrote that Deloria is "lambasting scholars and scientists for filling our heads with nonsense while they ignore the traditional knowledge of native tribes." I wrote Brown, again in genuine puzzlement, to ask him if he really meant this: "Deloria even argues," I wrote, "that human beings and dinosaurs were on the earth at the same time."

Brown reminded me that "some of the creation myths tell of green scum heated by the sun being washed ashore to begin terrestrial life." Yes, one might respond, and a Navajo myth tells of four consecutive worlds with the creatures passing from one to the next by ladders. Probably paleontologists and geologists would be as little aided by the one myth as by the other. And of course it is only the work of the scientists which makes the "green scum" myth seem more like science than the "ladders" myth. Surely Brown cannot really think that geologists and paleontologists would be further along if they spent less time looking at rocks and more time interpreting Kwakiutl myths.

But Brown makes another suggestion:
Deloria has a Siouan sense of black humor, and likes to tease his readers. Unless he has changed in the last few years, he would laugh at the idea of men and dinosaurs living together. But then he might tell you that.
So, Brown is not convinced, really, that dinosaurs and human beings were on the earth at the same time. No, Brown thinks it likely that ol' trickster Deloria is just counting coup in his on-going culture war with the Anglo establishment, just having fun with me — and all the others who might be willing to fork over $23 for a book advertised to dispel "the myth of scientific fact". But if Deloria's book is just a politico-ethnic practical joke, it seems to have taken in another of the blurb writers.

Father Peter J Powell wrote that this book "is the most important scholarly work" Deloria has written. Powell expresses the hope that the book will "persuade Anglo scholars to accord American Indian elders that respect owed them as repositories of the greatest wisdom concerning the nature of this continent that exists." Powell has written widely on American Indian history, and he has worked for many years among Indians of several tribes. He is a learned man — and so I wrote to him in puzzlement. He wrote back to assure me that, yes, he really does believe that "geologists should take American Indian traditions seriously." He really is "convinced that ultimately geologists will discover the succession of geological events recalled in the tribal traditions to be empirically sound" — but then Father Powell reminds me that he is a priest, that he writes as one for whom "theology is the queen of the sciences." And so we return to creationism.

Political and Legal Consequences

All of this is diverting, but we should remember that when theology or affirmative action drives science, there can be real-world consequences. Most immediately, we should worry that Deloria's affirmative-action science might work its way into public school science curricula. Deloria puts it this way: "All we ask is respect for the other traditions and some of their versions of origins" (p 187). This is, of course, exactly the disingenuous argument of the creationists, as they strive to get "creation science" into the schools and textbooks: "We are only asking that both theories be taught." But well-meaning academics who scorn this argument when it comes from Christian creationists, often encourage ethnic pseudoscience curricula out of a sense of cultural noblesse oblige. And so we end up with real science for the nice, white suburbs, and self-affirming pseudoscience for the reservations and inner cities.

Deloria has another motive of ethnic self-interest as well. Deloria must be hoping that Red Earth, White Lies will have real legal consequences. For Deloria the lawyer, "proof" of the veracity of Indian oral traditions can be crucial in treaty claims — where Indian tribal memory is sometimes importantly in conflict with written treaties (p 230). Numerous court cases pit Indian understanding of a treaty against the literal wording of the treaty. In many of these cases, this means that Indian tribal memory — oral tradition — is being pitted against what is written.

The Idaho Court of Appeals (Swim v Bergland 1983), for example, ruled that agreements between the United States and Indian tribes are to be construed according to the probable understanding of original tribal signatories. The Washington Court of Appeals (Fry v US 1981) decided that evidence of tribal custom is a proper basis for judicial conclusions about the present effect of Indian treaty provisions. Such arguments will be easier for Deloria the lawyer to make if he can point to Red Earth, White Lies as "proving" that Indian oral traditions have real scientific standing. If academics agree that his book "proves" that oral traditions can help the paleontologists, then oral traditions obviously ought to be accepted as proof in questions of legal ownership dating back a mere century, say.

