June 30, 2009

Paleontology and Creationism Meet but Don't Mesh


PETERSBURG, Ky. - Tamaki Sato was confused by the dinosaur exhibit. 
The placards described the various dinosaurs as originating from 
different geological periods - the stegosaurus from the Upper 
Jurassic, the heterodontosaurus from the Lower Jurassic, the 
velociraptor from the Upper Cretaceous - yet in each case, the date 
of demise was the same: around 2348 B.C.

"I was just curious why," said Dr. Sato, a professor of geology from 
Tokyo Gakugei University in Japan.

For paleontologists like Dr. Sato, layers of bedrock represent an 
accumulation over hundreds of millions of years, and the Lower 
Jurassic is much older than the Upper Cretaceous.

But here in the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, Earth and the 
universe are just over 6,000 years old, created in six days by God. 
The museum preaches, "Same facts, different conclusions" and is 
unequivocal in viewing paleontological and geological data in light 
of a literal reading of the Bible.

In the creationist interpretation, the layers were laid down in one 
event - the worldwide flood when God wiped the land clean except for 
the creatures on Noah's ark - and these dinosaurs died in 2348 B.C., 
the year of the flood.

"That's one thing I learned," Dr. Sato said.

The worlds of academic paleontology and creationism rarely collide, 
but the former paid a visit to the latter last Wednesday. The 
University of Cincinnati was hosting the North American 
Paleontological Convention, where scientists presented their latest 
research at the frontiers of the ancient past. In a break from the 
lectures, about 70 of the attendees boarded school buses for a field 
trip to the Creation Museum, on the other side of the Ohio River.

"I'm very curious and fascinated," Stefan Bengtson, a professor of 
paleozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, said before 
the visit, "because we have little of that kind of thing in Sweden."

Arnold I. Miller, a professor of geology at the University of 
Cincinnati and head of the meeting's organizing committee, suggested 
the trip. "Too often, academics tend to ignore what's going on around 
them," Dr. Miller said. "I feel at least it would be valuable for my 
colleagues to become aware not only of how creationists are 
portraying their own message, but how they're portraying the 
paleontological message and the evolutionary message."

Since the museum opened two years ago, 750,000 people have passed 
through its doors, but this was the first large group of 
paleontologists to drop by. The museum welcomed the atypical guests 
with the typical hospitality. "Praise God, we're excited to have you 
here," said Bonnie Mills, a guest service employee.

The scientists received the group admission rate, which included lunch.

Terry Mortenson, a lecturer and researcher for Answers in Genesis, 
the ministry that built and runs the Creation Museum, said he did not 
expect the visit to change many minds. "I'm sure for the most part 
they'll be of a different view from what's presented here," Dr. 
Mortenson said. "We'll just give the freedom to see what they want to 

Near the entrance to the exhibits is an animatronic display that 
includes a girl feeding a carrot to a squirrel as two dinosaurs stand 
nearby, a stark departure from natural history museums that say the 
first humans lived 65 million years after the last dinosaurs.

"I'm speechless," said Derek E.G. Briggs, director of the Peabody 
Museum of Natural History at Yale, who walked around with crossed 
arms and a grimace. "It's rather scary."

Dr. Mortenson and others at the museum say they look at the same 
rocks and fossils as the visiting scientists, but because of 
different starting assumptions they arrive at different answers. For 
example, they say the biblical flood set off huge turmoil inside the 
Earth that broke apart the continents and pushed them to their 
current locations, not that the continents have moved over a few 
billion years.

"Everyone has presuppositions what they will consider, what questions 
they will ask," said Dr. Mortenson, who holds a doctorate in the 
history of geology from Coventry University in England. "The very 
first two rooms of our museum talk about this issue of starting 
points and assumptions. We will very strongly contest an evolutionist 
position that they are letting facts speak for themselves."

The museum's presentation appeals to visitors like Steven Leinberger 
and his wife, Deborah, who came with a group from the Church of the 
Lutheran Confession in Eau Claire, Wis. "This is what should be 
taught even in science," Mr. Leinberger said.

The museum founders placed it in the Cincinnati area because it is 
within a day's drive of two-thirds of the United States population. 
The area has also long attracted paleontologists with some of the 
most fossil-laden rocks in North America, where it is easy along some 
roadsides to pick up fossils dated to be hundreds of millions of 
years old. The rocks are so well known that they are called the 
Cincinnatian Series, representing the stretch of time from 451 
million to 443 million years ago.

Many of the paleontologists thought the museum misrepresented and 
ridiculed them and their work and unfairly blamed them for the ills 
of society.

"I think they should rename the museum - not the Creation Museum, but 
the Confusion Museum," said Lisa E. Park, a professor of paleontology 
at the University of Akron.

"Unfortunately, they do it knowingly," Dr. Park said. "I was 
dismayed. As a Christian, I was dismayed."

Dr. Bengtson noted that to explain how the few species aboard the ark 
could have diversified to the multitude of animals alive today in 
only a few thousand years, the museum said simply, "God provided 
organisms with special tools to change rapidly."

"Thus in one sentence they admit that evolution is real," Dr. 
Bengtson said, "and that they have to invoke magic to explain how it 

But even some who disagree with the information and message concede 
that the museum has an obvious appeal. "I hate that it exists," said 
Jason D. Rosenhouse, a mathematician at James Madison University in 
Virginia and a blogger on evolution issues, "but given that it 
exists, you can have a good time here. They put on a very good show 
if you can handle the suspension of disbelief."

By the end of the visit, among the dinosaurs, Dr. Briggs seemed 
amused. "I like the fact the dinosaurs were in the ark," he said. 
(About 50 kinds of dinosaurs were aboard Noah's ark, the museum 
explains, but later went extinct for unknown reasons.)

The museum, he realized, probably changes few beliefs. "But you worry 
about the youngsters," he said.

Dr. Sato likened the museum to an amusement park. "I enjoyed it as 
much as I enjoyed Disneyland," she said.

Did she enjoy Disneyland?

"Not very much," she said.