Two metal stegosaurus silhouettes guard the side of a lonely road in northern Kentucky. They straddle a driveway to the Creation Museum. It’s an institution dedicated to the teachings that — according to literal interpretations of the Bible’s Book of Genesis — God created the world in six 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. The museum is a $27-million attraction in Appalachia that draws 300,000 tourists annually.
Inside, visitors learn that humans once walked alongside dinosaurs, Darwinian macroevolution doesn’t occur, and a global flood quickly carved the Grand Canyon. It’s a historical account completely foreign to anyone who was educated in a public school.
The Creation Museum and its teachings seem distant to Princetonians walking on a campus with multiple Nobel Prize-winning scientists. But it’s not. For over the past 130 years, Princeton’s faculty and alumni have been leaders in the debate over creation. Although students don’t contemplate the origins of the universe often, they should explore the arguments pertaining to them. Secularists should engage with creationists in debates, because one’s position on these issues has significant practical implications.
Currently, Young Earth Creationism is most prominent in Christianity. David Keddie ’04, a minister for the Princeton Christian Fellowship, told me in an interview, “That God created the world is very central to the message of the Bible. The mechanisms by which he created the world is secondary or more open to debate.” A recent Gallup poll showed that 38 percent of Americans believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years. “I think where you’re coming from — whether you’re a scientist or theologian — determines how you see creation,” Keddie said.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” in which he argued that natural selection caused populations to evolve in branching patterns from common ancestors. Fifteen years later, Charles Hodge, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, attacked evolution in his book “What is Darwinism?”
“The denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God. Mr. Darwin’s theory does deny all design in nature, therefore, his theory is virtually atheistical,” he argued.
Across the street, Princeton University’s former president James McCosh disagreed with Hodge. “There are clear indications, in the geological ages, of a progression from the inanimate up to the animate,” and one can “trace all things up to God,” he said in one lecture. Simply put, he believed that evolution was compatible with divine creation.
In 1908, President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, invited Edwin Grant Conklin to join Princeton’s faculty. He chaired the biology department and conducted pioneering embryological research. During his career, he gave over 1000 lectures across the country in support of Darwin.
By the mid-20th century, Young Earth Creationism was losing popularity in the United States. Christians were abandoning literal interpretations of Genesis. But that all changed in 1961 when John Whitcomb ’46 co-authored “The Genesis Flood” — a book arguing that geologic evidence proved the veracity of Noah’s global flood approximately 4,000 years ago.
It reinvigorated the Young Earth Creationist movement. Substantiating Noah’s flood was critical because it would prove the Genesis account. “It is important to accept the entirety of what the Creator says about origin of the universe, the condition of man’s soul, the existence of sin and His solution for the sin problem,” Whitcomb wrote in an email.
I asked Blair Schoene, a geochronologist in the geosciences department, if there is geologic evidence of a global flood that occurred circa 4,000 years ago. He replied, “No, not that I know of.”
John Baumgardner GS ’70, a retired computational physicist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, sees proof of Noah’s flood in the sedimentary rock record. He is renowned for his computer simulations demonstrating that catastrophic plate tectonics was a central aspect of the biblical flood event. “Geologists simply are not trained to see major cataclysms in the Earth’s history — such events are outside their paradigm,” he said in a phone interview.
Geologists date geological samples by measuring the concentrations of parent and daughter isotopes if those materials are demonstrated to be closed systems since their formation. Schoene said that the oldest rocks on Earth are 4 billion years old, and the oldest meteorites date back 4.57 billion years. “One of the best supports for an old Earth,” he said, “is that in carefully thought-out experiments, you get the same ages if you date things with different radionuclides that decay from different processes.”
While at Los Alamos, Baumgardner was part of a research team that claimed to identify multiple independent lines of radioisotope evidence that the Earth is young. He said that one of those lines involved the fact that zircon crystals in granite often retain a large fraction of the helium produced by the radioactive decay of the uranium that they contain. Yet his team found that the measured rate at which this helium leaks from these crystals implies an age only a tiny fraction of what conventional methods indicate.
Schoene reviewed one of Baumgardner’s geochronology papers. He thought that its conclusions seemed indirect at best and should be redone given all the controversy surrounding its results. “In science there are always outlier studies that get answers different from other studies,” he noted.
Schoene said that there is overwhelming evidence from thousands of other studies illustrating that Earth is vastly older than interpreted in Baumgardner’s paper. “If that paper is correct, the result should be reproducible using a modern understanding of physics and chemistry of Earth materials,” he added.
Davis Young ’62, a Christian and retired geology professor at Calvin College, does not accept Young Earth creationists’ geologic interpretations. “In every case, their conclusions were not well argued,” he said of them in a phone interview.
Young said he is is afraid that young people will grow up in churches that teach Young Earth Creationism, later see the convincing evidence for evolution or an old Earth in college, and then lose faith when their church’s core teachings are proven false. “I think that’s regrettable,” he said. “Problems arise when people misinterpret the scientific record or the Bible.”
Dennis Olson, the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, said he believes that ancient Israel’s story of creation in Genesis 1 doesn’t record a historical narrative. “Other cultures around Israel had similar creation stories,” he said in my interview with him.
These other stories often followed a similar pattern. They usually started with a battle among the gods. The winning god took control of the universe, and a temple was built for the god and the god’s chosen human king. “The creation stories — they’re made to legitimize political claims to an empire,” Olson said.
At the time that Genesis was written, the Babylonians had exiled the Israelites. Elements from other cultures’ creation stories were embedded in and adapted by the Bible’s version. Olson explained that, according to Genesis 1, the whole cosmos served as a physical temple to God, and the concluding establishment of the Sabbath on the seventh day of creation functioned as a kind of temple in time. Those beliefs allowed the Israelites to resist the Babylonian empire’s worldview. “It was a pretty bold claim by this little country Israel — which had been rolled over by larger empires — that their god was the one true god,” he said.
But Young Earth Creationists believe that Genesis records the Earth’s early history. “The biblical account of creation is from the Creator Himself. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, said He created all things. There was no other observer there to provide any other account,” Whitcomb wrote.
Ide Trotter GS ’60, a Christian and retired chemical engineer, has seen firsthand how creationism enters public debates. He appeared before the Texas State Board of Education in 2013 to criticize some proposed biology textbooks for their scientific inaccuracies. There were Young Earth Creationists on the Board and among the reviewers, though The New York Times wrongly insinuated that Trotter was one of them.
“Evolution is a real thing,” Trotter said in a phone interview. “It’s just a question as to how far the mechanisms of evolution go.” In a textbook review several years earlier, Trotter said that the Young Earth Creationists on the Board tried to put disclaimers about evolution in the front of biology books. Trotter feared that such creationists “cripple our ability to retain and motivate bright and scientifically inclined young Christians.”
Andrew Bocarsly, a professor in the chemistry department, has participated in several campus discussions about faith and science. “There is no evangelical position on creation,” he said in an interview with me. In other words, there isn’t a singular stance that evangelicals universally adopt on the origin of life and the universe, only a range of views.
When asked how Christian scientists should interpret the story of creation in Genesis, he said, “That’s a 200-year-old debate. It hasn’t moved one inch since where it was back then.” Bocarsly said he doesn’t think that religion and science have to be in conflict with each other. But on the occasions that they do square off — such as in evolution versus creationism debates — he said, “When there is apparent conflict, it is our human interpretations that lead people to different conclusions.”
These interpretations center on whether the Bible and science provide consistent records of creation. “Most students these days have no inkling that these are important intellectual issues that they have to deal with,” Baumgardner said.
On that point, he’s right. Students don’t spend enough time thinking about the origin of humans and the Universe. Our minds are constantly occupied by concerns about academics or careers. In the midst of our busy days, we forget to spend time pondering the existential questions that govern our outlook on life.
Secular students may be quick to dismiss creationists. To them, the prospect of a young Earth seems as ridiculous as contending that the Earth is flat. Many secularists — including Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist — say that scientists shouldn’t debate creationists because it gives them undeserved scientific legitimacy.
Although I think that creationist science is doubtful at best, I won’t deny that the theological and philosophical arguments in this debate — about truth and its presence in Scripture — remain unresolved. I also can’t exclude the possibility that new evidence in the future could lead to radically different conclusions about creation than what is currently believed.
Even if secular students don’t accept these reasons as appropriate grounds for treating creationists as equal intellectual opponents, they should at least consider the practical consequences of this debate. Other people’s morals depend upon how they perceive the state of the world, and there are always persuadable people in the middle.
Someone with a religious young Earth view might see a planet that God created for humans to rule. On the other end of the spectrum, an old Earth atheist would see human existence as a grain of sand in the vast ocean of cosmological time. And there are many perspectives in between that don’t involve atheism or fundamentalism. These worldviews have innumerable impacts on morality, ethics, law, economics, politics, and medicine.
Take environmentalism. Answers in Genesis — the ministry that runs the Creation Museum — maintains that in Genesis, God promised Noah that there would be a habitable climate after the Flood. Therefore, humans should prioritize helping people over taking measures to mitigate the effects of climate change.
On the other hand, people with an old Earth view will know that the planet was flooded multiple times during warm periods in the past millions of years and realize that organisms are inextricably linked to their environment. They would conclude that they must preserve the planet for future generations.
This is just one example of many showing how different metaphysical starting points lead to very different conclusions. A biblical starting point isn’t as valid as science on every issue, but scientists need to prove that to those who remain undecided.
In the Creation Museum’s gift shop, a book about the fall of Christian colleges laments how Princeton, “was eroded by secularization.” While I don’t think that secularization has degraded this school, we should return to the days of Hodge and McCosh, when the origins of God and man were the biggest debates on campus. Perhaps then we can fulfill Princeton’s motto “Dei Sub Numine Viget” — Under the Protection of God She Flourishes.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore geosciences concentrator from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at email@example.com.