I would not be misunderstood: I do not mean to deny that oral traditions might be important evidence in a court of law; I certainly do not mean to deny the worth of oral traditions. Indeed, I have devoted a good deal of attention to certain aspects of American Indian oral traditions (see Brumble 1988). And of course a good deal of scientific attention is being paid to oral traditions having to do with plants, to ethnobotany. But Deloria devotes only two pages of Red Earth, White Lies to ethnobotany (p 58-59). The book has mainly to do with "geomythology" (60).

Foundations of Competent Scholarship

I do want to point out that Deloria, the creationists, and the melanin scholars differ importantly from scientists. Deloria and company are fundamentally anti-rational — even as they try to wrap the mantle of science about their beliefs. Thus they are content with seeming scientific arguments to buttress beliefs which they hold independent of evidence. Deloria, for example, takes up a familiar creationist strain in mocking the evolutionists for lacking any "transitional forms" in the fossil record:
[E]ven the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in the rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages.... Apparently somewhere, and at a time unknown, when species were ready to evolve they went offstage, made their changes, and then rushed back into the geologic strata to leave evidence of their existence (p 40).
In fact, by the time Deloria was penning these lines, the paleontological world was already abuzz with the news that transitional forms had been found. In the January 14, 1994 issue of Science Thewissen and Aria described the fossil skeleton of a whale with large, complete, and functional hind legs — legs which would have allowed this early whale to get about on the land! Gould calls this a "bag packer for creationists", the paleontological "smoking gun" (1995: 366-7). This was big news, and Science is not exactly an obscure journal. The publication of the article was early enough for Deloria to have read the piece (or even Gould's April, 1994, account of the discovery in Natural History reprinted in Gould 1995: 359-76), had he been doing the kind of reading one would have to do in order to write a book responsibly attacking the basic tenets of geology and paleontology.

But even had he read the article, Deloria's thinking would probably have been undisturbed — for the same reason that the melanin scholars are undisturbed by easily available scientific accounts of melanin. They are not doing science really — they are promoting a cause. But one of the many sad things about affirmative-action ethnic pseudoscience is that their cause doesn't really need pseudoscience or pseudoscholarship. It has been the anthropologists, after all, who have been largely responsible for providing the scholarly foundation for cultural relativism. And the weight of scientific research, for another example, now opposes the idea that intelligence is tied to race. Deloria seems to forget this when, in the course of recounting the sins of the scientists, he mentions the notorious case of Cyril Burt:
Perhaps the epitome of scientific fraud was the work of Sir Cyril Burt on twins. Fearful of criticism of his work, Burt simply performed the peer-review process by himself, writing glowing reviews of his work using pseudonyms. This deceit, and the manipulation of statistical data in his studies was eventually exposed (p 41-2).
Deloria misses much here. Burt's work claimed to find a very high correlation between IQ scores of twins raised apart. This was regarded as important evidence for hereditarian views — evidence which was useful to those who claimed that race could determine intelligence. But ethnic pseudoscience was not necessary to reveal Burt's fraud. Here is the story as Gould tells it:
I think that the splendid "official" biography of Burt recently published by LS Hearnshaw (1979) has resolved the issue so far as the data permit (Hearnshaw was commissioned to write his book by Burt's sister before any charges had been leveled). Hearnshaw, who began as an unqualified admirer of Burt and who tends to share his intellectual attitudes, eventually concluded that all allegations are true, and worse (1981: 236).
Hearnshaw, then, actually began as an apologist for Burt, but when he found real evidence of fraud, he was forced to change his mind. This is real scholarship. My guess is that Deloria will not change his mind about "transitional forms" (and so about evolution and creationism) just because of the walking whales.

Concluding Parable

In the hope of influencing those who read ethnic pseudoscience with affirmative action in their hearts, I offer in closing this parable:
A man in tweed stands before an academic audience. He is, let us say, a professor of English (as I am); he has (like me) no scientific training, aside from some amateur reading. He delivers a series of lectures on "creation science". He acknowledges that his religious affiliation is, let us say, Pentecostal, to suggest that he is guided by the spirit.

