God or Gorilla?

W.A. Criswell’s Did Man Just Happen? is a creationist classic, first written in 1957 and revised in 1972, making it an early example of the modern creation movement.

Did Man Just Happen, W.A. Criswell

Found in the fiction section of all good bookstores.

It’s completely fucking terrible.

Now, I’m not aware of any creationist literature that’s good, but it’s hard to imagine much of it is worse than this. There are creationists who consider themselves rigorous scientists, and try to theorise workable creation models. Criswell is not among them. He was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and his argument consists almost entirely of assertion and irrelevancies. His characterisation of evolution is so far from what scientists actually think that the book could only be persuasive to someone who has never read any mainstream science, and never been taught to think critically. Such as – just for a hypothetical example – a student in Accelerated Christian Education.

Interestingly, Accelerated Christian Education chose it as the sole piece of creationist literature on their 9th grade syllabus. And it’s still there today, in the USA. In the UK, as we’ve discussed, it has been replaced with After the Flood, possibly the only book in the world that’s actually worse. Presumably Did Man Just Happen will have to be replaced on the US syllabus too, because it appears to be out of print. Even if it is removed from the curriculum, its influence will live on, since most of the anti-evolution arguments in the science PACEs are drawn from it. At the time of writing, though, it remains on ACE’s ‘Scope & Sequence’, with the description:

Did Man Just Happen? By W. A. Criswell. The case for creation is presented in a way that ends the question.

ACE appears to consider these arguments good. But then, ACE’s syllabus also covers the Order of the Illuminati (seriously – search the Scope and Sequence) as part of its government education, so credibility is not a high priority for them.

Like Kent Hovind’s dissertation, Criswell provides no bibliography and no citations. Of course, Criswell isn’t pretending to be an academic, but when he’s making claims like these, it would be good to have some attribution:

Sir Arthur Keith said: “Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable.” Professor D. M. S. Watson of the University of London said: “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists, not because it has been observed to occur or because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.

As a child, I found this an absolutely knockdown argument. The theory of evolution admitted to be a conspiracy by the scientists themselves! Unfortunately, no one has verified that Keith said any such thing. Other Creationist books containing the same quote cite Did Man Just Happen as their source. The Watson quotation is real, although in the context of the original article it becomes clear that he regarded the theory of evolution as fitting “all the facts of taxonomy, of paleontology, and of geographical distribution”, and as offering greater explanatory power than any competing explanation.

But even if Watson’s and Keith’s were represented fairly by Criswell, so what? They were wrong. The quotations used aren’t representative of any consensus view. It is instructive that Criswell, who argues exclusively from authority, uses the words of one man as though he speaks for science itself.

Criswell spends a lot of time arguing that evolution is a useless theory because it doesn’t tell us how life first originated. This is irrelevant, because evolution doesn’t need to explain this in order to work. Plainly, life does exist, and as an explanation of how life developed from a common ancestor, evolution simply assumes this obvious fact. It’s even stranger since Criswell is equally adament in his opposition to theistic evolution, and abiogenesis isn’t even a problem there. The theistic evolutionist could solve the problem by saying that God was the first cause of life.

There’s no shortage of argument from ignorance. This one appears on the final page, suggesting Criswell (or the publishers, Zondervan) thought it was one of the strongest:

No one on earth understands how a muscle is made, or how it moves. Man has already discovered fifteen enzymes in the functioning of a muscle. One enzyme will take what the other has done and work on that, then another enzyme will come and take that product and change it until finally energy is liberated. How? No one knows.

Lots of time is devoted to what Criswell calls “the hoaxes of anthropology” – Nebraska Man, the Piltdown Man, the Jada Ape-Man, the Heidelberg Jaw. In arguing against evolution, Criswell also manages to refer to jungle-dwelling tribes as “savages” on at least two occasions, because you can’t beat a good bit of racism when attempting to prove intellectual superiority.

Many other arguments stem from a misunderstanding of what evolution entails:

If the truth of evolution is established, if the fact of it can be demonstrated, just give us more time and we will evolve into celestial and immortal archangels. [emphasis mine]

I don’t think that needs any comment (apart from this one, obviously).

If there is any change, it is not up, it is not evolving, it is not evolution. If there is any change, it is degeneration – it is devolution. For example, when I went out to the museum I saw there the fossil skeleton of an enormous elephant, the “Elephas Imperator.” The biggest elephant we have had was called Jumbo… Why, he was a pygmy compared to the elephants we used to have! Instead of going up, elephants are coming down.

Here, and elsewhere, Criswell incorrectly assumes that evolution must mean that things are getting bigger and better, evolving from lower to higher forms. When I read this book as a child, I thought evolution was supposed to be a quasi-conscious process, as though nature had some ultimate goal in mind. That made no sense to me. I was right.

We do not see cats turning into dogs, and we do not see cows turning into horses, and we do not see horses turning into apes, and we do not see apes turning into man.


Acquired characteristics are never inherited. You can take a dog and cut off his tail, but when that puppy has puppies they will have tails. And you can cut those tails off and cut those tails off for a hundred thousand generations and the puppies that are born will still have tails.

Indeed you can, and this has nothing to do with evolution by natural selection. Criswell should be commended for debunking Lamarckism, though. The 18th century no doubt sends its congratulations.

What I find shocking about the continued use of Did Man Just Happen in ACE schools is that even some of the teachers must know that these are bad arguments. Even if Creationism were right, Criswell’s points would still be catastrophic failures of logic and triumphs of wilful ignorance. The ACE supervisors who gave me this book to read were well-educated people with degrees from good universities. It’s inconceivable that they didn’t see these arguments for the tosh they were. They simply didn’t care, because they thought turning me into a servant of God was more important than giving me a sound education.

Related posts:

About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on July 29, 2013, in Accelerated Christian Education, Atheism, Book Reviews, Christianity, Creationism, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism, School of Tomorrow and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. When I graduated from high school, I could not tell you what evolutionists really believed. Fundie textbooks so messed me up.

  2. I’ve heard both “We do not see cats turning into dogs” and the general claim that natural change is degeneration, sometimes in the semiplausible form that mutations are nearly always harmful and therefore no good can come of them.

    Now here’s the really difficult question, the one that keeps me awake at night. If evolution is true, why are there still creationists?

    • From a natural selection point of view, it’s interesting that creationism thrives more than a century after it was abandoned by everyone who thought critically about it.

      Is it just that creationists breed a lot?

      Perhaps there are psychological advantages to that level of certainty that outweigh other problems.

      • Read an article recently about right-wing conservatives in America that are at least on par with Tea Party advocates– that people who are insanely certain and absolute have a higher “happiness” level than us ordinary folk. Can’t find it to cite.

  3. The intention of anti-science theocrats is simple: by arguing against a strawman version of evolution they hope children will develop a strong anti-evolution sentiment. By showing that “evolutionists” are frauds, they hope to discredit all science. After science has been discredited, they are able to establish their wished-for theocratic despotism.

    This demonstrates the importance of universal, secular public education for the preservation of civil liberty. No wonder that theocrats desire to poisson the youth in order to create a power base.

    • Well, oddly, they don’t want to discredit all science – they rather like cars, computers, medicine, and planes. They make a distinction between that and origins science. And to an extent, they’re right – it doesn’t make much difference to a computer designer how old the earth is.

      The problem is that a rigorous science education doesn’t produce creationists. ACE’s science provision for chemistry and physics is mediocre too (although generally factually accurate). I don’t know whether it’s possible to have a science education which is excellent in all areas except evolution, but in practice I’ve never seen it.

      • “Well, oddly, they don’t want to discredit all science – they rather like cars, computers, medicine, and planes.”

        This shows their hypocrisy. If you accept science in one area, you should logically also accept it in another area, unless you can reasonably show why science doesn’t work in some are. You cannot accept science in one area, and ignoring it in another, just because it fits your believes.

