During the tsunami of bicentennial celebrations of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in February, I visited the fringes of evolutionary skepticism to better understand how one of science’s grandest theories could still be doubted.
Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol, England, is run by a kindly gentleman named Anthony Bush, who insisted that I not confuse him with those “loony American creationists” who think that Earth is only 6,000 years old. “How old do you think it is?” I queried. “Oh, I’ve worked it out to be around 100,000 years old, with Adam and Eve at around 21,000 years old.” (At an order of magnitude difference that makes Mr. Bush only five zeros shy of reality.)
What about, I pressed on, all the geologic evidence for a much older Earth? All those strata of, say, sandstone—loose sand compressed into solid rock over immense periods? Those strata are laid down every season, like tree rings, Bush explained. Interesting analogy, given that we can see trees growing from year to year, but where can we find sand being annually compressed into stone?
At the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., I learned that Earth was created in 4004 B.C., about the same time that the Mesopotamians invented beer (“That’s on the secular timeline,” I was told). Dioramas feature children frolicking among vegetarian dinosaurs, including a Tyrannosaurus rex and Utahraptor, whose daggerlike teeth and claws, it was noted, were used for cracking open coconuts before the Fall. But then the snake tempted Eve, who in turn charmed Adam into tasting the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil—after which dinosaurs became meat eaters, humans became sinners and Noah gathered the animals into the Ark (also rendered in a dioramic drama complete with screaming left-behinders on soon-to-be swamped rocks).
My tour ended with an interview with Georgia Purdom, an accommodating and bright woman (Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State University) who explained that the worldview you hold (biblical versus secular) determines how you interpret the data.
I countered by pointing out that Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, is a born-again evangelical Christian who fully accepts evolution. In his book The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), Collins describes ancient repetitive elements (AREs) in DNA that arise from “jumping genes” that copy and insert themselves in other locations in the genome, usually without any function. When you align sections of human and mouse genomes, the AREs are in the same location. “Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us,” he asserts, “the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.”
Collins is wrong, Purdom stated, because “he does not accept the biblical history in Genesis, so he’s beginning with his ideas about what happened in the past rather than what God said happened in the past, so he’s interpreting that data in light of that starting point.”
Shoehorning science into scripture was also painfully on display at the University of North Florida, where I debated founder and chief biblical cosmologist of Reasons to Believe Hugh Ross, an Old Earth Creationist who thinks that the biblical authors describe the expanding universe in such passages as Job 9:8, where God “stretched out the heavens,” and Isaiah 40:22, where God “stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” The key word in Hebrew is natah, which means “spread out,” like a blanket or a tent, and is a metaphor for the dome or canopy of the sky and fixed stars that formed
the basis of the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, derived from the earlier Babylonian cosmology during the Jewish captivity in Mesopotamia.