Today marks the 204th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, father of modern biology, and inspiration for the Holocaust (depending on whom you ask). Happy Darwin Day! Scientists around the world will be celebrating the occasion with lectures, book readings, and even bake sales. Rep. Rush Holt, a physicist (and Jeopardy! champion), has introduced a bill to designate Feb. 12 a national holiday.
It might seem slightly gratuitous to celebrate the birthday of the man whose theories make sense of all of biology, particularly with such quirky tie-ins as Darwin-themed cuisine. Evolution, after all, is accepted by virtually all scientists, and federal judges have ruled that intelligent design may not be taught as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. Celebrants often observe the holiday with a bit of wariness, however, screening films about the lurking threat of creationism and intelligent design. Even the International Darwin Day Foundation seems slightly defensive about fêting Darwin, emphasizing not only his theories but also his contributions “to the advancement of humanity.”
Behind the worldwide celebration of Darwin Day is an understanding that Darwin’s reputation and work must not be taken for granted. Creationism, once a fringe movement, in many subcultures is mainstream. Last year, Republican presidential contenders including Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum denounced evolution and supported the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. They’re not alone: A full 46 percent of Americans have expressed belief in young-Earth creationism, the idea that God created the Earth and humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years. That might contradict the opinion of 99.9 percent of scientists, but in the clash between religious fundamentalism and demonstrable scientific facts, blind faith is holding strong.
Few have profited more from Darwin calumny and science denial than Ken Ham, an Australian-born, young-Earth creationist behind some of the most ambitious monuments to creationism in the United States. Ham rose to fame after successfully raising $27 million to build the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which tells the story of God’s creation of the Earth through pseudoscience and unforgettable dioramas (the highlight: a kid hanging out with a gentle raptor). According to Ham, dinosaurs and humans coexisted for a while. Dinosaurs shared the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and humans may have saddled dinosaurs for transportation and long-distance travel. Pro-evolution scientists (i.e., all actual scientists), however, have obfuscated these undeniable truths with sinful lies and slander.
After completing the Creation Museum, Ham decided to take on an even greater challenge: conquering the separation of church and state. He and his fellow creationists have proposed a creationist theme park called Ark Encounter, centered around a “full-size” replica of Noah’s Ark. At Ham’s request, the governor of Kentucky has proposed a $43 million tax break for the park, as well as an $11 million road improvement project for the highway leading to it. (Apparently creationists read the Bible literally but not the First Amendment.)
The best way to understand the radical strangeness of Ham’s views is to closely examine how he attempts to undercut belief in sound science—that is, to read his books. Ham’s books fall into two categories: colorful picture books designed to indoctrinate children, and pseudoscientific tracts aimed at persuading adults. The best example of the former category is Dinosaurs of Eden, published by Master Books, a branch of Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Master Books’ parent company, New Leaf Publishing Group, claims that Eden has sold 80,000 copies, out of 2.1 million Ham-penned books allegedly sold, including The Great Dinosaur Mystery Solved, Did Adam Have a Belly Button?, and My Creation Bible.
In a sense, Eden captures everything that Ham does well (or outrageously, depending on your perspective). It is imaginative and absorbing, with vibrant illustrations and an engaging narrative. But its ultimate message is that belief in young-Earth creationism is necessary to avoid an eternity of damnation. Two Christian children enter “Bible Time Gate” and function as our surrogates as we explore Ham’s bizarre account of the history of the world. After walking us through the opening verses of Genesis, Ham proclaims that “we can say 100%, absolutely for sure, that people lived with dinosaurs!” A series of surreal illustrations features Adam and Eve feeding grapes to vegetarian dinosaurs while lions and cheetahs canoodle with an avaceratops. This herbivorous paradise is wrecked after Cain murders Abel.* “Dinosaurs may have started eating other animals” at this point, Ham tells us, citing Genesis 6:13: “the earth was filled with violence.”
Intriguingly, Ham does not then kill off dinosaurs with the Flood, which seems like the most practical explanation for their extinction and would avoid the problem of how to house and feed them on the ark. He posits that “God probably sent ‘teenagers,’ NOT ‘fully grown adult’ ” dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. Every species of dinosaur survived the Flood, and many were domesticated by early humans. Records of such interactions, Ham states, survive to this day. (“Dragon legends ... were probably based on people’s encounters with certain dinosaurs.”)
Sadly, a combination of natural disasters and “people killing them for food or skins” spurred dinosaurs’ recent extinction, a fact “fallible” scientists deny because “scientists, like everyone else, are sinners. Because of this, they don’t want to believe. It has nothing to do with evidence.” For promoting evolution (and thus denying God’s word), Ham concludes, scientists will face “everlasting punishment.” This moral is accompanied by an image of adults—who look strikingly similar to the scientists from a previous illustration—being cast into the burning pits of hell.
