My Visit to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky

Richard Sproat

November 2007

Soon after I moved back to California from Britain in the early 1970's I was talking with one of the other kids in the neighborhood and somehow the discussion got onto the topic of human origins. Probably I had just seen some documentary on television. This would have been just a few years after the Leakeys' discovery of Homo habilis, and quite possibly I was discussing that, believing that I was on safe ground. "We don't believe that", he told me. "What do you believe in then?" I asked. "Adam and Eve." I was dumbfounded. Until that point I had not realized that there were still people who believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis. I did not understand how this was possible.

Thirty-five years later, large swaths of the population in the United States (as well as elsewhere in the world) continue to believe in some version of the biblical account of creation, and there seems to be no sign that this will go away any time soon. If anything, it is growing stronger as evidenced by the gaudiest and most expensive monument to this puzzling situation, the brand new $27 million Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

For reference, the Museum is run by Answers in Genesis, a registered non-profit organization. AiG's gross receipts from contributions and other sources for the past three years, as indicated in their IRS 990 forms were as follows:

2006 $15,861,943
2005 $6,744,579
2004 $12,849,318

Petersburg is just off Interstate 275, the ringroad around Cincinnati, and I happened to be passing right by the door of the Museum on my way from Western Virginia back to Central Illinois. How could I not go and see this thing?

Although it was Black Friday, when everybody was supposed to be at the malls, the parking lot was pretty full. A security guard in full uniform with a ranger's hat was directing traffic. The entrance fee was not cheap: it cost me $19.95. But despite the high cost of construction as well as the high entrance fee, not much thought apparently went into the design of the museum from the point of view of crowd control. The path through the exhibits is winding, with lots of bottlenecks, so that one is forced sometimes to wait in one room while large groups of people snail their way through into the next chamber.

The first substantive exhibit one sees is a room with a mockup of an excavation of an ancient skeleton. There are models of two paleontologists at work, and exhibits around the wall that, among other things, remind the reader that fossils do not come to us with their dates printed on them. The narrator is an actor playing one of the paleontologists, who supposedly used to believe in the standard evolutionary account, but has since switched sides. His coworker, with whom he has been buddies since college, still holds to the conventional view. In the voice-over, they are discussing their different views of the age of the particular specimen they are digging up. The evolutionary paleontologist states that he thinks it is several hundred million years old, and probably died in a local flood. But the actor playing the part of this guy manages to make him sound as if he isn't really sure, and that he's sort of guessing. His creationist buddy then comes along, and in a friendly way states that he has a different view, namely that it is just a few thousand years old and that the flood was not local in nature, but global. This, of course, is a standard trick in the Creationist arsenal: put the two views -- Creationism and Evolution, on a par by suggesting that they are two equally valid stances upon which scientists can, and routinely do disagree. This tactic is discussed at length in Philip Kitcher's excellent 1982 monograph (Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, MIT Press).

At this point I had expected the "scientific" story to continue, but oddly the next room had nothing to do with paleontology. It consisted instead of biblical scenes involving various venerable characters from the Old Testament, along with various biblical texts.

We were then ushered into a small theater, where we were invited to view a computer-graphic animation of the first six days according to Genesis. I had expected a video that would at least attempt to provide some "scientific" evidence for the story. Instead, what was shown was a pretty straight reading of the Biblical account. As I will suggest later on, the main point of this Museum does not appear to be science. So, a voice-over read the Genesis creation myth while on the screen were illustrated the various entities being brought into existence. A voice reading the Hebrew version also faded in and out, and as the text on the screen displayed "Day 1", "Day 2", "Day 3" and so forth, the Hebrew word יום 'day', was also displayed. (Why? It seemed like misplaced erudition since a fair bet would be that most of the audience would not have been any the wiser if they had put up the Hebrew word for 'grapefruit'.)

After this short video, the tour continued with a room full of fascinating facts from the natural world, all intended, I suppose, to impress the viewer with the complexity of God's creation, and to make it seem incredibly unlikely that this could have come about via natural evolution.

From there we go on to idyllic scenes of the pre-Fall world, with animals (including dinosaurs) going about their business. Adam is also shown naming the animals. Prior to the Fall, all of the animals ate vegetation, and scavengers' role in life was not to eat dead meat -- there was no death -- but rather to clean up excess vegetation. Only after the Fall did meat-eating begin. One of the points that is glossed over is that since carnivores -- lions, wolves, ermine, snakes, eagles, tyrannosaurs, raptors ... -- were all originally herbivorous, God must have done overtime in the shop refitting all these animals to be carnivores, while he had a team of assistants reworking the ecology. (Another bothersome point is that according to Genesis, God also commanded the creatures to "be fruitful and multiply". Yet there was no death. A panel explaining how one could avoid exponential population growth overrunning the planet would have been useful.)

Then comes a set of vignettes leading up to the Fall. Eve is shown, having just been created from Adam's rib. Of course at this point Adam and Eve do not know that they are naked, so presumably there would have been no particular reason for Eve to have had hair long enough to cover her breasts and all the way down to her thighs: a pity, since I would have liked to have known if she (or Adam) had a navel.

I note in passing that Adam and Eve were evidently Caucasian, a point that must have struck the rather large number of East Asians among the visitors as being a bit ethnocentric.

The fruit, which we conventionally in English refer to as an "apple" is here shown as a handful of non-descript berries being offered by Eve to Adam. (Is this a concession to Kentucky apple-growers?) Of course this is all due to the serpent, a truly evil-looking creature that resembles nothing found alive today or in the fossil record, though it does bear a striking similarity to the basilisk in the movie rendition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The consequences of the serpent's dupery, Eve's transgression and Adam's foolhardiness are, of course, evil and death, and the next room is a display of photos of evils ranging from a woman in the pangs of childbirth, to a child with what looks like a horrible case of smallpox, to a stack of skulls from the killing fields of Cambodia. All of these horrors we brought on ourselves because we failed to obey God's command not to go fiddling with those berries.

There is a room that describes how the human race multiplied, and clears up a question that the Museum obviously realizes must trouble people. Namely, that the first men -- the sons of Adam and Eve -- must have married their sisters. They clear this up in the following way. First, they point out that after all, all humans are ultimately related so even today we marry (distant) relatives. Second, in those days, the mutations to our genome would have been minimal to non-existent so that marrying one's sister was safe. Nowadays, of course, it is quite dangerous for siblings to marry since that will dramatically increase the chance of bad mutations being passed on to offspring. One curious point in this line of argument is the following. The whole story is based on the premise that the world is only 6,000 years old; and since proscriptions on marrying siblings go back a few thousand years in all cultures, one must assume that the bad mutations manifest themselves pretty quickly. What rate of mutation are they assuming? It would seem that they have to be assuming a rate higher than any evolutionary biologist would assume, surely a paradoxical situation. After these "scientific" points, the text goes on to tell us that today sex between siblings is called "incest" and is considered bad. And of course, it has always been true that any sexual activity outside of marriage is bad. It is not clear what if anything this latter moralistic point of view has to do with the ostensibly scientific point of this text.

The next major exhibit is on Noah and the Ark. There are scale models, and even a full-scale replica of one portion of what, the exhibit admits, must have strained the limits of wooden ship building. After the flood comes, there is an ice age -- the Ice Age -- which, one assumes, kills off large numbers of animals that Noah had originally saved. (I must say this cleared up one thing for me, because I had always assumed that the dinosaurs died out because Noah didn't do his job thoroughly enough; but this new idea of an ice age after the flood neatly takes care of that.)

One room dealt with the Tower of Babel and the creation of the languages. Following on the account in Genesis, God split up the languages in order to foil humans' attempts to build the Tower to reach heaven. All of the several thousand modern languages are descended from this original set created by God, though according to the display, they still share the same structure as the original languages. Since nothing concrete is proposed for what these post-Babel linguistic stocks were, it is hard to evaluate how the proposal would correspond to what most historical linguists would agree are the basic language families that we can be reasonably sure of. Presumably, since the Bible says nothing about this, the Creationists are free to choose whatever original groupings fit the currently available evidence. But in any event, one assumes that the ideas of Joseph Greenberg (the major American proponent of the view that all languages are related and that we can use the comparative method to demonstrate this) would not be popular here.

The visuals for the language display include short snippets in a variety of scripts, including Egyptian, Mayan, some Mesopotamian cuneiform script, Hebrew, Greek and Chinese. For the most part, the texts make no sense. The Greek is a random jumbling of letters. The Mesopotamian is a numeral symbol rather than a logograph or phonograph. The Chinese is just the three characters for "moon", "rain" and "night" in no order that makes any particular sense. The Hebrew text appears to be upside down.

