Goodall, Ussher, Roebuck

Bonobos and Biologists
by Robert T. Pennock
excerpt from Chapter 2, "The Evidence for Evolution,"
of his 1999 book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism

It is naive to suppose that the acceptance of evolution theory depends upon the evidence of a number of so-called "proofs"; it depends rather upon the fact that the evolutionary theory permeates and supports every branch of biological science, much as the notion of the roundness of the earth underlies all geodesy and all cosmological theories on which the shape of the earth has a bearing. Thus antievolutionism is of the same stature as flat-earthism.
                  -- Sir Peter Medawar

Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope it is not so; but if it is, let us hope that it does not become generally known.
                  -- Wife of the Bishop of Worcester

Bonobos and Biologists

The bonobo mother reclined on a rock outcropping in the shade of a tree and cradled her baby to her breast. A couple of her older children played close by. They amused themselves with a stick, grinning gleefully while waving it about and tugging at it for possession. It was not long before one of them seemed to lose interest in the game and toddled over to his mother, plopped down beside her and prodded her for attention. She patiently indulged his playfulness, but did not allow him to disturb his infant sibling.

I was watching the bonobos at the San Diego Zoo with Shadrack Kamenya, a young African biologist, then a graduate student at the University of Colorado. Shadrack had observed chimps in the wild for years in Tanzania in the Gombe Stream Research Center, but bonobos, or "pygmy chimps," are a different species from the common chimpanzee found in Gombe. He held his camera to the ready and snapped several photographs as we watched the behaviors and interactions of the little family.

It was only in the late 1920s that biologists recognized bonobos as a distinct species. On average they have longer legs, and a slightly smaller build than the common chimp. Recent analysis of their DNA shows that the two species share 99.3 percent of their genes.[1] Primatologists were surprised to discover that despite their physical similarities Bonobos have strikingly different patterns of social behavior than common chimpanzees, and Shadrack was eager to point out to me some of these differences he saw. I found myself equally interested in the behavior of our fellow human spectators and could not help but listen in on their conversations as they observed the pygmy chimps with obvious fascination.

"Look at its arm muscle!" exclaimed a teenage girl, comparing the mother bonobo's well-defined biceps to that of her friend, who looked like she might be a gymnast. The girl who pointed out the arm muscle had probably not studied the details of comparative anatomy but was simply noting a similarity that would strike anyone who was a little observant. "And check out its legs!" she continued, laughing, "They look like our legs when we're not shaven, don't they?"

The previous evening Shadrack and I had attended a meeting of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, at which the Society presented the William Proctor Prize, its highest award, to Shadrack's mentor Jane Goodall.

Jane Goodall was the first person to observe tool-making behavior among nonhuman animals, thereby shattering the myth that it was a defining ability of human beings alone. When she reported the news to her mentor, Louis Leakey, he noted wryly that humans would now either have to change the definition of "tool" or "man," or else accept chimpanzees into the human race. In our history of self-definition we have faced this sort of problem again and again, especially in recent years as scientists have discovered more and more previously unknown animal behaviors. It should be humbling to us that every time we cite some feature that is apparently unique to ourselves as human beings, someone discovers the same feature, in a less or nearly equally developed form, elsewhere in the animal kingdom. To take another apropos example, one of the unexpected discoveries about the pygmy chimps had to do with their sexual behavior. Bonobos copulate in a variety of positions, including the eponymous missionary face-to-face position that, so the story goes, Christian missionaries recommended to their Polynesian converts as the proper, dignified approach for reproduction because it supposedly was unique to humans, distinguishing us from all the animals. Nor may we say any longer with assurance that we are alone in our ability to communicate through language; studies with a variety of animals ranging from the African gray parrot to the dolphin and especially the great apes suggest that animals have hitherto unappreciated conceptual and linguistic abilities. Goodall's research was sharply criticized in its early stages because she used names rather than subject numbers to label the chimps she observed, and because she described their behaviors in what was condemned as improperly "anthropomorphic" terms, but her careful and systematic observations sustained over more than three decades, eventually opened scientists' eyes to the complex social behaviors of chimpanzees and led others to begin to investigate what seems to be the rich emotional lives of animals. Many of these investigations are still controversial, not in the least because of the tricky philosophical issues that are involved, but we may someday have to admit that animals have feelings of happiness and anger, playfulness and sadness, loss and even grief that are comparable to emotions we ourselves feel.

Goodall gave a lecture accompanied by slides, reporting on the latest news about the children and grandchildren of Flo, the matriarch Gombe chimp who came to be known fondly by millions in the pages of National Geographic and in the Society's special series on television. She recounted her old and new findings about chimpanzee social behavior, but she also described the devastating effects that deforestation caused by human population growth is having on the chimpanzees' habitat, and the large numbers of chimps that are killed by poachers simply to satisfy tourists' desire for "monkey paw" ashtrays. Let it not be said that the scientific ideal of objectivity means that scientists are cold and unfeeling -- as the lights came up, and Goodall brought her talk to a close with a plea that we not abandon our evolutionary cousins, many in the audience of scientists were wiping tears from their eyes.

