Paleontologists from Around the World Take a Field Trip to Kentucky’s Creation Museum

Last summer, two busloads of scientists were schooled in Young Earth creationism, dinosaur storage on Noah’s Ark, and the tempting possibility that dragons existed. Were they convinced? No. Impressed? You bet.

The 70 or so men and women gathered in the morning sun on the circular drive outside the University of Cincinnati’s Campus Recreation Center could be shooting a Teva commercial. Teva sandals have got to be the official footwear of America’s paleontologists, a group whose collective wardrobe also seems to favor sun hats and khaki in all its multifarious forms. The most colorful fashion statement is climbing up the calf of a pony-tailed young man in khaki shorts: a tattoo that looks kind of like a string of Christmas lights. On further inspection, it turns out to be a DNA helix, and inked in graceful letters below the design is one word: Evolve.

The crowd is here at UC for the 2009 North American Paleontological Convention. They’ve come to this quadrennial academic orgy of panel discussions and research presentations to listen as their colleagues hold forth on “Cenozoic Climatic Forcing on Algal Cell Size” and “The Role of Phenotypic Plasticity in the Interpretation of Stratophenetic Patterns in the Paleozoic.” They’ve also come, many of them, because Cincinnati—that is, southwest Ohio, southeast Indiana, and northern Kentucky—is a very big deal in their line of work. This is where American paleontology was born in 1807, when Thomas Jefferson dispatched frontiersman William Clark to collect mastodon bones at Big Bone Lick, teasing out the prehistoric treasures from the rolling land above the Ohio River. This is where riverbeds and road cuts offer easy access to fossils of critters—trilobites, crinoids, chain coral, brachiopods—that were part of the lively soup that formed a vast, shallow sea across our land some 450 million years ago. This is where those fossils are so abundant and so distinctive that the Upper Ordovician period in North America has come to be known as “the Cincinnatian.”

Illustration by Jessica Hische

As it happens, this is also where an organization called Answers in Genesis has staked its claim. Since opening its doors in 2007, AIG’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, has made the case that Earth and its fossilized remains are substantially younger than these paleontologists would have you believe. So, the paleontologists assembled here today are passing up a chance to examine the strata of the famous “Cincinnati Arch” near Louisville or go fossil-hunting in some spectacular Indiana quarries—ordinarily hot tickets for the pick-ax and hardhat set—for a field trip to the museum. They are scientists, after all, trained to deal with factual evidence; they want to see it for themselves.

When the buses pull up, Arnold I. Miller, a professor of paleontology at UC, gathers the group together. For years, the genial 52-year-old Miller (Arnie to his colleagues, and it fits him) has been working on the gazillion details that go into the kind of conference that brings hundreds of big brains—and their research, PowerPoint presentations, and egos—to campus for a week. A day spent shepherding a small brigade of his colleagues to a museum wouldn’t seem to be especially daunting. Still, Miller is apprehensive. Motioning people close enough to hear, he explains the reason for the trip. “The only intention,” he says, “is to give you a chance to tour the museum and understand how paleontology is portrayed and to give you the opportunity to understand what Young Earth Creationism is. That’s fundamentally what we’re doing.”

There’s laughter—fundamentalism, get it?—and Miller seems to relax. But he wasn’t trying to make a joke. He wants his colleagues to get why this place has drawn more than 800,000 visitors since it opened; an in-the-flesh exposure to what the Creation Museum is teaching about science—and about scientists. He’s not taking his colleagues there so that they can laugh at it. He’s taking them so that they can’t dismiss it.

Back in 2005, as he and the organizing committee began to talk about what to include in the program, Miller realized the 2009 conference would have built-in import: It would coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—the book that became the foundation of modern evolutionary theory—and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

When I visited Miller in his office early in the summer, it was just days before conferees were to arrive and he was wrapping up last minute details. There were canvas swag bags to be stuffed with sample tubes of sun block (UV damage is an occupational hazard) and reusable drink cups (to keep attendees from discarding countless planet-clogging bottles), and he was tweaking the schedule for the umpteenth time because some attendees from China had cancelled, deterred by stories of North America’s H1N1 flu (so the update on “Sino-U.S. Cooperation on Critical Transitions in Earth History” would have to wait). Nonetheless, the slate of sessions, panel discussions, and presentations was impressive. More than 500 people from 26 countries were registered—luminaries such as Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies, who discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, and Doug Erwin, a senior scientist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History—plus faculty from colleges and universities, researchers, exhibitors, and grad students. Miller had even been able to work out a visa and funding for a student from Madagascar. “A personal triumph,” he said. But despite his best efforts, politics had trumped science and several Iranian scholars were denied visas.

