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Ape or Adam?: Making sense of evolution, creationism and intelligent design

Ape or Adam?: Making sense of evolution, creationism and intelligent design

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Ape or Adam?: Making sense of evolution, creationism and intelligent design

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Feb 6, 2015


One might think that after thousands of years of wondering and several hundred years of scientific investigation, human beings would have reached broad agreement about how they, and other living organisms, arrived on planet Earth, and roughly when. But this is not the case. Many millions of people in the western world (including almost half the American public) believe that we were divinely created more or less in our present form just a few thousand years ago. Many millions of others are convinced, instead, that we are the product of billions of years of gradual evolution, or simply cannot decide which of these two radically different explanations is correct. Which should our children be taught at school? Should it be neither until a consensus is reached, or both so they can make up their own minds?
Clues to our ultimate origins have been sought in holy texts, such as the Bible, and through scientific examination of the world around us. These clues form the subject of Ape or Adam?, written by palaeontologist Robert Coram. The book takes the reader on a gentle journey that begins with the formation of our planet and culminates with the arrival of human beings. On the way it stops off to consider the origin of life, contemplates the sudden arrival of complex animals in the fossil record, discusses the appearance of birds and the demise of the dinosaurs, and explores ways of estimating how old the Earth actually is. The creationist and evolutionist interpretations of these unfolding stories are presented side by side and the scientific evidence for each is examined to assess which is most likely to be the truth.
Ape or Adam? is easy-to-read, requires no prior scientific knowledge, and contains much that is new and interesting even for those who are familiar with the subject. It will also appeal to anybody who is not sure what to believe, or who would like straightforward information they can pass on to inquisitive children, or is simply interested in the fascinating history of our planet and its life-forms.

Feb 6, 2015

Über den Autor

Robert Coram been interested in fossils since the age of five, when he scavenged some fossil scraps from a neighbour’s gravel drive. Somewhat later, he studied zoology at Oxford University and obtained a PhD in palaeontology from Reading University. He publishes regularly in scientific journals and over the years has made many important fossil discoveries, including rare fossil insects and dinosaurs, and made several TV appearances. He lives in southern England, close to the ‘Jurassic Coast’ World Heritage site.

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Ape or Adam? - Robert Coram



We live in a scientifically enlightened age. Very few people now doubt that the Earth is a sphere that orbits the sun, or that the sun itself is a star, essentially the same as those that freckle the night sky. It might be expected, then, that virtually everybody would also broadly agree on how, and when, human beings and other living organisms first appeared on planet Earth.

But this is not the case. The USA, for example, can lay a compelling claim to being the world’s most technically and scientifically-advanced country, yet its population is split on this profoundly important issue. Almost half of Americans are creationists, convinced that human beings were made more-or-less in their present form by a caring God, probably just a few thousand years ago. The remainder believe us to be the product of a slow and gradual evolutionary process, or simply cannot decide between the two competing explanations. The situation in the UK is fairly similar, except that creationists make up a somewhat smaller proportion (about one in five).

These somewhat surprising figures are what persuaded me to write this book. Surely, by now, the balance of evidence should have swung firmly towards one or other of these alternatives. What is the evidence?

It comes from two sources. The first, according to those who believe, is the actual account of our divine origins, directly revealed by the creator, then passed down through the generations and often recorded for posterity in sacred writings such as the Bible. The other source of evidence is that derived from study of the world around us, which falls under the basic umbrella of ‘science’. Here we arrive at the crux of the debate. Is creationism an out-dated myth totally at odds with the findings of modern science, and if so, can it be safely ignored? Alternatively, should we all reject evolution, or at the very least agree to both options being presented at school so that our children can make up their own minds?

Ape or Adam? begins by setting the scene: defining and contrasting the two opposing explanations of life’s origins, and summarising the passages of the Bible that are so critical to the beliefs of Christian creationists (who make up the great majority of creationists in Britain and America). From there, it will roughly structure itself around the ‘conventional’ scientific view of the physical and biological development of the Earth, beginning with the planet’s formation a claimed 4600 million years ago, and culminating in the appearance of human beings in the geologically recent past. As this account, true or not, unfolds, it will provide ample opportunity to meet up with the creationists and hear their side of the story.

