“Questioning Darwin”: a review

The very last scene of the HBO Documentary “Questioning Darwin,” shows a view sweeping across the floor of Westminster abbey, in soft focus before coming to a stop at the plaque denoting the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.  The narrator, describing Darwin’s funeral, closed with the words of Harvey Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle who “told the mourners: ‘There need be no conflict between the study of nature and belief in God.’”

But it is only in these very last two seconds that the idea that there were religious people who didn’t oppose evolution are ever given any mention in the whole of the documentary.  While “Questioning Darwin” offers a personal view the experiences and views of some American antievolutionists, it fails to mention that there are many antievolutionists who are not committed to a young earth, or that there are also large numbers of religious believers who accept evolutionary accounts of human origins.  In the exclusion of these views, the documentary is effectively the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate done over with human interest angles and better lighting and music.  There’s more to it, (including some problematic aspects to how it presented the history of evolution and religion – although my main concerns with the documentary aren’t about its presentation of history per se.)  The documentary tries for some kind of balance—it doesn’t openly castigate or mock any of the people that it profiles—but in the juxtaposition of people’s views in ways that insinuated greater forms of similarity (or opposition) between views and in the way narration describes those views, the documentary gives a false impression about some of the ideas it describes.

From the very beginning, the documentary makes some subtle distortions of the state of belief in America that give some indication of some of the presumptions that informed the whole piece.  In the very first minute, the narrator tells us that: “For those Christians who believe their Bible is the word of God — the literal truth— one man is held up as the Antichrist, Charles Darwin.”  Leaving aside the movie-trailer quality of the ‘one man’ trope, it’s the first half of the sentence that is troublesome.  There are religious people who accept the Bible is the “Word of God” without holding to a belief in “literal truth” (a concept which less than three minutes later is equated with literal interpretation).  Also in those first four minutes, the narrator informs us that “According to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation.”  The Gallup poll doesn’t mention ‘Genesis.’  46% in the poll agreed with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  It’s logically possible, though unlikely to suggest that some people agreeing with this statement did so totally independent of the book of Genesis.  But it’s much more likely that some of the 54% who did not agree with that Gallup option would state that they believe in a “Genesis account of creation” (just not a young earth interpretation of Genesis.)  In making both of these distortions, the documentary reinforces the idea that there’s a singular way of understanding the Bible, “the Genesis account of creation.” And that this is what it means to “believe [the] Bible is the word of God.” From the very beginning, it seems that anything like theistic evolution, or even old-earth variants of Christian creationism (or ‘intelligent design’) can’t exist.  This presupposition is further echoed in statements like zoologist Aubrey Manning stating that Darwin is “well aware that he will be attacked by religious people and by other scientists,” (as if religious people and scientists are two mutually exclusive categories.)

The bulk of the documentary alternates between showing interviews and practices of young earth Christian antievolutionists (with a heavy use of video provided by Answers in Genesis and footage shot in their Creation Museum) with a biographical account of Darwin’s life and the personal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of Darwin as an individual.  The presentation of Darwin’s life (underscored by interviews with several excellent historians of science) is well done (although some disputes within the “Darwin Industry” are glossed over.)

In a film that refers to “here in the US”, it is somewhat surprising though that especially early on, nearly all the experts used to explicate Darwin’s life and thought are British, and based in the UK.  With the exception of the Australian Ken Ham (CEO of the Creation Museum) all of the voices advocating creationism speak with American accents.  (It’s not until more than two-thirds of the documentary is over that two Americans speak presenting evolution – Jim Secord, who’s based in the UK, and Jason Rosenhouse, who presents some of the history of antievolutionism in the USA.)  Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but since the documentary brought up a claim that William Jennings Bryan thought evolution to be “un-American,” more American voices on evolution might have been a worthwhile inclusion.

More important than the accents, the film’s focus on Darwin personally has the unfortunate effect of completely ignoring the whole of evolutionary science since Darwin, and to presume that Darwin’s own theological naïvete is the best voice for understanding the religious implications of his theory.  Historians have long made the case that it was not belief in evolution, but personal events such as the death of darwin’s daughter Annie that caused Darwin to lose his faith.  James Moore ably recaps this interpretation in the documentary.  But the juxtaposition of Darwin’s grief with the testimonies of Christians talking about the pain of losses that they’ve experienced reduces the whole question of Christianity and evolution to both a dichotomy and to a matter of personal sentiment and feeling—a choice between feelings of depression and consolation.

