A Day Among the Creationists
Dr Andrew Parle (the Skeptic 14:3, p40)
Dr Parle has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney.
He is currently working as a principal engineer for Alcatel.
Creationist Meeting, June 2, 1994 at the Christian City Church,
Brookvale, NSW, Australia
There is an old Jewish joke that runs something like this. A poor old Jew around the turn of the century is sitting in his village in Russia reading one of the many anti-Semitic hate sheets that circulated around that part of the world saying: "The Jews are doing this, and the Jews are plotting that, and so on. A friend walks past and is horrified: "How can you bear to read such rubbish as that?" The first Jew calmly turns the page and replies: "I like to read about how powerful I am!".
It is in somewhat the same frame of mind that I attended a Creationist film and lecture meeting where Dr Carl Wieland was the featured speaker. Carl is of course well known to Skeptics as one of the leading lights in the Creation Science Foundation, [now Answers in Genesis] and we have had a number of discussions with him in these pages and elsewhere. This meeting was attractive because it offered the opportunity for questions, which as Skeptics have discovered, is rare in Creationist gatherings. This is what transpired, as seen through Skeptical eyes.
Proceedings started off with film, The Genesis Solution, featuring Ken Ham. I missed the opening, but on the advice of the person taking tickets, I hadn't missed much. Ken was busy explaining - preaching would be a more accurate term - that evolution was a religion. The fact that evolution does not require a supernatural element seems to have escaped him. From then on, evolution was blamed for abortion, racism, homosexuality, slavery, euthanasia, lawlessness, the Holocaust, and the philosophy that "everyone has a right to their own opinion". After all, if you say that the Bible has to be the basis of all of your thinking, that does not leave much space for your own thoughts. The inconvenient fact that all these "problems" existed long before Darwin, was brushed aside - every people who did something that Ham disapproved of was an evolutionist. For example, the ancient Greeks (to whom homosexuality was an accepted part of normal behaviour) clearly believed in evolution on the basis of Aristotle's speculations that different animals might be related.
The main thrust of this film was the syllogism: Evolution means there is no Creator (it doesn't); which means there is no absolute authority (in Ham's words - we are not "owned"); which means there is no restraint on us doing what we want and thinking what we please. The film ended with a plug for a number of books and videos for putting the Creationist message.
Dr Wieland's first talk was titled "Exciting evidences for Creation and against Evolution" but actually it was short on both. After reiterating the claim that "thousands of scientists" support Creation: in evidence, he noted there were a full thousand in South Korea alone (I can believe THAT), he mentioned a few specific cases: a Russell Humphreys who (if I recall correctly) came up with the Creationist model of the geomagnetic field: a concoction with no physical basis whatsoever and clearly designed to satisfy the requirements of the short earth time scale; a thermo-nuclear physicist whose name I did not record (now THAT's a discipline that's useful in researching evolution); our old friend Wilder-Smith with nine - or is it eleven - "earned doctorates"; and Kurt Wise who, when I spoke to him last, was both a scientist and a creationist, he just hadn't got the scientific evidence to justify that belief. That illustrates the problem with testimonial references from scientists: one can be a scientist and a creationist (although the overlap is much smaller than claimed) but that has no great weight for other people unless you believe in creation for scientific reasons.
A brief explanation of genetics followed to introduce the first strike against evolution: industrial melanism and pesticide resistance in insects. Carl maintains - correctly in my opinion - that these have been oversold as if they were direct evidence of [macro] evolution while they are rather neat illustrations of natural selection (the mechanism of micro-evolution). The sub-text (not said, but implied) was that all evolutionists made the claim that this was macro-evolution which is quite false - I could just as easily say that all creationists believe that Alan Roberts brought back photographs of Noah's Ark just because some claimed he did.
A later topic of discussion was selective breeding which had the theme that artificial selection - the example he used was dogs - decreases the gene pool ("lose information"). This approach is interesting because Darwin's Origin of Species opens with a discussion of artificial selection among pigeons (Darwin of course knew nothing of genetics). It is also an oversimplification because artificial selection, and by extension natural selection, also preserves favourable mutations which by definition increase the gene pool. Carl's next example, that of horses, zebra and asses (as an example of variation within a kind) was perhaps a bit unfortunate for him as the gene pool of this group is definitely greater than that of a pair of individuals - these are separate species which even have different numbers of chromosomes and hence could not have been derived from a common ancestor without a macro-evolutionary event - an "increase" in information.
