Creation-Evolution Debates: Who's Winning Them Now?
The question of whether or not scientists should debate creationists is far from settled among those actively opposing creationist efforts. Though many support debates, many oppose them. It will be useful here to put forth the basic arguments on both sides of this question and then follow with a report on the results of the most recent public debates and lectures.
To Debate or Not to Debate
Two leaders in the effort to make an effective response to creationism have recently spoken out against the practice of debating. One is Dr. Maxine Singer, a leading biochemist at the National Cancer Institute. The other is Professor Steven Schafersman of the Department of Geology at Rice University and liaison for the Texas Committee of Correspondence on Evolution. They have individually raised some provocative points, which, when combined, make an impressive case against debating. The reasons are:
- page 31 -
Those speaking out in favor of debates include David H. Milne, a professor of biology and ecology at The Evergreen State College and a number of others who have had successful exchanges with creationists, including this writer. Our reasons for favoring properly handled debates are:
- page 32 -
As you can see, there are significant arguments on both sides of the debating
- page 33 -
question. The airing of these arguments won't likely settle the issue but can help promote mutual respect between those with different methods of responding to creationists.
The Purdue Debate
Since the last quarter of 1981, those arguing for evolution have scored a number of significant victories over creationists in debate. It appears no longer necessary to say, "Creationists usually win their debates." That situation has changed, and the evolution side is now coming out on top.
One thing that has helped reverse the trend is the willingness of more debaters to devote time and study to understanding creationism. For example, Dr. Craig Nelson, who debated creationist Dr. Henry Morris at Purdue University on October 29, 1981, had extensively studied literature from the Institute for Creation Research. He had also had his biology students at the University of Indiana critique Dr. Morris's book, The Scientific Case for Creationism. This allowed him to challenge Dr. Morris on his flood geology arguments during the debate and to show how the earth couldn't possibly be a mere ten thousand years old. Dr. Morris, however claimed in rebuttal that discussion of the flood was bringing religion into the debate and that the age of the earth was not germane to the creation-evolution issue. This common creationist tactic of avoiding a firm defense of the weakest parts of the creation model didn't stop Dr. Nelson from coming back with more arguments against creationism. Dr. Nelson also presented evidence for evolution, particularly in reference to DNA and protein chemistry similarities between related animals. He also gave examples of transitional forms. An audience of over two thousand witnessed this debate.
The Tampa Debates
Doing well in a debate can mean much more than affecting a large audience, however. It can contribute toward reversing a creationist trend in a community as well. The best example of this is Dr. Ken Miller's debate against Dr. Morris in Tampa, Florida, on September 19, 1981. Prior to the debate, Dr. Miller checked with a Tampa scientist to see what the situation was locally. Miller wanted to be sure that nothing he did would make the public school situation there any worse. As it turned out, the local schools in Hillsborough County had already mandated the teaching of creationism in a "multimodel" approach. Therefore, Miller determined that nothing could make the situation worse, and he agreed to debate.
In his preparation, he contacted Creation/Evolution for information on the Paluxy footprints. Miller felt that in his first debate with Morris at Brown University
- page 34 -
he hadn't handled that material as effectively as he would have liked. He had done well at Brown, winning handily, but believed that there is always room for improvement. (He had done so well, in fact, that creationists came the closest they have ever come to admitting defeat. Acts & Facts declared Dr. Miller to be "the most effective evolutionist debater Dr. Morris has encountered to date.")
After Creation/Evolution supplied him with the information he needed, Miller was ready to face Dr. Morris and the capacity crowd that turned out for the event. There were seventeen hundred who jammed the Jefferson High School auditorium and cafeteria, while several hundred had to be turned away. The debate was covered by six Tampa area television channels and seven radio stations, one of which broadcast the entire debate live. Another station broadcast a tape of the debate later. Area newspapers, including the Tampa Tribune, covered the debate quite extensively. A number of local and state school officials were in the audience. It was clearly a hot issue in the community.
