Kentucky is an interesting place. And it’s a place with a surprisingly rich evolutionary history, for lack of a better term. John T. Scopes (of “monkey trial” fame) was a graduate of the University of Kentucky. In his memoir, he gives a ton of credit to some of his UK professors for inspiring him to teach. He gives special credit to one Dr. Funkhouser, a professor whose name graces the Funkhouser building, which is right next to my building. That’s pretty neat.
There's the ghost of evolution past. What about evolution present? In Northern Kentucky (about an hour or so north of my house), you’ll find a very odd evolutionary juxtaposition. On the one hand, there’s Big bone Lick State Park, home to one of the first major paleontological sites in North America. The park is named after the big bones of fossilized Pleistocene megafauna (ground sloths, mammoths, and the like). Tons of big bones, from animals that have been extinct for more than 10 millennia. They display some of the fossils, and have a nice recreation you can walk through.
Of course, that’s just one perspective. If you drive perhaps 30 more minutes, you’ll find yourself at the Creation Museum, America’s foremost museum dedicated to the opinion that the entire universe is only around 6000 years old.
Because we (the BAM! Lab: myself and grad students Ben Ng, Maxine Najle, and Erik Lund) study supernatural beliefs, and are all recent Kentucky transplants, we decided to head up to the Creation Museum for a field trip. And in this blog post, I’ll give you a taste of the place.
As you enter the museum, you’ll find a series of small exhibits, as well as a lovely set of fish-and-turtle tanks. Above the tanks, you’ll see a charming scene in which an animatronic kid is lovingly feeding a carrot to an animatronic critter of some sort. Nothing strange here…except for the animatronic velociraptors playing nearby. Now, I’m guessing the museum wasn’t going for a “dimwitted child doesn’t even realize he’s about to be disemboweled by creatures escaped from Jurassic Park” vibe here. Instead, this exhibit was one of many in which humans and dinosaurs happily coexisted. Other similar exhibits included dinosaurs hanging out with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and dinosaurs happily occupying their pens on Noah’s Ark.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these scenes were jarring. But throughout the day, I found two things repeatedly grabbing my attention. And these things will be the primary focus of this post.
By far and away my biggest surprise (for lack of a better term…I’m still trying to figure out what to call it) was that as I made my way through the museum, I realized it was the first time I had ever been in a museum that was pretty much solely devoted to persuasion. Yes, the entire Creation Museum was—rather brilliantly, actually—designed and devoted to persuading visitors to adopt a certain opinion. And they were using many of the classic persuasion techniques identified by fine social psychologists like Bob Cialdini. In essence, the entire museum was one long, elaborate argument with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. My tour here focuses on the beginning and middle. We were all pretty beat by the end.
The beginning: Reasonable adults can disagree
The first several rooms of the Museum (which consists of essentially one long winding pathway that shepherds visitors through in a fixed order) seem designed to do two things. First, they stress that there is plenty of room for evidentiary disagreements over things like fossils. As they repeatedly pointed out, fossils don’t come with tags telling you how old they are. As a result, reasonable folks have to turn to other sources to infer the ages of fossils.
Second, they stress that evolutionists and creationists reach different conclusions about things like fossils not because they’re relying on different evidence, but rather because they have different starting points.
These rooms are nicely lit, and there’s pleasant music playing throughout. And there are many signs and exhibits tackling different issues (Homo sapiens sapiens' relationships with other extant apes, interpretations of fossils like Lucy, ages of fossils) in which they contrast the different conclusions that one reaches if they start from 1) scientific reasoning, or 2) a firm stance of Biblical inerrancy.
At this stage, the visitor is thinking “Well of course people are reaching different conclusions….they’re just starting with different assumptions.” Essentially, the first few rooms are designed to highlight that lots of interpretations result from judgment calls made by fallible humans (my favorite being the Lucy exhibit, where they explain that working from the same set of bones, and different “artistic interpretations,” they were able to produce a Lucy that clearly isn’t a hominid, but rather something that looks just like a little chimp). And if different interpretations result from different starting points, why not just consider the starting points?
Sounds open-minded and subtly attractive, doesn’t it? By this stage, the Museum has effectively sidestepped the problem of weighing empirical evidence for and against positions, and instead has created a false sense of equivalency between two viewpoints.
But hey, you might be thinking....there are two (and evidently only two) possible viewpoints. And reasonable people reach different conclusions from the same evidence. Etc. Etc.
So, what do the different opening assumptions have to offer?
The middle: Evaluating the worldviews
After the peaceful, seemingly open-minded, initial sections, the visitor moves on to the next section. And here’s where things got serious.
There is a smooth transition from “hey, we just have different assumptions” to a brief history of attempts to challenge the Word of God, all the way from Adam’s Sin to contemporary attempts to discredit the Bible by showing that the world is actually just a tad older than 6000 years old. That’s right, viewing the universe as older than 6000 years isn’t just a scientific conclusion reached because it’s consistent with tons of evidence…it’s an extension of Adam’s sin and an attempt to turn away from God! And what are the consequences of this? Well, walk into the next room to find out what happens when you turn away from the Word of God.
