The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

A Visit to the Institute for Creation Research
Copyright © 1998 by Karen Bartelt
[Last Update: June 24, 1998]

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It was not surprising to me that the Institute for Creation Research presented extremely biased portraits of leading "evolutionists", but what about their presentations of 18th and 19th Century "creationists"? Could they at least do a credible job of portraying those early scientists who they assert supported Biblical creationism? The portraits and biographies of perhaps a dozen 18th-19th Century scientists line a wall near the end of the museum. The biographies seem to have been taken largely from Henry Morris' Men of Science, Men of God. Three of these biographies are explored in detail.

Carolus Linneaus (1707-1778), father of modern taxonomy, is one of the early scientists considered by the ICR to be firmly in the creationist camp. Of him it is said that "He attempted, in fact, to equate his 'species' category with the 'kind', believing that variation could occur within the kind, but not from one kind to another kind." Other biographers disagree. An investigation of Linneaus' prolific writings shows that his views of fossil formation did not come directly out of Genesis, and his views on the fixity of species changed with time.

Linneaus believed that fossils were not products of a supernatural flood, but formed naturally in the open ocean. He proposed a unique process to construct the sedimentary limestone and shale layers: large mats of sargasso in the ocean prevented wave formation and thus allowed limestone to precipitate. Later on, the sargasso decomposed and was converted to shale, in which fossils were trapped. This was but one of the gradual mechanical processes that Linneaus thought were responsible for shaping the earth which he called a "temporis filia, child of time" (quoted in Frangsmyr 1983:143).

Early in his career Linneaus insisted that each species was a separate creation, stating "We count as many species as there were different forms created." (quoted in Frangsmyr 1983:86). Doubts began to arise in 1744 as Linneaus described a type of toadflax which he called Peloria (malformation). It had been produced from Linaria, but was so extremely different from the parent plant that he assigned it not to just a new species or genus, but to a new class (Frangsmeyer 1983:94-5). He was forced to consider the concept of evolution, and by 1751, produced a list of plants, Plantae Hybridae, which were assumed to have two different species as parents, stating , "It is impossible to doubt, that there are new species produced by hybrid generation" (quoted in Glass 1959:149). In Fundamenta Fructificationis (1762) Linneaus proposed that at creation there were only a small number of species, but that they had the ability to fertilize each other -- and did (Frangsmeyer 1983:97). By 1766 the words "no new species" were removed from the 12th edition of Systemae Naturae. In a comment published posthumously Linneaus asserted that "Species are the work of time" (quoted in Glass 1959:150). After his death, Linneaus was accused of atheism by the German theologian Zimmerman, to which his son replied "He believed, no doubt, that species animalium et plantarum and that genera were the works of time: but that the ordines naturales were the works of the Creator; if the latter had not existed the former could not have arisen" (quoted in Hagberg 1953:200).

The ICR biography of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) alleges that he was responsible for the "conclusive demolition of the then-prevalent evolutionary concept of spontaneous generation," and that "in his lifetime he was the object of intense opposition by almost the entire biological establishment because of his own opposition to spontaneous generation and to Darwinism. It was only his persistence and sound experimental and analytical procedures that finally compelled most biological and medical scientists to give up their claims of the naturalistic origin of life and their treatment of disease based on this notion."

Let's dissect these statements individually, beginning with the idea of spontaneous generation. The concept of spontaneous generation, the notion that inanimate matter could suddenly become alive, goes back at least to Aristotle. "Everyone knew" that maggots came from rotting meat, for instance. Even Descartes stated: "Since so little is required to make a being, it is certainly not surprising that so many animals, worms, and insects form spontaneously before our eyes in all putrefying substances" (quoted in Margulis and Sagan 1995:55). Spontaneous generation had been disproved by Redi in the 1600's: "...all worms found in meat were derived from flies, not putrefaction" (quoted in Margulis and Sagan 1995:56), and Spallanzi in 1768. However, other experiments seemed to support the concept, and this idea did persist until it was disproved finally by Pasteur in the mid 1800's. However, there is no evidence that spontaneous generation was a specifically evolutionary concept; it was simply the best explanation of a phenomenon that scientists had until Pasteur's experiments. There is also no evidence that Pasteur "was the object of intense opposition by almost the entire biological establishment because of his own opposition to spontaneous generation and to Darwinism." The ICR's last sentence above is perhaps the most absurd. Far from a "naturalistic" treatment, early theories of disease proposed that at least some of them resulted from possession or sin. By recognizing the microbial origin of disease, Pasteur actually set the treatment of disease on a naturalistic path for the first time.

Why is the ICR so interested in this outdated concept of spontaneous generation? I propose two reasons. First, orthodox science gets a black eye for adhering to this concept for so long. Second, by discrediting spontaneous generation, the ICR gets a leg up on discrediting a more modern concept: chemical evolution. Modern origin-of-life theories suggest that complex organic molecules (like RNA) achieved self-replication prior to the advent of cellular life. Life from inanimate matter (ie, maggots from rotting meat) is not the same concept as organic chemicals organizing, forming complex structures, and reproducing, but it sounds pretty close to the general public. The ICR can then say that spontaneous generation was falsified by Pasteur, so we shouldn't be considering it now.

