In this week’s eSkeptic Jason Rosenhouse reports on the 2005 Creation Mega Conference — a young Earth creationist conference that took place in Lynchburg, Virginia, July 17th – 22nd, 2005.
Young Earth Creationists
of the World Unite!
a report by Jason Rosenhouse
With the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents sucking up all the anti-evolution oxygen these days, it is easy to forget that the Young Earth Creationists (YEC) are still around. No doubt motivated partly by a desire to remind everyone they still exist, they recently organized the Creation Mega Conference, held at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. That being just down the road from my digs in Harrisonburg, VA, I decided to check it out.
Sunday Evening, July 17th
As I approached the main entrance of the campus I saw a large sign announcing one of Liberty University’s slogans: “Changing Lives One Degree at a Time.” It is an amusing catch phrase, since most Liberty students choose the school out of a desire to avoid having their faith challenged at a secular university. In other words, a Liberty education is about not changing your life.
I waited my turn at the registration table, swallowed hard as I paid my $150 registration fee, and received my conference package: A complete schedule of the presentations. A notebook. Promotional material for various creationist groups. A copy of Ken Ham’s subtly titled book The Lie: Evolution. Ham is the President of the young-Earth organization Answers in Genesis (AiG), co-sponsor of the conference.
The second paragraph of the introduction to Ham’s book says, “My parents knew that evolution was wrong because it was obvious from Genesis that God had given us the details of the creation of the world.” One of the presenters at the conference expressed the same thought more directly: “God said it, that settles it.”
They are refreshingly clear and honest on this point. They have little use for the various politically correct subterfuges used by the Intelligent Design (ID) folks in presenting their case. Unlike the ID people, YEC’s are completely open about their religious motivations.
On the other hand, it tells you something about the way the attendees approach this subject. They hate having to wage this war on science’s turf. They want to cite the authority of scripture and have everyone else take them seriously. It is already a major defeat for them that they must argue in scientific terms. I trudged back to the hotel and took advantage of the free HBO.
Monday morning, July 18th
It was 8:15 AM, and Jerry Falwell kicked off the festivities by describing the conference as an historic event and asserting that polls show that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans agree with AiG on this issue. (Wrong — polls have consistently shown that the percentage of people accepting the young-Earth position is just below fifty percent.) Falwell boasted that the church is winning the debate. He said that despite having the media, Hollywood, and academe against them, the church of Jesus Christ returned George W. Bush to the White House. And this is about science, right?
Falwell then launched into the standard pitch about creation being necessary for redemption. If Genesis is unreliable, then how could they be confident that the crucifixion account is true? Evolution implies humans are worthless animals that have no value except to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Laughter. If God could create an adult Adam with apparent age, why couldn’t he do the same with the universe?
After Falwell came David DeWitt, director of the Center for Creation Research at Liberty. He made only a few brief remarks, emphasizing Liberty’s adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible from “Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21.” In particular, they believe Adam and Eve were real people that God created in six literal days. He contrasted Liberty’s theological purity favorably against the weak-kneed, compromised theology of various other, “allegedly Christian” colleges. Those are the schools that present biology and geology in a serious way; the ones that suggest that ideas like evolution or the geological column are actually pretty sound. Wheaton College was singled out for particular derision. It seems that in a survey of Wheaton students, a majority indicated that they were more confused on the subject of origins after going through Wheaton’s curriculum than they were before. DeWitt described this as sad. Happy, apparently, is the fate of Liberty’s students, who described themselves as less confused on the subject as a result of their education. Exit DeWitt.
The keynote presentations were going on in a large coliseum. The speakers stood on a stage at some distance from the nearest audience members, but their images were projected onto several large screens for the benefit of the attendees, along with PowerPoint slides. The presentations were slick and professional, more so than what you often see at scientific conferences. The explanation for this is not hard to see. At scientific conferences, the purpose of the presentations is to transmit facts and ideas to the audience. In creationist conferences, the point is the marketing of biblical ideas.