Ham’s masterpiece for the adult reader, The Lie, was recently reprinted in a revised and expanded 25th-anniversary edition. It contains the same outlandish pseudoscience and strict moralizing as Dinosaurs of Eden—with none of the whimsy. The Lie distills Ham’s theological convictions: Christianity is under attack, society is rotting away, and acceptance of evolution is the root of its disintegration. Remarkably little of the book is devoted to Ham’s pseudoscientific arguments against evolution; rather, Ham attempts to inject doubt and ambiguity into evidence of evolution, claiming it is “a belief system” supported by no conclusive proof. “All the evidence a scientist has,” Ham insists, “exists only in the present.” This means we should disregard isotope dating, fossil records, genetic sequencing, geologic time, developmental biology, plate tectonics, disease resistance, and the rest of modern science because who can really know if they’re accurate? “The Bible’s account of origins,” on the other hand, was written by “the Creator God” and contains all the “history we need to know to understand the present world.”
And that’s pretty much all Ham has. Blind faith in the Bible is superior to belief in evolution, because the former was written by God, while the latter is a myth perpetuated by sinful atheists. Science is a myth simply because it cannot be allowed to contradict the Bible. That’s Ham’s starting and ending point, his premise and his conclusion. Such unquestioning trust and circular logic pervades the pages of the book, presented with smug satisfaction.
Yet creationism isn’t really the core of The Lie. Culture is—specifically, secular humanism. Ham’s bugaboos (“abortion, pornography, gay marriage, lawlessness”) are, to his mind, rooted in belief in evolution. Developments like legalized pornography are mere symptoms of acceptance of science; in order to purge them, we must destroy belief in evolution altogether. This is because evolution is “man’s word” (as opposed to God’s word), and once we accept man’s word, we will lose literally all sense of morality. Unsurprisingly, same-sex marriage is particularly anathema to Ham. (The word homosexual appears 24 times in the book, as compared with a mere 13 uses of creationism.) He spills much ink fixating on the sinfulness, unleashed by belief in evolution, of “the homosexual lifestyle” and “homosexual sodomy.”
Inevitably, Ham also turns to the shameless claims that acceptance of evolution is directly responsible for a parade of horrors: the Holocaust, racism, drug overdoses, and even “male chauvinism.” (Many use evolution “to justify that females are inferior,” Ham contends, though this belief is obviously incorrect; according to the Bible, men and women simply have “different roles,” in part because of “their reactions to the temptation of the serpent.”) The moral relativism inherent to evolution directly spawned each of these evils. Hitler’s murder of Jews “may be attributed, at least in part, to his belief in evolution.” Racism “increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.” Drug use flows naturally from denying “the truth ... of Genesis.” In Dinosaurs of Eden, Ham threatens children with an afterlife in hell; in The Lie, Ham threatens adults with a living hell. Believe me, he warns, or face damnation, both temporal and eternal.
But there’s trouble in Ham’s creationist paradise. In 2012, the Creation Museum reported a 10 percent decline in attendance from the previous year, and its parent group, Answers in Genesis, posted a 5 percent drop in revenue. That continues a four-year slump and a new low for the museum at 280,000 total visitors last year. Even more ominously, fundraising for the Ark Encounter has slowed to a crawl. Its future is further imperiled by the decline of the Creation Museum, whose visitors were expected to be a huge source of funding for the ark park. As of January, Ham had failed to raise even half the money required to build the ark replica itself, let alone the rest of the park. To help out, you can buy a peg, a blank, or even a beam for $100, $500, and $1,500, respectively—but seeing as the fate of the ark is in serious jeopardy, is a free pass to the grand opening really worth the risk?
The Creation Museum was one of the region’s biggest draws only four years ago. The museum’s vice president blames the downward spiral on the recession, but the decline has only worsened as the economy has recovered. Gas prices, the museum claims, might also be cutting into attendance, because 70 percent of visitors arrive from out of town. It’s true that fossil fuels—which are, on average, several hundred million years older than Ken Ham’s version of the Earth—have risen in price over the past several years, perhaps dissuading potential visitors.
There could be another explanation, though. A spectacle like the Creation Museum has a pretty limited audience. Sure, 46 percent of Americans profess to believe in creationism, but how many are enthusiastic enough to venture to Kentucky to spend nearly $30 per person to see a diorama of a little boy palling around with a vegetarian dinosaur? The museum’s target demographic might not be eager to lay down that much money: Belief in creationism correlates to less education, and less education correlates to lower income. Plus, there’s the possibility of just getting bored: After two pilgrimages to the museum, a family of four would have spent $260 to see the same human-made exhibits and Bible quote placards. Surely even the most devoted creationists would consider switching attractions for their next vacation. A visit to the Grand Canyon could potentially be much cheaper—even though it is tens of millions of years old.
If Ham’s decaying empire is any indication, Americans are rejecting his false choice between blind faith and wretched immorality. But on Darwin Day, it’s worth remembering that Ham and his acolytes are dedicated to undermining our country’s commitment to sound science. Every day in a small museum in Kentucky, a few hundred adults and children stare at a diorama of Adam sitting next to a placid dinosaur. If Ham had his way, schoolchildren across the country would see this image every day, and they’d never be taught the true diversity, complexity, and drama of the evolution of life. That’s a future that celebrants of Darwin Day are fighting. It’s not a losing battle by any means. But it hasn’t been won yet, either.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name Abel. (Return to the corrected sentence.)