Morris, who spoke first, began by claiming that the Bible, the age of the earth, and flood geology had nothing to do with the issue. He then gave the usual creationist presentation on the second law of thermodynamics, the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record, and the difference between "horizontal" and "vertical" evolution. He added his more recent arguments about creation scientists of the past, such as Kepler and Faraday.
Miller concentrated his attack on flood geology and the young earth theory. He argued the significance of starlight traveling from galaxies over ten thousand light years away. He also presented a number of slides of transitional forms, such as the mammal-like reptiles, the horse series, the elephant series, and the nautiloids. In arguing for evolution, he pointed out the genetic similarities between humans and the apes. Dr. Miller also made it clear that the creationist position was actually biblically, rather than scientifically, based and that, as a Catholic, he found the suggestion offensive that evolution was atheism. During the rebuttals and question-and-answer period, Dr. Miller dealt with the second-law argument and the Paluxy River footprints. On the latter, he quoted extensively from creationist geologist Berney Neufeld, who rejects the footprint evidence. Dr. Morris expressed bewilderment that his colleague Neufeld would come out against the prints and suggested that Neufeld might have some personal, emotional reason for doing so, perhaps related to infighting in creationist circles.
When ICR's Acts & Facts reported on the debate, it stated that the outcome "seemed to materially strengthen the creationist position in the Tampa area." As it turned out, however, the reverse was true. This became clear when Dr. Miller went to Tampa again, this time to debate Duane Gish on March 21, 1982. Because of the big turnout the previous time, the sponsoring fundamentalist group decided to sell tickets (at two dollars each and twenty-five dollars for a front row seat!). When John Betz, a professor of biology at the University of South Florida, bought his ticket at a religious bookstore, he asked the clerk how he
- page 35 -
thought the debate would go. The clerk replied, "Well, the creationist last time got beat—he didn't do such a good job. But Duane Gish is coming this time, and this time it'll be different!"
It was different. The television stations and newspapers weren't interested. The school board had recently put a hold on implementing the creation-science curriculum, and only three hundred people showed up for the debate. Apparently the people of Tampa had become a bit bored with the issue. Of course, the Arkansas court decision had come between these two debates, which probably made the biggest difference. But teachers had informed Dr. Miller previously of how great an impact his debate with Morris had in helping them in their efforts to combat creationism.
But now Miller was facing Gish (whom he had faced only once before). Gish used the usual creationist debate arguments, particularly those linking the gaps in the fossil record and the absence of transitional fossils. Miller focused again on the theories of the worldwide flood and the young earth. He also predicted that Gish would not defend his model, and this prediction came true. Miller presented quotes from Henry Morris's writings that declared creationism to be a science and quotes from Gish's writing that said creationism was not science. After this he suggested that maybe the next debate should feature Morris arguing with Gish on this point until it is settled.
After attacking creationism, Miller defended evolution. He answered Gish's arguments against Archaeopteryx and Ichthyostega being transitional fossils. He then quoted from Gish's paper on the mammal-like reptiles and showed how it contained rudimentary errors (such as misrepresenting the position of the middle-ear bones in reptiles and in saying that the columella connects the eardrum to the tympanum when actually the eardrum is the tympanum). Finally, he showed how the probability calculations against evolution used by Gish were based on faulty premises. The audience appeared surprised that Gish had made so many mistakes in his speaking and writing.
Since Miller had presented a slide series on Triceratops, showing how it evolved from Monoclonius which evolved from Protoceratops, Dr. Gish argued that Monoclonius did not show any incipient horns that were precursors to the horns on Triceratops. He declared that Dr. Miller's slide was in error. But Miller rebutted by reading word-for-word from a leading text on the evolution of this dinosaur. The text even used Gish's words, "incipient horns," declaring their existence, complete with illustrations. Miller then handed this material to Gish and suggested that he study up before the next debate, causing the audience to roar with laughter.