There’s an understated thesis throughout the documentary that is created by presentation of the personal lives of Christian antievolutionists.  It’s similar to a thesis that I think was made more persuasively in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos.  In that earlier film, Randy Olsen made an excellent case that a major factor in the public victories antievolutionism had achieved had to do with personal character, that the antievolutionists were more likable, more charismatic, and less condescending.  There’s no obvious condescension among the evolutionists — indeed there’s very little discussion of the science of evolution or any scientist besides Darwin himself, and Darwin is presented as a largely sympathetic character, not one who intended to cause harm.  But the creationists aren’t merely presented as charismatic or nice (indeed some of them seem a bit offputting.)  But scenes of congregations singing in churches, of church outreach to feeding the homeless, of helping individuals cope with addiction or other personal problems all have the effect of depicting the creationist community as a positive force of society.  The implication is that these  communities, and their good works, are threatened by evolution.  This completely overlooks the fact that many American churches that do good work for society don’t subscribe to young earth creationism, and many non-religious organizations also contribute to public good.  Where are the congregations of theistic evolutionists at prayer?

Moreover, where are the communities of joyful scientists? Absent. Perhaps worse, UCL geneticist Steve Jones is quoted saying: “In order to be a great scientist you have to devote your entire life to science, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  And Darwin did that.” This both perpetuates a ‘great man’ history of science that is grossly out of touch with most scientific practices today, and it also diminishes scientists as human beings.  Most scientists today do pursue their profession in balance with a family and social life.  This vision presents the idea of evolution as inhuman, conceivable only with minds wholly devoted to science, not to community, not to improving the world, and certainly not to religion or moral worldviews.

By presenting the personal lives of people who are identified as creationists, the documentary makes implicit the idea that their emotional fulfillment comes not only from their Christianity, but their creationist Christianity.  It’s emotionally manipulative for the documentary to show a paraplegic girl praying with her family, the reformed prostitute or the drug abuser who found Christ, the cancer patient who has faith in eternal salvation—and then to say that because these people disbelieve evolution, that advocacy of evolution is tantamount to denying the rest of their identity.  Could there not be an example of a person whose life was saved by medical breakthroughs that made use of evolutionary understandings of disease?

There were also a few claims about the history of American antievolutionism that I found irritating but of lesser importance.   The depiction of the Scopes trial was simplified and focused wholly on Bryan, Darrow and science-religion conflict.  (I’m not going to recap  the shortcomings of this interpretation here.)  But more problematic was the idea that creation science was a direct response to the BSCS, which was in turn a direct response to the launch of Sputnik.  For one, the federal initiatives in science education that included the BSCS predated Sputnik.  Moreover, it wasn’t the launch of the BSCS directly that prompted an antievolutionist backlash in the form of creation science so much as the Supreme Court ruling in Epperson v Arkansas (finally putting an end to Scopes-style antievolution laws) that prompted the implementation of creation science as a proposed alternative to evolution science.

The documentary’s greatest redeeming feature is that the people who are portrayed are done so sincerely.  Even though clips from the documentary (such as in this Gawker article) take things out of context in a way that makes the creationists look more ignorant or naive, the documentary itself seems to be respectful to all the people included.  It’s those who were not worthy of inclusion at all who will rightly feel the most slighted.

Replying to Evolutionists at the Creation Debate

Buzzfeed published two lists of questions from people at the creation debate.  One from Creationists to Evolutionists, the other from Evolutionists to Creationists.  This morning, Adam Rutherford published a list of mostly mocking replies to the creationists.  I find this to be a non-constructive approach, and by and large not even that funny.  Mockery, especially from a position of power is a form of bullying.  A biologist with a PhD and a substantial background in science communication bashing people who may not have had any serious background or even interest in the creation-evolution controversies prior to this debate seems only to confirm that kind of behavior.

So I’m starting a list of replies to the questions by evolutionists for creationists, from what I understand to be the perspective of Ham and the Creation museum.  I’m not endorsing these answers as true, my interest as a historian is in trying to fairly represent ideas, right or wrong. And I’m also interested in pointing out that (evidence of mockery to the contrary) most people are neither willfully wrong not internally inconsistent.  As I tried to explain in my post about the debate, the sides have differences about the nature of knowledge, in addition to the specific knowledge claims that they make.