I faced two dilemmas in the course of this project. My first was whether or not to adopt the pretence of neutrality, and decided in the end that this would be uncomfortably disingenuous. I am a palaeontologist, and, along with the great majority of researchers in this or related fields, am also an evolutionist. I will try my best to give full credit where it is due to creationist arguments, but the reader may well wish to peruse some anti-evolution books for balance; a good many of them are name-checked in the pages that follow.

My next dilemma was how to avoid being accused of erecting a ‘straw man’ by paying too much attention to weak, and sometimes downright silly, creationist assertions, rather than focussing exclusively on the more technical and plausible anti-evolutionary arguments. The fact is, much of the widely-distributed creationist literature is written by non-specialists, who are passionate, well-meaning, and often eloquent, but come up with some excruciatingly bad science. This is not simply the opinion of a biased evolutionist, since more academically-inclined creationists would be similarly scathing of such material and rue the damage it does to their credibility. Because this may well nevertheless be all that lay readers encounter, I finally decided to include, and swiftly dispatch, examples in this book, and in so doing further the cause of both evolutionists and serious doubters by spring-cleaning the intellectual arena.

The Bible starts with the words: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ (There are various versions of the Bible, and unless stated otherwise, quotes in this book are from the New International Version, which came out in 1978). I won’t be discussing how the heavens, i.e. our universe, came into being, and whether or not God was involved because there are others far better qualified to do so. However it got here, the universe exists. Nor will I be saying anything about what science, including evolutionary theory, has to say about the existence of God. The reader can hold his or her own opinions about that. Vast numbers of people have strong religious faith and consider it totally compatible with the theory of evolution, and this book has no issue with that.

Chapter 1. Creationism and evolution – a dispute over origins

Picture a planet, roughly thirteen thousand kilometres in diameter, orbiting a rather ordinary star, one of billions within a rather ordinary galaxy within an enormous universe. What makes this world special is that it harbours life; the only speck of rock in the entire cosmos that we can say with certainty does so. Of the ten million or more species of organisms clinging tenuously to its surface, only one has ever wondered how it got there. For thousands of years it has told stories describing wonderful events that culminated in the appearance of itself and its fellow life-forms. It worshipped the being or beings that brought it into existence. Eventually, however, some of these creatures wondered whether they had, in fact, not been deliberately made in their current form by anything, but might instead have grown on their rocky home from simple beginnings. They examined the planet and its varied inhabitants for clues.

That species is us and we still haven’t reached agreement on how we got here. Those who believe that living organisms, and in particular humans, were made by a supernatural being or beings (basically gods or a God) more or less in their present form are known as creationists, and their view of life’s beginnings is creationism. There have been, and still are, many creation stories in diverse human societies and here is the best-known of them. It occupies the first few pages of an ancient and very famous book taken by many to have been directly inspired by God, maker of the universe and all it contains, including humankind. This book is, of course, the Bible.

The account starts, naturally enough, with the creation, which occupied six ‘days’. On the first day God formed the Earth, along with night and day. On the second day He separated the waters below (Earth) from the waters above (heaven). On the third day He separated land from sea and created vegetation. On the fourth day He made the sun, moon and stars. The fifth day saw the appearance of aquatic creatures and birds ‘according to their kinds’. On the final, sixth, day He produced all kinds of land animals and finally humans, a pair named a little later Adam and Eve, to have dominion over the rest of the living world. On the seventh day, God rested.

There follows a description of Adam being instated in the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden, with instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then, in what is a partial repeat of the creation story, God formed beasts and birds, which Adam set about naming, and then produced a woman, Eve, from one of Adam’s ribs.

The human couple lived happy and naked in Eden until the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. Adam ate too, and the pair then became ashamed of their nakedness and covered themselves with fig leaves. God discovered this and for their disobedience banished then from the Garden of Eden to a life of drudgery and eventual death.