        Strictly speaking cars, computers and planes do belong to technology instead of science. However, science and technology are strongly related to each other. But on the other hand is quite amazing to see how many engineers are creationists, and also many medical professionals are creationists.

      • “And to an extent, they’re right – it doesn’t make much difference to a computer designer how old the earth is.”

        No, they are wrong. Some years ago, it was found that memory chips were suffering from occasional random errors. This was becoming a problem because memory chips were storing an increasing number of bits and even a single error was unacceptable in some applications. The problem was found to be due to a very small amount of radioactivity in the chip package. This led to changes in both components themselves but also in the design of computer hardware. The designer would have needed to know about this to do his job so when he picks up a book on measuring the age of the Earth (it is a measurement BTW not a guess or even a theory) he would be able to understand it. When a creationist comes along and says that it is all wrong, he will then begin to wonder if he is in the wrong job because his understanding of computers depends on the same science as required to understand the measurement of the age of the Earth.

        The modern computer designer needs to be far more knowledgeable. His computing ‘device’ now has all sorts of goodies including GPS. The Global Positioning System requires that all our understanding of information theory, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, thermodynamics, and the rest of physics and chemistry has to be simultaneously accurate to an insanely high degree of accuracy for it to function at all. This was the work of Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Einstein, Bohr, Shannon, and thousands of others.

        Of course creationists have their own theories about these things (see conservapedia.com).

      • This goes back to David Waldock’s guest post, jobs a creationist can do. It’s possible for a creationist nurse to give updated flu jabs while denying evolution. It’s possible to build an atomic clock while denying the accuracy of radiometric dating of the Earth. It’s probably possible to build a GPS unit while believing in a geocentric solar system, although I doubt anyone has.

        It’s possible to do all these things, but not logically consistent. And handing all those logical inconsistencies as a fundamentalist is pretty tough, let me tell ya.

      • “It’s probably possible to build a GPS unit while believing in a geocentric solar system…”

        Really, really, difficult. Let us assume that somehow you are able to build an atomic clock using only science books bearing the creationist imprimatur. As you have rejected all science since Kepler and Newton concerning planetary motion, you are going to have a problem finding out why your clock does not keep good time. Trying to put space-time on good theoretical basis starting with the angels propelling the Sun and the planets in their courses without involving apples is going to be a task for a really good theologian. Without knowing this, your GPS is just not going to work.

  4. I can think of Marlene Winell http://amzn.to/1aSaRRc and Valerie Tampico as 2 sources that can provide evidence of the damage !

  5. Sometimes, I think about the fact that lots of people genuinely don’t believe in evolution because their misunderstanding of its basic principles is this severe. And then I think about applying my face to the underside of a running lawnmower.

  6. The book’s out of print, but do you think I’ll be able to find a copy if I look hard enough?

    It’s been a while since I read something so terrible…

  7. Books like this are embraced and dare I say it, exist, *because* logic and rhetoric are frowned upon with Fundamentalist Christianity.

    When I look at the date – I see an almost 20 year span from the 50’s to the 70’s. As a scholar, I pause to consider what was happening in the United States at that time – baby boomers, the Cold War, America prospering, the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Free Love movement, Woodstock, and the Vietnam War. I see a society in America that was having an identity crisis. One might be able to truly stretch and say such a text *might* (and I do mean that in the loosest sense of the word), *might* have been a feeble attempt at holding close what principles the author held dear.

    However, doing a bit of fast Google research, I find that to not be the case. I had hoped that this was a mere anomaly and not a serious attempt at discussing creation theory. Sadly, this piece echoes so much of Criswell’s style and writings (and in turn the position of his denomination at the time) that I can state without doubt that he did believe the ideas and theology within the book, and as a result of his endorsement, so have thousands (if not more) of other people. Consequently, it has been perpetuated, without regard for new thought, within Fundamentalist Christian theology for decades.

