On a Mission from God

Australian creationist Peter Sparrow toured New Zealand recently.

Peter Sparrow is a black-bearded, bespectacled, bear of a man. He is cheery, articulate, and an excellent spokesman for the Creation Science Foundation (a “faith-funded” organisation with a presence in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Britain), under whose auspices he recently toured New Zealand. Originally from Australia, he has been touring that country for a number of years spreading a similar message to the one he delivered here.

In his travels over a three-month period, he addressed 53 meetings throughout the country. My brother John and I caught up with him on the 50th such occasion, at the East St Apostolic Church in Hamilton. Also present was Graeme Williams, a temporary maths lecturer at Waikato University, whom I had contacted through the Usenet newsgroup talk.origins, and perhaps a hundred of the faithful.

The talk began with a brief account of Sparrow’s own conversion to the cause. At school, he said, he had been convinced that science had proven God did not exist, and that the secret to success in life was survival of the fittest. This he understood to mean walking over everybody else to achieve his goals. His life became complicated, however, when he met and fell in love with a Christian girl, who wouldn’t accept his arguments.

Confused, (he felt that for humanists there should be no such thing as love, since this meant giving something of yourself, making you weaker) he fled his native Adelaide for New Zealand where, to cut a long story short, he was converted to creationism — and two seconds later to Christianity — by listening to some creationist tapes while doing the dishes. The tapes made him realise, he said, that God had made him, and therefore owned him, and had the right to make rules over his life.

A belief in evolution provided no such rules for living, and led to a life of lawlessness, devoid of meaning, and a tolerance of such evils as homosexuality, pornography and abortion. Creationism, by contrast, required an acceptance of laws and standards, and gave meaning to life. The story of Adam’s Fall was also necessary to provide meaning for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross: if there were no Fall, and if humanity were not born into sin, then Christianity was without foundation.

The creationist cause was therefore fundamental to the church’s fight for its very survival: according to Sparrow, evolution represents an attack by Satan at the church’s foundation. His main message, then, was that Christians should not be fighting at the level of issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, since these were only symptoms of the underlying evil of evolutionary theory, whose amorality was progressively eroding society. It was necessary to get children out of the state education system into Christian or home schooling, to use creationist material in evangelical work, and to show up the flaws in the evolutionary model.

This he attempted to do at first by way of an analogy: he told a story of a printing press exploding and a completed book assembling itself page by page from the wreckage. Not surprisingly no-one believed the story, yet, he maintained, this was the sort of thing evolutionists expected people to believe. Chance and random processes produced only chaos, but evolutionists clung to the belief that they could produce order because the only alternative was creation and this required God.

He next produced examples of apparent design in nature: a nettle hair that was more complex than a hypodermic needle, velcro-like hooks on a plant leaf, and bacterial cells, which were far more complex than the needle point (looking very rough and blunt in the electron micrograph) on which they were sitting.

He showed photos of cliffs and canyons, produced in a day or two by the eruption of Mt St Helens, and argued that this showed that Noah’s Flood could have created massive sediment deposits, and carved out landforms such as the Grand Canyon. Finally, he attacked the textbook picture of horse evolution, maintaining that since all the species of varying sizes in one picture he showed all lived at the same time, they could not represent stages in a line of descent, any more than a girl could be the same age as her grandmother.

The talk was followed by the screening of a 1977 film, The World that Perished, a well-made if unintentionally hilarious retelling of the Flood story. (One small point: we were told how Noah sealed his Ark with pitch, then later that the petrochemical deposits were formed as a result of the Flood. Pitch is a petrochemical: where did Noah get his pitch from?)

Sparrow then went on to promote the books, magazines and tapes he had with him. These covered three tables, and included children’s books, the CSF’s Creation magazine, books on the scientific evidence for creation, and one with the answers to the most frequently asked questions creationists have to face. This one, he said, explained how the tuatara got to New Zealand from Mt Ararat. It actually spoke about the platypus in Australia, but, he assured us, change the name, and the argument still applied. This I had to see, so I headed straight for it. Predictably, it talked about land bridges. Across the Tasman Sea? Which is two miles deep? When according to the creationists the sea was at its shallowest during the flood and has only got deeper as the land masses rose up and the sea floor fell?