How jarringly at odds with Goodall's inspiring story were the comments I heard the next day from a docent at the Museum of Creation and Earth History.

A Guided Tour of the Museum of Creation

The Museum of Creation and Earth History is located on the outskirts of San Diego, in Santee, in the same building that houses the Institute for Creation Research. ICR has expanded the museum over the years and they have clearly put a large investment into making it an impressive facility. Entrance to the exhibits is free, as is the regular tour, which I took with a group of about a dozen enthusiastic creationists. Our tour guide took every opportunity to stress the special status of human beings, how different humans are from the animals, and how absurd it is to think we could be related to apes. It was evolution theory, she said, that led people to think that we were animals, and when people think they are animals it is not surprising that they start behaving like animals. Evolutionist thinking is the reason for the terrible state our society is in today. Evolutionism leads people to think that animals have rights but that unborn babies do not. "I learned recently," she mentioned, nodding her head significantly toward a photo on the wall, "that Hitler believed in animal rights."

Most of these final comments came at the end of the tour in the exhibits that pressed home what was really at stake in the choice between evolution and creationism. The debate is not just about deciding between two views about the history of life, it is about a choice of worldviews that determines whether we will head on the upward or the downward path. We will hear this warning echoed and amplified by the new creationists. But this gets ahead of our story; we will consider these issues in the chapters to come. For now let us return to the origin of the controversy.

The tour began where it should begin, our docent had told us, namely at the beginning, which of course was "In the beginning..." with the creation of the world by God on the first day of Creation. ICR interpreters put a scientific spin on the opening passages of Genesis. When the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth on the first day they take this to refer respectively to three-dimensional space and to matter, and so they claim that the very first phrase tells us that God also started time at Creation. On the second day God created the waters below and also above the firmament -- a water vapor canopy that they claim would be the source of the forty days and nights of rain to come. They suggest, however, that until that time, this canopy would have made the world's climate consistently warm, thus allowing organisms to grow to large sizes and to live to hundreds of years of age after being created, starting from day three onward. This explains, of course, the "giants" that lived in those times and the remarkable longevity of Old Testament figures. The first plants that were created included complex fruiting plants, they claim, not simple ones that later evolved into such complexity. Furthermore, plants, and animals on subsequent days, were created "according to their kind," indicating that they did not descend from some other kind, as evolution holds. The guide emphasized that God created life only on the earth. Astronauts returning from the moon were kept in quarantine because evolutionists, thinking that life could have arisen elsewhere, worried about the possibility of hostile moon germs, but of course these did not exist. A park bench lets the visitors take a breather on the seventh "day of rest," as the guide asked us to consider how absolutely perfect the design of the world must have been at every level for God to have pronounced His Creation "very good." Only a supreme intelligent designer, not chance, could ever have produced such perfection and complexity.

The rooms we passed through as we walked through the days illustrated these and other points with large colorful murals, photographs of planets, nebula, and comets, and cages of birds, rodents, and snakes. Many of the exhibits have a professional look to them. However, because of the antiscientific content of much of the material, the religious framework that is stressed, and the copious quotations from Scripture, there is no mistaking this for a science museum. That it is theology and not science that drives the picture being presented is especially clear in the next room, in which we learn the effects that sin had when it entered this perfect world upon Adam's and Eve's disobedience of God. Death, violence, disease, and mutations are all the result of the curse God set upon the world as punishment for their sin. God's curse also introduced into the world the second law of thermodynamics, which they call the "death principle," which says that everything without exception must fall inevitably into decay. Prior to the Fall, no animals died since all were vegetarians; the struggle among animals and their carnivorous behavior began only after the loss of Eden's peaceable kingdom. Henry and John Morris speculate that "God performed genetic engineering on animals [to give them sharp teeth for eating flesh] to forever remind Adam and Eve of the awful consequences of sin."[2] Eventually, though, God became so disgusted with the violence and sin of the world that he decided to wipe the slate clean with a global flood and to allow only a pair of representatives of each kind of being to survive in an Ark built by the righteous Noah.

The Noah's Ark room is crafted to make one feel as though one is below deck on the great ship. Sounds of wind, thunder, and creaking boards add to the effect, and a carefully painted mural one sees in perspective upon entering gives one the unmistakable impression of looking down an immensely long row of animal stalls. Is that the back of a stegosaurus we see in one of the stalls? Yes, our guide explained, dinosaurs were certainly on board the Ark, since the Bible tells us that Noah took two of every kind of animal. Another wall includes reproductions of dozens of sketches and descriptions from explorers who claimed to have glimpsed or uncovered portions of the remains of the Ark. Part of ICR's "scientific research" is to continue that search. At a "Back to Genesis" seminar I attended, John Morris said he had been on over a dozen expeditions to the Middle East looking for the Ark. "I haven't found it yet," he admitted. "When I get up to heaven I'm going to ask Noah where he parked that thing!"

This obsession with the Ark is understandable, given the key theological role that God's destruction of the world in the Noachian deluge plays for creationists, and because it is a central explanatory element of creation-science. Our guide explained that this global catastrophic flood was the cause of all the major geological features of the earth. Mountains arose by sudden upthrusting as the fountains of the deep broke open. The Flood itself scooped out valleys and canyons, deposited gravel and rocks in the layers as we find them, destroyed almost all life on earth, and was the origin of most fossils. As John Morris explains it in a videotaped tour of the museum, all the supposed evidence for evolution comes from looking at fossils in the layers of rock, but when we recognize that these were all laid down at once in the Flood then "there is no evidence left for evolution and an old earth."[3]

Proofs and Evidences

One of the points that our guide emphasized repeatedly was that there was no proof of evolution. Again and again she would give an argument against biological or cosmological evolution and then would refer to a passage from Scripture that supported the opposing Creation hypothesis. The only trustworthy guide to what was true was the Bible, she said, claiming that not a single statement in it had ever been shown to be false. Evolution, on the other hand, was just an assumption. One finds this sort of claim made regularly in creationist literature. In some cases the claim is even stronger, that there could be no proof for evolution. Narrating the videotape of the museum, John Morris says evolution and Creation are both "simply ideas about the past" and that "neither one can ever be proved or disproved."[4] He goes on to say "We don't even try to prove the Bible. We believe it."

Scientists find such statements that there is no proof of evolution to be baffling and bizarre, but one possible reason for such differences of view is that people seem to have different notions of what "proof" means. As we noted earlier, we must always take great care about terminology and definitions because there can be significant differences between the meaning of a word in a colloquial sense and as a technical term. Moreover, there can be a "technical" religious sense to a term in the same way that there can be a scientific or philosophical technical sense. The term "proof" has just such a special religious meaning for some creationists that may partially explain such comments.

Proof Texts

"Bible-believing Christians" have the notion of a "proof text," which determines the biblically correct answer to a question. [Nancy Tatom] Ammerman explains this special Fundamentalist notion of "supporting an argument by finding the 'texts' that are the 'proof' of God's answer."[5] A Bible-believer with a question will "search the Scriptures" for a proof text -- typically a verse, a phrase, or even just a word that will give God's answer to the question he or she has in mind. Such "proofs" range from the sublime to the ridiculous, as Ammerman describes. In one case a couple decides that God wants them to tell their children the truth about a child their father had sired while separated from their mother on the basis of the verse John 8:32: "The truth shall make you free." In another case a man who is wondering where to buy a tent checks the Bible before leaving for the store and happens upon the fifth verse of Deuteronomy 14 that mentions "roebuck" as a food the Jews are allowed to eat, and thereby concludes that God approves his buying the tent from the Sears Roebuck Company.[6]

This notion of the proof text certainly seemed to play a role throughout the Museum of Creation. Without exception, the exhibits that laid out the various elements of creation-science were backed up by plaques that gave supporting quotations from Scripture. For example, the second law of thermodynamics that describes a tendency towards disorder was shown to be correct by reference to a line from Psalms (102:25-26) that says the earth and heavens "shall wear out like an old garment." Thus, it may be that when creationists say that there is "no proof" for evolution, they simply mean that it is not supported by Scripture.

Of course, even this last claim is contentious, for theistic evolutionists are quick to point to a wide variety of scriptural texts that they say not only show that the Bible is compatible with evolution but actually endorses it. For instance, the phrase "Let the land produce..." appears twice in Genesis (1:11 and 1:24) applied to plants and animals as part of the description of Creation, suggesting that the Creator's intention was not to create these directly, but rather to have nature produce life. This indirect mode of creation from "the land" also applies to the origin of human beings, they say, shedding light on Genesis 2:7a: "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground." Given this understanding, the part that says that "[The Lord God] breathed into his nostrils the breath [Hebrew for 'spirit'] of life, and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7b) may thus indicate that what God did with respect to human beings was to spiritually affect a preexisting body. This interpretation is purported also to be supported in Genesis 1:27. Theistic evolutionists argue further that the Bible even explicitly endorses the evolutionary view of the transmutation of one species into another, citing Isaiah 14.29b, which says: "From the root of that snake will spring up a viper, its fruit will be a darting, venomous serpent." Could Scripture be any clearer in telling us that species are not immutable, they ask? Is not this as literal a description as one could want that species evolve one into another? Evolution thus has its scriptural proof.

Creationists of course believe this interpretation is completely wrong, and the hermeneutical battle begins anew. In any case, irrespective of who is right about such questions of exegesis, this religious notion of "proof" is not relevant to the scientific or the philosophical senses of the term. Indeed, most creationists seem to have another notion in mind when they claim that there is no proof of evolution from a scientific point of view, or when they say that no proof of evolution is even possible. Again, it is hard to know how to understand such statements, but it appears that the problem stems from narrow and mistaken beliefs about scientific proof. Many creationists think that any scientific argument that provides less than complete certainty is not really proof (they are happy with nothing less than absolute truth), and they are confused about the sort of proof that science does offer.


1. Sibley and Ahlquist 1987; Sibley, Comstock, and Ahlquist 1990
2. Morris and Morris 1996b, p. 89
3. Morris and Rajca 1995
4. Morris and Rajca 1995
5. Ammerman 1987, p. 53
6. Ammerman 1987, p. 54

Graphic Rule