Last night, I debated Dr. Robert A. Martin on the question of creation versus evolution. I obviously took the creation side, and he took the evolution side. I debated him once before in 2009, and you can watch a video of that debate here. The format of this debate was a bit different from the one on the video. In this one, we each had 30 minutes to present our case, and then the audience asked us questions. The purpose of the questions was to focus the debate on what the audience found interesting in our presentations. Dr. Martin and I were each given a chance to address the question, and that usually led to more interaction between us. Everyone with whom I talked, including Dr. Martin, was very pleased with how it all turned out.
One thing I have to say up front is how appreciative I am of Dr. Martin. First, the fact that he was willing to do the debate at all is a testament to his commitment to real science education. I contacted several universities in Indiana, and none of them were interested in finding an evolutionist professor who was willing to debate. The common response by evolutionists is that they don’t debate creationists, because that would give the creationist view too much legitimacy. However, Dr. Martin realized that if no one came to give the evolutionary side, everyone at the conference would hear only one side of the story, and that’s not very good when it comes to science education. As a result, he was willing to drive from Kentucky to make sure that both sides were heard.
Second, Dr. Martin was incredibly gracious. He knew going in that this was a creationist event, so he knew that his view would be in the minority. In some ways, he was like a lion in a den of Daniels. However, he was very kind in how he treated everyone. Now don’t get me wrong – he took a strong stand for evolution. He often said things like the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and that there is just no question about the age of the earth and the universe. But never once did he descend into the name-calling and other nonsense that is common among those who don’t care to discuss evidence. He limited his discussion to the science, and that was great.
Third, Dr. Martin was kind enough to stay longer than we had intended. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of questions, and at the scheduled end of the debate, the moderator stopped and said that we were officially out of time. However, Dr. Marin immediately said that he was willing to stay longer. As a result, everyone who stood up to ask a question was able to interact with us. Even after the debate was over, he stayed and talked with people one-on-one for quite some time. Clearly, Dr. Martin has a passion for science and science education. His demeanor and willingness to pleasantly engage people with whom he disagrees demonstrated that to me in no uncertain terms.
I went first, and I had thirty minutes to present the case for creation. I concentrated on five predictions that creation makes regarding the data, and how those predictions have been confirmed: (1) marvelous design in nature, (2) the extreme rarity of vestigial organs, (3) the majority of the human genome is useful, (4) mutations are either neutral or erode information – they never produce new information, and (5) there is a limit to the change that an organism can experience through mutation and natural selection. For each prediction, I discussed the data that confirm it.
When it was Dr. Martin’s turn, he started off with a spontaneous, witty comment. The executive director of the group that hosted the event is fond of saying that he wants to “bury evolution.” In fact, he always brings a shovel to such events to emphasize the point. When he made that statement before the debate began, Dr. Martin laughed out loud. Then, when it came time for Dr. Martin to come on stage and present his case, he actually stopped by the shovel and picked it up. I can’t exactly quote him, but while holding the shovel he said something to this effect: “I recall Nikita Khrushchev vowing to bury capitalism, and that didn’t work out very well.” I think I was the only one who laughed at and applauded the comment.
In his presentation, Dr. Martin covered several things. The age of the earth was a big part of his talk, and he addressed it in a very clever way. He said that the idea the earth is 6,000 years old comes from the work of Ussher in the 17th-century. He said that for the time, Ussher’s method was an ingenious way to determine the age of the earth. However, we’ve learned a lot since the 17th-century, and we now have several lines of evidence that tell us unambiguously that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old. He then showed two pictures: one of Einstein and one of Ussher and asked, “Who are you going to believe when it comes to the age of the earth, Ussher from the 17th-century or Einstein from the 20th-century?” Now obviously, that statement presents a false dichotomy. There are lots of 20th-century scientists who present data to indicate the earth is only thousands of years old. However, as a rhetorical technique, it was quite good. He then followed it up with a slide that had my picture and his picture on it. It was titled something like, “Who will you believe about evolution? Dr. Wile or Dr. Martin? Both of them are handsome devils.”
He went on to show some of the standard things that evolutionists show – the evolution of the whale, the evolution of reptiles into mammals, and the evolution of man. Many (not all) evolutionists think that there are some great fossils to show these progressions, and he spent time discussing them. He also spent time discussing what he thinks is poor design in nature. For example, he showed the lifecyle of a flounder, where its eyes start off on both sides of its head and then one migrates to the other side so the flounder can lay on its side at the bottom of the ocean. He then contrasted that to the eyes of a stingray, who also lays at the bottom of the ocean. He said that the stingray obviously had the better design, but evolution produced a “jury-rigged” way to make the grouper do the same thing. He claimed that such poor design was common in nature.
He then ended his presentation with an excellent quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
I was a bit surprised at the focus of the questions afterwards. No one asked about whale evolution, the evolution of reptiles into mammals, or the evolution of man. I really wanted to address the problems associated with each of those series, but they never came up. Instead, a lot of the questions focused on the age of the earth and the supposed “bad designs” that Dr. Martin presented. We had a lot of back-and-forth on radiometric dating as well as alternative ways to date the earth. We also discussed the concept of bad design quite extensively, with me pointing out the advantages of what he labeled “bad.”
So who won? I think it was the audience. In the end, whenever an audience can hear two scientists give different views on a topic like evolution in a cordial way, the result is that the audience learns. Obviously, I think I made the stronger case, but I suspect that Dr. Martin thinks he did. The key is that we both were able to present our cases and interact with each other in a reasonable, cordial manner. That made the debate a real success.
In case you are wondering, the organization is planning to make a DVD of the debate. I don’t yet know whether or not I can post the video. If nothing else, I will at least let you know how to get the video if you are interested.