1. If my Great Great Grandpa Rode Bareback on a T-rex, Why Can’t I?

A. Is your question really asking why did Dinosaurs go extinct, or why were dangerous carnivores once safely cohabitating alongside man? First let’s clarify several assumptions.  Dinosaurs went extent several thousand years ago.  Probably not long after the Flood and the Ark.  So we’d have to add a few more greats to your question.  Secondly, while it’s true that during Eden there was no carnivory, and it might have been safe for Adam and Eve to ride on dinosaurs, the dangerous nature of beasts was part of the punishment for the fall.  To answer the question, it’s because you’re a sinner.  We’re all sinners.

2. How do you explain the fossil record and the established science of geology?

A. Young earth creationist geologists and old earth evolutionist geologists look at the same fossils, but we disagree on how to interpret them.  The argument for an old earth comes from the presumption that the age of fossils is determined by the age of the rock strata they’re found in, and that those strata are very old. But young earth geologists argue that dating rock strata is based on a clock that has been misread.  Old Earth geologists believe that the rate of radioactive decay that we see in the world today is the same as what it has been in the past, that if we see a clock running at a normal rate now that it didn’t run faster or slower earlier on.  But we’ve seen evidence from across the sciences that suggest that some of the constants of natural law change.  Old earth cosmologists used to presume that the speed of light was a constant, something that they’re now calling into question.  If radioisotope decay hasn’t been the same throughout earth history, we can’t use it to reliably measure ages of rock strata or the fossils therein.

3. What’s with all the raping and pillaging, God?

A. We don’t condone raping and pillaging, but let’s first keep it clear that you’re asking a moral question, not a science one, even though there are some evolutionists who have argued that rape was a natural result of evolutionary psychology.  Our position is that the morality of actions are defined by God, not by what humans today find fashionable or repelling.  We also understand that the people of the Bible after the fall were sinners, especially before the redemptive promise of Jesus.

4. If there’s no such thing as evolution, how come snakes have legs, but evidence of once having legs?

A. Honestly, there’s an account in the Bible of the serpent losing its legs for its role in the temptation of Eve in Eden.  A legless snake is probably the worst example you could pick.  But lets take another legless animal with a vestigial pelvis: Whales.  Some people have argued that the whale pelvises serve a function in regulating its balance.  More generally, evolutionary scientists are coming to the conclusion that organs they once regarded as useless and vestigial may have functions that are not yet known.  We would argue that this is one of the best reasons for creationists to do science: We ought to discover more about these structures.

5. Does God get bored with Finches of Galapagos every few generations? Mix it up?

A. Perhaps you’ve heard the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow?”  That song is drawn from the Gospel of Matthew (10:29) “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” So we might say that God has an especial interest in birds.  We think that God is as attendant to all his Creation and doesn’t get bored.  But perhaps you’re asking if God is the cause of mutations and changes.  We think that ultimately God is the cause of everything, but we also believe in the divergent evolution of finches from some initial population of finches.  We think that variation within natural kinds, roughly what biologists refer to as families, has happened, allowing for great diversification since the flood and the ark.

6. How can you ignore evolution as a theory if there are entire disciplines devoted to it?

A. You know, there’s a famous incident a few years back.  When philosopher Keith Ward was appointed to the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford, Richard Dawkins published an open letter claiming that there was no subject as theology and that as such no one could be an expert in it.  There have been people identified as theologians for centuries, indeed it was one of the very first academic disciplines and there are several subdisciplines devoted to it.  So we could easily ask why anyone should ignore theology for the same reason.

But a better answer to your question is that we don’t ignore evolution; we disagree with it.  There’s been plenty of cases of scientists disagreeing over which scientific theories best fit the data.  We also reject the implication that the truth about nature is known with certainty simply because certain ideas are more or less popular among people.  The truth is out there in creation, not in our fallible human minds.  Just because there’s a large scientific opinion in favor of evolution doesn’t make it right.

7. Why do you believe carbon dating is so unreliable?

A. We appreciate that this question attempts to understand some of the scientific reasons we give for our view of the age of the Earth.  I think this has mostly been answered in #2, but to add some more thought.  As Bill Nye himself said during the debate, it used to be thought that the age of the sun could be determined by predicting how long it had been doing what it was doing.  At first, scientists thought this was a chemical reaction (like burning) but the size and estimated heat flow rate suggested that if that were the case the sun would be much younger than geologists thought the Earth was.  Later, scientists thought that maybe the light and heat was given off by gravitational collapse (the matter from the outer parts of the sun being drawn in—falling—towards the center, and the energy of that fall being converted to light and heat.) but that still only gave estimates of millions, not billions of years.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that nuclear fusion was seen as a possible source of the sun’s shine (Note, even They Might Be giants released a new song updating their hit “Why Does the Sun Shine?”  Because sometimes scientific theses are rendered invalid!)