Lord Kelvin is important to the ICR for his contributions to science concerning the age of the earth. Of Kelvin it is said that, "His calculation of the maximum possible age of the earth, as far too brief for evolution, led to an extended controversy...", and "Modern evolutionists like to ridicule his calculation, which was based on terrestrial heat flow, by noting that Kelvin did not know about heat from radioactivity. However, when radioactivity was discovered, Kelvin did consider it, and showed that it would not be at all adequate to meet the need for an earth old enough to allow evolution."

Let's try to separate myth from reality here. First of all, what is missing from this display are Kelvin's actual estimates of the age of the earth, and it is easy to see why. Kelvin's values for the age of the earth were in the 20-400 million year range (Dalrymple 1991:14-15)-- no comfort to a young-earth creationist dedicated to the proposition that the earth is 6000 years old. Kelvin was obviously not a young-earth creationist.

Kelvin also estimated the age of the earth on the gravitational collapse and cooling of the sun and determined that the sun could not have been shining for more than 500 million years on the basis of gravitational collapse. However, Kelvin "admitted that his assessments of the age of the sun depended on the accuracy of Helmholtz's hypothesis that solar energy came from the alleged contraction of the sun." (Ferris 1988:248) and that "I do not say there may not be laws which we have not yet discovered." (quoted in Ferris 1988:248). In other words, KELVIN was open to the possibility that his calculations were not absolute truth.

Kelvin's calculations were made between 1862 and about 1897, and though considered authoritative by some, did not go unchallenged even in his own day. An excellent summary is presented in Dalrymple (1991:31-47). The phenomenon of radioactivity was discovered by Roentgen in 1895 and Becquerel in 1896, and in 1903, Ernest Rutherford discovered that a lump of pure radium generates enough heat to melt its own weight in ice each hour, and can do so for over 1000 years. Rutherford noted that the heat released by radioactivity "allows the time claimed by the geologist and biologist for the process of evolution." (quoted in Ferris 1988:249). Rutherford presented his findings in the presence of Kelvin: "...I said Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the earth, provided no new source (of energy) was discovered. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now considering tonight, radium! Behold! The old boy beamed upon me." (quoted in Ferris 1988:250). There is no evidence that Kelvin was adverse to the idea of radioactivity being the missing heat source.

Kelvin died in 1907, when the discovery of radioactivity was just over ten years old. In 1905, Rutherford and others first broached the idea of using radioactive materials to estimate the age of the earth, and in about 1907, Bertram Boltwood determined a one billion year age for the earth using radiometric dating. However, numerous geologists did not consider that radioactivity was sufficient to invalidate Kelvin's calculations, and, in fact, "'refined' their geological and physical data to show that Kelvin's range of time was correct after all (Badash 1989:96)". Evidence to the contrary continued to mount, especially measurements made by Arthur Holmes, who reported a minimum 1.6 billion year age of the earth in 1911 (Badash 1989:96) and a 3.0 billion minimum age in 1927 (Dalrymple 1991:77). Nevertheless, even as late as 1924, a US Geologic Survey scientist commented "From chemical denudation...paleontological evidence...and astronomical data the age [of the Earth] has been something between 50 and 150 millions of years. The high values found by radioactive measurements are therefore to be suspected until the discrepancies shall have been explained" (quoted in Dalrymple 1991:75). In 1931 the National Academy of Sciences published a report concluding that "radioactivity provided the only reliable geologic time scale" (quoted in Badash 1989:96), and accepted the notion of a multi-billion-year-old earth.

One could argue that I am being picky here, and that a small biography in a museum does not go into the detail of a biographical article or book about any of these scientists. I agree. On the other hand, I see fundamental mistakes in all three of these short biographies, mistakes that careful unbiased research could easily have corrected. There is overwhelming evidence that Linneaus did not believe in fixity of species. There is no link between the theory of evolution and Pasteur's disproving spontaneous generation; indeed, Darwin's Origin came out about the same time that spontaneous generation was disproved. Furthermore "...most biological and medical scientists..." of the pre-Darwinian era did not have " of the naturalistic origin of life". Where does the ICR come up with that? Lord Kelvin's dates for the age of the earth are missing from the museum, leaving open the interpretation that Kelvin supported a very young earth, which is simply not true. Modern evolutionists do not "ridicule" the calculations of Kelvin; indeed in my classes they serve as great models of theory modification and the self-correcting nature of science. Though in the early years of the 20th Century some scientists did not accept the efficacy of radiometric dating, the "extended controversy" was solved in the larger science community in 1931. Large numbers of Evangelical Christian scientists like Howard Van Till, Davis Young and Hugh Ross accept radiometric dating and a 4.5 billion-year-old earth; it is only the young earth creationists that consider this a controversy in 1998. The "appeals to authority" by the ICR, in addition to being weak logical arguments, are not even accurate.

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