Dr. Gish used a humorous caricature drawing of a cow evolving from a whale; Dr. Miller came back with solid data supporting the evolution of whales from land mammals. There were other thrusts and parries, but, by the time the question-and-answer period came, Gish was rather quiet. He even made a stab at
- page 36 -
supporting "progressive creation," the position that the creator "created" on a number of occasions over billions of years. But Miller quoted Henry Morris on the evils of "progressive creation" and jokingly told Gish that he would inform Dr. Morris of this compromise and get Gish into trouble when he went home.
Dr. Miller is now preparing a typescript of the entire debate, together with copies of the slides he used, so that persons debating creationists can benefit in the future. Since creationists compare notes, there is no harm in their debate opponents doing so as well.
The Guelph Debate
Another debate script that is available is of my debate with Dr. Gish at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, on February 2, 1982. In this debate, I began by pointing out the disagreements among creationists on whether creation is or is not science. I then spelled out the "strictly scientific" creation model, as it appeared in the Arkansas law. Using the Arkansas creation model as an outline, I then presented evidence against each part of it. As part of my attack on this model, I spelled out the evidence for evolution, particularly as it relates to descent with modification, beneficial mutations, natural selection, and transitional forms. I also argued that the creationist acceptance of "horizontal" or "micro" evolution, which allows for "variations within created kinds," actually puts creationists uncomfortably (for them) closer to the evolutionary camp. I concluded by showing that creationists cannot agree on what to do with Homo erectus because it is so transitional between ape and human.
Dr. Gish had very little to say against these arguments. He ignored most of them and attempted to answer the others by quoting "leading scientists" who appeared to say the opposite. This strategy by Gish didn't appear to move those in the audience, however, since they seemed to want evidence rather than quotations.
The proof that this debate was indeed a "win" for evolution was evidenced in the newspaper accounts that followed the event. The Guelph Daily Mercury stated it mildly: "Both scholars exchanged broadsides during the debate, and, although Gish was seen to be limping out of the hall, there were no casualties." But the Ontarion, the university student newspaper, was more bold. In an article headlined "Edwords Goes Ape on Gish," the paper declared:
- page 37 -
The Tucson Debate
The slides of Triceratops evolution which I used seemed to have impressed the audience the most, so I immediately made them available to Drs. Ken Miller and David Milne when they debated Drs. Morris and Gish at the University of Arizona in Tucson on February 12, Darwin's 173rd birthday. (These same slides would later haunt Gish in other debates that followed, including Tampa.)
The Tucson debate was billed as a "Creation-Evolution Superbowl," because it involved leading debaters on both sides. A capacity crowd of two thousand attended the event and witnessed a very clear defeat of the creationist side.
Dr. Milne spoke first. He showed the major predictions of evolutionary theory and how the evidence bore them out. He then explained the intermediate characteristics of several important fossils. On one side of the stage, Milne had set up three large drawing tablets. The first showed the fore-limb of a modern bird, the second was blank, and the third showed the limb of a small coelurosaurian dinosaur. Dr. Gish was challenged to guess at an acceptable intermediate form between the two, one that would satisfy his criteria for a "true transitional form," and to draw it on the blank tablet. Neither Dr. Gish nor Dr. Morris would put their claims on paper. Had they, they would have found that the form the limb would have to take in order to be midway between the coelurosaur and the modern bird is exactly the form of the limb of Archaeopteryx, the very fossil creationists deny to be transitional. The fact that the two creationists would not commit themselves to a testable statement about transitional forms disappointed some of their followers in the audience.
Dr. Milne concluded his talk with examples of poorly "designed" structures in living animals and questioned how parasites fit into the notion of creation by a loving creator.
