This past August 7, attendees at the Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus Ohio, along with various friends, fans and hangers-on of PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog (about 300 of us in all), visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. We were there, and in this series of posts, I present a summary and critique of the message of the Creation Museum.
A Twisty Little Passage…
There seem to be two chief ways of organizing museum exhibits. Some are arranged in random-access fashion: a big gallery full of display cases which the visitor can peruse in any order they choose. Others are arranged linearly, along a sort of folded corridor which encourages the visitor to view them in a particular order. The latter is preferred when the curator wants to present the artifacts and concepts in a temporal sequence (as in the traveling Darwin exhibit, which roughly follows the great scientist’s biography), or when the intent is to present some lesson or argument. The bulk of the Creation Museum, called “Walk Through History”, is of the latter type: a long, twisting sequence of dioramas, placards and videos (and once in a while, a real specimen), presenting the view of natural history promoted by Ken Ham and his ministry, Answers in Genesis. History according to Ham reflects the unfolding of God’s plan, which is alliteratively summed up as: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation.
Two World Views
Creationists have a problem: science, though widely misunderstood, is nonetheless widely respected, and thus creationists have to explain why almost all the working geologists, astronomers and biologists in the world – smart, educated and (presumably) honest – believe in an ancient earth and biological evolution.
The first section of the gallery attempts to answer this, by building up the concept of two world views, based respectively on “Human Reason” and “God’s Word”. The argument goes that, while “mainstream” scientists and creation “scientists” are working from the same evidence, they arrive at different conclusions because they start from different assumptions.
This tension is summed up in a final pair of posters contrasting Lyell’s dictum “The present is the key to the past” with AiG’s preferred starting point, “God’s Word is the key to the past, present, and future”.
However, this argument is seriously fallacious: the implied epistemic symmetry between evolutionist science and creationist science simply does not exist. The creationist is committed — before he takes his rock hammer to his first outcrop — to a particular conclusion about history, to a particular chronology: one which follows a fairly literal reading of the Book of Genesis, and is anchored in time by the Biblical geneologies.
The “evolutionist” side (ie. honest science) by contrast has no prior commitment, except to the evidence of the universe itself. A priori, the earth might be six thousand years old, or six trillion – but the evidence has converged on the figure of about 4.5 billion.
A priori, life might be descended from a common ancestor, or it might spring independently from several sources (or perhaps organisms arise spontaneously from the action of the elan vital on mud or rotting meat!) — but the evidence leads to the conclusion that all life shares a common source in the deep past (with some interesting wrinkles such as promiscuous DNA-swapping among early single-celled organisms, and the origins of intracellular organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts as bacteria captured by early eukaryotes).
A priori, humans might be descended from apes, or from some other group, or might even have landed from outer space (and thus have no relation to other terrestrial life) – but the anatomical, genetic and fossil evidence clearly place us within the great apes, with the chimps and gorillas as our closest living cousins. The account we have of natural history has emerged from some two-and-a-half centuries of painstaking analysis of the data, and it fits together.
In the first 60 or so feet of the Walk Through History, the Creation Museum has actually made two devastating concessions:
That “mainstream” science essentially has it right, as far as the evidence and human reason goes.
That their conclusion is driven overwhelmingly by religious dogma; that you would never arrive at the young-earth creationist account of natural history from the evidence of the world itself. You only get there if you begin by assuming that Genesis is true, and then proceed to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the evidence to fit.
AiG’s own report on the SSA visit to the museum commits some serious irony:
We trust that such skeptics will be open to reassessing their dogmatically held views as they tour the Creation Museum, and will use their critical thinking ability to study the scientific and biblical arguments on the other side of the origins debate.
That’s right: they insist up front that everything has to agree with the Bible, literally interpreted – and we’re the ones being dogmatic? Really, you could stop right there and just ignore the rest of the place. But in fact, that’s only the beginning of the bizarre funhouse called the Creation Museum.