Ken Ham was up next. He delivered a cheerleading talk entitled “Rebuilding the Foundation,” with very little scientific content. His rallying cry was “We’re taking them back!” The “them” includes: “Christian Institutions, History, Creation, Chemistry, DNA, Marriage, Dinosaurs, Animal Kinds, Biology, Genetics, Stalagmites, Stalactites, The Meaning of Death, Physics, Geology, The Grand Canyon, People Groups, Education, and Genesis 1-11.” I was reminded of comedian Steven Wright’s line, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
Ham closed his talk by imploring the audience to buy lots of books and DVD’s from the concessions in the front of the hall. I don’t mean he simply said, “Please visit the bookstore during the break between the talks.” He went on for fifteen minutes describing in great detail the various available titles. In fact, virtually every talk I attended concluded with five to ten minutes of pleas to buy lots of stuff. Every time you thought they were finished hawking their wares, they’d rattle off a whole new series of products you were expected to buy.
After Ham’s talk the conference broke into parallel tracks, one labeled “Basic, the other “Advanced.” Goodness! What to do? I considered my options. The advanced talk for the morning was entitled “Refuting Compromise” by Jonathan Sarfati. The compromise he had in mind involved those Christians who have made their peace with the great age of the Earth. That did not seem like something I could get worked up over.
I opted for “What’s the Best Evidence That God Created?” by Carl Kerby? In a tone more appropriate for an audience of five-year olds (basic indeed), Kerby began by discussing stars. They blow his socks off! The beauty, the colors, the order! He’s in awe! He then informed us, proudly, that he was neither deep nor complex. (This was a common refrain throughout the conference and is standard anti-intellectualism. If you think too much you get confused.) He then showed us a picture of an elaborate sand castle and pronounced that the castle was obviously designed. But how much more complicated is a star than a sand castle! Like, QED, dude.
From here Kerby presented a menagerie of nature’s oddities. This is standard creationist fare: point to some random structure in some obscure little critter, gush about how complicated it is and how all the parts were necessary, scoff at the idea that such a thing could have evolved, and then bask in the cheers and laughter of the delighted audience. Creationists of a bygone era made this point with such banalities as the human eye or bird wings. Occasionally they whipped out something more esoteric, like the defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle. Kerby produced some examples that were new to me: The cave Weta of New Zealand, the Moloch Lizard, and the congregating behavior of Emperor penguins. In every case the argument was the same: The complex system in question could not have evolved gradually because it could not have functioned until all of its parts were in place. No, strike that. It was positively laughable to think that such a thing could have evolved. Utterly ridiculous! You’d have to have no brain at all even to entertain the notion!
After each example Kerby asked the audience, “Is this the best evidence that God created?” To which the delighted audience, prompted by a PowerPoint slide, would reply, “Not even close!” So what is the best evidence that God Created? It’s the Bible. The best evidence that God created is that He told us He created. Kerby closed his talk with a chilling but typically clear expression of creationist logic: “Do not let evidence fuel your appreciation of God. Let your appreciation of God influence your view of the evidence.”
Monday afternoon, July 18th
After the lunch break I had a choice between “How to Defend the Christian Faith in a Secular World,” by Ken Ham, and “Rocks Around the Clocks: The Eons That Never Were,” by Emil Silvestru. Having had my fill of Ham, I elected for the rocks. Big mistake. Silvestru’s talk was a typical creationist snow job. Look! Here’s a tree buried through many layers of sediment. Look! Here are some preserved dinosaur eggs. Look! Here’s a Sequoia fossil in the Arctic. In most cases the examples went by far too quickly to digest their supposed importance, which was that evolution never happened.
More interesting was the next talk, “Ape Men, Missing Links, and the Bible,” by Phillip Bell, who had the unpleasant task of trying to explain away all of those highly suggestive hominid fossils that keep turning up on various African plains. His talk was made up entirely of standard creationist boilerplate. All of those fossils were either “fully ape” or “fully human.” Piltdown man was a hoax. Evolutionists will find a tooth or a toe and simply concoct an organism to go with it. There is great controversy among paleoanthropologists about the evolutionary relationships among the various hominid fossils.