It should be clear enough at this point that there is remarkably little attempt to argue any "scientific" points, which seems quite at odds with what the "Scientific" Creationists were trying to do during the 1970's and 1980's. During that period, the goal was to get creationism into the schools to be taught alongside evolution as an alternative "theory" of the origins of life. So, necessarily, the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research, and related organizations made an effort to try to come up with scientific-sounding arguments for why evolution was wrong and how there was positive evidence for creation. The attempt failed, miserably, for the simple reason that, as Kitcher's book amply showed, there was no science here, only an abuse of science, a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method, as well as a deep-seated misunderstanding (perhaps intentional) of what evolutionary biology in fact claims about the evolution of life. The 1982 ruling in McLean v Arkansas Board of Education proved a major embarrassment for the Creationist cause and seemed to provide the nail in the coffin for any of their claims of scientific credibility. But it would have been foolish to think that this would be the end of the issue, since if it was not clear then, it has since become clear that after all this issue never had anything to do with science, but rather with a deeply entrenched belief-set that refuses to go away.

The Museum to a large extent recognizes this reality, and does not seriously try to make many arguments on the scientific front. There was that one opening scene with the two paleontologists having a friendly disagreement on their competing "theories". There is a single panel in the otherwise multi-room display of Noah's flood which revives the old (and roundly discredited) argument that the order of fossils in the strata follows from what we would expect given a major flood. There is a claim that evolutionary biology has yet to show any evidence for macroevolution suggesting that (as Kitcher observed), they are willing to accept evolutionary accounts of microevolution (such as Darwin's finches). And there are a few other tidbits. But overall you will not turn up much in this whole set of exhibits that attempts to give any scientific support for the story they are spinning.

Why? Were the Creationists sufficiently whipped in Arkansas that they don't want to try that again? Or, more likely and more depressingly, is it that they realize that at the end of the day it really does not matter whether they have scientific arguments at all, because a huge percentage of the population will still believe them? Clearly their attempts at scientific arguments were wasted on the establishment: they just made fools out of themselves. But if 83% of the population of the US (according to the November 3-9 2007 issue of The Economist) believe that the Bible is the true word of God, then ultimately it makes no difference what the scientific establishment thinks, or what the courts may rule. The sheer force of the masses can be expected to win over. All you need to do is to throw in a few "scientific"-sounding observations and claims to salve any lingering doubts that people may have, and you can depend upon widespread ignorance and indifference to anything to do with science to do the rest of the job.

The final display was a room that asks the question "Who is Jesus?". Clearly, this museum is not intended primarily as a lesson in biology.

As is the wont of any museum anywhere, the visitor is led out through the bookstore and giftshop. There were a lot of books, but again very few that dealt with "Scientific" Creationism, and it seems that not much has been produced since the 1970's. There was a reworked version of Henry Morris' Scientific Creationism, but though this was a recent printing, the actual edition seemed to date from the mid 1980's. I did get a copy of Duane Gish's Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No!, which is a 1995 sequel to Gish's original 1973 "classic". (Thumbing through the glossary, I note that the newt genus Triturus is misspelled as Trituris, suggesting that Gish's desire to be accurate on the small details is about as great as it ever was: Kitcher, p. 113, notes a similar misspelling of the genus Diadectes as Didactes in Gish's earlier book. It's also not clear why he singles out Triturus as being particularly exemplary of newts: most readers on the East Coast of the US will likely be more familiar with Notophthalmus, and on the West Coast with various species of Taricha.) But besides these books there was precious little else.

A good friend of mine feels that it is a national embarrassment that this Museum exists in the United States. I agree, but would go one further: it is an embarrassment that it exists anywhere at all. It is sobering that in the 21st century huge segments of the world population still believe literally in the myths of ancient nomads. Of course, following their line of reasoning, to do otherwise is to promulgate evil: certainly there is no shortage of suggestions in the Museum that belief in evolution and secular humanism leads ineluctably to evil on a cosmic scale. (A claim as old as Darwin: see, again, Kitcher's discussion.) So, one exhibit at the museum invites us to consider the world of those without God, and does so by taking us through a seedy-looking display of dingy city walls with spray-painted ghetto grafitti.

The problem with this view is that it fails to recognize the fundamental truth that evil is born not of Godlessness, but rather of ignorance and lack of wisdom, two things that this Museum is helping to promote. How long do we have to put up with a situation where one basic message of religions ranging from many sects of Christianity, to Sufi Islam, to Zen Buddhism -- the message of love, and compassion and generosity -- is drowned out by louder messages demanding conformity and mass ignorance? When will people realize that such demands are not driven by truth, but by power and control?

See here for a Dutch translation.

See here for a Finnish translation.

© 2007, 2008, Richard Sproat