Ebenezer, a fossilized skeleton of an Allosaurus, sits at the center of a big new dinosaur exhibit at the Creation Museum. He is, in a way, a coup for the Young Earth Creationists who run the space: a "world class" specimen with a "wow factor" that the museum hopes will underline to its visitors that the dinosaurs roamed the Earth only 4,300 years ago. And they also hope that scientists — the kind who have dated fossils like it to the very un-Biblical number of hundreds of millions of years old — will be inspired to come and study the skeleton, making the Creation Museum the world's most unlikely research institution.
Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the Creation Museum posits that Ebenezer died in the Great Flood, about 4,300 years ago, based on a couple of things: first, it was found in a layer of sediment that the museum believes was left by Noah's flood. And second, Ebenezer was "rapidly" buried in a way that they believe is also consistent with the flood.
As the Courier-Journal explained, Ebenezer made its way to the Creation Museum through a private donation, after being discovered in northwestern Colorado. The Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation purchased the skeleton and eventually donated it to the museum. Elizabeth Peroutka's son Michael runs the Institute on the Constitution, a conservative group devoted to, among other things, "destroying arguments that are against the knowledge of God." Michael was also the Constitution Party's 2004 presidential candidate. That's him, above left, speaking in front of the skeleton at the exhibition's Friday launch.
The Creation Museum raised the funds to have the skeleton restored by a Utah-based expert — who did not want to be named, museum geologist Andrew Snelling told The Wire — and also to create the new dinosaur exhibition with Ebenezer as its centerpiece. In a press release, founder Ken Ham said that the specimen "fulfills a dream I’ve had for quite some time." He added:
"For decades I’ve walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons, but they were used for evolution. Now we have one of that class for our museum.”
The Creation Museum has made news in recent months for a series of high-profile moments like this one, and February's debate with Bill Nye over evolution. And while these moments have the effect of artificially elevating the arguments of Young Earth Creationism into a more mainstream conversation, the people who promote the belief are marginal, even within the Christian community. "Creationism," the general term for theologies that are non-negotiable on the role of a God in the creation of the universe, is not always analogous with "Young Earth Creationism," or the belief that, based on the added-up ages of figures in the Bible, the Earth is under 10,000 years old. The Creation Museum exists as a "teaching tool" for that narrower belief.
Young Earth Creationist scientists are even more marginal in the scientific community, as you might expect. Despite this, Young Earth Creationist scientists are actually very good at what they do, which is more like the Jewish tradition of Midrash — elaboration on Biblical stories — than it is science. At first, you'd assume that dinosaurs, which went extinct 66 million years ago, leaving behind a whole bunch of dateable fossil evidence, would be a problem for Young Earthers. You'd assume wrong.
John Whitmore, a professor of Geology at the Christian Cedarville University in Ohio, trekked with Snelling and a group of grad students to the site of Ebenezer's death, in Colorado. They were, among other things, hoping to learn more about how he was buried. Everyone agrees that Ebenezer came from the Morrison Formation, a Jurassic-era rock unit that covers a large expanse of the western U.S. It dates back to about 150 million years, B.C. As the National Park Service's Dinosaur National Monument explains, the area is rich with dinosaur fossils, particularly in its river beds, which are better at preserving skeletons. But Whitmore believes that the formation is consistent with what he would expect to see with a catastrophic event like Noah's Flood. He told me:
"Secular geologists have said 'this is a flood plain' or "these are all river deposits, but it's difficult to understand, from a secular, uniformitarian form of thinking, how a deposit like that could be made. I think a catastrophic origin for that formation and all the fossils in it is very reasonable."
Specifically, he said, it's consistent with what he'd expect to find following Noah's flood.
The research methods (presented as science) behind the Creation Museum's version of Ebenezer's story, and every other story it tells, produce results that by definition cannot contradict the literal word of the Bible. Snelling described it to me as checking his discoveries against a "historical record," based on the assumption that "God was there" when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and the the Bible is God's literal account — transmitted through humans of "good character" — of what actually happened. As Creationist scientists like Snelling find more and more bits of evidence that "verify" what they already know to be true from the Bible, it reinforces the community's own confidence in that theory. And, it seems, their work will always eventually verify what the Bible says. Although Snelling presents his work as science, he describes his methods as an inversion of how the scientific community works: scientists, he says, "use the present to inform our understanding of the past." He, instead "uses the past to inform his understanding of the present." It's a theology, but with isotopes.
To wit, when I asked Snelling if he's ever, in his entire career, encountered scientific evidence that contradicts the literal word of the Bible, Snelling said, "No." He added: "but I've certainly at times had evidence, and I'm still working through evidence, that at first blush might seem problematical."
Snelling went on:
Part of my process of investigation is to say 'OK. Is there some angle that I haven't yet understood about this evidence, that if I look at it slightly differently, that it will resolve that kind of conflict?'"
So far, Snelling has been able to do this with nearly every problematic piece of evidence he's encountered. Snelling gave me the example of meteorites, which don't seem to fit with the work he's done to attempt to disprove the methods used by scientists to date fossils and rocks. "Why is it, for example, that all the meteorites seem to give the same radioisotope signatures that are interpreted as the same age?" He told me. "What does that mean? Why is that the meteorites appear to be the same?" Scientists dated the age of the Earth as about 4.5 billion years old from a meteorite, so this is particularly problematic for Snelling's theory, which presumes that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago.
Sure, Young Earth Creationists can always say something about why we haven't found rocks on Earth that are as old as the Earth, but there are plenty of explanations for that. It would be better if Young Earthers could think up a reason to really doubt radioisotope dating. In fact, Young Earth Creationists have created an entire group of researchers devoted to figuring out another explanation for this problem, called RATE. One going theory, Snelling said, revolves around the idea that the chemical composition of the meteorites are indicative of the "original primordial material," i.e. what God created on Day One.
As of now, Snelling told me, no scientists have taken up the museum on his offer to allow researchers to examine their trophy. But he's optimistic: "we would welcome collaboration," he told me, with anyone interested in studying Ebenezer. "We're quite open." For now, however, the museum's parent organization Answers in Genesis have more or less exclusive access to the fossil, and have planned years of investigations into its origin, all, of course, with the Bible in mind. Imagine a sweepstakes winner assiduously planning out what to do with his newly-won lifetime supply of chocolate bars. This must be what it's like to be a Creationist right now.