Bell reiterated the standard imprecation to allow the Bible to influence your interpretation of evidence. The Bible is clear that Adam was formed from the dust of the Earth (Gen. 2:7) and that he was the first man (1 Cor. 15:45). Therefore we should not find any transitional forms between apes and humans. If we find something that appears to be transitional that’s not evidence for evolution; it’s evidence that we haven’t properly discerned the importance of the particular fossil. Thus, “Lucy,” one of the oldest and most complete hominid fossils, was just an ape; Neanderthal man was fully human. It is a familiar argument, but it won’t wash. You can assign whatever label you want to a given fossil. It is not going to change the fact that the fossils we have show a clear progression from hominids with mostly ape-like features through those that are more and more like modern humans.
Also making its appearance was the beloved creationist ploy of using quotations out of context. One example should suffice. In the October 26, 2002 issue of New Scientist, paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood wrote: “Our progress from ape to human looks so smooth, so tidy. It’s such a beguiling image that even the experts are loath to let it go. But it is an illusion.” What’s this? A prominent scholar admitting that human evolution is an illusion? That is the impression Bell wished to create.
Of course, readers knowledgeable about basic evolutionary theory will have little trouble discerning Wood’s point. The illusion he refers to is not the evolution of humans from ape-like ancestors, but rather the idea that this evolution was smooth and tidy. Wood spells this out in the next paragraph, where he discusses the significance of a then recently unearthed fossil skull from Chad: “It is forcing us to rethink the idea of human evolution as a smooth progression without blind alleys or dead ends. It can’t possibly be so tidy, as within this framework the Chad fossil makes no sense.”
After the lecture, I decided to wait by the stage to ask Bell a few questions. During the talk Bell had used a second quotation from the Bernard Wood article quoted above. “Certainly,” Wood wrote, “the search for the ‘missing link’ is doomed to failure.” Bell presented this to suggest that humans did not evolve from ape-like ancestors. In reply I pointed out that actually Wood’s point was that we shouldn’t think in terms of missing links, because even if we had the right fossil in front of us we would have no way of recognizing it as such. Bell replied with the bizarre argument that having a large number of candidate “missing links” is somehow a problem for evolutionists. Further, given the rampant controversy among paleoanthropologists about the proper classification of these fossils, scientists should not be so arrogant about talking about human evolution as a fact. I replied that he was confusing two separate questions. One question involves reconstructing specific evolutionary lineages. That is generally very difficult. A separate question is whether the fossils we have are consistent with the hypothesis of human descent from ape-like ancestors. That hypothesis gets stronger as we dig up more fossils. The distinction was lost on Bell.
Tuesday morning, July 19th
For the morning session I opted for “Two Hundred Years of Christian Compromise on the Age of the Earth,” by Terry Mortenson, who opened with a prayer. No science this time around, just a rogue’s gallery of confused Christians unwilling to tow the party line on the age of the Earth. After a brief history of geology from 1770 to 1830, Mortenson rattled off a list of pioneer compromisers. These were the scamps who paved the way for the modern heresies so many modern Christians claim to believe. There was Thomas Chalmers, who fathered the “Gap Theory” (in which a gap of indeterminate length is assumed to have occurred between the first two verses of Genesis), and George Stanley Faber, who concocted the “Day-Age Theory” (in which the “days” of Genesis actually refer to ages of indeterminate length). A particularly noteworthy example here was John Fleming, who apparently wrote about a tranquil flood and once claimed that the flood left behind no traces. The geology mavens in the audience had a good laugh at that one.
I had a hard time getting worked up over this one because I was psyching myself up for Werner Gitt’s talk, “In the Beginning was Information.” Gitt was kind enough to provide extensive notes, which was good because his talk far outstripped all the others in terms of content difficulty. Here is the introduction from those notes:
We will set out in a new direction, by seeking a definition of information with which it is possible to formulate laws of nature about it. Information is a nonmaterial entity and this is the first time that a law of nature has been formulated for a mental concept. First, we will describe the distinguishing attributes of information, formulate its definition, state the laws themselves and draw six strong conclusions. Since we have successfully discovered and formulated 10 laws of nature about information, we will refer to this definition of information as Laws of Nature about Information (LNI).
Witt then presented the “strong conclusions” from his model:
- God Exists; Refutation of atheism.
- There is only one God, who is all-knowing and eternal.
- God is immensely powerful.
- God is spirit.
- No human being without a soul; Refutation of materialism.
- No evolution.