When later questioned about the severe limitation of the gene pool due to the small number of individuals aboard the Ark, Carl departed from orthodox genetics by allowing the alleles (the variants of a gene which lead to different expression of characteristics, only two of which may be held by a single individual for ordinary genes) to be subdivided into the base pairs of DNA, which from an information theory viewpoint would permit two individuals to hold all possible variants of all possible genes. It seems to me that this basically says that genes as individual units of heredity do not exist, but perhaps someone with more training in genetics should take this up.
To Dr Wieland, every mutation is a defect. The examples he chose to give of mutations are the ones we know as genetic diseases, such as sickle-cell anaemia. Now of course most mutations are either neutral or lead to defects in the individual, but not all. Here Carl failed to mention a point which is rather harmful to his case, in that sickle-cell anaemia as a reinforced recessive is lethal, but as a single gene is protective against malaria -which is why it is relatively common in populations such as Americans of African descent. Here is a gene which clearly occurred as a mutation and was preserved because of the overall benefit it gave to members of a population.
Towards the end of this talk, Dr Wieland gave a graphic illustration concerning the origin of life. Now I always thought this topic was a bit of a straw man, in that Creationists invariably bind it up with evolution, which concerns how species originate with other, different species. Although there is plenty of evidence about species change, there is little about life's origin apart from the obvious fact that life exists today. Carl held up a glass of green substance, joking that it was a blended tree frog, and challenged the audience to believe that any living organism could spontaneously assemble itself from the biological parts therein. Very effective in that it appealed to the common sense and experience of the audience, but if one were to consider an ocean full of proto-organic junk and a time scale of hundreds of millions of years, our limited experience does not really count for much.
In all, there was no evidence given in favour of Creation and little against Evolution. This talk, like all the talks, ended with a sales pitch about the books and magazines on sale at the back of the hall.
The second film, The World that Perished, looked at the mechanics of the Flood. First it looked at flood legends from around the world, arguing that they must have had a common basis (some of them do, as we know -the Genesis story is based on an older Babylonian myth). It then purported to look into the physics on whether it is physically possible. The way it approached this crucial topic is to show a white coated scientist opening a Bible. The Ark was hailed as an exceptionally stable ship because of its dimensions - ignoring the obvious point that the structural strength of a wooden ship of that size would be quite low. Estimating 50,000 animals with the average size of a sheep (ignoring fossil species apart from dinosaurs), and going by the packing density possible in a modern railway sheep transport, the film claimed it was possible. As they had already stated that there was only 100,000 square feet of deck space, I reckon they skipped a few decimal points in their figuring. As for the food and manure disposal problem, they resorted to divine intervention, putting the animals into a state of hibernation (I do feel that this critical point would have been mentioned in the Bible, given the amount of trivial detail given in other cases).
Turning to the Flood itself, there were no new ideas except that the "vapour canopy" where the waters above the firmament were stored, now becomes a shield against harmful cosmic rays, explaining why the human life spans were so much greater before the flood. All coal and other fossil fuels were formed quickly from then-living vegetation. Coastlines and fossil lakes show definite edges ("water lines") where the water level remained for some time - this is taken as evidence in favour of them being filled with flood water rather than the reverse. The ocean basins were smaller before the Flood, so that is where the water went to (this rather misses the point, as the water could not possibly evaporate, so all the continents and islands must have been constructed after the Flood.
The film ended with a stern warning about how the world is predicted to end in fire, with the image of a burning city and the door of the Ark slowly closing over the words "Don't let this happen to you!"
Dr Wieland's second contribution was a talk entitled "Fossils, the Flood and the Age of the World". This involved an attack on "theistic evolution" with the claim that making life pass through three billion years of evolution would be cruel of God. This theological argument ignores the fact that extinction is not cruel as it affects species, not individuals; and the further fact that "cruelty" is quite common in both nature and the Old Testament so that divine cruelty (if one chooses to regard it so) is not without precedent. Then Carl got down to the hard science which (as far as I could tell) was mostly factual but largely misinterpreted.
Firstly there were some examples of catastrophic creation of rocks and geographical features, such as layers of volcanic dust laid down by the Mount St Helen eruption. The intention seemed to be to refute the anti-catastrophic geology from the early part of this century: if so, it caricatured contemporary geology where catastrophe and gradualism are both recognised. As the audience was mostly lay (from a scientific point of view) they may have taken it to mean that all rocks can be created in a very short time (which is false).
Next came a discussion of fossil preservation. Carl made the point both that fossilisation is rare and that it frequently requires unusual circumstances: an animal to be buried before it can be eaten or decay, for example. It was good to hear a Creationist acknowledge the rarity of fossilisation, as this is more often used as an argument in favour of evolution, but the point Carl was making was that the Flood could provide the conditions of sudden burial to permit fossils to be formed.
