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The Jamestown Evolution/Creationism Debate

Norman Carlson

Skeptical Briefs Volume 25.4, Winter 2015/16

It was not your standard evolution/creationism debate—but it was a rematch from a debate that had been. I’m a skeptic, meaning I believe in nothing supernatural, but I’m not your stereotypical liberal atheist. I am a private atheist but a lifelong political conservative who is quite public and active when it comes to that conservatism, including by writing frequent letters to the editor since the 1970s. I’m tolerant of Christians and consider Christianity a major benevolent historical factor. I’ve always considered the religious questions important and treated them with respect. Many of my friends are clergy.

I have a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell and a master’s in entomology from Purdue, plus I have a strong self-taught background in history and folklore. I have no sympathy for creationism. By 1999, I had had enough of its low quality claims and tracts, and I attacked it in one of my letters in the paper. Creationists responded more tenaciously than liberals had responded to my conservative statements. They wouldn’t let go, and neither would I.

In 2003, a debate was set up with Chris Miller of Allegheny, a self-described veteran of 300 (now 600) creationist presentations. He is a petroleum engineer. I took the standard approach of explaining the overwhelming evidence for neo-Darwinian evolution. The audience was unimpressed. In letters to the paper, the same arguments and talking points kept reappearing no matter how many times they were demolished. I was hit with Pascal’s Wager twenty-four times when I quit counting. And that’s an issue of logic that’s unequivocal and not open to legitimate dispute.

In 2004, a friend and pastor challenged me to another debate. On the way in the door, I asked him what he actually knew about biology. “Well, the Bible,” was his answer. In 2005, another pastor and friend brought in a “PhD” to debate me on the radio. This man’s degree was from a school with no biology department, no geology department, no paleontology department, no physics department, no campus, and no accreditation. He is the author of a children’s book proclaiming as fact that dinosaurs and dragons are the same thing, but he goes off on many of the other creationist talking points, including one involving nuclear physics and “polonium haloes” that supposedly proves that the Earth is young. I noticed he didn’t realize neutrons and neutrinos were two different things. I exposed that on the radio, but the creationists, predictably, nevertheless declared victory.

In 2009, in a letter to the paper I challenged the creationists to put up or shut up. I pointed out that occasionally the New York State Geological Association meets at the State University in Fredonia and offers excellent field trips open to the public. I challenged any creationist to conduct an anonymous poll the next time this occurred. I would pay ten dollars for every participant who held creationist views if a creationist agreed to pay me one dollar for every participant who agreed that the Earth is billions of years old and all life has a common ancestor. Plus I would contribute an extra $1,000 if at least 50 percent of participants were creationists, provided the creationist agreed to pay me an extra $1,000 if not a single one was. These are people, I pointed out, who are not only educated to a professional level in relevant fields but who worked with rocks and the fossils day in and day out for a living. We could go beyond the problem of creationists who don’t know enough about the relevant subjects themselves to tell if they could believe me.

Two years later, in 2011, I restated the challenge and announced the meeting would be held in 2013. Creationists could attend and see for themselves if these people were frauds and fakers or if they knew what they were doing. They could look right at the evidence and ask questions. They could bring in their own experts. They wouldn’t have to take my word. I gave another reminder a month or two before the 2013 meeting. There was not one signup, not one curious inquiry, not one hint of interest.

And that was my main thrust at the February 21, 2015, debate, transcending the back and forth of over-worn talking points and arguments. I said it proves creationists have no interest in the evidence or the truth but just want to hear another believer reassure them of their preconceived opinions—opinions they don’t really understand. I told them they had had their “put up or shut up” moment and didn’t put up, so they have no more right to public contention.

The debate had been arranged by the same pastor who organized the one in 2003, this time with some encouragement from me. It was publicized in the local newspaper and on the radio plus in church bulletins, but most attended on the basis of word of mouth. I was conspicuously labeled by the organizer as an atheist as a marketing ploy. There were about seventy-five people present. Three were on my side (including my sister). I took second position by my choice from a coin toss. We each had thirty-five minutes, then five, then three. No questions of each other or from the audience.

Chris, my opponent, had a venerable Power­Point presentation with Darwin quotes. He flatly contended that there are no transitional fossils. He talked down to his audience.

I spoke of the origin of creationism and defined it from the moment it was born adhering to scripture in preference to evidence as advocacy, not science. I also had something to say about transitional forms and labeled the creationist contention about their absence as an “outright, blatant obvious, enormous lie many dozens of times over.” I used the Shubin fish-to-quadruped example, pointing out how Henry Morris in the early 1980s had used that as an illustration of a sequence that should but does not exist. “Well, now it does!” I noted, though I doubt if many listeners recognized the name Henry Morris. I also mentioned human evolution and the fact that creationists agree ferociously each fossil is clearly human or clearly ape, but despite all that clarity there is absolutely no agreement among them where the dividing line is.

In 2003, Chris made a big issue of information, as most contemporary creationists do, claiming it was all pre-packed by God into the genome and mutations cannot create new information nor can mutations be beneficial. With a piece of baler twine as a prop, I explained how mutations work and pointed out that the molecules have no way of knowing if a given mutation adds information or if it will be beneficial now or many generations later, because they cannot call ahead to God to find out.

Knowing that creationists can’t resist an appeal to divine authority, I noted that no one present had heard about creation directly from God. “If God talks to you, that’s divine revelation. When you tell me about it, that’s hearsay. When someone writes it down generations later, that’s folklore.” From there to composition, editing, selection, and translation of books in the bible by committees over thousands of years, I asked where the line is between divine infallibility and human fallibility and how do they know?

I wasn’t as diplomatic as I usually try to be. I insulted my audience to some extent. I lamented that creationists are making a laughingstock of Christianity and conservatism. I don’t think Chris or the audience was prepared for what they got. I was well satisfied. Outside the door the last thing as I left the building, I was hit with Pascal’s Wager one more time.

Norman Carlson

Norman Carlson holds a bachelor of science degree in biological sciences from Cornell Uni­versity and a master of science degree in entomology from Purdue. He has been collections manager at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown since 1995. He has been active all his adult life in conservative political causes and is noted locally for combating popular errors in fields ranging from local history to nutritional quackery.