Evolutionary Geologist Daniel Phelps: Afraid to Debate?

Part 2

by Dr. Terry Mortenson on February 22, 2014

If evolution was really true and all the scientific evidence confirmed it, why won’t this evolutionist defend his views in a formal public debate?

In my previous article about my January 30th radio “debate” with evolutionary geologist Daniel Phelps, leading up to the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, I refuted Mr. Phelps claim that creation scientists are not real scientists because they don’t publish in the peer-reviewed secular literature. It is a claim that was also indirectly made by Bill Nye in the debate with Ken Ham.

I concluded that article by showing that Charles Lyell (1797–1875)—one of the most influential men in the development of the idea of millions of years of earth history—was driven by a religiously motivated rejection of the Bible. After publishing his famous three-volume work, Principles of Geology (1830–1833), Lyell stifled the opposition. One historian of this period concluded this:

Lyell, like Scrope before him, simply suppressed the evidence which did not fit in with his [uniformitarian] doctrines, and once he was voted into power [as president of the Geological Society of London], the catastrophists found it increasingly difficult to publish their research.1

Lyell convinced people that he was doing objective science. But he was advancing the philosophical principles (i.e., religious doctrines) of uniformitarian naturalism. By naturalism he was insisting that the origin and history of the world can and must be explained by time, chance and the laws of nature working on matter. For the naturalistic scientist, either God does not exist or, if He does exist, He only created the initial simple matter and the laws of nature and then let everything run on its own, without divine interruption, since the beginning. By uniformitarianism, Lyell insisted that the processes of geological change (erosion, sedimentation, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) have always happened in the past at the same rate, power, and frequency that we observe today on average per year. That means there never was a global Flood at the time of Noah and the rock layers with their fossils were formed over millions of years.

Furthermore, Lyell’s “principles of geology” laid the foundation for Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Darwin simply took Lyell’s principle of slow gradual geological change and applied it to biology. Darwin informs us that on his famous five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle,

I had brought with me the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which I studied attentively; and this book was of the highest service to me in many ways.2

In comparing Lyell’s Principles to his own On the Origin of Species Darwin later commented,

He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the Principles of Geology, which the future historian will recognize as having produced a revolution in natural science, yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.3

Darwin needed the millions of years to make his theory of bacteria-to-bacteriologist evolution seem plausible. Otherwise his theory would have been dead in the womb. But Lyell and Darwin and all the other scientists embracing millions of years and evolution, were confused themselves (and in the process were confusing others) about the nature of science. And by smuggling uniformitarian naturalism into their scientific writings they deceived the world into thinking that the creation vs. evolution debate is a battle of science vs. religion. In fact, as Ken Ham correctly argued in his debate with Bill Nye, it was and continues to be a battle of the religion of most scientists vs. the revelation of God in the Bible. Most scientists, regardless of the religious faith they may profess privately or at their place of worship, are doing their scientific work within the framework of uniformitarian naturalism (i.e., atheism).4 Creation scientists reject that framework and work within a biblical framework.

Confusing the Nature of Science

Mr. Phelps and most of those who called into the radio program were also confused in another way about science. They fail to realize or admit that there are really two significantly different broad categories of science, what I like to call “operation science” and “origin science.” In the debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye strenuously sought to deny this distinction also. But the denial of this distinction won’t stand up under scrutiny.

Most of biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as engineering and medical research are in the realm of operation science.
Operation (which we can also called experimental or observational) science uses the so-called “scientific method” that can be defined this way: the use of observable, repeatable experiments in a controlled environment (e.g., a lab) to understand how things operate or function in the present physical universe in order to find cures for disease, produce new technology, or put the rover Curiosity on Mars, etc. All creationists love operational science and use the fruits of it in their daily lives. Most of biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as engineering and medical research are in the realm of operation science.

But that kind of science won’t answer the question, how and when did the Grand Canyon form? Or how and when did the first living creatures come into existence? Or is the body under the gravestone in Westminster Abbey in London that says “Charles Darwin” really Charles Darwin? Those questions can’t be answered by any scientific experiment. They are historical questions, the first two of which are the kind that both the evolution model and creation model seek to answer. Both evolution and creation models are in the realm of origin (or historical) science. Origin science uses the historical-legal method, which can be defined as the use of reliable, eyewitness testimony (if any is available) and observable evidence to determine the past, unobservable, unrepeatable event(s), which produced the observable evidence we see in the present.

Notice that in origin science there are two kinds of evidence: oral testimony by an eyewitness and physical evidence in the present. Origin sciences include historical geology, paleontology, archeology, cosmogony, and forensic science (e.g., criminal investigation).

In the debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye cited the TV crime show CSI in support of his position that there is no distinction between operational and origin science. Bill Nye said,

These are constructs unique to Mr. Ham. We don't normally have these anywhere in the world except here. Natural laws that applied in the past apply now. That's why they’re natural laws. That's why we embrace them. That's how we made all these discoveries that enabled all this remarkable technology. So CSI is a fictional show, but it’s based absolutely on real people doing real work. When you go to a crime scene and find evidence, you have clues about the past and you trust those clues and you embrace them and you move forward to convict somebody.

But in fact that crime show supports Ken Ham’s position. While criminal investigation may involve scientific laboratory experiments that show how the person might have died, such “reenactments” are not conclusive evidence in and of themselves. It is only eyewitness testimony and the circumstantial evidence at the scenes of the crime and other related nefarious activities that can really reconstruct what happened in the unrepeatable past. And no police investigator of a crime is worthy of the name, if he fails to look for an eyewitness or worse yet intentionally ignores the testimony of a trustworthy eyewitness.

And how a person interprets the circumstantial evidence in the present to reconstruct that past history is enormously influenced by that person’s religious and philosophical worldview-based assumptions. Mr. Phelps, Mr. Nye, and most other evolutionists deny this distinction in science and deny the critical role of presuppositions in the question of origins. They also try to convince the public that they are unbiased objective pursuers of truth but that creationists are biased by religious ideas. In fact, the evolutionists are as biased as the creationists. They are biased against the eyewitness testimony of God found in the Bible.

But some evolutionists do see this distinction in science and the role of assumptions (at least to some degree). The great historian of geology, Martin Rudwick, observed,

Even at the opening of its ‘heroic age,’[5] geology was recognized as belonging to an altogether new kind of science, which posed problems of a kind that had never arisen before. It was the first science to be concerned with the reconstruction of the past development of the natural world, rather than the description and analysis of its present condition.[6] The tools of the other sciences were therefore inadequate. The processes that shaped the world in the past were beyond either experiment or simple observation. Observation revealed only their end-products; experimental results could only be applied to them analogically. