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Ham and Eggs: the O’Reilly Factor Creationism vs Evolution Debate

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I missed this on my birthday, 28th May, but the coincidence of date demands that I say a few words about it now. I’ve been reading the occasional news item over the past year or so regarding creationist Ken Ham’s $27 million Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which finally opened its doors to the public on my 55th birthday. Filling in for Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor on that day, television host and former US Republican Representative John Kasich marked the occasion with a debate between Ken Ham and Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University.

I want to pick up on just two things from this brief (4:40 minute) debate: John Kasich’s prefatory statement, and Ham’s response to Kasich’s first question. I’m relying on the transcript provided by Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog; yet Rosenhouse’s transcript, starting only at the beginning of the debate itself, omits John Kasich’s opening words: “A museum all about creation opens today. But some people don’t like it: they say it’s junk science’. We’re going to hear both sides …”.

What’s interesting about Kasich’s introductory statement? I’d probably not have noticed the first point of interest had I not attended a talk by Robert Fisk a few weeks back, in which he pointed out that a golden rule of American journalism is (in principle though rarely in practice)1 to give equal voice and equal weight to spokespersons on both sides of a story. Thus Kasich’s “We’re going to hear both sides”, irrespective of which speaker might have the heftier share of reason and evidence on his side. Within that ‘fair and balanced’ framework, consider the fact that Kasich announces this to be “a museum all about creation” rather than, say, “a creationist museum”, or (as he subsequently clarifies) a “museum … designed to convince visitors that the Biblical story of life on Earth is scientifically verifiable”. How should one understand this statement? (since ‘about’ is always about something, some existent.) It in part boils down to how one understands the word ‘creation’ to be used in this context: is it [a] as naming a Bible-based theory? or [b] as intending to identify an actual event or process? My son generously suggests the former to be a plausible interpretation, and hence the statement unexceptionable. I’m not sure … and I’m also wondering what the “all about” really means. Is it “exclusively about” (as in “That’s what the museum’s all about”) or is it “all there is to know about”? On the former reading, the statement is merely saying that the subject matter of the museum is ‘creation’ and nothing else; on the latter reading, on the other hand, the statement perhaps contentiously suggests that there is nothing more (or, at least, nothing other) to be said about the subject matter than is presented in the museum. Consider your own responses to the following:

  1. A museum all about ice-cream opens today
  2. A museum about ice-cream opens today
  3. A museum all about Ronald Regan opens today
  4. A museum about Ronald Regan opens today
  5. A museum all about levitation opens today

What makes this especially interesting for me, then, is the issue that you’ll find raised in many places on this site: that museums offer representations rather than actuality, that a museum is a ‘knowledge interface’ mediating between the museum visitor and the world being represented, and that our primary interest must therefore be in determining principled mappings from representations into worlds. (Elsewhere I argue that the key components of a good theory of language–that it should be compositional, truth conditional, and model theoretic–may generically apply to the ‘language’ of museum representations.)

The final point of interest in Kasich’s opening words about the museum is that “some people don’t like it”. The “some” would appear to put the objectors in a minority; that they merely “don’t like it” weakens the grounds of their objections.

But watch the video now, and then we’ll talk about it some more.

I was interested in particular by Ham’s first response:

What we’re trying to accomplish is this: you know, through this nation whole generations of young people are being taught in the public schools there’s no God, life evolved by natural processes, they’re really just animals in the fight for survival, and that very much determines their morality, how they view themselves, their purpose and meaning in life, and so on. And what we wanted to do, was to give them information that’s been censored from the culture, […] to show them that we can use the science of genetics, biology, geology, astronomy, anthropology, to confirm the Bible’s history. And if the Bible’s history is true then Christian morality based on that history is true. If there’s a God who owns you, then he sets the rules we have a basis for good for bad for right for wrong.

Seemingly conflated into a single issue, Ham is in fact making a small number of arguably unrelated claims:

  1. that young people are being taught there’s no God (this seems unlikely; at least, I can’t imagine where across the broad school curriculum this might relevantly be taught. But let us for the sake of argument, and probably counter-factually, assume this to be the case)
  2. that young people are being taught that life evolved by natural processes (I’d frankly have thought that the weight and sheer bulk of empirical scientific evidence would seem to be more on the side of 150 years of Darwinist evolutionary science than on the side of the first page or so of the Book of Genesis. Note that the teaching of evolution remains per se neutral with regard to the question of whethere there is or is not a God.)
  3. that being taught [1] and [2] “very much determines their morality” (this also seems implausible: evolutionary biology remains silent on issues of morality; and while a belief in the existence of a god may carry with it a commitment to the moral code associated with whichever happens to be the god in question, one’s moral sense, believer or not, is fashioned by a great number of other societal factors)
  4. that being taught [1] and [2] determines how young people view themselves, their purpose and meaning in life, and so on (this is probably true to some degree; however, I can see no basis in [1] or [2] for the making of value judgments concerning one’s self-image, sense of purpose, and whatever understandings one may have with respect to the meaning of life.)

So where, for Ham, is all this leading? If the biological and physical sciences can confirm the Bible’s account of creation, then the Bible must be a true account; and, if a true account, then it follows that the moral code contingently enshrined in the Bible is also ‘true’ (whatever it might mean for a ‘morality’ to be ‘true’). Let’s say that a moral code—generically, a corpus of beliefs that enables a person to “define and distinguish among right and wrong intentions, motivations or actions“—consists of a set of precepts A, B, C, D, …, Z; the same set of moral precepts A, B, C, D, …, Z could, of course, arise historically out of a quite different conceptualisation of the origins of the universe and of life within the universe. Consequently there may be a many-to-one, rather than a one-to-one, relationship between theories of origins and a moral code such that it is impossible to reason back from precepts to just one theory of origins uniquely associated with those precepts.

Given the choice between the creationist’s Ham and the evolutionists’ Egg, I’ll go with the Egg.

References and readings

Jason Rosenhouse, ‘The Kasich/Ham/Krauss Instatranscript’, EvolutionBlog.
Accessed 12 June 2007 at:
» http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2007/05/the_kasichhamkrauss_instatrans.php

  1. I don’t recall journalists ever earnestly soliciting the considered views of Saddam or bin Laden, for example; though, of course, innumerable instances of, for example, Israeli military commanders being invited to offer their version of events on an occasion of their shelling of Palestinian civilians. []

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