By Dave Dentel

Last week’s debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on the merits of creationism reminded me of a gag from the 1960s television spy spoof Get Smart.

In it the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart and Hawaiian detective Harry Hoo are examining a murder scene. They notice two cigarettes still smoldering in an ash tray and speculate on what the clue might mean. Was the killer a smoker? Did he have an accomplice who also smoked?

Building on this line of thinking, Smart concludes that while they could be fairly certain the crime involved a pair of tobacco users, he and Hoo should bear in mind that the number of nonsmokers who also may have taken part was limited only by the size of the room.

It is then a pair of policemen reclaim the cigarettes and resume puffing.

The point of this scene—aside from provoking a good laugh—is fairly obvious. When it comes to reconstructing the past, investigators should recall that the evidence is often incomplete or misleading.

A Question of History

This truth was a central theme of the Ham-Nye debate, which focused on whether biblical creationism is a viable model of origins.

Nye, a secularist, implied that creationism is a fable and warned that its adherents are dangerously out of step with modern science. Ham countered by insisting that what creationists reject is not observational science or the tangible benefits wrought by the scientific method. Instead, he argued, they dismiss a history constructed from observations that are purportedly scientific.

I fully agree and would go further. What creationists abjure is not merely a questionable extrapolation of present-day observations, but a full-blown creation myth concocted with the express intent of marginalizing religion.

In this Corner

But first, a little background.

Nye displayed temerity in agreeing to the debate despite scoldings from high-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins about the impropriety of engaging creationists. Nye also lent a measure of prestige to the event as an award-winning television personality known for his educational series on science.

His opponent, Ham, heads Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization that teaches the Judeo-Christian God created the cosmos in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. Another key belief touted by Ham is that the fossil record did not result from gradual evolution, but was caused by the global flood described in the scriptural account of Noah and his ark.

Particularly galling to the scientific establishment is the fact that Ham has spun his views into support for a Creation Museum, which since opening in 2007 has drawn nearly 2 million visitors. The marquee facility in Kentucky provided the stage for the debate, which was viewed by 3 million.

A Little Honesty, Please

There is little doubt then that the evolution-creationism controversy still commands a great deal of interest. And for those drawn to watch the rhetorical sparring between Ham and Nye, just what did they see?

I submit the chief thing they observed was Nye being disingenuous. Had he been honest, he would have conceded Ham’s assertion regarding the difference between observational science and histories based on scientific observation.

Instead, Nye repeatedly insisted Ham was wrong and that observational science is equally credible whether its findings are used to build better toaster ovens or to explain how human beings—from Mumbai street urchins to natty television educators—evolved from filth-flinging apes.

But Nye should know better. It’s one thing to observe a phenomenon in the present, to record it, analyze it, and attempt to duplicate it. It’s quite another thing to use observations from the present to build a narrative about how and why other phenomena occurred—particularly series of related events that no one witnessed.

Consider, for example, a story Nye related about why he wears bow ties. He said he is merely emulating his grandfather, who once rented a tuxedo and bowtie for a special event at a hotel. Not knowing how to properly tie the neckwear, he asked a man in a nearby room for help. The man complied, but told Nye’s grandfather to lie down in order for him to complete the task. Puzzled, Nye’s grandfather inquired why he needed to be supine. The man replied: Because I’m a mortician.

This, no doubt, is an intriguing tale—a sort of origin myth about a man’s choice in sartorial style. But is it true? Nye said it was supposed to be, but in point of fact there is no way of knowing. Recapitulating an obscure event that occurred in a mundane hotel room three generations ago is most likely beyond the scope of modern investigators—scientific or otherwise.

This applies as well to Nye’s argument that the history-building aspect of science is akin to the television detectives on Crime Scene Investigation using high-tech forensics to catch bad guys.

Again, Nye missed the obvious problems with this metaphor. Crime scene investigators may indeed use scientific methods to extract clues, but these clues on their own mean little. They must be woven into a narrative and presented to a jury, who in the American legal standard must decide whether the story rings true beyond a reasonable doubt. What’s more, unlike television, in the real world forensic evidence very often is misinterpreted, mislaid, corrupted, or just plain lied about. Indeed, in this country bad evidence has helped an appalling number of men earn a sentence of death for crimes they never committed.

Reason to Believe

Here’s the point. Despite evidence of the sort cited by Nye—ice core samples, hominid skulls, radiometric dating—many Christians nevertheless reject the godless creation story called evolution because it doesn’t ring true.

Secularists may claim their model of origins and life development is unassailable, yet there are fundamental gaps in their story for which they simply cannot account. Nye, for example, drew a blank when asked during the debate to explain where matter came from or how human consciousness arose. His answer: It’s a mystery, but science is working on it.

His befuddlement is not so unusual. Establishment science also can’t tell us where the cosmos came from, how life began, whether human beings have free will, or if good and evil are anything more than subjective projections of our own fears and prejudices.

Christians who reject evolution, on the other hand, believe in a worldview that corresponds closely to what we can observe – whether or not those observations arise from the methodology we call science.

We believe:

  • The universe had a definite beginning when God created it from nothing.
  • The basic physical forces of the universe were fine-tuned to support life, specifically human life.
  • The information embedded in every living cell points to a divine Creator.
  • Human beings were made in the image of God, which accounts for our moral and intellectual superiority over animals and why we differ from them not in degree, but in kind.
  • That human sin infected an otherwise good creation with evil and decay.
  • That to atone for sin and redeem us God intervened in human history through his son, Jesus.

Again, Christians cling to this narrative not only because it fits the facts, but because in this dark and cruel existence it offers hope. It tells us God loves us and is working in our personal histories to offer redemption and reconciliation. In the words of the hymn, “Thy mercy seat is open still.”

What, on the other hand, does Bill Nye’s evolution story tell us? If we’re lucky, we will survive long enough to reproduce. Other than that, it’s all pointless.

Now which model do you think is more viable?

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Addendum: A Word about Ignorance

Defenders of secular evolution frequently dismiss their religious critics as ignorant, an unfair tactic given that the opposite often holds true.

I offer as evidence an episode from the question-and-answer section of the Ham-Nye debate, which, even more than the other provocations I’ve discussed, made me cringe.

The question to Ham went something like this: If you interpret the Bible literally, why don’t you promote polygamy and advocate stoning people who touch pigs?

I won’t repeat Ham’s polite answer, since my object is to point out the questioner’s stupidity.

To begin with, touching pigs (or other unclean animals) was never a capital offense under the Levitical code. What’s more, restrictions on eating certain animals were rescinded in the book of Acts, not so much to expand believers’ dinner options but to illustrate that the gospel is to be shared with all people — not only Jews.

As for men taking multiple wives, as Ham indicated, Christ himself said that this was never God’s intention. Marriage was meant to unite a man and a woman for a lifetime. Alas, nowadays even this ideal is offensive to many.

Note: A shoutout to my friend Josh for pointing me toward the main idea behind this essay.