To his credit, Sparrow allowed plenty of time afterwards for discussion, and seemed a little flustered when I collared him on this one, hedging that maybe as things found their new levels a land bridge could still have existed temporarily. It was difficult to pursue any line of argument for too long, however, as there were only three of us surrounded by several of Sparrow’s supporters. I feel we handled ourselves quite well, and would like to think we planted some doubts in the minds of a few listeners. I was able to point out that descent of species should not be confused with descent of individuals, so comments about granddaughters and grandmothers, with respect to the horse family, were inappropriate.

I also went some way towards dealing with the matter of “random processes” in nature, showing that the notebook I was holding predictably moved downwards when released, rather than heading off in a random direction. The point was that there are natural laws and processes at work in the universe which make non-random things happen all the time, and that this applies to living things as well as everything else. He seemed to accept the fall-back position which was offered, that God could be responsible for these natural laws in the first place (you will never get a creationist to abandon belief in God, better to concentrate on Genesis), but wouldn’t accept that this was quite a different matter from asserting the Book of Genesis was literally true.

Meanwhile, John was involved in a lengthy discussion on the validity or otherwise of teleological and ad hoc arguments. He also pointed out that whereas scientists argue constantly in journals over how evolution occurs, there is no disagreement over whether it does: to the scientific community, creationism is a dead issue. And Graeme had brought along some very impressive papers on self-replicating molecules, including DNA strands of only six bases. These clearly worried several in the audience, and completely floored one fresh-faced creationist who was about to launch into an argument on the statistical improbability of long nucleic acid chains ever forming.

Issues that never got properly addressed were the proper interpretation of “survival of the fittest” in a human context — that our primary strength as a species is our ability to get along with one another in complex societies, and the matter of the argument from design. The argument that if a needle is designed, then anything more complex than a needle must also be designed, is logically invalid. What about a snow crystal? (See previous comments on non-random processes.)

In any case, most of the audience had gone home before this discussion session began, and it is sobering to think of all those newly fired-up creationist evangelists who may have been spawned by this tour. With hindsight, I realise that it would have been better to notify other Skeptics around the country as soon as I learned of this, so that others may have been able to attend meetings, perhaps find out Sparrow’s itinerary, compare notes, and prepare sticky questions for him. I was unaware until the night that the tour was so close to its finish. The meetings were not at all well publicised outside of the churches (I learned of them from a friend’s home-schooling newsletter), and were clearly targeted at the converted. Hopefully next time an event like this happens, we may be better prepared for it.

Scientific Creationism

We need to immunise ourselves against this virus too.

Abridged by Owen McShane from Creationism: Why the Controversy by Brian Henderson

“Scientific” creationism claims to have every bit as much scientific evidence to back it as evolution and, according to some adherents, much more. “Scientific” creationists claim that science is suppressing the evidence of their hypothesis, in order to back up evolution, which in turn supports all manner of atheistic world-views, including New Age beliefs, communism, humanism and a myriad of other perceived evils. According to Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist minister very much involved in the creationist movement, “Much of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things in life.”

Duane Gish, vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research sums it up best when he says: “The scientific case for special creation, is much stronger than the case for evolution. The more I study and the more I learn, the more I become convinced that evolution is a false theory and that special creation offers a much more satisfactory interpretive framework for correlating and explaining the scientific evidence related to origins.”

He apparently has a rather strange definition of the word science, however, as he has this to say in Evolution? The Fossils Say No!: “We do not know how the Creator created, [or] what processes He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the processes used by the Creator.”

So which is it? Is creationism scientific, as in the first quote, or inherently religious, as in the second? It seems that either is used depending on the intended audience. In 1974, Dr. Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, wrote a science textbook intended for public school use. He really wrote two texts, one for public schools and one for private, Christian schools. The difference? The private school version had an additional chapter citing Biblical support for creationism. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it seems clear that there is no substantive difference between Biblical, religious creationism and so-called “scientific” creationism.

