Q&A with Tri-State academics about the creation vs. evolution debate

WCPO live streamed the debate. Click here to watch the debate.


The creationism vs. evolution debate taking place Tuesday night in Petersburg, Ky. has received attention from people across the world.

In front of a mixed crowd of impassioned believers, ardent atheists and spectators praying for an academic spectacle, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham plan to lock horns at 7 p.m. to tackle age-old questions about how and why the Earth and its inhabitants came into existence.

RELATED: Evolutionist Bill Nye and Creationist Ken Ham to host debate at Creation Museum in Kentucky

But beyond jabs at perceived flaws in the opposition's position and sentiment-filled rants to promote their side of the story exists the possibility that some genuine questions about the origin of species may be answered.

Of course, there's also a chance the entire event will do little more than drive an even bigger wedge between the supporters of both theories.

In order to get to the bottom of what the audience can expect when they watch the debate inside the sold out 900-seat auditorium at the Creation Museum or online at various websites like WCPO.com, we spoke with several academics at Tri-State universities to get their perspectives.

WCPO asked a series of questions about the event to Dr. James Smith , professor of biblical studies at Cincinnati Christian University; Dr. Tom Thatcher , chief academic officer at CCU; Dr. George Farnsworth , associate professor of biology and environmental sciences at Xavier University; and Dr. Ronald W. Debry , associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Cincinnati. (You can find out more information about the professors by clicking on their names.)

Below are the questions they were asked and their responses.

1. Can you talk about the development of "fundamentalism" within Christianity?

SMITH: The word “fundamentalism” has its history back in the day when people were trying to work out what was an essential common foundation upon which various people could stand, with varying opinions and still call themselves Christian. Since that time, it’s evolved along socio-political lines rather than along theological lines.

2. Has the divide between segments of Christian groups and the scientific community always existed? When did it begin?

SMITH: No, in fact I’d say it doesn’t exist now, and that what exists now is just a socio-political (not religious) suspicion of Science by a sub-section of the population. Not all people who reject science are Christians/religious.

3. When did the "debate" first develop? Was it with the birth of Darwinism or was it triggered by something else?

FARNSWORTH: Before Darwin, really. Science discovered the Earth is really old (through geological studies) and fossils represented long-extinct species. This didn’t match the biblical account of special creation. Literalists have always resisted new scientific understanding. Remember Copernicus and Galileo were not encouraged by church leaders to explain the sun is the center of the solar system.

4. In your opinion, what is at the heart of the creationism vs. evolution debate?

FARNSWORTH: Human ego being unwilling to accept we are but one unremarkably-created species on a small planet circling an unremarkable star in a huge galaxy within an immense universe.

5. Particularly as it relates to evolution -- has there always been a strong refusal to embrace/accept evolution or has that developed more in the past few decades?

THATCHER: It wouldn’t be right to say that Christianity in general doesn’t embrace evolution. Traditionally, groups and individuals who interpret the Bible more literally, especially the Book of Genesis, have tended to reject evolution, simply because its vision of human origins does not align with the biblical perspective. This is true not only on a literal level, but also anthropologically---in how one understands human nature.

All Christian faiths, however, would disagree with the implications for a strictly scientific evolutionary model for understanding human nature. Any reading of Genesis will clearly suggest that God was intimately involved in the creation of humanity, regardless of the mechanism used. This is the platform for the Christian sense of the human being and, consequently, of Judeo-Christian ethics. Because people were created by God, life has a distinct value and sense of purpose.

6. Have there been efforts to find ways to unite the two sides or has the relationship always been combative?

SMITH: On the Christian side several attempts have been made. Most concretely is the fact that a lot of Christians adopt a position that understands the "six days” of creation to refer to a “indeterminate

period of time" and allows for God to be involved in a long term evolutionary process. They call this “intelligent design.” 

Alternatively, some Christian thinkers may add to that the notion that Science is here to analyze the material world, whereas Christianity is here to describe the spiritual world, and understand (rightly) that Science has no mechanisms to assess anything beyond the material world. These people tend to adopt the posture that if something in the Bible is not scientifically credible, it does not change the larger message of God’s desire to be in a relationship with the world, and merely reflects that the biblical writers wrote from their understanding of the world at the time, describing it phenomenologically* rather than scientifically.

