Welcome to the Strange World of Ken Ham

On August 31 2012 Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum, released a video response to Bill Nye’s viral “Big Think” entry “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children” (Ham, 2012).  Within Ham’s response we get a chance to dissect how Young Earth Creationists (YEC’s) perceive science, scientists and education.

Welcome to the strange world of Ken Ham:

Ken Ham: “What does evolution have to do with engineering? […] I don’t want to be flying in anything that was built by ‘chance’ ‘random processes’ – what do you think?  You lay them parts all out on the runway and they come together or something?”

Ken Ham creates this apparent divide between “observational science” and “historical science” suggesting that these fundamentally different types of science that have no benefit to one another and that evolution falls within the “historical sciences” and engineering falls within the “observational sciences”.

First off, every actual professional academic would acknowledge that this divide is purely artificial.

Secondly, evolutionary scientists are not just interested in understanding natural history.  They are also interested in testing observable hypotheses that can produce products that have a beneficial impact on human health and safety (i.e. production of antibiotics).

Third, nobody with a background in evolutionary science (except perhaps Ken Ham who has a degree in environmental biology) would think that an evolutionary theorist would suggest to an engineer to build a plane ‘randomly’, because evolution is not random.

Evolution is a process of selection and adaptation to particular environments, which is theory engineers can greatly benefit from.  In fact, one of the most profitable fields of engineering at the moment is biomimetics.  In biomimetics, engineers work with evolutionary biologists to understand how animals have adapted to unique environments in novel ways in order to help construct products that will also aid human civilization.  Some good examples of this include velcro (inspired by the hooked barbs of thistle), highway reflectors (inspired by cat eyes), catheters that can repel germs (inspired by shark skin), X-ray machines (inspired by the lobster’s eye) and several more (Bar-Cohen, 2005).  Engineers have also worked with molecular biologists to understand how cellular structures function in order to develop new nano-technologies (Sarikaya et al. 2002).  To be honest, explaining how engineer’s benefit from evolutionary theory could be an article in and of itself.

On one final note before moving on, many engineers, evolutionary biologists and economists believe that biomimetics and related fields will dominate science and technology industries in the coming decades.  So to answer Ken Ham’s question, “what does evolution have to do with engineering?” I would respond, “everything.”

Ken Ham: “Take generations of kids and teach them that they are just animals, that there is no god.  You’re a result of millions of years of evolutionary processes, you just came from some slime.”

Ham’s use of terminology with this comment displays how YEC’s use language to make evolution sound ridiculous.  No evolutionary biologist would ever say that we evolved ‘from slime’.  In actuality, contemporary biologists believe that all life originated from chemicals on the early Earth that produced self-replicating RNA-like molecules (Joyce, 2002).  And of course, ribonucleic acid (RNA) is not slime.  RNA is a nucleic acid that is essential for the functioning of all life on our planet.  Without RNA our cells would not be able to communicate with each other or express genetic information (Wu & Belasco, 2008).  Helping kids understand the function of the chemical building blocks of life is far from teaching them that we “came from slime”.

Ken Ham: “When it comes to bones, like dinosaur bones, you don’t dig them up with labels telling you how old they are, or photographs telling you when they lived, [Bill Nye] doesn’t teach children how to think critically.”

I honestly can’t believe Ham seriously included this in his video response.  This was part of his diatribe against “historical science” and this truly displays his lack of understanding in regard to how paleontologists and molecular biologists piece together the narrative of the evolution of life.  Unfortunately for Ken Ham, dinosaur fossils do come with a label telling us approximately how old they are, and we can read that label with radiometric dating techniques with spectrometers.

By utilizing radiometric-dating techniques scientists are able to analyze the chemical composition of the fossil.  Chemicals, like carbon or uranium, decay at a predictable rate as soon as an organism dies and by reading the chemical composition of a fossil you can understand how long it has been since the organism took its last breath.  Some chemicals, like carbon for example, are helpful to determine the age of modern human bones (e.g., Grun, 2006), but decay too quickly to help us understand the age of a dinosaur fossil.  So paleontologists must analyze chemical elements with a longer decay rate, like uranium or argon (e.g., Rogers et al. 1993; Fasset, 2011).

Ken Ham: “The way to convince kids about evolution, you have to do Bill Nye The Humanist Guy wants, you protect them from hearing anything about creation, you totally indoctrinate them, you brain wash them, you don’t teach them to think critically at all, you don’t teach them the difference between historical science and observational science, you just want to make sure they only hear about evolution and that’s it.”

I can only interpret this as projection, because if you replace the words ‘evolution’ with ‘creationism’ and replace ‘Bill Nye’ with ‘Ken Ham’ that is exactly what you need to do to get a child to believe in creation.  No evolutionary scientist wants to indoctrinate children or force them to never read or learn anything about religion.  And more importantly, no scientist is intimidated by the idea that a child will never believe in evolution if they read religious text.  In fact, most scientists believe the exact opposite; Isaac Asimov said it best: “Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”  (Asimov, 1966).  Most academics, including myself, believe strongly that children should learn about religion because it is an important to understand the history and the contemporary cultural impact of religious institutions.  That is the opposite of indoctrination that is trying to teach children to think critically.

There are several more questionable comments in the video by Ken Ham.  I just wanted to debunk and counter the most confusing and absurd points he made.  Of course, I encourage you to check it out for yourself below and decide for yourself what you think.


About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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