In his lectures he argues that the scientists have it all wrong, that the earth was created, and not created some unimaginable billions of years ago. He asserts that, while he is not certain of the age of the earth, he is fairly sure that human beings were on earth with the dinosaurs, that human beings were on earth to see the formation of the mountains. And all of the earth's igneous rock poured forth in one great volcanic cataclysm triggered by the impact of a great meteor. He argues that the universal flood of the book of Genesis is probably historical fact.

His scientific breakthrough, he explains, is that he is bringing to bear the testimonies of the people who actually witnessed these events. He presents the testimonies of pre-literate peoples as preserved in their oral traditions of which he is a skilled interpreter; he shows how these oral traditions are very often exactly in keeping with Old Testament accounts. He argues that many scientists actually know the truth of the biblical account of creation (as corroborated by pre-literate peoples) — but they are cowed into dishonest silence by the fear of ostracism from the cozy scientific community. His lectures are applauded by this academic audience and endorsements are written by some rather eminent figures in attendance.
This would, of course, be highly unlikely. Most of the well educated people who praise Red Earth, White Lies would be embarrassed even to be found in the audience on such an occasion. Most academics would work hard to prevent such "fundamentalist" notions from intrusion into the science curriculum of their children's school. But change lecture to book published by Scribner's, change Pentacostal Christian to charismatic Sioux religion — and this unlikely fantasy is exactly what Vine Deloria has accomplished.


Adams HH. African and African-American contributions to science and technology. African-American Baseline Essays. Portland: Muhnomah School District, 1990.

Bernal M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol 1. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 1987.

Bernal M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol 2. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 1992.

Brumble HD. American Indian Autobiography. Los Angeles: U California Press, 1988.

Cole JR. It ain't necessarily so: Giants and biblical literalism. Creation/Evolution 1985; 5: 48-56.

Deloria V Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Deloria V Jr. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Deloria V Sr. The Standing Rock Reservation: A personal reminiscence. South Dakota Review 1971; 9:167-95.

Edwords F Why creationism should not be taught as science. Creation/Evolution 1980; 1:2-23.

Gould SJ. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Gould SJ. Dinosaur in a Haystack. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

Griffin J. Anxieties of influence. New York Review of Books 1996; 43(8): 67-73.

Hearnshaw LS. Cyril Burt Psychologist. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979.

Lefkowitz MR, Rogers GM. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 1996.

Nelkin D. The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Numbers RI. The Creationists. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Ortiz de Montellano BR. Multicultural pseudoscience. Spreading scientific illiteracy among minorities — Part I. Skeptical Inquirer 1991; 2.

Ortiz de Montellano BR. Afrocentric creationism. Creation/Evolution 1991/92; 19: 2-8.

Patten D. The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch. Seattle: Pacific Meridian, 1966.

Thewissen JGM, Aria M. Fossil evidence for the origin of aquatic locomotion in archaeocete whales. Science 1994; 263: 210-2.

About the Author(s): 
H David Brumble
College of Arts and Sciences
Univ. of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh PA 15260
email: brumble+@pitt.edu
Vine Deloria Jr, Creationism, and Ethnic Pseudoscience
H David Brumble
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Over the Hump — Taking the AIG Camel Challenge!

A Camel Skull!!!

How Can a Camel Skull Be Used in the Ministry?

Take a look at the following three overheads. I think you will see how we can use even a camel skull to show that our pre-conceived ideas will influence how we see the world around us. Remember when you use these the audience will not know (usually) that it is a camel skull.

1. First show this graphic and have the audience give you feedback. ... Was this animal a flesh-eater, omnivore etc. Point out the "sharp teeth", what would this animal have used these teeth for?

2.Then show this next graphic. This is a drawing made showing what one person (the artist) thought the animal may have looked like.

3. Lastly, show this graphic of what the animal really was. Even though something has sharp teeth it doesn't necessarily "prove" that it ate meat.

In the same way we have to have all of the information before we can know what happened in the past. Only God was there in the beginning and has told us what has happened. We have to trust Him when it comes to issues such as the origin of man, earth, the universe etc. These issues are outside of the realm of science and cannot be "proven". I hope these help!


Answers in Genesis maintains a web site with resources for teachers, including images that can be downloaded to make into overhead transparencies and suggestions for how to use them. The designers of these materials expect the users to have an uncritical acceptance of a literal interpretation of the Bible, but they are presented using "buzz words" that supposedly promote "critical thinking" among students. In order to show how data can be misinterpreted without the proper "guidance", AIG provided line drawings of a camel's skull and some artists' renditions of the "fleshed-out" head (see sidebar for the text of the AIG "lesson plan"). I decided to take the challenge and use the AIG materials in my introductory course in zoology during the 1998 spring semester.

The School and Students

This course fulfilled a basic science requirement for students at Madison (WI) Area Technical College (MATC). There were no prerequisites, and most of the students would not go on to specialize in any area of the sciences. In short, this could be the last or the only science education many of these students would receive. Most of the students were adults returning to school after a number of years or recent high-school graduates whose grades, prior scholastic preparation, or financial situation precluded matriculation at a baccalaureate institution. Most of these students were in the "college-transfer" program, which meant that they hoped to transfer these credits to a school that granted a 4-year degree.

During the one-semester Animal Biology course, we explored the typical zoology topics — basic chemistry, cell biology, genetics, evolution, ecology, and comparative biology (anatomy, physiology, and behavior). Because MATC has a strong program for animal technicians, our teaching lab contained skeletons and mounted specimens of a number of species. We were also fortunate to have access to the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum to supplement our teaching. Athough the department had a staff to prepare specimens and schedule laboratory use, the small class size meant that all instruction — classroom, laboratory, field trips, and discussion sections — were led by the course instructor. There were 2 "sections" of the course — 16-17 students in each.

By the time I discovered the AIG materials in March, these students had already studied specimens at the UW Geology Museum and had begun comparative studies of skeletal materials in their laboratory sections. One of the assignments in that exercise was to examine skeletal material, including teeth, to understand the relationship between dental anatomy and behavior (including food sources). The AIG challenge to bring these images directly to these students seemed to me to be the ultimate "authentic assessment" of their learning and my teaching. If they could apply their "book learning" to this "real-life" situation, then they really did grasp the process that we call "science as a way of knowing" (SAAWOK). It was not without a little trepidation that I presented the AIG materials during the 2-hour discussion sections.


Figure 1: Camel Skull IllustrationFigure 1: Camel Skull Illustration
The first AIG overhead is a line drawing of the skull of a camel (see Figure 1). True to the AIG expectations only one of my students — a young woman from North Africa — knew what sort of animal this was (see sidebar). She agreed to sit on the sidelines and fill us in later on camel behavior and ecology and how they relate to the structures we observed. Also true to AIG expectations was the students' initial reaction — they focused immediately on the tall, pointed teeth in the front of the skull as I asked the what sort of food these animals ate. But then things changed.

These students with a minimum of prior instruction in comparative anatomy also noticed the molars — high, flat teeth which are typical of animals eating grasses and tough vegetation. One student remarked that, although the "anterior dentition" is impressive, it is really the back teeth which dominate the mouth. They seem more "important" to the animal than the few larger pointed teeth in the front.

Because they had already examined the dentition of flesh-eating, plant-eating, and omnivorous reptiles and mammals in the museum and lab, the students were able to see that the "sharp" teeth in the front of the jaw were not really sharp! The teeth were tall and narrow, but even the line drawing showed that they were blunt, not sharp.These students had seen large canines and incisors in plant-eating animals and knew that these were used in a variety of social and antipredator behaviors — not for eating meat. Furthermore, many were familiar with horses and deer and recognized that the combination of lower incisors with a bony "cutting board" in the upper jaw is useful for animals that bite off tough stems or grasses.

Figure 2: Artist's Rendition of the Head of a Flesh-EaterFigure 2: Artist's Rendition of the Head of a Flesh-Eater
The discussion of the qualities of the skull lasted about 20 minutes, and then I introduced the second AIG image (see Figure 2). This artist's rendition of the living animal clearly presents the animal as a flesh-eater. After discussing the rendition in small groups for about 10 minutes, the students came up with 2 reasons to reject this image as inappropriate. The first was the shape of the mouth. One group noticed that the "lips" opened far back into the jaw. This is good for flesh-eaters which need to open wide to kill and tear chunks of flesh from their prey or which use teeth near the back of the jaw as a sort of "bone-cracker". However, for grazing animals, like camels, horses, and deer, that need to chew their food a lot, the "cheeks" help keep the food between the teeth while chewing. The mouth is smaller and the molars almost never show In this rendition, the students suspected that the half-chewed food would keep falling out of the animal's mouth.

Second, the students noticed that the front teeth were not "sharp" and that the lack of teeth at the front of the upper jaw would cause serious problems for any animal that needed to tear flesh or deliver a deep puncture wound to its prey. This animal had none of the sharp, piercing, slicing teeth needed to be a competent predator.

Figure 3: Artist's Rendition of the Head of a CamelFigure 3: Artist's Rendition of the Head of a Camel
Then, following the AIG "lesson plan", I showed the students the artist's rendition of the camel's head (see Figure 3). All the students agreed within minutes that this head was the more likely fit. They were willing to hedge their bets as to whether the skull had to be a camel, but they clearly saw that the animal had to be a plant-eater and not a flesh-eater. Of course, they had already rejected the flesh-eater as a good fit solely on the basis of anatomical evidence. They had seen skulls of many animals and recognized that the dental anatomy in this animal was that of a plant-eater with special adaptations for "mowing" stems and grinding foods, not piercing and tearing.

At last, our North African student gave us a brief account of camels in her homeland. Once she explained how and what camels eat, their social organization, and their behavior, there was a "chorus" of nods and murmurs.


An important part of the "discussion" sections in this class was a period for reflection on ideas and issues raised in the course or on the various learning activities, such as this one, that they engaged in. It is a classic SAAWOK component — what do we know and what makes us sure we know it? The students needed to identify the question(s) they were asking, the data available to them, what else they might need to know to answer the questions(s), and how to present their conclusions persuasively (for example, Stewart and Jungek 1995). An important part of this process is to identify the evidence and the materials used in the process and to explore how they influenced our conclusions (Petto and Petto 1997).

In this activity, the students recognized that the prominent front teeth had tended to attract their attention away from the other evidence and away from a more thorough examination of the anatomical features in the camel skull. This attraction, they agreed, prompted them to jump to conclusions about the nature of the organism before they had a chance to consider all the information available. Perhaps most important, the students recognized that a focus on the large front teeth caused them to put aside — at least temporarily — their previous knowledge and experience which were vital for solving the problem.

The AIG website invites us to "show that our pre-conceived ideas will influence how we see the world around us" without, of course, telling us that the AIG conclusions are derived from Genesis 1:30: "And to every beast of the of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat." This is the passage that AIG Director Ken Ham uses in his lecture to "prove" that Tyrranosaurus rex was a plant-eater (See Skip Evans's "Creationism: A trip to the dark side" RNCSE 1998 Mar/Apr;18[2]:22-2). If abandoning the scientific evidence in favor of a 6000-year-old scriptural account doesn't constitute being influenced by "pre-conceived ideas", I don't know what does.

In the end, however, these students really came through and performed as AIG said they ought to — forming their conclusions on the basis of the evidence and not on "pre-conceived ideas". I couldn't have written a more appropriate and challenging final exam.


Special thanks to the students in my spring 1998 Animal Biology class at Madison Area Technical College. Without them, this outcome would not have been possible, but most of all, thanks for proving that you were learning something about the process of science as well as the data.


AIG Tools for Teachers Website, http://www.answersingenesis.org/Webman/Article.asp?Old=camskull.html last accessed Dec 29, 1998.

Petto AJ, Petto SG. Portfolio assessment from the fine arts to the sciences:The ‘Feldman’ 4-part analysis. Uncensored Community College List (UCC-L) Resources Page, http://www.taft.cc.ca.us/tclistsresources/portfolios.html last accessed Oct 1998.

Stewart J, Jungek J. Problem-posing, problem-solving, and persuasion in biological investigations. Bio QUEST Library. Beloit (WI): BioQuest Curriculum Consortium, 1995.
Over the Hump — Taking the AIG Camel Challenge!
Andrew J Petto
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.