I wondered, if this were the case, why there weren't a lot more fossils than we currently find. After all, the number of fossilised individual animals is only a tiny fraction of the number alive today or at any time in even a short earth history - so if the entire population perished in a Flood providing good conditions for fossilisation, there should be a lot more fossils!
When the discussion turned to coal, the rarity of fossilisation turned to a near certainty. Carl maintained that all coal was formed during the Flood, and that there were very large areas (such as much of Australia) where coal occurs to a remarkable thickness. It is clear that almost all plants alive at any one time would be needed to form so much coal - so why is there not a corresponding abundance of animal fossils?
There was a brief discussion of intermediate forms which was notable only for the speed in which Archaeopteryx (avian but with some reptilian characteristics) and the platypus (mammalian but with some reptilian characteristics) were dismissed. As far as I recall, the lungfish was not mentioned. Carl's discussion of fossils finished with a flourish of quotes from the (revised) Quote Book.
Up to this point it was a fairly standard Creationist attack upon evolution, concentrating on what are seen as its weak points. This is fine if all one wants to do is sway a lay audience, but was disappointing in that I had hoped that alternative explanations might be raised to answer some of evolution's strong points, such as the questions: Why is there such a thing as a "mammal" if these animals are not in some way related? Why do many species (such as man) have organs which are useless but which serve some function in similar species? If every species or group of species is individually created, why do we see hierarchical relationships between them? From the Creationists, there is only silence.
Next was a list of physical phenomena which (it was claimed) indicated that the Earth or the Universe could not be billions of years old. Among the candidates: spiral galaxy wind-up time, the survival of comets, the amount of sea salt, the depth of silt on the sea floor, and the concentration of atmospheric Helium, which supposedly give upper limits ranging from 10000 years (for comets) to 100 million years (for spiral galaxies). The spiral galaxy argument is based on a number of unlikely assumptions about galactic dynamics, which has recently been revolutionised by the probable discovery of massive black holes in a galactic nucleus. The comet argument is based on the idea that all comets are relics of the origin of the solar system (probably true); have had similar orbits since they formed (probably false) and have had fairly short orbital periods for that time (certainly false). The amount of salt in the sea sounded like an argument I had heard previously based on a misreading of data about solute residence times, and the Helium argument has been answered long ago.
Things got interesting when Carl talked of a common argument against Creation in the recent past: the light from distant stars. In the past, Creationists have put forward a couple of explanations: that light was created coming from distant stars at the same time the stars themselves were created ; and that the speed of light was much higher in the past. Carl dismissed the first on theological grounds and the second on physical, although I have no doubt we will be hearing them both from other quarters for some time. The latest theory relies on General Relativity using the time dilation in a gravitational field. In brief, time passed more slowly on Earth due to gravity. Now this is quite correct, but the effect is far too small to get the factor of millions to one between "Earth Time" and "Universal Time" that would be required. I cannot feel that this theory has legs, both because the numbers just don't add up, but mostly because of the look on the audience's faces as they listened to Carl trying to explain what happens to someone as they fall into a black hole.
One quote from this section stuck in my mind: "Cosmologists have a religious aversion to edges." I guess this is true, because it is difficult to imagine what might be on the other side of the edge of the universe.
There was a useful question time after this talk, where I asked why there were no human fossils mixed up in the same rock layers as dinosaurs. Carl gave a very reasonable reply: he said he didn't know, but hypothesised that since God intended to destroy mankind, He may have deliberately removed all traces of his existence.
The third film illustrated an increasing trend in Creationist debate: they are pushing dinosaurs as hard as they can. The Great Dinosaur Mystery looked at what happened to dinosaurs after the Flood, and hypothesised that legends of dragons actually referred to dinosaur survivors. Weak on logical argument, but the kids will lap it up.
Dr Wieland's last talk was entitled, "The Most Asked Questions". Here we found out that Cain's wife was in fact his sister, but there was (a) no risk of birth defects because Adam and Eve had no bad recessive genes, and (b) there was no problem with incest because there was no law against incest before Moses. This was a great relief. We also found out that as all races started out even from the time of the Tower of Babel, then the "backwards" races (such as the Australian Aborigines) were those which had rejected God. I wondered how the Chinese fitted into this scheme. There was a further question time after this talk, but as the contents were so subjective, it was difficult to find common ground for a sensible discussion.
To conclude: this meeting was aimed at the evangelical Church with the intention of making Christians reject theistic evolution either on theological grounds or what passes for science. To help them make this decision, all evils in the world are placed at the feet of evolution. It seems to me that their argument is really against atheism, and the attempt to equate evolution and atheism is merely a subterfuge to exclude the middle ground of theistic evolution. Dr Wieland and the attendees I talked to were (mostly) polite and reasonable even if they regretted that I was so misguided.