Adam and Eve went on to produce a boy child, whom they named Cain, and then a brother for him, Abel. Subsequently Cain slew Abel and God condemned him to the life of a fugitive, but not before putting a mark on him lest anyone he met should harm him. He settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden, took himself a wife, who bore him a son called Enoch, and built a city.

There now follows some description of Enoch and his descendants, then the narrative returns to Adam and Eve, now a hundred and thirty years old. Eve bore a further son called Seth, saying, God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him. Adam (and perhaps also Eve) went on to live another eight hundred years after fathering Seth; and had other sons and daughters.

At least some of Adam’s descendants also achieved venerable ages (Methuselah survived not far short of a thousand years), and spread across the world. They became wicked and violent, however, and God resolved to destroy humankind in a global flood. Only righteous Noah, along with his three sons and their wives, would survive by building an enormous wooden ark, on which they carried breeding pairs of creatures to repopulate the Earth. It rained for forty days and forty nights and the world was submerged in water, which eventually subsided to deposit the ark on the mountains of Ararat. God told Noah and his family to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, and sent a rainbow as a promise that He would never flood the world again.

This eventful tale forms the start of the Bible’s book of Genesis, written in the region of three thousand years ago by an unknown author or authors (although many would say it was the famous biblical character Moses). And its impact, even today, cannot be over-stated. Recent polls suggest that around 40% of the US population, and 20% in the UK, are convinced that this is the true account of our origins. That’s 140 million creationists in these two countries alone.

The only really viable alternative to creationism is evolution, the scientific theory that different types of organisms alive today arose through natural processes from earlier, simpler, life forms rather than each being separately willed into existence by God. Around half the UK population consider evolution to be definitely or probably true; the remainder, whilst not necessarily creationists, simply do not know enough about the subject to make a confident decision.

Whereas the roots of creationism extend deep into uncharted human antiquity, the theory of evolution, as a coherent scientific package, did not arrive until Queen Victoria was on the throne. There were fledgling theories prior to this, but no particularly compelling explanations of how such wondrous natural transformations might have taken place. The belief that plants, animals and humans were divinely created remained well-nigh universal.

All that changed in 1859 with the publication of English naturalist Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. He did provide a plausible mechanism for evolution (natural selection) and the idea began to be taken very seriously indeed. This happened to coincide with mounting evidence that the Earth was many millions of years old (a time-scale required for evolution to take place), rather than the few thousand that the biblical story suggested.

Not surprisingly, these intellectual upheavals sent shock waves through Victorian society, but did not tear it asunder. Naturalists and geologists, by and large, cheerfully continued with their work, fortified by Darwin’s ideas. Even biblical scholars (theologians) were often quite prepared to view the Genesis story in a new light to allow for a very old Earth, and some sort of evolutionary undercurrent, while still keeping God very much in the picture.

There were, however, many Christians, particularly in the US, who reacted more strongly to the implications of Darwin’s revolution, and the threat it posed to the authority of the Bible. If the truth of the Genesis story was cast into doubt, could any of the Bible be trusted? They felt compelled to stand up for their faith, and it was among their ranks that the major Christian creationist movements of today took root.

Today’s creationists are a somewhat eclectic mix. The majority in the USA are ‘young-Earth creationists’ (YECs for short), who believe the Bible states clearly that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that God literally crafted it and everything in it (humans included) in a working week. They are represented by a number of powerful and well-funded organisations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research, and reach out to the public via impressive websites, books, seminars and even a flashy $27 million Creation Museum that opened in 2007 to somewhat mixed reactions in Petersburg, Kentucky. British YEC organisations include the Creation Science Movement, who claim to be the oldest creationist group in the world, having been founded (under a different name) in 1932. Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, they too have a museum, somewhat lower budget, in Portsmouth.