But the question ultimately comes down to “is creationism scientific”? If, as Gish claims above, we cannot learn anything about the creative methods used, then creationism fails to be scientific. Even if we do not currently know, to say that we “can never” know will immediately remove creationism from the table of scientific endeavour.

However, perhaps Gish simply meant that we do not currently know anything about how the creation occurred, but believes that we can learn through scientific inquiry. If so, we come to our second part of the question, “How does science operate?” Scientists spend much of their time engaged in research and performing experiments to help better understand the workings of the universe. Do creationists perform similar research and experimentation designed to show how and why creation happened? Absolutely not! The amount of genuine scientific inquiry that has been performed by creationists over the past 20 years can be computed on the fingers of one hand. Most of their efforts are directed to discrediting evolution, as if by somehow doing so, the piecemeal ideas of “scientific creationism” will some how become scientifically valid.

On the evidence creationists are amateur, anachronistic philosophers of science, acting to alter the content of scientific knowledge piecemeal through plebiscite and lawsuit rather than systematically through influencing professional debates and research activities.

Ultimately, the purpose of scepticism is not, as has been suggested, to deny inquiry into “outside” realms of knowledge, for we would be as hypocritical as the pseudo-scientists if we did so. The purpose of scepticism should be to keep claims and claimants in all areas of inquiry, be it pseudo-science or scientific research, honest and even-handed. The record shows that “scientific” creationism has left forever the realm of scientific inquiry, and has headed forever down the road of scientific failure.

Songs from the Skeptical Choir

Yes, Rhesus Monkey

(Tune: “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”)

Rhesus monkey, this I know,
that the Bible Belt must go.
Trusting to authority
must give way to “test and see”.

Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the jung-
-gle think Darwin’s work was bung-
-gled, for evolution’ry
progress seems delusion’ry.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, don’t get madder;
evolution is no ladder.
It’s a bush and we are twigs —
you of dates, and we of figs.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the lab
wonder who picks up the tab;
ask, Who put man at the top,
Who says we must get the chop?

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, give us time,
Homo sap. has far to climb,
Evolutionists are giants
compared with creation “science”.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.


by Hugh Young

Finding Fossils

Peter Lange mentions in his review a common creationist claim — the lack of intermediate fossil forms. Someone whose name I’ve lost, recently wrote the following on sci.skeptic about the subject:

We have fossil records of transitional forms out the wazoo [i.e., there are lots of them – translator]. The reason that this fact hardly causes a creationist neuron to fire is that they play a little game with an unfalsifiability engine, sometimes called Gish’s Law.

It goes a little bit like this:

E: A evolved into B.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and B.
E: Sure there is. It’s called A1.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and A1.
E: Sure there is. It’s called A1a.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and A1a.

and so on.

There are three termination conditions to this game:

  1. The subdivision goes on to the point where, by random chance, there is no corresponding form in the fossil record. The creationist wins.
  2. The subdivision goes on to the point where the two forms being compared are close enough for the creationist to decide that they are the same “kind”. The creationist wins.
  3. The evolutionist decides that the creationist is an insufferable blithering idiot and gives up. The creationist wins.

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, by Richard Milton; Transworld Publishers; $15.95

Richard Milton has written this book as a “hang on a minute” reservation about Darwinism and its apparent unquestioned acceptance by mainstream science from geology through to biology (and in one chapter political science) in the manner of the small boy who questioned the reality of the Emperor’s new clothes — “Look Mummy, all those university professors, all those Nobel Prize winners, have got no actual proof to cover their hypotheses with”.

To this reader, familiar with these matters only to the level of a wobbly School Cert. result, the book provides persuasive arguments against the theory of Darwinism, believing it to have evolved itself as a theory that succeeding scientists have simply forgotten to question, claiming serious flaws concerning the critical “missing links,” [see Finding Fossils] and detailing circular arguments and apparently illogical aspects, to the point where he refers to the theory as much an act of faith as that of any religion.