Dr. Morris followed and gave the same arguments about probabilities and the second law of thermodynamics that he had given in previous debates. Then it was Dr. Miller's turn. Miller gave thirty minutes of rapid-fire attacks on flood geology, the young earth, and other aspects of the creation model. When he finished, he was greeted by loud applause.
Dr. Gish spoke next. He delighted the audience with his clever jokes about evolution, showed the slide of a chimpanzee that he claimed was his grandson, showed his amusing cow-into-whale slide, and quipped his way from Nebraska man and Piltdown to Fred Hoyle (the scientist who has recently denied evolution). Gish was masterful and funny, and, when he finished, he was greeted by a thunder of applause.
- page 38 -
Milne in his rebuttal challenged Gish with about ten transitional forms he had on slides and asked Gish to explain why these were denied by creationists. Milne also asked Gish why he wouldn't go over to the tablet and draw the transitional structure that would meet his approval.
Morris, in his rebuttal, complained that the two evolutionary scientists were attacking the biblical creation model, not the scientific one. This evoked groans of disappointment toward Morris from the creationist rooting section. Morris then went on to argue that evolution could not be God's method of creation because evolution was too cruel a system.
In Miller's rebuttal, the audience was reminded of a basic question: How can the fossil record look so much like evidence for evolution unless it really is? They were also reminded that Morris and Gish had not addressed this problem. Miller then answered Gish's claims about Nebraska man and Piltdown and concluded with a slide showing the variation of human cranial capacity with time.
Instead of answering with evidence any of Miller's and Milne's challenges, Gish used his rebuttal time to quote scientific "authorities" who seemed to deny that transitional forms exist. Many in the audience later reported that they felt Gish had backed off from the clear challenge to his claims about gaps in the fossil record. Gish also argued that Miller's and Milne's approach "resembled a head-on view of a longhorn steer—a point here, a point there, and a lot of bull in between."
The question-and-answer period brought out discussions of the Arkansas decision, the Paluxy River prints, and the second law of thermodynamics. Milne produced a dazzling set of slides on the Paluxy River to show how the human footprints were hoaxes and mistakes, and Miller presented seven slides on the second law. At this point, those in the audience who supported evolution began cheering and whistling defiantly, and Gish's answers were met with boos and catcalls. (The creationists, writing later in Acts & Facts, justifiably complained about this audience behavior, but they implied that the fault was due to so many "humanists" being in the audience. The actual humanist presence happened to be rather small and scattered and, thus, could not have been a major factor.)
Other questions were asked and answered, but, when the creationist moderator started to ask the final question, Dr. Gish began shouting for recognition, claiming a point of "personal privilege." The moderator was visibly annoyed and tried to restrain Dr. Gish. The two began yelling at each other for what seemed like a full minute, amid shouts of "shut up you turkey!" and "obey the rules" directed at Gish from the audience. A microphone was almost knocked over in the brief pandemonium on stage.
Clearly, this was not your typical dignified academic debate. Yet the same criterion for judging the outcome applies. In terms of argument and evidence, it was plain by the debate's end that Miller and Milne had carried the day. Even
- page 39 -
many of the creationists in the audience seemed to realize this.
The Ann Arbor Debate
Dr. C. Loring Brace is a leading physical anthropologist, who is also well-versed in the creationist arguments. He debated Gish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on March 17. In that debate, Brace chose a strategy considerably different from that of other successful debaters. Instead of covering the entire waterfront of the controversy so as to match the similar effort by Dr. Gish, Brace concentrated on his own scientific specialty, the human fossil record. He zeroed in on Gish's misrepresentations of the literature in this area, exposing misquotations, misunderstandings, ignored data, use of outdated material, and other errors and distortions that have appeared in Dr. Gish's writings on the subject. Many of the quotes from Gish's books were made into slides. The results were effective and diminished much of Gish's credibility.
In a last-ditch effort to save his case, Gish attempted a clever maneuver in his final five-minute rebuttal. He appealed to the crowd and said, "Now I want you to stand up if you believe that creation should be taught in the schools." The moderator, however, stepped in and told Dr. Gish that this was inappropriate.