Witt then asked, “What is a Law of Nature?” His answer:
Laws of nature describe events, phenomena and occurrences which consistently and repeatedly take place. They are thus universally valid laws. They can be formulated in science, hence laws of nature for material entities in physics and chemistry (e.g. energy, momentum, electrical current, chemical reactions) and non-material entities (e.g. information, consciousness). Due to their explanatory power, and their correspondence to reality, laws of nature represent the highest level of significance in science. The following points about laws of nature are especially significant:
- Laws of nature know no exceptions.
- Laws of nature are unchanging in time (past, present or future).
- Laws of nature can tell us whether a process being contemplated is even possible or not.
- Laws of nature exist prior to, and independent of, their discovery and formulation.
- Laws of nature can always be successfully applied to unknown situations.
Most scientists will be instinctively uncomfortable with the sorts of sweeping generalizations Gitt is making here. To the extent that scientists talk about natural laws at all, they really just mean certain generalizations that have consistently been successful in predicting the results of experiments. The key criterion is usefulness, not metaphysical Truth. But that’s too wishy-washy for creationists. They don’t care about generalizations scientists find useful. They want Truth. That is why they are so unreceptive to the perfectly sensible argument that hypotheses about God’s actions in the world are not scientific because they don’t lead to anything scientists can use to further their work.
Gitt then provided the following “Natural Law Definition of Information”:
Information is an encoded, symbolic representation of material realities or conceptual relationships conveying expected action and intended purpose. Information is always present when, in an observable system, all of the following five hierarchical levels (or attributes) are present: Statistics, syntax (code), semantics (meaning), pragmatics (action) and apobetics (purpose).
Gitt then listed ten “laws” of information, all of which was building to his conclusion that meaning and purpose are built into information, including DNA: “Because all forms of life contain a code (DNA, RNA), as well as all the other levels of information, we are within the definition domain of information. We can therefore conclude that: There must be an intelligent Sender.”
Does the information encoded in our genes really possess the properties Gitt requires? Is Gitt really attributing meaning and purpose to genes? What could that possibly mean? He might say that the purpose of genes is to produce proteins. But is that the genes’ purpose, or is that simply what genes do?
Or consider Gitt’s explanation of what constitutes “Pragmatics” (Action): “Information invites action. Every transmission of information is nevertheless associated with the intention, from the side of the sender, of generating a particular result or effect on the receiver.” Who is the sender and who is the receiver in the case of DNA? Our genes, after all, do not know that human observers are attributing to them the property of containing information. They, and the associated cellular machinery that transforms them into proteins, are simply doing whatever it is that they do, governed by various principles of physics and chemistry.
This brings us to the most fundamental problem of all with Gitt’s project. He spoke constantly about the information content of our genes. But at no point did he ever tell us how to measure information! His constant challenge to evolutionists was to produce a natural mechanism that could increase the information content of our genome. But there’s no hope of answering that question until we know precisely how to measure information.
There is a branch of mathematics known as information theory. Within this theory, pioneered by Claude Shannon in the late 1940s, there is a precise method for determining the information content of a given message. During the talk, however, Gitt explicitly differentiated what he was doing from Shannon’s conception of information. We will return to this point momentarily.
When Gitt finished, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause, followed by a standing ovation. Ken Ham took the stage and boasted that this was one of the most powerful apologetic arguments he had ever heard. This was an especially revealing moment because, as far as I could tell, Witt’s argument made no sense at all, so there is no way anyone in the audience could have understood a word he was saying.
I decided to hang around for the discussion. I was standing pretty close to Dr. Gitt, part of a crowd of about 40 or so people. The questions being asked were the usual fawning silliness, until Gitt got to a man standing near me, who asked him what his peers (by which he meant other scientists) thought about his natural laws of information. Incredibly, Gitt replied that his ideas have wide acceptance among scientists. He boasted of various seminars at which he had spoken in mainstream universities and talked about the enthusiastic response he generally received. He claimed to have published this material in secular journals. He then started gushing about how all it would take to refute his ideas is for a scientist to produce a single natural mechanism that could increase the information content of the genome. That’s it — just one! But they couldn’t do it.