    One trend I did notice was that throughout his life when Criswell took a stance on something political, he often supported it, then was forced to change his views when the popular wave of society dictated so – such as with Segregation, Roe vs. Wade, etc. This trend makes me ponder if, in fact, since he died in 2002, he was ever forced to seriously examine this piece beyond the 1970’s. As much as I would hope that individuals would continue to grow and learn throughout their life, this does not seem to be the case.

    I have to state that while I have not read *this particular book*, I have read literally hundreds like it. Excerpts I have read from this book serve as a prime example of fundamentalist thought and theology. While useful to have as a reference, in my opinion they should be viewed as theology that is not only out of date, but as a really great example of circular reasoning, non-existent logic, and unsound doctrine.

    As a lover of books and learning, it is tremendously hard for me not to use books of this sort, for what I consider to be a suitable purpose – a doorstop, or in select cases, to be perforated and put on a roll. With a great sigh, I will admit such books do need a place on a shelf, if only in a section labeled “Good Examples of Bad Theology and Rhetoric,” where they may serve and protect humanity in the very best way: encouraging people to avoid this type of thinking in the future.

  8. Re jobs a creationist can do: a creationst can accept the need for new flu jabs (that’s just MICROevolution). It’s possible to build an atomic clock while believing that radiometric decay rates have changed (although not if you understand quantum mechanics). Creationists have built, or have had built for them, thick walls with gates that only let in the thoughts that do not threaten their positions.

    it’s easy to make fun of these people. The real challenge is to get through to them.

    • I must take a moment of my break/ early lunch and address Paul’s comment of “It’s easy to make fun of these people.”

      I sincerely don’t think mockery is afoot. What I sense is a largely incredulous ‘WTF’ that people still believe this way and continue to perpetuate these theories in our modern world where science is so easily accessible and widely accepted.

      As the daughter of a devout Creationist, I do agree with your statement that the challenge remains to get through to ‘them’, in all the broadest sense, for they are greatly shielded by their own style of rhetoric. I’ve found that the best way of co-existence is to sometimes take the Zen approach and not poke the bear, particularly when you have to share the same holiday table with them. I realize that I will never change my Dad or his beliefs. He thrives on these theories and good for him. I’ve even (cringe) bought him books on this topic for a holiday gift. Why? Because he’s my dad and I love him dearly.

      Yet, on another front, I’m not advocating passivity. I firmly believe that living in our world today is more about co-existence than alienation. How can we equip others to deal with these theories while becoming decent self-actualized human beings?

      You can’t change those who choose to embrace certain theories. It is very much a free world. However, what you can do is help those who WANT to, become informed individuals and realize that just because they were brought up or exposed to one doctrine or belief, there are many in the world that might fit them and still be a path to God, the Holy, or the Sacred.

      Sometimes it takes more guts to question the status quo and survive the firestorm, than shrug off the differences as “opinion” or “mockery”.

  9. >>The theistic evolutionist could solve the problem by saying that God was the first cause of life.<<

    Yeah, that's how I deal with it myself.

  10. When I was six, my mother told me that evolution was so fake, only very stupid people believed in it. She credited her awareness to the fact that when she was pregnant with me, she knew she was carrying a human fetus, not a monkey.

  11. I distinctly recall a conversation I had with my dad when I was in college – about adaptation, the *possible* theory that after Creation, people had adapted to a different environment over time (e.g. without the canopy, etc.) I remember punching holes in his logic that he couldn’t answer and he stubbornly clung to Sola Scriptora (the Bible only) and thought I was on a very slippery slope to threatening my soul and questioning my salvation.

    Wow. I doubt he remembers that conversation now…but I do remember how it wounded me – that I couldn’t even have an intelligent conversation with my parents without being considered an apostate for using my brain cells.

    • That’s really not just a Christian or religious problem, alas. If you’re smarter than average, you invariably spend a lot of time self-censoring conversations that people might not be able to follow, or might disagree with. Or you just feign interest in sports and limit yourself to conversations about that

  12. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Lamarckism did accidentally get something right. It appears that some epigenetic changes are heritable: certain portions of the genome are turned on or off and these changes can be inherited. It doesn’t argue for or against evolution, but it’s really cool!

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: