P.Z. Myers’ evolutionary equivocation

My brush with P.Z. Myers at his anti-creationist talk in Minot, ND, USA


Photo from <http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com> PZ Myers
P.Z. Myers

When I had initially heard that the local skeptical society in my hometown had invited well-known atheist and anti-creationist P.Z. Myers to deliver a talk on October 5, 2009, entitled “Evolutionary Denialism” at Minot State University (less than a mile from my home), North Dakota, USA, I was ambivalent about attending. I expected Myers, a biologist, to stick with his expertise. Since I’m not a biologist, I anticipated gaining little from the presentation and believed I wouldn’t have much, if anything, to ask. I even had an appointment that might have hindered me from attending at all.

When that appointment ended early, I decided to head over to the talk. The 200-seat campus theatre was mostly full by the time I arrived, containing a fairly even mix of university students and others from the greater Minot community. Myers was in the middle of discussing arguments to use against Intelligent Design (ID) proponents.

Overstepping his bounds

Myers divided his talk into three sections: how to confront Old Earth Creationists (OECs), Intelligent Design (ID) proponents, and Young Earth Creationists (YECs).

This was probably a tactical error on Myers’ part. In my opinion, Myers would have served his cause far better if had limited himself to discussing arguments to use against ID proponents, i.e. he should have stuck with his expertise in biology and addressed only ID arguments. His arguments in biology didn’t prove what he claimed they did, but given what transpired, it’s probable that no-one present could have effectively challenged him right then and there.

Unfortunately for Myers and his cause, he launched a vitriolic diatribe against YECs.

His attack on YEC was filled with vehement denigration of anyone who espouses YEC, and his arguments were little besides straw men. I was actually embarrassed for him at the lack of substance in his attack on YEC. I began to think it might be worthwhile for me to challenge him during the Q&A period.

Forming a plan

At that point, I kept reminding myself of some goals I had developed over the last several years to rely on for just such an event in “hostile territory”:

  1. I tried to develop a specific focus. What did I hope to achieve by questioning Myers? Although the grace of God can move with power at any time, I was not attempting to convert Dr. Myers, nor was I expecting a massive eye-opening to occur in the audience. I focused, rather, on the handful of observers in the crowd who might never have heard biblical answers to the issues at hand or might be tempted to give up their fledgling faith after such a talk.
  2. I remembered God’s sovereignty in opening blind eyes. The only reason I am not delivering such talks shaking my fist at God or sitting in the crowd mocking Him myself is by the gift of His grace (see Rom 5:8 and Eph 2:8-9). So while I was preparing to argue intellectually, I was praying that blind eyes be opened somewhere in the theatre (see 1 Cor 2:14).
  3. I remembered that God can defend and avenge Himself. While I understand the crucial role God has granted believers in spreading His Word, God is jealous for His own name and glory (Is 48:11). I specifically prayed that I would not overzealously lose my composure (therefore losing my credibility as a witness), since God Himself will guard His name and His glory. When Dr. Myers called the Lord a vulgar expletive, I was thereby able to remain unprovoked.
  4. I wanted to respect the speaker’s position and the audience’s time. Dr. Myers was the invited speaker. He had the podium and the microphone. Contemplating this helped me resist any temptation to get in the last word. In fact, Dr. Myers having the last word repeatedly led to his own loss of credibility because he couldn’t resist using those opportunities for more vitriolic attacks on YEC and certain YEC scientists. I also assumed others would have questions, so I didn’t want to monopolize the Q&A period for that reason either.
  5. I didn’t want to stoop to his level. It’s easy to respond in kind when a person verbally attacks you with names like “moron” and “ignoramus”. But the Bible calls us to a higher response: “When reviled, we bless.” I have read testimonies where that difference alone played a key role in an observer’s eventual conversion.

Choosing my battles

When Q&A came around, I chose three questions I wanted him to answer. I chose topics I understood well enough to spot the deficiencies in his answers “on the fly”. I also chose questions that were directly related to the material he had presented.

First, I challenged him on his straw-man argument that YECs discard human reason when accepting God’s Word. When I explained that as a creationist I cherish human reason in the process of doing science, I just don’t hold human reason as my a priori presupposition, and then explained that his presuppositions towards materialism (like Richard Lewontin’s) were not based in science either, he confused presuppositions with hypotheses. Of course, creationists also use hypotheses in their scientific research, as do evolutionists, but those hypotheses are not the same thing as underlying presuppositions. So here, he was either confused or equivocating on the word hypothesis. Surely he has heard that argument before, so it’s hard to believe he was merely confused.

Next, I challenged his assertion that YECs are “adopting more evolution all the time” when he was explaining how YECs believe in rapid speciation after a global flood (“just not when it comes to humans”). But there’s another example of equivocation — equating the word evolution on the one hand with the observable results of natural selection and then on the other hand asserting that as proof of molecules-to-man evolution. Of course creationists believe in speciation – it can actually be, and has been, observed (see for example Speciation conference brings good news for creationists and Natural selection leads to speciation), unlike molecules-to-man evolution, which has only been conjectured with so much handwaving and storytelling. When I pointed this out and explained that indeed a creationist, Edward Blyth, was directly involved in actually developing the theory of natural selection prior to Darwin (see Darwin’s illegitimate brainchild), Myers simply responded, to his discredit, “Not true.”

Finally, my last question really allowed Myers to display his arrogance and ignorance. At the end of his talk he had shown a short video spoofing and mocking creationists, which ended by accusing creationists of “set[ting] cancer research back by 20 years.” When I asked him how he would respond to the fact that creationists have been instrumental in the progress of medical research to the great benefit of many people, citing as examples Dr. Raymond Damadian’s contributions to the MRI scanning technology and Dr. John Sanford’s “gene gun” approach to genetic engineering of plants, he began by calling Dr. Damadian a “horrendous scientist” and “merely an engineer who developed a technology.” When I pressed him about Sanford, again he said it was “merely another technology” and that Sanford was “doing bad science.”

Myers seemed flustered at this point, so he mentioned that Damadian and Sanford were “people who were doing a lot of good,” but when I interjected, “with their science,” he exclaimed, “No!” One wonders what sort of solution in cancer research he is looking for that doesn’t take an understanding of biology and human anatomy then subsequently develop a technology, whether a clinical process or pharmaceutical and/or nutritional solution, to effect a change for the good.

I had already sat down at this point, believing I had said enough. There were a few questions from what appeared to be biology students wondering how to counter creationists who claim evolution is “just a theory,” and Myers spent significant time castigating another creationist in the audience who somewhat unfortunately belabored a certain young sun argument. (For more information on how to avoid discarded or dubious arguments, see Arguments we think creationists should NOT use). But when Myers accused that creationist of using a “bogus tactic” of confronting him with material outside the scope of his expertise or his presentation, I challenged him with, “You’re peddling a lot of philosophy here. Are you a philosopher?” His response – “I am.” But of course Myers is a biologist and has no credentials in philosophy, so it’s hardly fair to accuse someone of challenging him outside his expertise when he himself spent at least half his talk spouting philosophical material outside his expertise.

Some interesting fallout

Near the end, another gentleman who introduced himself as a physicist asked Dr. Myers, “Can you give some examples of how creationist thinking has harmed anyone?” After all Myers’ pontificating, I expected he would try to give several examples, but he only offered that creationism has brought students to the university level with “a poor understanding of how science works.” When the physicist pointed out that that response was merely a condemnation of a poor education system and again asked for a specific example of harm done by creationist thinking, Myers couldn’t give one. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for me to confront Myers with the numerous examples of how, conversely, evolutionary thinking has actually done considerable harm to the advancement of science and to actual people. Just off the top of my head I could have given him the examples of vestigial organs, junk DNA, and ill-advised treatments for back troubles.

The final question of the night, however, spoke volumes to me. One gentleman (apparently sympathetic to Myers’ position) asked Myers why he thought evolutionists were “losing the pop culture war” to creationists. Given the stranglehold evolutionists have on nearly every government-funded educational institution and museum in the western world, not to mention the deluge of evolution-based movies and television programs emanating from the media, that question alone led me to wonder, How, if evolution is such an undeniable fact supported by overwhelming evidence, could evolutionists be “losing the pop culture war” so easily, even by their own admission?

Wrapping up

After the talk, I was amazed again at how weak Myers’ arguments against YEC had been and how readily he had resorted to ridicule and mocking. On a gratifying note, a young university student introduced himself to me afterwards, said he was interested in studying marine biology, and thanked me for presenting the creation viewpoint. I was grateful the Lord had allowed me to meet one person previously unknown to me who was edified by hearing the truth and to exchange contact information with him in case he has further questions.

On the way out, I stopped to thank Dr. Myers for his time and to thank the person who had facilitated the event. Although my initial intention was to offer courtesy, I also was indeed thankful for the opportunity to hear the presentation, confront Myers with what I hoped was a humble attitude, and let the results rest in God’s capable hands. After all, I have to remember again that were it not for the glorious Gospel of God’s grace, I would have no more hope than Myers does.

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Published: 29 October 2009