Campus believers preach Genesis

June 23, 2006

As creationists make inroads in the UK, Steve Farrar and Jessica Shepherd find they have advocates in academe who want a biblical approach to science

For the fourth time and with even greater enthusiasm, the crowd attacked the song's chorus:

"We didn't happen by chance, or a million years of evolution.

"I don't believe in evolution, I know creation is right..."

The atmosphere in this barn-turned-church in Walsall was jubilant. Twenty-five smiling faces turned towards an overhead projector, a pulpit and Paul Taylor - creationist preacher, former science teacher and chemistry graduate. His talk was "Truth, Lies and Science Education".

"You should be worried about what your children are being taught," he insisted. "The whole of creation is groaning in the decay of Adam."

As the crowd, aged between six and sixty, reached a state of agitation, the preacher told them of his evolution debates with scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones. "And none of them will face me again," he boasted.

Mr Taylor, a full-timer with the UK arm of Answers in Genesis, an Australian creationist organisation, was confident that he was well qualified to engage with Britain's top scientists. More than once he mentioned his 17 years' experience as a science teacher and his masters degree in science education.

Mr Taylor's anti-evolutionary message will be echoed in meetings nationwide by dozens of other creationist speakers, some with scientific credentials far superior to his. This elite includes scientists and engineers from top universities, among them at least seven professors (three emeritus), and seven who work in the life sciences. They research and lecture in mainstream fields such as microbiology, human physiology and genetics, yet theirs is a world just 6,000 years old, shaped by the biblical flood, corrupted by the Fall, and on which God made all life in the six days of creation.

Evolution, they say, is not only wrong but pernicious. As Stuart Burgess, head of mechanical engineering at Bristol University, wrote in his book Hallmarks of Design : "Evolution is disastrous because if you teach people that they are animals then it is inevitable that they will behave like animals."

He told The Times Higher : "Many engineering scientists are sceptical of evolution because they are very aware that complex systems do not appear without intelligent design."

UK inroads

For decades, most British scientists have viewed creationism as an American affliction. Each time a US state education board decides that a literal interpretation of Genesis ought to be taught alongside evolution in science lessons, UK academics have voiced their concern while privately feeling relieved at not having to face a similar situation at home. Many would share the views of Lewis Wolpert, professor of anatomy at University College London. He said: "It does worry me that there are academics in science departments who are creationists. But I don't believe that there is a growth in creationism in UK universities."

This week, the Royal Society and 66 other national science academies called on parents and teachers to provide children with the facts about evolution - a declaration made with the US in mind.

But recently, there have been straws in the wind on this side of the Atlantic. The outcry over science teaching in city academies run by the avowedly Christian Vardy Foundation has been followed by surveys indicating scepticism about evolution; a recent MORI poll found that 39 per cent of the population held creationist views of some sort. This perspective is not restricted to Christians - in Islamic Awareness Week at King's College London four months ago, medical students were given leaflets attacking evolution.

A study carried out a few years ago by Roger Downie, professor of zoological education at Glasgow University, found that almost one in ten science students did not believe in evolution. Professor Downie argued that the significance of this finding lay in the particular nature of science.

"If some students choose to disregard important areas of modern science on the basis of inculcated belief, rather than on a consideration of evidence, this gives a very poor prognosis for their understanding of what science is and their ability to be scientists. Our surveys clearly established that this is what our creationist sample did: they were not interested in the evidence for or against evolution. They preferred simply to accept the Bible story."

That the creationists are driven by their religious beliefs is undeniable.

Andy McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory at Leeds University, made his priorities clear in an interview published in Creation, the quarterly magazine of Answers in Genesis: "Genesis gives us the basis for the only correct way to look at the world because God has told us how everything came to be," he said. "Evolution and long ages is completely contrary to what the Bible says." In other words, a literal interpretation of Scripture always takes precedence if it appears to be in contradiction with evidence.

Its adherents insist that creationism is genuinely scientific. They want it regarded as an alternative theory to evolution, plate tectonics and Big Bang cosmology. This call for parity is flatly rejected by mainstream scientists. Professor Wolpert, vice-president of the British Humanist Association, takes a particularly extreme line: "Those academics who are creationists in science departments should be asked to reconsider their position as scientists."

Evolutionists point to the vast bodies of academic work in the fields that creationists rubbish. They observe that while academic creationists publish their mainstream work in the usual peer-reviewed journals, their creationist articles appear only in their own "technical" publications (they argue that peer-review bias keeps them out). Even then, they usually constitute reinterpretations of other people's work rather than original research, often focused on fields far removed from their author's professional specialisms. Professor McIntosh, an expert in combustion theory, has written about fossils and bird flight; Dr Burgess, head of mechanical engineering at Bristol University, on knee joints and stellar formation.