He claims he is not a creationist but rather an agnostic waiting for proof either way, and he has no idea how it all happened. On the other hand, having questioned the credibility of most of the current scientific community, he goes on to hint at the age of the Earth being possibly no more than 10,000 years instead of the generally accepted 4.6 billion years (a conclusion taken in part from his claim of absolute unreliability of carbon-dating techniques) and also drops in the occasional mention of a life force that could stir up biology in the way that quantum theories have derailed 19th century mechanistic physics, and which sounds vaguely theological.

“Biological telepathy”, “metaphysical psychic blueprints” and an “intelligent cosmos” get a mention towards the end of the book and detract from the generally non-paranormal emphasis of the bulk of his ideas.

I enjoyed at least his link between Darwinism and the New Right references to “winners and losers (Darwin’s struggle for survival)”, the cruel, stark grandeur of the free-market policies, natural economic selection, and the assumption by many in the business community that for some to succeed, others must go under. “The fit survive and those who survive are the fit.”

But what about luck, chaos, chance — why do share prices go up and down unpredictably even for the bluest chip? Why are some of the companies that survive well ultimately found to be not too fit at all? Milton asks these questions to counter the flawed theories of the New Right, the political version of Darwinism.

From time to time he targets a neo-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, a reader in zoology at the University of Oxford, implying that his research is misguided and his conclusions faulty. Dawkins in his review of this book in the New Statesman and Society retaliates bluntly, both about its contents (“drivel”, “twaddle”) and about its author (“disingenuous or — more plausibly — stupid”) but in between these colourful outbursts refutes with some authority the arguments put forward. It was with some relief that I was reassured that rather than evolution being noted more for its gaps (“missing links”) than for its slender fossilised evidence, Dawkins is quite clear that the “fossil links between humans and our ape ancestors now constitute an elegantly continuous series”.

Phew! Books like this are trouble to an armchair scientist and skeptic. It is written well enough, suitably dry in places and avoids unseemly popular language, and you find yourself thinking, “Maybe the Earth really is only 10,000 years old, maybe there was a great flood (it occurs to me that anyone who assumes the Bible to be literally true will believe they are descended from not only Adam and Eve but also from Mr and Mrs Noah), perhaps the original life force did come from outer space, and why should the Himalayas not be formed in a matter of minutes and within living memory.”

All of these claims and many more are put forward either as original theories or borrowed freely from other scientists — none is researched to the point of adequate proof, they simply add up to another theory.

Perhaps the little boy who embarrassed the Emperor hasn’t realised that his Mum has forgotten to put his own trousers on.

Why Creationists Do So Well

Creationists are winning hands-down in the publicity stakes, despite, one presumes, no real assistance in the form of Divine Guidance.

Volumes of perceptive articles by competent scientists and philosophers have been written about the indefensibility of creationism. Still, the beast not only manages to stay alive, but also to deliver a nasty shock now and again by conducting successful forays into the science education arena. Why?

It is my opinion that the answers are found in the way science and creationism tend to conduct their campaigns: it is the latter camp which has consistently outsmarted its opponent in the public relations field. This adds a lot of points to the scoreboard in a democracy.

In the course of some twenty years of studying creationist literature and tactics, and people’s responses thereto, I have noticed a number of things about public perceptions of the issue.

Newton’s Law of Public Relations

There is a widely-held (mis)interpretation of the democratic ideal to the effect that for every view there is an opposite and equally valid view. (I call this Newton’s Third Law of Public Relations.) A corollary of this misconstruction being the simplistic sequitur that there are “two sides to every story,” creationism’s appeal to heed what is presented as “the other side of the story” finds many willing ears.

Also arising from this gem of common philosophy is the perception that science and religion represent the above “two sides.” The creationist case is highly dependent on the continuing popular belief that science and religion are mutually exclusive antagonists in the area of origins, and people must “believe one or the other.”