Science, of course, has never been immune to politics (ask anyone involved in stem cell research). But paleontologists are not generally known for being on the front lines of the kind of sociopolitical battles that fall under the general headline of “culture wars.” Perhaps that’s because the focus of their research are fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old. Maybe it’s easy to take the long view of things when your mind is occupied by the prehistoric, even when the here-and-now involves vocal fisticuffs over the validity of the very scientific theory your work is based on. For whatever reason, when it comes to the Evolution v. Creationism battle, “We tend to ignore the debate,” Miller told me. “Especially those of us on college campuses.” But the conference would include people who don’t ignore the debate. There would be a plenary session called “Evolution and Society,” with panelists like Ken Miller, the Brown University biologist who wrote Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and Eugenie Scott, director of the National Council for Science Education, whose efforts to keep evolution in the public school curriculum won her a place in Scientific American’s 10 notable leaders in 2009—a group that includes President Obama and Bill Gates.

You would not peg Arnie Miller as a debater. He has the kind of galvanizing enthusiasm about his subject that’s more about doing than arguing. But he believes that paleontologists should know what creationists are saying about science. Which is how the North American Paleontological Convention in “The Year of Darwin” came to include a trip to the Creation Museum.

“It would be a good thing if we weren’t so insulated,” Miller told me. Sure, there was some squeamishness about putting it on the program; there had been complaints that it would give the creationists publicity. But organizers had gone ahead with it anyhow. “It’s important for my colleagues to understand what Young Earth Creationism is,” he added. And not just the technical aspects of what the faithful believe. He wanted his scientific brethren to understand “the depth of the message.” Which is, fundamentally, this: The world is deep in sin. And those men and women slathered in sunscreen, chipping away at rocks in quarries, and throwing around terms like “Middle Triassic” and “Late Devonian”—those people? They’re part of the problem.

A petting zoo?” Gwen Daley, an assistant professor of geology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, notes cheerfully as the bus makes the turn into the drive of the Creation Museum. “I love this place already!”

There are a few chuckles, but it’s obvious that some of the travelers are a bit surprised at what’s before them: Landscaping that rivals Eden itself; a huge parking lot filling up faster than Walmart on Black Friday; security guards directing traffic; and families queuing in front of a huge, sleek, handsome institution that might have been at home in any major city but is, in fact, tucked on a rural road in Kentucky.

Bonnie, a museum employee, greets the group outside the soaring portico and tells them about the day’s special events and “awesome speakers,” including, according to the printed schedule, Bodie Hodge, a mechanical engineer, who will talk about “Dinosaurs, Dragons, and the Bible.” Then she sends the paleontologists off with a cheerful, “God bless you guys!” and they are left to explore on their own.

Or as on-their-own as is possible, given that they’re being dogged by multiple members of the media. In addition to local press and broadcasters, The New York Times has sent science writer Kenneth Chang, and reporters from the Associated Press and the AFP—an international wire service—are on the story. Miller and his organizers might have been a touch tentative about including this trip in the schedule, but the university wasn’t shy about publicizing it. And the museum itself has been masterful at getting exposure. Its opening in 2007 was covered by everyone from The Washington Post to the New Zealand Herald, and Time dubbed it one of the 10 biggest religion stories of the year. So bands of roving reporters and photographers are nothing new here. But for all the media presence, the paleontologists are quickly swallowed up in the tide of families, senior citizens, and fresh-faced Christian teens also looking to get schooled, Young Earther–style. In fact, at first the paleontologists are only distinguished from the rest of the crowd by their conference nametags and the details they pause to study. Near the entrance, an animatronic girl with a dinosaur (Young Earth creationism teaches that dinosaurs and humans coexisted) gets little more than a smirk from most of them. But Ron Parsley, a professor in Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering, hovers with interest over a fossil display case that the museum’s non-academic visitors seem to give short shrift. “That’s a pretty good crinoid,” he says with sincere admiration.