The creationists say they sift through evidence. But some of their claims seem like speculative bids to explain away hard-to-dismiss observations that might otherwise contradict a literal interpretation of Genesis. There are articles that argue that the speed of light is declining, the sun shrinking and the Earth expanding.

In 1995, Ian Fuller completed a PhD on using cutting-edge dating techniques to explore geological processes over 200,000 years and became a physical geography lecturer at Northumbria University. Four years later, in Origins , the magazine of the Biblical Creation Society, he explained how those same dating techniques were undermined by limitations, assumptions and flaws.

Subsequent to his PhD, he explained, he had become "convinced of a six-day creation, young Earth and a global flood". He is now a senior geography lecturer in New Zealand.

Attempts to find evidence to refute evolution can produce surprising results. In 2003, Philip Bell, like Mr Taylor a former science teacher turned full-time member of Answers in Genesis, told a remarkable story in Creation about a 15th-century tomb in Carlisle Cathedral that seemed to depict a sauropod dinosaur.

"To the unprejudiced mind, (these) 'brass behemoths' suggest that at least some such creatures were alive and well in the Middle Ages," he wrote.

"Clearly, the only reason modern researchers would fail to identify them as dinosaurs is their antibiblical bias that humans and dinosaurs did not co-exist." In August, Mr Bell, a member of the Institute of Biology, will be one of the main speakers at Creation Fest 06, the UK's largest free Christian music festival.

Most creationist attacks on evolution boil down to "irreducible complexity", which, it is argued, betrays the hand of a designer in aspects of life that could not have evolved step by step. Examples such as bird flight and the human eyeball are popular. The bombardier beetle, which can generate internal explosions to fire hot jets of liquid at enemies, is a particular favourite. How can the different elements of this sophisticated mechanism have evolved separately and then melded so effectively, creationists ask? They all evolved for other purposes, most entomologists reply.

Nevertheless, the insect has spawned myriad creationist tracts, speeches and even a children's book ( Bomby: The Bombardier Beetle - "The whole family will enjoy learning about the wonderful design features in this tiny creature that refute evolution").

The beetle's firing mechanism is being investigated by Professor McIntosh in a project funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council. This work is not intended to focus on specifically creationist claims. But in an article published by Noise, the EPSRC-supported youth e-zine, Professor McIntosh concludes that while evolutionists have been stumped to explain the phenomenon, "The truth could be, however, that only intelligent design can explain [the mechanism]."

Strong persuaders

The academic creationist can be a powerful advocate.

In most congregations, their scientific credentials can make their arguments hard to dispute. One teenage student said he was not confident enough to argue with the senior academic from a British university who brought the creationist message to his church's youth group a few years ago. "I felt inadequate to respond to some of his proposals, as I am not a professional biologist, although neither was he," he said.

Some evolutionist Christians paint a more benign picture of creationists as "intelligent and thoughtful individuals, sincerely trying to help other Christians think through the issues".

Peter Jones, the minister at Brentwood Baptist Church in Essex, sees it differently.

A former science teacher with an MA in natural sciences and an MA in biblical interpretation, Mr Jones has won over creationists in his own congregation but is worried by the growth of what he regards as a brand of US fundamentalism. "Young-earth creationism is more prevalent than it used to be among pupils from Christian backgrounds," he said.

Mr Jones argued that creationists not only misportray and manipulate science, but also have a flawed perspective on the authority of Scripture, which he believes contains religious truth expressed in symbolic words.

"I am not aware of any young-earth creationists who hold their views on the basis of scientific conviction - it is always on the basis of scientific and theological ignorance," he said. "It is, however, amusing to note that while young-earth creationism enthusiasts are generally anti-science, they are pro-science when one of them presents an argument that appears to support their position."

Regardless of who is winning over whom, one thing is clear: creationists, academics and students alike, receive a warmer reception than they perhaps ever have.

As one head of a life sciences department said: "The climate is different from ten years ago. Creationism is more prominent."


Alternative views: Creationism And intelligent design

What is Creationism?

The Creation Science Movement was founded in London in 1932 as the Evolution Protest Movement by a small group of Christians who worried that the theory of evolution was being promoted "as if scientifically proven".

Creationists follow a literalist interpretation of the Bible.

They believe that:  

  • The Earth is 6,000 years old and that God created it in six days
  • There is no such thing as evolution or the Big Bang
  • Humans are descended from Adam and Eve and not apes
  • The vast fossil record comprises the drowned remains of the victims of Noah's Flood.

What is Intelligent Design?

Proponents of intelligent design argue that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved randomly.

A key tenet of their belief is "irreducible complexity", the idea that some components in nature, such as the eye, cannot be results of evolution because they either operate as a fully formed whole or do not operate at all.

Adherents of intelligent design do not necessarily believe in God, in the traditional theistic sense; but they argue that one or more Creators must exist.

They see evolution as just a theory, not an indisputable fact. But unlike creationists, some accept that the Earth is billions of years old and that species do undergo small changes over time.

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