Then there are ‘old-Earth creationists’, who are also staunchly opposed to evolution but would scoff at the notion that the Earth is just a few thousand years old. Many of them are persuaded to this view by the conventional scientific evidence, but most importantly, they are all sure that the biblical text actually implies that the Earth is indeed much older than humankind. Jehovah’s Witnesses are old-Earth creationists. They are headquartered in America, but are also the anti-evolutionists you are most likely to meet in the UK.

Finally, a rather more subtle brand of creationism came to prominence in the 1990s. Its name is intelligent design (ID for short). In essence, supporters of ID seek out complex biological structures which, they claim, could not possibly have arisen naturally and so had to have been designed by a higher intelligence (usually assumed to be God). They do not necessarily have to believe that the Genesis story is a strictly factual account, or in the falsehood of all evolutionary processes, and they are generally keen to distance themselves, at least in public, from the more blatant creationists. Most, in fact, would prefer not to be labelled ‘creationists’ at all. The problem is, ID champions most of the more technical arguments embraced by all critics of evolution, so distinguishing their views from those of more run-of-the-mill doubters is not always easy. Furthermore, although the movement’s spokespeople probably mostly accept that the Earth is ancient, they often avoid mentioning this in print, presumably to retain the support of the multitudinous and influential young-Earthers.


Although many evolutionists are atheists (they do not believe in God), a great number of Christians, as in Darwin’s day, are able to comfortably marry their spiritual faith with acceptance of the theory of evolution. Church-goers in England, for example, are very likely to belong to either the Church of England or the Catholic Church, both of which are at least open to the idea that we evolved our physical form.

Creationists, on the other hand, would nearly all agree that if we arose through natural processes, God has actually been rendered redundant, which, to them, is unthinkable. Without God, there is no divine moral guidance. Human societies would succumb to all manner of ills including increased crime and immoral sexual practices. Most importantly, a Godless universe is ultimately a purposeless one and our lives would be no more than brief inconsequential sparks destined for eternal oblivion. ID researcher Stephen Meyer puts it this way (in his 2013 book Darwin’s Doubt): ‘Modern life suspends many of us, so we feel, high over a chasm of despair. It provokes feelings of dizzying anxiety- in a word, vertigo. The evidence of a purposeful design behind life, on the other hand, offers significance, wholeness, and hope.’ In this light, it is easy to understand why creationists believe what they do, and why they consider it so imperative to spread the word in order to save souls. And they are doing a good job of it.

Most professional evolutionists, it has to be said, do not share the creationists’ sense of urgency about publicly promoting their views- you are much less likely to find one on your doorstep than you are a Jehovah’s Witness. But they are concerned about the popularity of creationism.

At the end of the day, though, does it matter what people believe? Why are evolutionists, even those with strong Christian faith, troubled by the fact that so many of their fellow citizens are creationists? Perhaps they ought to just leave them to quietly enjoy the spiritual comfort their beliefs provide.

They almost certainly would if creationists kept these beliefs to themselves. It is helpful to know at this point that a major, or the major incentive for the development (one could say ‘evolution’) of the creationist movement in the twentieth century, particularly in America, has been the appropriate education of young minds. For many years the subject of evolution was conveniently omitted from, or at least downplayed in, US school science curricula and textbooks, a satisfactory situation for anti-evolutionists. But by the 1960s it had become firmly established in the nation’s schools and ‘creation science’, which was a more school-friendly name for young-Earth creationism, arose with the aim of introducing a scientifically credible alternative to evolution to the classroom.

Several court cases later and it became evident that creation science (also known as ‘scientific creationism’) was still far too religious to make it into the school system, and so intelligent design was born, carefully shorn of all obvious religious trimmings. Today, in both America and the UK, creationists persist in their efforts to have their beliefs, usually in the form of intelligent design, taught alongside evolution in school science lessons. Since they have so far made no real headway in this respect, they will often emphasise instead that their aim is simply, in the interests of balance and fairness, to allow schoolchildren to be aware that there are flaws in the theory of evolution and that there are other explanations available. This has naturally led to conflict between those for and against the spreading of the anti-evolution message, which is frequently reported on by the media. As an example, UK-based organisation Truth in Science has promoted the teaching of intelligent design through activities such as sending ‘resource packs’ to the heads of science of all UK secondary schools and sixth form colleges (many of which were apparently warmly received), as well as distributing free copies of its ID-friendly textbook to school and public libraries. From the opposite side of the fence, the British Humanist Association works actively to stifle the propagation of creationism, especially in schools, and in 2012 successfully campaigned to have evolution added to the primary national curriculum in England. Both camps can call on prominent academics sympathetic to their cause.