The areas of the museum are set up to take visitors through the “Seven Cs in God’s Eternal Plan”—Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, the Cross, and Consummation. But the trip is more lively than the ecclesiastical language would suggest. It starts in the Grand Canyon—or at least in a display area with a sign that, stylistically, is a dead ringer for the National Park Service’s lettering. The museum takes up the question of how the canyon was formed, noting that science says it was shaped by eons of erosion. But the display suggests a more rapid scenario, pointing out that when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, canyons were formed virtually overnight.

Here, too, is the “Joe and Ken” video: actors portraying two scientists on a dig, rooting out dinosaur bones. “Where Ken sees millions of years,” says Joe, “I see a different story.” The story Joe sees—and the story that the museum is built to tell—is that the bones Joe and Ken are studying were buried in a flood 4,300 years ago, a catastrophic event on a planet that was little more than a thousand years old at the time; a God-created disaster that laid waste to living things and deposited the entire fossil record in one fell swoop, like icing on a cake. “We all know the same facts,” Joe says. “We just interpret the facts differently because of our different starting points.” The starting point for Joe being, of course, Genesis.

There’s an easy live-and-let-live quality about the way that Joe explains this disparity, as if different interpretations of the age of Earth (evolutionary science estimates 4.5 billion years while the Creation Museum puts it closer to 6,000 years) and the origins of fossil evidence are minor disagreements among inquisitive minds. Perhaps this is because AIG regards the age of Earth as subordinate to a larger concern. “I want to make it very clear that we don’t want to be known primarily as ‘young-Earth creationists,’” AIG president Ken Ham wrote in a newsletter back in 1998. “Believing in a relatively ‘young Earth’…is a consequence of accepting the authority of the Word of God as an infallible revelation from our omniscient Creator.” What Ken and Joe represent is trumpeted in the next display: “Human Reason versus God’s Word.”

One visitor from the conference quickly sums up the gist of the message: “Reason is evil.” Then she moves on. But it’s not so easy for Peter Dodson to shrug off. Dodson’s a vertebrate paleontologist—“a dinosaur guy,” he says—at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also a Christian and, even setting aside science, this message stings. “Human reason versus God’s word—as if those are incompatible,” he says with frustration. “In Christianity, reason is highly prized. It’s amazing that people think they’re praising God by being ignorant.”

Dodson came here because he knew about the Creation Museum and he wanted to see it for himself. “It’s field work,” he quips. His reaction is similar to many of his colleagues: the scientific information presented is pretty much what he expected, ranging from misleading to downright inaccurate. The surprise is the presentation. “They did a nice job,” he says.

It’s not pejorative to describe the Creation Museum as slick. It should be slick; the two-year-old, $27 million museum has incorporated the latest technology and exhibit design ideas. And nearly everything has a way of engaging children.

I observe this first-hand in the “Walk Through Biblical History,” a dramatic, temple-like corridor where a mother is intent on steering a couple of tow-headed boys through the crowd. But the youngest is transfixed by the life-like figures that line the hall and determined to get his full measure of spiritual enlightenment.

“Who’s that guy,” he demands as his mom tugs him past a silver-bearded figure clutching a scroll.
“Who’s him?”
“Who’s that one?”
“King David.”
“Where’s Indiana Jones?”

Anyone with even a passing exposure to Christian theology understands that there are a lot of different attitudes toward evolution among the faithful; what’s less obvious is why it’s such a litmus test for some. An obvious answer—the Inherit the Wind/Scopes Monkey Trial answer—is: Because the Bible says that God created man in His own image. So, some say, to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution is to discard something very basic and profound about the nature of man and about mankind’s unique place in God’s creation.

But at the Creation Museum, the answer is more basic still, and it’s found at the end of a dark, graffiti-scarred alley that leads to a world where the Bible’s word has been abandoned. There’s a video of a teen worrying over a pregnancy test; another of boys looking at on-line porn; a third of parents listening to a “liberal” sermon while their son, sitting in the pew next to them, fiddles with a cell phone. And at the center of it all is the destructive force that has brought all these woes to modern life, symbolized in the form of a huge wrecking ball slamming into the side of a church. A label on the ball says “millions of years.”

This, Arnie Miller has told me, was the real sticking point for him the first time he visited the museum; this is the “depth of the message” that he wants his colleagues to understand. “The idea that if you accept the view of evolution, you’re undermining the church,” he says. “That’s the one part of the museum that truly offends me: that we are evil.”

That’s not the point at all, says Terry Mortenson, a researcher and speaker at the Creation Museum, when I talk with him after the paleontologists’ visit. “The evolutionists who say that are not being very observant,” he insists. According to Mortenson, the push to accept evolution and the “old earth” notion that it depends on was first promulgated in the late 19th century by those with an anti-church worldview. The museum explains this history in a display that precedes the wrecking ball—an exhibit that includes an exploration of the evangelical movement in the U.S. and the Scopes trial. That century-old fight “was a worldview conflict,” he says, not a battle between science and the church. So…the wrecking ball? “Once the church accepted the ‘millions of years’ idea, it destroyed the authority of the Bible,” he explains. “It’s not an issue of people against people; it’s about ideas.” And the idea of evolution, Mortenson says, is “philosophy masquerading as science.”

The paleontologists have been the largest group of scientists to visit, as far as Mortenson is aware. Purdue University once brought a contingent of grad students, and researchers from M.I.T. came to do a survey of visitors—a project that was done with the museum’s blessing and cooperation. Otherwise, when scientists have come, they’ve done so on their own, as individuals. Mortenson knows that some have taken the museum’s message personally. “Some have said to me, ‘You’re demonizing science,’” he relates.

Not so, says Mortenson. If you’re really paying attention, it is sin that’s getting the blame: “[It’s] human rebellion against the Creator that has produced all the evil.” Those who say otherwise, he adds, “are driven by an anti-Biblical agenda.”

But before sin there was paradise—and in the exhibit called “God Plants a Garden,” visitors come to know what was lost because of humankind’s cosmic disobedience. The Creation Museum’s Eden is a place of miracles, where maple trees and tropical plants thrive together in the same soil and climate; where lambs, apes, and bighorn sheep graze together with dinosaurs; where there is no death and all living things are vegetarian. And where Adam’s beard is trimmed and Eve’s hair tumbles over her nubile nakedness with enough modesty that even the young Mennonite mother in front of me is not embarrassed. In less talented hands, sculpted museum figures can look like re-purposed department store dummies. These are done with real artistry. Of course, it’s paradise, and paradise inspires perfection.

But it can’t last. God’s word is questioned and evil arrives, ushering in snakes with venom and the pain of childbirth. After the fall of Adam and Eve, there’s disease, meat-eating, aging, and death. When we leave the First Couple, Adam is laboring, Eve is pregnant, and everyone looks worse for wear.

One thread running throughout the museum is its creators’ efforts to anticipate and answer the questions of Doubting Thomases. Nowhere is that clearer than the ark room, replete with construction details regarding Noah’s ship, including the use of trunnels (tree nails) to join the huge timbers and a description of the Greek method of shaping a hull from edge-joined planking.

The interior storage for Noah’s animal cargo, depicted in a miniature diorama, is more speculative, since it’s hard to grasp in miniature an ark large enough to hold two of every living thing, including—yes—dinosaurs. But like the flood itself (demonstrated on a video that’s available for purchase in the museum’s bookstore), Noah’s rescue of dinosaurs is presented as a fait accompli.

By positing that dinosaurs existed alongside Adam and Eve, the museum has found what you might call a Jurassic perk: kids love dinosaurs, and parents love to think that their kids are learning science when they’re being entertained by dinosaurs. Dino exhibits have been blockbuster attractions for conventional museums for years, and Answers in Genesis has embraced the giant lizards, too, by simply moving the Dawn of Dinosaurs from science’s accepted date of 230 million years ago to coincide with the dawn of everything else in the Young Earth cosmogony. You see dinosaur images on everything connected to the Creation Museum: on highway billboards, at the entrance, throughout the museum, and on the T-shirts, games, and books in the gift shop. Even Jesus doesn’t get that kind of billing.

Which bothers Mark Terry, when I catch up to him at the “Dinosaur Den” display. Terry’s one of the conference speakers, a secondary school science instructor who co-founded the private Northwest School in Seattle two decades ago. He has just come out of a viewing of The Last Adam—the museum’s film about Jesus. “Why not that as the core” of the museum’s message, he says pointedly.

He allows that the museum has some “beautiful bones,” but what the museum has done with its resources is bad science. And, he adds, “I think it’s horrible theology.”

Looking over the exhibits in the Dinosaur Den, we learn that the flood killed all the dinosaurs except for the ones on Noah’s ark. “But their days were numbered,” the signage explains ominously. What happened? Here, the museum makes a rare admission of uncertainty. But it does present a tantalizing possibility: “Dragons could have been dinosaurs,” the sign says.

That’s right. Evolution is only a theory. But God’s Truth is supported by…dragons.

“I’ve heard it all before,” says Winthrop University’s Gwen Daley as we eat lunch in one of the museum’s outdoor picnic pavilions. She’s dismayed by the museum’s message. “But it was very well funded,” she admits.

“It’s so beautiful,” says Patricia Princehouse, a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, looking across the lovely hillside gardens. “It’s insidious, really. It seems criminal to lead kids into a situation where they have to choose between science and God.” Princehouse, a Dayton native and Harvard PhD, helped found the lobbying group Ohio Citizens for Science and she’s involved in efforts to make sure that evolution continues to be taught in schools. Like a number of the conference attendees that I’ve talked to, she offers me her own faith perspective. “In the Catholic tradition,” she says, “you know God through His word and His works. This [Young Earth creationism] discounts His works.”

Just when I’m beginning to think that paleontology is like a foxhole (i.e. according to the battlefield canard, there are no atheists there), I catch up with Jason Rosenhouse. Actually, Rosenhouse isn’t a paleontologist; he’s a math prof at James Madison University in Virginia. But he’s a vocal opponent of the teaching of creationism and intelligent design and is a contributor to an evolution blog called “The Panda’s Thumb.” He’s also an atheist.

A couple of years ago, when he was first learning all that he could about creationists and creationism, he sat in on a speech given by Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis. Afterward, he cornered Ham in a hallway and, “I was telling him why everything he was saying was wrong,” Rosenhouse explains. “He said I was very arrogant. And I said, ‘No, arrogant is standing in front of an audience and pretending you know anything about science.’”

But, Rosenhouse admits, he was arrogant back then. These days, he has a more wry attitude toward the object of his, well, objections. This is his fourth visit to the Creation Museum, he announces pleasantly—a frequency that suggests that, in his own way, Rosenhouse is fascinated.

Arnie Miller had told me earlier that his hope for the day was that his colleagues would be struck by the sheer number of people at the museum. He wanted them to grasp the fact that people from all over—not just Kentuckians, not just Midwesterners, not just families in minivans—do come and do believe. And as his group of fellow paleontologists wait for the buses to arrive for the return trip to campus, he takes a walk around the parking lot and counts the number of different state license plates. “Thirty-five on one summer day,” he says.

Miller hopes the visit will help others understand, as he says, “the power of the message, how well it’s being presented, and how many people are responding.” He’d like to motivate his colleagues to get involved when issues such as intelligent design come up in secondary schools. “And,” he says, “I’d like them to think about how to convey our message in a way that’s not condescending, not overbearing, not alienating.”

It’s an approach that Rosenhouse seems to have embraced. Waiting for the bus at the end of the visit, I mention to Rosenhouse and the National Council for Science Education’s Eugenie Scott that I saw him in one exhibit room patiently discussing something—fruit fly evolution?—with a couple of older teens. It looked to me like the teens were itching for a debate. Rosenhouse explains that an Associated Press reporter had been interviewing him about the museum’s “misleading claims,” the teens overheard the conversation, and came over to question him. They weren’t being confrontational, he says. “It was all very polite.”

“Did you make any headway?” asks Scott as our bus wheezes to a stop.

“Not a dent,” he says.

This article was originally featured in the November 2009 issue.

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