At the same time, geologists began to reject the idea that all change is purely the very gradual accumulation of changes—that uniformitarianism was in fact unnecessary.  We think that this history raises the need to be aware that scientific theories are subject to change.  We use facts to determine scientific theories and—this is important—theories to interpret new facts.  But sometimes the theories aren’t just determined by facts, but by the beliefs of scientists.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that uniformitarianism was formulated by geologists who were trying to work “unencumbered by Bible preconception”, and that this desire led to strong resistance to abandoning it when the facts became increasingly difficult to fit.

We believe that the revealed Bible is an independent source of knowledge that gives us an age of the earth, and that it can guide our search for theories that we can test scientifically.

8. How can you deny microevolution (i.e. evolution in action?)

A: We don’t! In fact we think that it’s a necessary component to understanding the diversity of variations that we see in the world today, because only a pair of each kind (biological family) was present on the Ark.  All the cats (ocelots, panthers, grumpy cats, Garfield, etc) are descended from the pair of cats on the ark, diversified through microevolution.

9. Show me the facts: how can you possibly find evidence that an omniscient being created everything? 

A: When it comes to looking at nature, we use the same facts that all scientists use.  The difference is in how we interpret them.  But we don’t say that we have to look to the facts of nature for evidence that God created everything.  We claim that there’s a source of evidence and knowledge that is superior to looking at nature, and that is the direct knowledge that comes from God and that is personally witnessed, or revealed through Scripture.  In fact, if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t have any right to assume that the things we see with our imperfect eyes and interpret with our fallible human minds were accurate at all.

This is a big different between the creation view and, for example, the view put forward by what’s called “intelligent design.”  ID says that you start by looking at facts from nature and use those as evidence of a designer (who they often won’t acknowledge is actually God).  From the perspective of Creation science, this is misguided.  Our imperfect understanding of nature can never get you certain knowledge of God.  We say that the evidence that an omniscience being created everything comes from divine inspiration and Scripture, and then we use evidence from nature to understand more about his Creation.

10. I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.

A: Good for you! Though I imagine that in your college philosophy classes you might have read some Aristotle or Plato, which are over 2000 years old.  So where’s your cutoff?  More to the point: if you mean science textbooks, we also agree.  That’s why we think it’s necessary to do science—within the framework of creation— and to teach the facts of nature within that interpretation.  That’s why we are continuing to engage in new research confirming and elaborating on the creation!

11. Science Rules!

A: We agree, though we understand nature to be the work of God and the human capacity for making sense of nature (science) also to be the work of God.  So we’d probably prefer to express it as “God Rules!”

12. If you accept religion as truth, why is your religion “more true” than all of the others.

 A: If you think that religion is a choice like choosing from a menu at a restaurant, then you’ve understood “religion” in a very different way that we do.  In fact the idea of “religion” as this category that includes lots of different beliefs and practices was largely the creation of Europeans exploring and conquering other parts of the world and trying to make sense of the people they encountered.

This has had the effect of trying to reduce religion to something that can be understood by an outside observer, like a social scientist.  It presumes that fallible human reason can make total sense of religion and pass judgement upon it.

We don’t take the view that  religion is something you chose by using your own interpretations and judgement.  We think that religion comes from God and that “faith” is more about God acting upon you than you making a rational choice to believe or disbelieve.

So we’d say that the only ideas that God inspires people with are true ones, and the other ideas, what some people call other religions, are the works of human invention.  Even though their adherents may be well meaning and even though they might be attractive to us, we don’t accept that their ideas come from God or that they’re true.

13. Assuming that the Flintstones was a documentary, what was Jesus’s role in having dinosaurs in the workplace? They seem like a safety hazard for Mr. Slate.

A: The Flintstones is an imaginative rendering, and we certainly don’t take it as representative of the era when humans and dinosaurs coexisted on the earth.  In fact we think that dinosaurs may have inspired many of the legends of dragons that folklorists have collected all around the world.

You raise a really interesting question about how Jesus might address concerns about workplace safety.  Considering that evolutionists believe that birds descended from dinosaurs (not a position we agree with) ww might consider this passage about animal labor (Matthew 6:26) “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.”