The 1960s are not that distant in time, and creationism skilfully manipulates the latent anti-establishmentism present in general society. People love an underdog (creationism) taking on an orthodoxy perceived as aloof and patronising (science), especially when that underdog is seen to challenge the ivory tower on its own terms and the establishment appears to be worried.

Creationism makes sense to many, if not most, people. Everything has a purpose, doesn’t it? Pure chance can’t possibly lead to something like the human eye, can it? You can’t really reconstruct an ape-man from a single tooth, can you? (Creationists love the 1934 Nebraska Man débacle.) That Aussie Doctor-guy found Noah’s Ark, didn’t he?

The list goes on, and the common theme is clear. The creationist PR machine identifies and manipulates public ignorance and misconceptions to its immense advantage.

Tentative Science

The one thing most people do know about science is that it is tentative — thereby opening the way for another gem of popular wisdom, the “but you don’t know everything” argument which when applied to any area of controversy involving science is regarded as creating an instant niche for an opposing view, no matter how absurd. (This principle also applies very much to the orthodox/fringe medicine debate.)

Furthermore, any perceived weakness in the orthodox case becomes a plus-point for the challenger. The creationist case relies heavily on using science’s tentativeness (portrayed as uncertainty) and occasional blunders (Nebraska Man) to bolster its public image.

People prefer certainty. A naked ape arising fortuitously on an inconsequential planet in a far corner of the universe is just too much for most people to handle — especially when placed in opposition to the creationist Linus’s Blanket of “you are so special.”

Science’s response to creationism has frequently been counterproductive in that it has reinforced the public misconceptions which creationists have turned into assets.

The ridicule levelled at creationism by some exasperated scientists and science educators reinforces the image of science as a patronising, superior Olympus inhabited by an esoteric elite who harbour undemocratic views.

And there is more than a vestige of 19thcentury anti-religiosity (especially anti-Christianity) left in the scientific community.

When scientists turn their literary skills into a diatribe against Christian scriptures and belief, the result is definitely good PR for creationists.

Catch-22 Situation

Of course, we are in a three-way Catch 22 situation when it comes to replying to creationism:

  • If we ignore the creationists, we “haven’t got an answer” and seek to shield ourselves from valid criticism.
  • If we respond to creationism at all, they’ve “got us worried.”
  • If we respond by writing articles most people don’t understand we’re “snobs” and/or trying to “put up a smokescreen.”

Finally, if we try to argue at the intellectual level creationism operates at, we lose the match because we have tried to play it by the opposition’s rules, which are stacked so heavily in its favour from the kick-off.

The upshot is that we cannot defeat creationism on scientific grounds, and should stop trying to do so. Writing articles in academic journals may make us feel better, but we are preaching to the converted and only reinforcing our negative image by alienating the general public even more.

More importantly, a scientific response to a pseudoscientific argument publicly perceived as a scientific argument merely reinforces the opinion that there is a case to answer.

Creationism is not a scientific argument, but a religious one. However, we must appreciate that we are dealing with a vocal fringe minority who are not representative of Christianity as a whole, and we must therefore correctly identify the enemy — fundamentalism — and also identify our allies, the mainstream Christian churches.

Scientists should not venture into the area of biblical scholarship unless they are qualified in that area, for the public appreciates only too well that an expert in one field may be a layman in others. This is where we need an alliance with mainstream religion.

Such an alliance would put paid to the popular misconception that science and religion are incompatible. (Anselm, Teilhard de Chardin and new Zealand’s own John Morton appear to have had little impact on public thinking) and that creationism represents the battle of good, Bible-believing Christians against the tyrannical reign of atheistic scientists.

I believe that this aspect of the creationist case in the public eye is at the same time its Achilles’ Heel, and can be used against it.

For if we live in a secular democracy and creationism is a religious view, then while the right to profess that religious view is safeguarded, the right to foist it on others through state educational apparatus is an infringement of democratic principles.

Once this is understood by the general public, I suspect creationism will rapidly lose the positive public image it appears to have built up so painstakingly.