The Charlottesville Debate
On March 22, Duane Gish came to the University of Virginia to debate two biology professors, Dr. Jerry O. Wolff and Dr. James Murray. Again he was met by prepared debaters who again were armed with the Triceratops slide series and information from Ken Miller and myself.
The debate proceeded in a rather subdued fashion at first, and then Drs. Wolff and Murray made their strongest points in the rebuttal. Dr. Gish had declared that there were no transitional forms; the biologists responded by presenting the Triceratops series and series of flying squirrels to bats, polar bears through otters, beavers, seals, and dolphins, and Australopithecines to modern humans. They also had responses to Gish's arguments on the improbability of life evolving, the second law, and the age of the earth. They were able to get Dr. Gish to state that animals were divided into discrete kinds, which show no overlap. They then showed a slide of six skulls—two bats, two prosimians, and two insectivores-and asked Gish to put them into "kinds." The audience could see how similar these three groups were and how hard it would be to make proper divisions. Gish refused to cooperate.
- page 40 -
Because Dr. Gish gave his standard humorous presentation, most of the comments heard afterwards were that creationists have no data. On the other hand, Drs. Wolff and Murray presented nothing but data throughout their part of the debate.
The New Britain Debate
At Central Connecticut State College in New Britain, Connecticut, Dr. Gish debated Dr. Michael Alan Park, associate professor of anthropology, on April 1.
Park, who was well prepared, began by defining science and distinguishing it from pseudoscience and then carried this theme throughout his talks by pointing out the nonscientific nature of creationist claims. He exposed the fallacy used by creationists of thinking that, by destroying Theory A, one has automatically supported Theory B. Trying to discredit evolution will not lend credit to creation. Creation must be proved on its own merits.
After these points were made, Park explained evolution and its evidence and showed how the evidence was mutually supportive. He also showed how the evidence supported the predictions of evolution. In the process he covered the age of the universe and the earth, answered the claims about gaps in the fossil record, and explained punctuated equilibrium theory.
To be effective, he had to do what Dr. Gish would not: he had to state the creation model. One aspect of the model requires a young earth, which in turn requires the "appearance of age at the instant of creation." So, Dr. Park covered this material. He also pointed out the root religious nature of creationism.
The debate became heated, but, in the end, the result was positive for evolution.
The Berkeley Lecture
I had gotten the word a bit late that Dr. Gish was going to speak unopposed at the University of California at Berkeley because he had been unable to find an opponent. I therefore volunteered myself, agreeing to pay my own airfare to get there. Dr. Tom Jukes of the Department of Biophysics and Medical Physics at Berkeley immediately began negotiating with the Chinese Christian Church in Oakland, which was co-sponsoring the event with a campus group. However, they turned the challenge down in favor of Gish speaking alone. Their main reason for doing so was because they had already printed seven thousand leaflets announcing the Gish appearance as a lecture.
Whatever power this argument may have had was negated by the fact that the leaflet contained a gross error about Dr. Gish's credentials. It said, "Dr. Gish
- page 41 -
... spent eighteen years as a faculty member at Cornell Medical School... . But according to American Men and Women of Science, Dr. Gish was at Cornell two years as a postdoctoral fellow and one year as an assistant professor. Since this error was discovered in time, the leaflets should have been reprinted. And that would have allowed for billing the event as a debate.
However, the Chinese Christian Church would have none of this, and so Dr. Gish came to lecture. In an effort to balance the presentation, faculty members, led by Tom Jukes, composed a leaflet of their own challenging creationist claims and distributed it prior to the lecture. A Christian student group produced their own leaflet, entitled "Would God Lie to You?" which was strongly critical of Dr. Gish and cited the responses of misquoted scientists that appeared in Creation/Evolution (issue VI). The leaflet's conclusion was that Dr. Gish was doing the devil's work.