Here, you’ll be treated to frightening music, simulated graffiti on brick walls, and magazine covers highlighting genocides, abortion, euthanasia, terrorism, and all the other things that evidentially naturally follow from viewing the universe as more than 6 millennia old. There are even video reenactments of what family life becomes when the literal truth of the Bible is questioned (hint: there is pornography, violent video games, more abortion, verbal backstabbing, and even a “bag of drugs”). And, of course, all of this stems from Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobeying God.
The next room takes us back to the Garden of Eden, where everything is peachy. You have Adam and Eve relaxing with their favorite dinosaurs, deer, assorted mammals, and penguin (for some reason, the penguin seemed the biggest misfit to me). At the end of this room, to your left you see a velociraptor evidently eating leaves from an aspen tree while, to your right, Adam and Eve are about to have a romantic forbidden fruit tasting party while that nasty Serpent (who actually looked pretty impressive and edgy…we overheard kids talking about how they wanted the Serpent in the gift shop) looked on, smugly. Trouble in paradise…
And what is the result of this trouble? Enter the next room…
Which was pretty terrifying. I’m glad I didn’t bring my daughter. Loud, scary noises. Gory pictures of genocides and the like. Jarring flashing lights. Just generally unpleasant.
The story in the middle section was very clear: obey God’s word, and life is good. Disobey God’s word, and well…genocide, bags of drugs, abortion, more genocide, slavery, genocide, and basically everything bad.
Which brings me to my second big surprise…
Time for my second shocker, and again it was something I didn’t really notice until I was almost all the way through. I came to the museum expecting to see attacks on the evidence used by scientists, and attempts to present evidence for creationism. And, to be certain, there was some of that (including an entire set of 2-3 rooms devoted to explaining how a global Flood could happen, and how one boat could sustain all life).
But, I was really struck by the fact that most of the argument presented was moral, rather than factual. This wasn’t a museum primarily devoted to presenting empirical evidence for creationism and against evolution. Instead, it was devoted to making moral pronouncements about the worldviews (read: “assumptions” or “starting points”) that support evolution and creationism.
Creationism rests on a worldview of obedience to God, which brings peace, tolerance, etc.
Evolution rests on a worldview stemming from disobedience to God. And, just like Adam’s initial disobedience of God, evolution evidently also creates horrific consequences for individuals, families, and societies.
The argument was not that one should weigh the evidence for and against both evolution and creationism; the argument was that one should simply choose creationism because belief in evolution would inevitably lead to moral catastrophe. And this point was made time and again.
For example, what do science and Biblical literalism have to say about race?
Right below these signs (if my memory serves me) was the "Hall of Shame” which includes, among other things, a copy of The Descent of Man next to a slave shackle, “murder slippers,” Mein Kampf, a picture of a pygmy who was once kept in the New York zoo, and a Nazi armband.
Towards the end, there were (as mentioned previously) some rooms devoted to the Flood. And there was some interesting stuff here. But for the most part, I was really struck by the nature of persuasion and how it was used in the first few rooms. While the final few rooms were great for dioramas of dinosaurs on the Ark, the hapless skeptics who didn’t believe Noah, or the talking animatronic Noah who would answer questions, they didn’t pack the same psychological punch as the first rooms for me. They almost felt like they were just tidying the details, because the persuasion was already over. They were just doing some housekeeping, to tell people how (since they’ve already decided Creationism is moral and, hence, true) to defend a Creationist viewpoint against mean-spirited naysayers.
So, if someone asks how so many animals could fit on the Ark, you’d be prepared to say something to the effect that “you only need two of each kind of animal. Then the forces of mutation and natural selection can lead each kind to speciate….and you don’t need evolution for this to happen” (huh?). Or you could point out that the Ark was like really big. I didn’t find any of this particularly compelling. But I’d imagine if you’re morally sold on a viewpoint, confirmation bias could kick in and these rooms would just give you some ammo to stand up for that worldview.
Finally, there were a few rooms with dinosaurs (they really love dinosaurs here). Around their dinosaur models, there were flipcards to test what you learned about dinosaurs. Take this question:
And its obvious answer:
And they had a pretty terrific insect collection, and some truly wonderful fossils in display cases. But honestly, by this point we were all pretty drained. So we headed out to find some lunch.
All in all, it was a really interesting place. High production values. Dinosaurs all over the place. Tons of families walking around with tons of kids. Some very nice fossils, and a great insect collection. Plenty of food for thought. And I’m hoping to use the visit to provoke some research ideas about the psychology of evolution and creationist beliefs, which will probably be the topic of my next installment!
I'll see you then.....
...because I can actually see you when you are reading my blog!
 Back to the kid with the velociraptors: The BAM! Lab was puzzled here… According to the Creation Museum’s theology and view of history, all dinosaurs were vegetarians before sin entered the world with Adam and Eve’s poor culinary choices and resultant knowledge. Before sin, everyone was a vegetarian. So hanging out with velociraptors would be OK. However, before Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit, there 1) was no shame (and hence clothing), and 2) wasn’t any errrr…..human procreation. So if the opening exhibit showed a clothed child, we’re in a post-sin world. Thus, those velociraptors were carnivores. Bye bye, kid. I hope your disemboweling goes smoothly.