Planting seeds for creation
Botanist Dr Margaret Helder is probably the most prominent woman in creation science. Robert Doolan finds out why.
What do seaweed and spy novels have in common? Or mushrooms and classical music? Or oil paintings and freshwater ponds?
Answer: They are all among the interests of Dr Margaret Helder, scientist, writer, mother of six, and Vice-President of the Creation Science Association of Alberta, Canada.
Creationists sometimes lament that they can count the number of prominent women creation scientists on two or three fingers, but Margaret Helder is the first that most would name.
Her articles appear regularly in Christian publications, she has written guide books for creationists visiting evolutionary museums, and in 1981 she was called as an expert witness for the state of Arkansas during its creation/evolution 'balanced treatment in public schools' trial.
She regards testifying for the defence in that trial as her most unusual adventure.
'Although I expected the creationist stance to be unpopular, I was nevertheless amazed at the hostile treatment which the media accorded creationist testimony and creationist credentials', she recalled.
The only other Canadian to testify in that trial was on the evolutionist side—Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science. 'He is well known for his antagonism to creationists', she said. 'Interestingly, he was, at the time, a colleague of my father's. Both were in the Arts Faculty at the University of Guelph, and their offices were across the hall.'
Dr Helder's father, D.C. Masters, is a noted Canadian historian. She grew up on campus when he was head of the history department at a university in Quebec. 'I and my siblings grew up totally immersed in academia', she said.
Yet her parents, strong Bible-believing Christians who knew the fallacies of evolution well, were not eager for her to study science at university. 'My parents discouraged my studying biology at the university level. But I turned out to be very good at it, and went on to specialize in it.'
In her second year of university she studied comparative chordate anatomy. (Chordates are animals which have a skeletal rod or notochord. The largest subgroup are the vertebrates—animals with backbones.)
'The course was full of evolution theory, but I saw that it was all speculation and that, as a general rule, opposite theories were held by different groups of specialists. In genetics I realized that the various processes were actually conservative, and could not bring about long-term change.
'In courses dealing with the environment, I saw that a priori acceptance of evolution led to the advocating of such ideas as lifeboat ethics and abortion, things no Christian can accept.'
In exam questions dealing with evolution, she discussed the views of various authorities without supporting any. When she became a professor at university herself, she was required to lecture in an evolutionary course. So she provided her students with the conflicting opinions which evolutionists held.
'I understand it was apparent to the students that theories about plant evolution are fraught with problems', she said. 'One student, who did not know my creationist views, exclaimed about the alleged evolution of certain fungi, "I don't think they know what happened!"'
Dr Helder was teaching biology when she met her husband, John. He is a horticulturist and director of a major display facility.
'John and I were married at the end of 1972. When our first baby was born in 1974, I quit my job.' She eventually returned to teaching, part-time, but when the second baby arrived, the children had to take priority over her work.
The Helders now have five daughters and a son—two at university and the others still at school.
As she is based in her home, she is now better able to juggle the many demands on her time. 'Without my husband's encouragement I could never do it all. Our whole family has frequently been involved in creation science activities—everything from staffing book tables and accompanying me to speaking engagements, to filling envelopes and placing address labels on Dialogue [the journal of the Creation Science Association of Alberta] and other mail.' Her family also provides valuable critiques for much of her writing.
She is Associate Editor in charge of science and technology for Reformed Perspective, a magazine for Christian families, and has been writing for Creation Science Dialogue since 1980—under the editorship first of Ronald Bellamy and later Bradley Dye.
Her articles have covered such diverse subjects as the human genome project, computer viruses, solar cars, human powered flight, diamond mines, animal behaviour, potatoes, and many current issues in science.
Dr Helder has written two books, with a third in preparation. One (Completing the Picture) is a resource book for people looking at museum fossil displays. The other is a 'tour guide' to Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum from a creationist angle.
'The "tour guide" involved tedious copying of the exact wording on each sign in the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It was necessary to know what the museum was saying before one could discuss it. We have also prepared an audiotape of the text. With the use of a portable tape player, people can tour the museum listening to creationist commentary.'
With a degree in botany and a lifelong love of studying the biology of freshwater ponds and lakes (limnology), Dr Helder has done extensive study on algae and fungi. She even described and named a species of aquatic fungus new to science—Chytridium deltanum Masters (Masters being her maiden name, and the name under which she published the description).
Not surprisingly, her favourite evidence for creation is the complexity and beauty of living things, including algae and fungi.
'The beauty of many algae and fungi, and their interesting life cycles, particularly interested me in studying science. Among the algae we see plenty of evidence of the richness and variety in creation. Similarly, examples of all-or-nothing systems or evidences for design are myriad among living creatures.'
Apart from algae, Dr Helder sees compelling evidence for creation in photosynthesis, cell anatomy, alternation of hosts of certain fungus and worm parasites, sexual reproduction in plants such as fig trees, echo-location in bats and whales, eyes of trilobites and horseshoe crabs, anatomy and life-styles of cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish and octopus, etc.), and the human body (especially the immune, excretory and nervous systems).
She is concerned that evolution is so uncritically accepted among scientists. 'No matter how fantastic materialist explanations are, secular scientists refuse to query whether the data even lend themselves to an evolutionary interpretation. They have locked themselves into a system of explanation that ignores the testimony of nature.'
Dr Helder believes that society is on a downward spiral, brought about largely because of attitudes fostered by evolution. She feels strongly that young people should use their talents to the best of their abilities. And she regards it as a pity that more Christian girls are not studying science. For those who are, she has some helpful advice.
'Always be critical of speculation. What are the assumptions involved in any given study? Do the facts justify the conclusions? Are other interpretations possible? Do other authorities support another point of view?'
She believes a critical attitude is helpful even in introductory courses at university.
'For example, when informed in first-year zoology that primitive birds probably used their wings first of all to catch insects, my daughter reflected that the bringing together of such structures, especially covered in feathers, would actually deflect the insects away from the animal.'
In more advanced courses, she advises students to always consult the technical literature. 'This is the place to find out the condition of data collection and the uncertainties of the conclusions. Textbooks, on the other hand, are often filled with generalizations favourable to evolution theory.'
She is impressed that there are so many excellent scientists today among creationists, and particularly admires the work of geologist Dr Steve Austin. 'I appreciate his research, his discussions of the recent scientific literature, and the careful way he draws his conclusions.'
And what of the future for creation science?
'Our role as creation science specialists is particularly to provide information and support to the community of Christians', she said.
'As long as time continues there will always be Christians, and concomitantly there will always be creationists.'