I had had enough. I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “What effect does a genetic mutation have on the information content of the genome?” Silence fell, as 40 pairs of eyes turned on me. I swallowed hard and continued, “As I’m sure you’re aware, genes mutate all the time. So tell me how a simple point mutation changes the information content of the gene.”
Gitt gave the standard response that genetic mutation invariably leads to a loss or degradation of information. Alas, in the heat of the moment I did not think of the obvious reply: If a given point mutation (in which a single nucleotide in a gene is replaced with a different nucleotide) results in a loss of information, then the reverse mutation must result in a gain of information. Instead I said, “You keep talking about information going up or information going down. But at no point did you tell us how to measure information. And without such a measure it’s not even meaningful to talk about information content increasing or decreasing. Usually when scientists talk about information they have in mind Shannon’s concept. When it comes time to measure information, is that what you have in mind?”
He hemmed and hawed a bit but eventually conceded that information can only be quantified at the “Statistical” level and that for the purposes of measuring information that is what was important. So I replied, “If that is what you mean, then there are several well-known mechanisms that can lead to an increase in information content.” I proceeded to describe the process of gene duplication and divergence.
He replied with the standard creationist evasion at this point: He argued that duplicating a gene does not produce new information. It’s a jaw-dropping reply, since it simply ignores the part where the duplicate gene subsequently mutates.
We went on for several minutes. The highlight for me was when, in response to an argument he made about mutating computer programs, he actually said I made a good point. I felt my mission had been accomplished. I had made it clear that there are answers to his arguments, and everyone had a chance to see that there were people who were unintimidated by them. I couldn’t resist one parting shot. “In your reply to the previous gentleman you said that your ideas about information are well-received by other scientists. But even you would have to agree that evolution is the dominant paradigm among scientists. Since you made it clear that your ideas absolutely rule out the possibility of evolution, I don’t think it’s true that scientists agree with you here.”
At this point something amazing happened. Gitt replied that there was no contradiction here because you could accept both God and evolution. I agree completely with that sentiment, but that was definitely not the party line at this conference.
I pressed on. “But we’re not talking about God and evolution. We’re talking about accepting your particular theories about information on the one hand and evolution on the other. You said explicitly that was impossible. So you were being disingenuous when you told the other fellow that scientists accept your ideas.” Gitt shrugged and looked down at the floor. He actually looked abashed! Since I didn’t think creationists were capable of shame, I considered this a major victory.
I shook his hand, thanked him for his time and started to walk away. I was mentally patting myself on the back for a job well done, when I heard a middle-aged woman in the crowd say, “You’re really very ignorant about biology. You should learn a bit more before you start talking about it.” Alas.
Tuesday afternoon, July 19th
My choice for the first afternoon talk was “Hubble, Bubble, Big Bang in Trouble” by John Hartnett, another in the large Australian contingent at the conference. It was his task to persuade us that the Big Bang was a lot of atheistic nonsense. Which is interesting, since in other contexts creationists love the Big Bang because it allows them to claim that the universe had a definite beginning in time, and a beginning must have a cause, a cause that needs no other cause…God.
What YEC’s don’t like about the Big Bang is the implication that it happened billions of years ago. The centerpiece of Hartnett’s case against the Big Bang was the alleged discovery of galaxies with wildly different red shifts that are nonetheless connected by bridges of dust and debris. Under the standard model, in which a galaxy’s red shift is correlated with its distance from us, this should not be possible.
From here the discussion turned to quasars (very distant, non-stellar sources of radio waves whose origin is still a bit mysterious). Hartnett provided something he claimed was evidence for the proposition that quasars are not as distant as commonly thought. Unfortunately, this went by too quickly for me to jot down. He then argued that quasars are found across paired galaxies, and concluded from this that quasars are actually being ejected out of galactic activity. All of this was said to challenge the Big Bang for two reasons:
- All of our distance estimates based on red shifts are now suspect, and
- Matter is constantly being created from the center of galaxies (so that it is not true that all matter was created at the Big Bang).
After the conference I checked on these claims, in which I discovered that data and theories about “linked galaxies” are highly controversial, to say the least. However, Hartnett’s talk was definitely the least foolish of the ones I attended.