By the time Dr. Gish approached the podium to speak, he was aware that his sizable audience was mostly hostile. Gish spoke for two hours before accepting the call for questions. The audience stayed throughout the whole performance so that they could raise the issues that they felt were important. One questioner, Steve Ogresky, asked what evidence there was for Dr. Morris's claims that battles between good and bad angels had power over natural processes and that UFOs were piloted by devils. Gish's response was to ask, "Are you Tom Jukes?" He then passed off the question as an attack on his piety and went to the next question.
At one point, anthropologist Tim White countered Gish's claim that there is no evidence to support human evolution. He did so by bringing a skull cast of Homo erectus onto the stage, telling Gish, "That's your ancestor." Gish responded by declaring the skull to be that of an ape. But White was ready for him. He signaled to a colleague who marched up with a gorilla skull to show Gish the difference. It was some time before the audience stopped laughing. Gish repeatedly chided the audience for its behavior but was chided in return for insulting his listeners' intelligence with this theories.
Dr. Gish later declared that the situation at Berkeley "was totally unexpected." He added, "The behavior was the worst I've ever encountered."
Though many in the audience were clearly rude, others raised legitimate issues. Furthermore, this lecture did not represent the first time Dr. Gish had faced challenges in recent months when speaking unopposed. His April 4 lecture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (which I also volunteered to turn into a debate) netted a similar result, though without the rudeness. There Dr. Laurie Godfrey read from science sources that Dr. Gish had misquoted, and other members of the audience were equally critical. Furthermore, just before my debate with him in Guelph, Dr. Gish addressed a Canadian high school audience and found that the students there also asked him a number of difficult questions.
- page 42 -
All this means that, with preparation and an understanding of the issues, those supporting evolution have been able to effectively challenge creationists at the podium. And with increasing dissemination of the sort of answers provided by Creation/Evolution, more people, including members of the audience, have been able to raise the important questions.
But is the present debating style the best way to go, even with the current successes? Not necessarily. Professor Theodore Steegmann, Jr., chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has perhaps a better idea. He feels that the present format of debates allows creationists to skip all over the waterfront of the issue and thereby avoid the risk of being cornered on a specific point. It is too easy for creationists to either stump their opponents with facts outside their opponents' specialties or to change the subject when the going gets rough. Therefore, Steegmann proposes that scientists stop playing the game by creationists' rules and set the rules themselves. This can be done by challenging creationists to debate instead of being challenged by them.
However, when a scientist challenges a creationist to debate, the debate must be set up differently. Instead of the topic being general, such as "Resolved: Evolution is a better scientific model than creation," it should be more specific. One example might be, "Resolved: Homo erectus was neither a hominid nor ancestral to modern humans." Another could be, "Resolved: It is probable that the Grand Canyon was formed in a single year by a worldwide flood." The advantage of such an approach is that it would force creationists to bring their evidence to bear on a single key issue. It would force them to make their case. In addition, it would prevent the debate from becoming a show or circus.
With such a format, the creationists could bring in their best debater on the topic to be debated and have him face off against a scientific expert. The expert would essentially present what would amount to a freshman-level lecture on why scientists believe as they do about the topic and why they reject the creationist explanation. The creationist would challenge the scientific conclusions and offer his own. Such a format would reveal who had the facts and the best case.
It would seem that, if creationists are sincere in their claims that creationism is a better scientific explanation than evolution, they would welcome such a challenge. But if creationists are either not sincere or lack confidence in their data, they would turn down a debate such as this; if they did turn it down, the public would have a right to know about it.
This approach, then, would force creationists sooner or later to state and defend their model, make a scientific case for it, and argue from the evidence. If they proved unable or unwilling to do this, they would soon find that debating is a poor way to spread their ideas. They are finding this out now, even with the present flawed debating format. But a more scientific format would settle the issue.