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The Genesis of a Debate
Creationist Students Take Field Trip to Hotbed of Evolution: The Smithsonian

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students' belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion's den of evolution.

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.

"There's nothing balanced here. It's completely, 100 percent evolution-based," said DeWitt, a professor of biology. "We come every year, because I don't hold anything back from the students."

Creationists, who take their view of natural history straight from the book of Genesis, believe that scientific data can be interpreted to support their idea that God made the first human, Adam, in an essentially modern form 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

A 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 42 percent of Americans believe humans have always existed in their present form. At universities such as Liberty, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, those views inform the entire science curriculum.

Like the Liberty students, avowed creationists across the country are making a practice of challenging the conventional wisdom at zoos (questioning the evolutionary explanation of giraffe necks), the Grand Canyon (dating the rock layers in thousands, not millions, of years), and cave parks (describing the formations as evidence of rapid drainage after the Great Flood).

In the upcoming issue of Answers, a leading magazine of the young-Earth movement, the list of "creation vacations" includes the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, the New England Aquarium in Boston and London's Natural History Museum.

"Why should we be afraid to test our worldview against reality?" asked Bill Jack, a Christian leadership instructor who leads groups across the country for a company called Biblically Correct Tours. "If Christianity is true, it better be true in the natural history museums and in the zoos."

Creationists have been popping up in enough mainstream institutions that one museum has produced a creation-vs.-evolution primer to help volunteer docents handle their sometimes-pointed questions. When the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y., published its guide, more than 50 museums called looking for a copy, according to director Warren Allmon.

But creationists say the purpose of their visits to what some describe as "temples to evolution" is to train themselves to think critically, not to pick rhetorical fights with curators or other visitors.

"I'm not standing up and saying to everybody in the room, 'Gather around,' " Jack said. "That would be disruptive. But I'm speaking loudly enough for my people to hear and sometimes others join in."

At the Smithsonian, officials said they were unaware of any organized visits by avowed creationists but said they are welcome. Still, all visitors should come knowing that the museum -- like all mainstream natural history institutions -- is fundamentally Darwinian, said spokesman Randall Kremer.

"Evolution is the unifying principle for all the biology, past and present, in our halls," Kremer said. "That is the foundation of the research we conduct at the museum."

Actually, the field trippers from Liberty University didn't find much to object to at their first stop, the museum's soaring hall of fossils. DeWitt's main complaint was that the 1980s-era introductory film on the beginning of life was woefully outdated (lots of dancing amoebas, no mention of DNA).

"It's embarrassing," said DeWitt, who found himself filling in some of the latest evolutionary thinking for his students. His PhD in neuroscience is from Case Western Reserve University. "As an educator, I want them to see the most up-to-date material."

Otherwise, the 20 students listened attentively as co-leader Marcus Ross, an enthusiastic paleontologist who teaches at Liberty, expertly explained about the world-class fossil collection and told ripping tales of the towering tyrannosaurus rex that was casting skeletal shadows over the group.

"I love it here," said Ross, who has a doctorate in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. "There's something romantic about seeing the real thing."

Modern creationists don't deny the existence of dinosaurs but believe that God made them, and all animals, on the same sixth day that he created man. In fact, Ross's only real beef in the fossil hall is with the 30-foot lighted column that is a timeline marking 630 million years of geology. As a young-Earth creationist, he asserts that the vast majority of the rocks and fossils were formed during Noah's flood about 4,000 years ago. Most paleontologists date the T-Rex to 65 million years ago.

The group moved on, talking quietly among themselves. At a diorama of a hominid burial site, a Liberty student described how the famous Neanderthal brow ridge is really not that distinct from many found on modern human skulls.

"The really big difference is between human and ape skulls," said David Asfour, 28, a general biology major.

At one point, DeWitt called them together under a Nigerian proverb stenciled on a wall. "The Earth goddess fashions the human body just as the potter fashions her pot," DeWitt read. "So there is some religion here."

But in the hall of mammals, which reopened in 2003 after a $23 million renovation, evolution assumes center stage, and the Liberty students grew a bit more subdued. They openly admired the well-lighted, meticulously designed dioramas. But they lamented that the texts and videos give no credit at all to a higher power for the wondrous animal variety on display.

Near the end of the "Evolution Trail," the class showed no signs of being swayed by the polished, enthusiastic presentation of Darwin's theory. They were surprised, though, by the bronze statue of man's earliest mammalian ancestor.

"A rat?" exclaimed Amanda Runions, a 21-year-old biochemistry major, when she saw the model of a morganucodon, a rodent-like ancient mammal that curators have dubbed Grandma Morgie. "All this hype for a rat? You're expecting, like, at least an ape."

Before heading back to Lynchburg each year, DeWitt makes a point of stopping by the Jefferson Memorial. The quotes on the wall there (his favorite: "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?") make for a better ending to the trip than the secular shades of the museum, he said.

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