Last Feb. 11, the day before Darwin’s 203rd Birthday, I was invited by Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy of the “Oh, no, it’s Ross and Carrie” podcast to accompany them, along with Emery Emery and Heather Henderson of the Ardent Atheist podcast, to visit the Creation Museum in Santee, east of San Diego, California (videoblog available here). This museum was originally built by the Institute of Creation “Research” (ICR), once led by the late Henry Morris and Duane Gish, which has since relocated to Texas. At one time ICR was the leading creationist organization in the U.S., but lately they seem to have lost their influence (they couldn’t even get their school accredited in conservative Texas!). Now they are overshadowed by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and his multi-million-dollar creation museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (which I saw back in 2009). When ICR left California, they sold their museum to Tom Cantor, who made his fortune with a biotech firm, Scantibodies Laboratory, Inc. Cantor bills himself as a Jew converted to creationism, and gives away free DVDs of his story (complete with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in the background) subtitled “A Message of Hope and Gladness for the Jewish people”! With the new ownership, the drab building in an industrial park that long housed the creation museum is now shared with Scantibodies. In one of the many ironies of the place, Scantibodies Inc. makes antibodies, blockers, serum, plasma, and other medical kits, all of which demonstrate the process of evolution in action, and require evolutionary principles to work with….
You arrive and drive through heavy black iron gates and walk past a few cheesy dino sculptures in front. These include a miniature T. rex based on the outdated concept with tail dragging behind it. (At least they don’t claim that the predatory dinos ate coconuts. not meat, with their long sharp teeth, as Ken Ham’s museum does). There is a Galapagos tortoise model, a small ankylosaur, and a replica of a dinosaur egg nest, with the false statement that dinosaurs did not take care of their young (long ago debunked by Jack Horner’s Maiasaura nests in Montana). Once inside, there is a lobby with a reception desk and a gift shop which has more products from Ken Ham’s organization than it does from the old ICR gang. The docent that Ross and Carrie wanted to interview was already inside giving a tour, so we headed right in.
The very first exhibit set the pattern of the whole museum: large display object, with several placards with way too many words in tiny type that no one can read, full of creationist lies and misstatements. In this case, it was a huge slab of orthoceratid nautiloids and goniatite ammonoids (both misidentified) from the fossil mines of the Devonian Tindouf Basin of Morocco; these fossils are ubiquitous among the commercial fossil dealers and rock shops these days. The text of the placard claimed they were all lined up by the Great Flood! Ironically, the creationists were bamboozled by the Moroccans here, because real paleontologists know from experience that these big Moroccan fossil slabs (where the fossils are nicely spaced out and lined up and all of the same size) are fakes made of real fossils cast into a cleverly disguised concrete base. They could be an “art object” as they are sold in many places, but they are not a natural assemblage—and the “orientation” of the long nautiloids was done by Moroccan craftsmen, not by the Great Flood. Yet another irony: creationists mock paleontologists for the rare instances where they were fooled by a hoax—but this museum features a hoaxed specimen in its first exhibit, with a creationist interpretation, yet the creationists are not competent enough in paleontology to spot a hoax when they bought one!
Exhibit after exhibit followed the same pattern: a narrow serpentine corridor carved out of the flat layout of the old industrial space with paintings on the walls and way too many words for a modern museum, giving the traditional Genesis story—and in nearly every case where they mention science, they get it dead wrong! One wall featured the usual creationist garbage about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. As usual, they have it completely backwards, with the exhibit claiming that the 2nd Law applies to open systems like the earth (it applies only to closed systems—check any physics book), and adding further blather about complexity and information that is part of no version of the 2nd Law. Right next to it is a sorry-looking bull snake in a terrarium (their proxy for the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, I guess), which makes one wonder who is deceiving whom in this place.
And so it goes, room after room. Their “fossil” room is largely filled with replicas you can buy online or common fossils available in rock shops—and most of the specimens were either mislabeled or their names misspelled. As usual, they make the false claim that the fossils are found in their order in the rock record because they were fleeing the flood. In the same display (with no consistency), they claim that the “sequence” has been faked by scientists to “prove” evolution. Again, if creationists knew any history, they would know that the sequence of fossils in the rock record is a fact established by creationists 50 years before evolution came along! In one display, they had a large “dinosaur track” and “dinosaur bone” acquired from the area around the famous Paluxy dino tracks in Texas—but both are clearly hand-carved fakes made of cement that are manufactured in that area to sell to creationists. In another “high-tech” display, the “fossils” in the exhibit are all plastic Ice Age mammal toys that you can buy in their own gift shop! It reminds you of an elementary school science fair project in its sophistication—or maybe that is an insult to school science fairs! The room which give their simplistic and distorted version of human evolution and history are also filled almost entirely with replicas and fakes, not real objects that you might find in a real museum. The painting representing plants growing on Genesis Day 3 (although the sun, which they show, doesn’t appear until Day 4) mixes images of fossil club mosses and horsetails found only in the Pennsylvanian coal swamps with flowering plants that don’t appear until the Cretaceous—and are neverfound in the same deposits in the fossil record.
Walking through this precursor to Ken Ham’s extravaganza is an oddly similar experience: the information and level of scientific sophistication is just as childish and false and incompetent, the display objects are mostly fakes, or replicas or fossils bought off the market and misidentified, yet Ken Ham does it on a multi-million-dollar budget. Thus, the Kentucky museum has a huge room with a life-sized portion of the “ark” complete with mannequins “building” it. The old ICR exhibit is just a corridor with a painting of a perspective view of the ark interior at one end, and a pile of hay on the floor. And there’s a cute touch: you can see the plates of Stegosaurussticking above the top of one of the stalls in the “ark”. Finally, to no one’s surprise, there is a whole exhibit denying global warming, another anti-scientific dogma that is tightly interlinked with creationism these days.
The only new addition to this museum since the ICR days is a new hall of human anatomy, with lots of large medical models you can buy for teaching anatomy to med students and nursing students, and more or less standard discussions of how each part of the body works. Yet even here, at the bottom of each overlong text panel is a sentence or two talking about the wondrous design of the human body (but never mentioning how it works in other animals). Even in their own exhibits, they have a realistic medical diagram of the human eye—yet there is no comment on how poorly designed the human eye is, with the retina placed backwards (sensors beneath the bottom layer, not the top where the light in undistorted), and a “blind spot” from the exit of the ocular nerve, or how the octopus eye is much better “designed” with none of these flaws. I’m not sure what the purpose of this hall is supposed to be, given that it is attached to a creation museum, except they share the building with a biomed facility—or maybe it’s a lure to get classes of nursing students to visit and then suck them in to their religious message.
Even though the place was busier than normal since it was Saturday afternoon, it was quiet enough that the five us could go from room to room and comment on exhibits without being overheard. We caught up with the docent giving his tour, and Emery and Ross toyed with him a bit, asking him leading questions until the guy hung himself with his own words, and admitted that the incest of Adam and Eve’s children was OK. Then, as we finished the exhibits and waited in the lobby, the docent came out, and Emery, Ross and Carrie engaged him with question after question, trying not to give away their own backgrounds until it was unavoidable. They knew the standard creationist shtick pretty well, so they caught him in lies again and again, which (to his credit) he sometimes admitted. They caught him using one of the out-of-context quotations from Darwin about the difficulty of imagining the evolution of the human eye, but (thanks to the iPhone and the internet) we were able to pull up the rest of the quote which showed what Darwin really said and why this creationist had dishonestly distorted it.
Meanwhile, I was wandering around just a few feet away, pretending not to be paying attention but listening attentively to all of it. Finally, I could bear it no longer as he called my profession of paleontology a bunch of liars and frauds, so they called me in and I challenged him on it. The docent clearly had absolutely no understanding of paleontology, so instead of evidence or data, he promised to pull quotations from real paleontologists who allegedly doubt evolution, another classic example of quote-mining. When he mentioned my mentors Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, I set him straight and pointed out how Gould and Eldredge had specifically written that their model of punctuated equilibria was no support for creationism and how much they resented being quote-mined to mean the opposite of what they had said. None of it fazed this guy, who knows only memorized scripts and garbage from creationist books and admitted that he has no scientific background or education to understand any of his patter; it was also apparent that he does not care or understand why quote-mining is dishonest. For me, it is increasingly difficult to argue with creationists any more. I cannot avoid becoming exasperated at their lies and smugness, and the fact that they never learn anything and never change their falsehoods when corrected. When they attack the integrity and competence of my profession that I have devoted over 50 years of my life to, it is personal for me, and I cannot glibly smile and laugh, as some people who debate them can.
If I could boil down the entire experience to a few words, certainly “ignorant and proud of it,” “smug,” “self-righteous,” “liars”, “self-delusional” and “narrow dogmatists” come to mind, but even appropriate is “incompetent.” These people can’t tell a real fossil from a fake, can’t spell or get the names right on the real fossils, can’t get their geological or historical facts straight or comprehend that their simplistic model doesn’t work in complex world, and in this context, can’t make a museum interesting. It’s like walking through the pages of one of their books, with an illustration here and there, the total antithesis of the interactive, dynamic, three-dimensional experience that modern museologists strive for. Perhaps the most telling reaction to the whole museum were two teens I found slouching on a bench in the same room when the docent was lecturing. One was asleep, the other playing a video game. Granted, teens get bored easily and can be hard to reach, but most modern natural history museums know how to “wow” them, and grab their attention. But if their parents were attempting to use the museum to teach their kids a religious lesson, it failed miserably. It is convincing only to adults who are deeply committed to creationism, and (judging from the reviews on line), even the casual visitor with a limited understanding of science and evolution can immediately see through the garbage and realize they are being lied to.
Postscript: on the way to and from the museum on Highway 52, I flashed back to my 25 years of working on those beds, collecting fossils and doing paleomagnetic dating on them. Those middle-late Eocene beds (37-45 million years old) are full of fossil mammals (including early lemur-like primates), but no dinosaurs, and no humans, and show the expected evolutionary sequence of early mammals only at that time—with plenty of turtle fossils that shouldn’t have been able to outrun the Flood! Just like the Kentucky creationist museum (built on Ordovician rocks which clearly show the Great Flood of Noah is false), even the rocks near the Santee museum speak to the glory and handiwork of Evolution!