The protein chemist from the University of California came to Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist country in Lynchburg, Va., to defend evolution against Biblical creationism. It was the biggest debate of its kind ever, one that will be aired in prime time on national television in four to six weeks.
"I am aware that I shouldn't be doing this. It's a no-win situation," the chemist, Russell Doolittle, said before the debate Tuesday night.
He was right. If there had been debate judges present, they would have given the match to the fundamentalist, Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, who attacked the "atheistic theory of evolution" and maintained that dinosaurs and all other creatures were created by God and lived in recent times alongside man.
Paid for by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, preacher of fundamentalist politics and religion and leader of the Moral Majority, the debate was held at Liberty Baptist College, part of his Lynchburg empire. Falwell himself was moderator, in an auditorium that doubles as a chapel and basketball court.
The place was packed with some 3,000 students of the fundamentalist college who, on Falwell's orders, refrained from "catcalls" and "amens."
But when it was over the crowd was jubilant. "The Lord was in there," called one student to Duane Gish. Said Gish with a grin, "When something like this happens, all I can say is that the Lord delivered him into our hands."
Doolittle agreed that he had lost. "I'm devastated," he said afterword. "This was so important. How am I going to face my wife after making such a fool of myself?"
He said he knew that the debate was designed to give a lot of publicity to creationism, but feared that if he did not take up the challenge--several famous men had already turned it down, including astronomer Carl Sagan and anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Stephen Jay Gould--someone else would.
"For the $5,000 fee, they could pay some numbskull to come in and make a fool of himself," Doolittle said. He shrugged, "As it turns out, that's exactly what they got."
The key to the debate was the tight time schedule made necessary by television.
Ironically, it was the Biblical literalist who was in complete control of the technology, complete to the cadences of his voice and the to-the-second timing of his delivery.
He said that God created the universe by special processes not operating today. This contradicts the chief assumption of science, that what we see today in the world and the universe are a result of natural laws and processes that can be assumed to have existed before humans were there to see them.
Gish, who earned a degree in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and spent most of his scientific career working for the Upjohn pharmaceutical company, said that since "evolution is a mechanistic, atheistic theory, it is a basic dogma of agnosticism, humanism and atheism in general. The one-sided indoctrination of our students in this materialistic philosophy in the tax-supported public schools . . . is a violation of academic and religious freedom."
He asked that both evolution and what he called "scientific creationism" be presented to students to let them decide which was better science.
Gish said he objected to the idea now dominating scientific thought that "hydrogen is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas, which, if given enough time, becomes people. That is exactly what evolutionists do believe . . . disorder spontaneously generated order."
He said such an idea is "directly contradicted by the second law of thermodynamics," which states that a closed system like the universe cannot in general become more ordered, but must gradually run down, unless acted on from outside.
Doolittle, for his part, began by saying the debate was a sham, that the vast amount of evidence in science for evolution could not be presented in the few minutes allotted on Falwell's show. He said the debate really will mean "publicity for a special cause." He said, "I am really a stage prop here."
Doolittle read from one of the books produced by Gish's organization, pointing out that the evidence used by creationists for the simultaneous existence of man and dinosaur is a set of dinosaur and human footprints in Texas that were faked as a tourist attraction by local people.
But in reading from the books, Doolittle took too much of his allotted 18 minutes. Just as he got to his series of slides and his main point, the evidence for evolution, the time ran out and he was left without a conclusion.