*Phenomenology is a philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness. A movement based on this originated about 1905 by Edmund Husserl.

FARNSWORTH: (It depends) what you mean by unite. Serious people of faith will not be threatened by scientific truths -- God is mysterious, science is not.

(To the) second part of your question: No. Leave science to describe what it can without trying to fit any particular “creation model.”

7. Are the pro-Creationism arguments rooted solely in text found in the Book of Genesis or are there other pieces of scripture used by pro-creationist groups? 

SMITH: The dominant text is Genesis. Without Genesis, no one would be talking about it. So yes, there are numerous other texts (some sayings of Jesus for example) referring to creation, but most scholars would understand those references to emerge from an acceptance of the original Genesis account.

8. What are some of the crucial talking points or "debatable" points that you think will take place at the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham?

THATCHER: Nye will likely point to extremes in Ham's position, particularly his super-literal reading of Genesis 1, claims that the earth is likely no more than 10,000 years old, compression of human history to fit the biblical timeline, and claims that humans and dinosaurs lived side by side.

Ham will likely point out that the study of origins is technically outside the realm of "science," since historically scientific theory has depended heavily on the principle of repeatability---by definition, evolution cannot be reproduced in a controlled environment and therefore cannot be verified. Ham may also reasonably challenge what many view as the statistically impossible elements of evolutionary theory---the odds of human beings evolving randomly as evolutionary science envisions are exceptionally low (generally calculated as a chance of 1 in 10 to the -300,000th decimal, a number that has no name). Nye would counter, of course, that the fact of human life validates the odds.

9. While it might seem obvious to most, some people don't know what's at the heart of the evolutionists' argument. Can you discuss the basic argument for evolution?

DEBRY: This would be easier if I could use pictures, but the most basic evidence in favor of the relationship among species comes from the pattern of similarities among different groups. Evolution predicts that traits will be found in a nested pattern of similarities – and that is exactly what we see. 

All mammals have traits that we think of as “mammal traits”, like fur. But all mammals also have limbs with the same basic bone structure as birds, lizards and frogs, because all of those animals are part of a larger group we call the “tetrapods.” All of the tetrapods share some things in common with all members of an even bigger group we call “vertebrates” (the most obvious “vertebrate” feature is the backbone). Even before Darwin, traits were observed to form nested patterns. By nested, I mean that you never find a bird with fur. You never find a mammal with feathers. You also never find a mammal with an insect exoskeleton, or a fish with bark like on a tree, or a snake making and living in a shell like clam, or a butterfly with a backbone. What Darwin provided was a process that could explain the patterns that pre-evolutionary biologists had already noted. All the mismatched traits I listed are mismatched because the traits arose on different branches of the tree of life. The number of traits that do match the evolution prediction of being nested is overwhelmingly huge. It includes not just anatomy, but DNA and proteins and the machinery that runs cells.

FARNSWORTH: Organisms produce large numbers of offspring. Such offspring are different from one another. Individuals with certain traits will be more likely to survive and reproduce. Those individuals that survive and reproduce will pass on their traits. Over a long period of time (many generations) changes may accumulate.

Lots of physical evidence exists for this.

10. Do you see there being a "winner" or

will this debate come down to a matter of faith (so to speak) for the two camps?

THATCHER: Both positions are so well established and so well articulated within the scope of their own worldview that it seems unlikely that either side will "win." Since it will be impossible to definitively prove one position or the other before the invention of time travel, the debate will largely serve to reinforce existing opinions on both sides of the issue.

DEBRY: There certainly will not be a “winner” in the sense of a formal debate, nor in the sense of changing very many people’s minds. But in another sense, Ken Ham is already the winner.

A Web search for “Nye + Ham” this morning shows results from newspaper sites in Topeka, Kan., Chicago and Washington, D.C. Ham’s website says that there will be a live post-debate segment on CNN and another on MSNBC. He has generated a huge publicity boost for his ministry, at a time when he is trying to raise a lot of money.

11. What's at stake for the scientific community? Does the outcome of the debate between creationism and evolution have bigger, broader implications?

FARNSWORTH: I suppose. For Kentucky, failing to educate students in science will not help the next generation to prosper in an increasingly sophisticated and science-heavy economy.

12. What would "losing" the debate mean for fundamentalist Christians? Can there be "Christianity" (from their perspective) if some of scripture is proven erroneous or written as a metaphor?

THATCHER: The answer to this question would depend on the significance of the issues to any individual's personal faith. Most broadly, all Christians understand at least some elements of the Bible to be metaphorical or allegorical in nature---for example, when Psalm 23 says "The Lord is my Shepherd," no one imagines that God literally sits in heaven wearing a shepherd costume and holding a crooked staff. Many Christian readers of Genesis similarly understand the structure of Genesis 1, which describes the creation of the universe and all life in "7 days," to be poetic in nature---the author is using the days of the week as a familiar framework for helping the reader to remember the events of the story.

Narrowly, Ken Ham's organization, Answers in Genesis, has tended to suggest (even to insist) that the truth value of the Bible hangs on whether the word "day" in Genesis 1 is interpreted literally (= referring to a 24 hour time period). So if it could somehow be "proven" that the world and human life were created in some other way, or over a longer period of time, nothing the Bible says can be trusted. From that perspective, the Bible would be erroneous if the universe were not created in 7 literal days, and Christian faith would lose its foundation.

SMITH: I’d say this is the same as if they discovered Aliens were real (which a huge part of the population believe anyway). It would not rock the faith of most Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, it would just force them to create a fold in their epistemological frameworks that accounts for something new, while not disregarding what currently exists.

12. Does this debate over creation linger into other religious debates? What's at stake?

SMITH: Personally, I rarely encounter this debate. I would say that creationism and literal readings of Genesis are a part of a broader interpretive strategy to read the Bible in a certain way. These same people tend to be highly principled people and like to be super clear about rules; hence they tend to be passionate about these lines of distinction, as opposed to a liberal position, which by definition is less concerned about the specifics of the distinctions. This causes these people to approach the Bible as a legal document (which it plainly isn’t) and thus they find great ease in transferring their approach to the legal system to their approach to the Bible. They are essentially “Constitutionalists” for the Bible (and most likely also for the US Constitution).

THATCHER: Broadly speaking, the issue of creation is essential to every aspect of Christian anthropology and ethics. Regardless of the mechanism of creation (whether God created the universe by simply speaking it into existence, or by evolution, or through some other means), the notion that God created the universe is essential to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understandings of human nature and society. If human beings were created by God, life is inherently meaningful, purposeful, and valuable. If God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, his mandates for human society, as revealed through the natural world or/and sacred Scriptures, are binding---as creator, God would have authority to establish ethical norms. Specifically here, the Genesis creation story stresses that God created human beings to love him and one another, and to work in unison to manage the created universe.

13. Do you feel the debate over creation or the "rift" with the scientific community helps or hurts Christianity? How so?

SMITH: It hurts

in the sense that the passionate people can sometimes say the most ludicrous things (due to their outrage) and we all have a tendency to extrapolate from the particular to the general, and so it gives all Christians a bad name. However, outside of that, I think this doesn’t really change much at all. Of much greater concern to me is that this is a part of a broader shift in society to elevate the material world and the body, and view Science as the only mechanism for attending to and explaining all that can be known about these things. Specifically, when Science is the basis for “awe” and the primary explainer of beauty, it begins to encroach on the territory heretofore occupied by philosophy, ethics and theology.

My general position on this is that Science is for data collection and analysis, and solution for physical problems. But the narratives spun about those data and the “meaning” it attempts to invest into those data via those narratives is, by definition, not scientific. And at that point, Science oversteps its boundaries of actual ability and attempts to take on the role of philosophy and religion, for which it is not equipped. 

THATCHER: Both religious faith and scientific claims are increasingly beholden to the emergence of the postmodern condition in Western society, where all broad truth claims are viewed with suspicion. Americans are generally suspicious of global theories and the institutions that produce them---in popular thinking, both the Church's claims that God created the universe and the scientific community's neatly packaged evolutionary model are likely to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny and suspicion because both have been used in the past (and present) to serve political, social, and economic agendas.

Perhaps the primary danger to the Church in a fracture between faith and science relates to perceived intolerance. If the Church appears to unreasonably ignore hard scientific data, faith can easily be ridiculed. For this very reason, serious dialogue, such as the Nye/Ham debate, is critical---real dialogue is essential to any quest for truth, and ultimately, the truth sets us free.

Print this article Back to Top