14. How did Noah’s Ark Stay afloat even with termites on the Ark?

A. The Bible says that Noah brought food and provisions for all the animals on the ark.  This presumably means that the termites had food, that wasn’t the ark itself.  But the Bible also tells us that God brought the animals to the ark.  We understand this to mean that during the period of the Flood, the behavior of the animals was being controlled by God (lest the wolves devour the lambs, or be attacked themselves at the Red Wedding)

15. What is your explanation of the human genome that was found dating back 40,000 years?

A: Genome dating is estimated based on estimated rates of changes or divergence within a population.  The more divergence, the longer ago evolutionists believe divergence happened.  The ages of divergence are inferred by calibrating them against other old earth interpretations, like the geological dating discussed earlier.  But we don’t directly see divergence, we see difference.  Divergence presupposes the idea of common ancestry.  Now we completely accept the common ancestry of all human beings, but we don’t accept that the rate of divergence has been constant or can be easily understood from the way mutations occur in nature or the lab today.  And we also don’t accept the calibration of the genomic calendar by use of an old earth geological calendar.  In fact, just like geologists once believed the Earth to be older than astronomers thought the sun was, using their dating techniques, there’s disagreement among scientists trying to correlate genomic and geological/radiological dating techniques.

16. Explain Rock layers and plate tectonics.

A: There’s certainly evidence of tectonic plate movement today.  The inference that we can somehow extrapolate backwards from this movement to reconstruct a “Pangea” of billions of years ago, however, assumes that the change that we are observing now has been going on uniformly over time.  But if there were sudden changes, an upheaval such as a global flood, the impact of that water and the hydrological pressure caused by it would have quite completely reshaped the landscape, pushing landmasses around and causing the surface to be scoured.  As the waters receded  and the sediments began to sink, sediments containing different composites of chemicals, minerals and animal and vegetable matter precipitated or were deposited at different rates.  Although the comparison is inexact, you might look at how water draining from a bathtub leaves different layers.

Like old earth evolutionists, we believe that there are instances of rock layers being deposited in a sequence, but we believe that that sequence came quite rapidly, during and immediately after the flood.

17. How do you explain fossils that are millions of years old?

A: We’ve mostly addressed this before.  The fossils don’t give direct indications of their ages.  We use the evidence of the rock layers that they’re found in.  As mentioned before, dating rock layers to be millions of years old is an interpretation that is based on the presumption that those layers could only have formed gradually. (And that radiometric methods are calibrating using similar presumptions.)

18. Do you really believe in a talking snake!?!

A: We’re not Parselmouths, if that’s what you’re implying! But we know that animal behaviors can be influenced in unique ways.  Just like God altered the behavior of the animals that he brought to the Ark, the Deceiver influenced the behavior of the snake (or serpent) that spoke to Eve.

19. Keep Religion out of my science class

A: We understand.  That’s why we want to emphasize that creation science is a science.  Religion tells us that the Bible is true, and it gives us inspirations for scientific hypotheses.  We then do science to confirm, or to learn more about the natural world.  Evidence from nature that there are signs of a worldwide flood, or that radioisotope decay occurred differently in the past is scientific evidence.  It’s inspired by religion, but it’s not religion itself.

We might also observe that there’s a ‘religious’ element to belief in evolutionism as well.  Not only does the supposition that human observation and reason make a religious claim that we consider humanism, but the idea that the observable world is only permitted to be explained through natural law, that the miraculous is ruled out from the very beginning, is a religious principle, not a scientific one.

20. Creationists and Pastafarians—We’ve got to stick together! Won’t you support our religious right to have our Pastafarian story in science classrooms as well?

A: We disagree with Pastafarianism; we know that it was not divinely inspired and in fact was invented by humans to mock Christianity.  But we have supported the rights of teachers and students to practice their religions in schools.  While we may disagree with your strainer hat, we accept your religious right to wear it.  And many of us love pasta, just not religiously.

21. Read more than 1 Book.

A: We only accept one book as being divinely inspired and we only accept that one book as being a direct source of truth from God, but we read and engage with many different books.  Did you know there are over 300 books for sale in the Answers in Genesis bookstore?

22. Jesus Riding a Dinosaur? Nuff said?

A: Dinosaurs were on the Ark but they went extinct sometime after the Flood.  There’s certainly no indication that they were still around in Jesus’s day.  In fact, according to the Gospel of John (12:14), when Jesus did sit upon an animal, he chose the humble donkey to ride into the city of Jerusalem.