There are certainly some highly intelligent and highly qualified evolution doubters out there, several of whom will feature in this book. That said, the vast majority of specialists in relevant subjects such as geology and biology are evolutionists. That doesn’t automatically mean that they are right, but it does indicate that there are few creationists at the cutting edge of research. Anti-evolutionary scientific papers, even if making no direct reference to God, virtually never make it into peer-reviewed journals, in which papers are carefully checked by other specialists before being accepted for publication. Creationists say this is because evolutionists deliberately don’t publish anything that disagrees with their precious theory. Evolutionists say that it is simply because even the best creationist science is faulty.

And that is why evolutionists emphatically do not like the idea of creationism being taught as science in schools, or even hinted at. In their opinion, it has as little relevance to science lessons as astrology and alchemy, and fear that the acceptance of such religion-led beliefs, especially if imprinted into impressionable minds at a young age, would do immeasurable damage to both western science, and the economies that are so reliant on it. They also object, more tongue-in-cheek, that if the biblical creation myth is allowed into the classroom, we should, in the interests of balance and fairness, also permit discussion of other origin myths. Here’s one that would brighten up any science lesson, a Norse myth summarised in The Observer [newspaper] Book of the Earth (2008):

Midgard (the Middle Earth) was created from the flesh of the primeval giant Ymir. The supreme god Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve slayed the giant and formed the ocean from his blood and sweat, the mountains and stones from his bones and teeth, the sky from his skull (supported by four dwarfs) and the clouds from his brain. The first man and woman were then carved from Ymir’s left armpit.

Wacky, for sure, although I wonder whether these long dead Vikings would have chuckled indulgently on hearing the Genesis story.

Finally, there is what can probably best be described as ‘end-time apathy’. Many Christians, nearly all of them creationists, are confident that with Christ’s second coming, which will be soon, the world as we know it will end, to be replaced by God’s Kingdom (which will be a great place for believers, but not for everyone else). One need only look, for example, at the almost gleeful way in which Jehovah’s Witness publications report the increasing signs of global degradation- pollution, warfare, crime, and so on- that the Bible claims will presage the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Here’s a line from their 1985 book Life- How did it get here? By evolution or by creation? (over forty million copies of which have been printed to date): ‘In our day it is encouraging to see world events fulfilling the sign of the last days.’ A concern for those who do not share this viewpoint is that if such signs are welcomed as the inevitable unfurling of God’s noble plan, there is much less incentive to try to do something about correcting the wrongs of the world. Can you imagine if, say, a country as powerful as the United States were to make it their official policy to simply sit back and watch the planet slide towards Armageddon -the final battle between the forces of good and evil- or, God forbid, actually help it on its way?

Figure 1. Michelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam, painted in about 1512 on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Chapter 2. In the beginning – the age of the Earth

Planetary scientists tell us that our solar system formed about 4600 million years ago from a giant cloud of gas and dust. Its dense interior coalesced under the relentless pull of gravity, then ignited; and our sun was born. The material rotating around this new star clumped to form proto-planets of gas and molten rock, one of which was the Earth. Constantly bombarded by meteors and other space debris, it was at one point involved in a truly brutal collision with a roving, possibly Mars-sized, planetoid, which we have since named Theia. When the dust settled, literally, a few hundred years later, our planet had a companion: the moon.

Eventually the Earth cooled and its surface crust congealed like the skin of a rice pudding, to be repeatedly melted by continued meteor impacts.

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    The "Theory" of Evolution is a myth.... and an eternal, omniscient Creator/God created Adam... that's my final answer. There's no reconciling them.