Unsurprisingly, things returned to their proper state of brain-dead jaw-dropping ignorance in the next talk: Carl Kerby’s “Evolution and Pop Culture,” which was mostly a series of clips from various movies and television programs that made references to evolution, the ancient age of the Earth, or, occasionally, homosexuality. Kerby would say something like, “How many of you saw the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” A number of hands would go up. And then Kerby would ask, “Did you catch the evolution reference?” The list of nasty television shows included episodes from Bugs Bunny, the Three Stooges, the 1960’s Batman series, an episode of CSI, and the cartoon Sponge Bob Square Pants. One theme that cropped up was that any reference to something being prehistoric was considered offensive. Why? Because history began on Day One of Creation Week. There is no prehistory! Of course, it’s not all bad news. There are shows like the Flintstones that depict humans and dinosaurs living simultaneously. Evolutionists hate the Flintstones we were told.
Turning to films we have Fantasia, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Spider-Man. You might enjoy renting those movies and trying to find the evolution references yourself. The citation of Ice Age was particularly revealing. Ice Age is an animated movie about a sloth, a mammoth, and a saber-tooth tiger that end up caring for an abandoned human infant. The unlikely trio is trying to catch up with a tribe of humans to return the baby. It’s a very good movie, both funny and touching. In one scene, our noble trio, seeking a short cut, walk through an ice cave. Frozen into the ice walls of the cave are various other animals that apparently got trapped. We see the sloth walking through a lengthy corridor. Frozen in the ice to his right are three other animals. The camera fixes on this for a moment and we see all four animals (the three in the ice and the sloth) lined-up in a row. They form a linear evolutionary sequence from a primitive looking creature on the far right to the modern sloth on the left.
Kerby, clearly excited, said, “They were trying to indoctrinate your kids, they were trying to show evolution, but they failed. You know why they failed? Because they show all four of those animals existing at the same time. That’s not evolution!” Cheers erupted from the delighted audience, coupled with the thud of my jaw hitting the desk.
This is about as dumb as it gets when you are discussing evolution. Thinking that a species cannot coexist with its evolutionary descendants is as foolish as thinking that parents wink out of existence the moment their children are born.
Wednesday morning, July 20th
The keynote talk for Wednesday morning was by Georgia Purdom, entitled, “The Intelligent Design Movement; How Intelligent is it?” Dr. Purdom was one of only two women speaking at the conference.
Purdom began by arguing that ID poses grave problems for Christians by taking no stand on the nature and specific actions of the designer. She discussed the natural theology of the 18th and 19th centuries, presenting it as an argument that we could have knowledge of God apart from the Bible. She said that while God is certainly revealed through his works, special revelation was more important than the study of nature.
Purdom then described the mousetrap analogy used by Michael Behe as an illustration of irreducible complexity. She fretted that the analogy was too simplistic and that evolutionists have a good time tearing it apart. Her feeling is that evolutionists can have the mousetrap, but actual biological systems — like the blood clotting cascade — are vastly more complex.
She was really impressed with blood clotting, and gushed about how a system lacking any of the relevant clotting factors will not function. There is no simpler system for clotting blood, she mused. I am sure that will come as news to the lobsters residing at the local fish store, since they do just fine with a vastly simpler blood clotting system. In fact, she never got around to mentioning that, as described by Ken Miller and others, the evolution of the blood clotting cascade is not that hard to explain.
Purdom then argued that natural theology backfired because it led to deism. By divorcing the creator from the creation, the natural theologians lulled people into thinking that it was enough just to acknowledge the designer, rather than believe specific things about His attributes. ID is the same as natural theology in this sense. She was concerned that with the ID emphasis on presenting no theory of the creator, it becomes more difficult for Christians to spread the Gospel.
It was at this point that Purdom said the single most insightful thing I heard at the entire conference. She argued that another problem with ID is that it provides no account of poor design. She pointed to pathogenic microbes, carnivorous animals, and viruses. She said that ID makes God Himself the author of such natural evil, instead of original sin being the culprit.
Yes, a thousand times YES! That’s exactly right. Once you have God intervening in the world to tinker with his design to bring good things into being — like blood clotting cascades and immune systems — then he is also responsible for all the bad things. It is inescapable. Score one for the YECs v. the IDers.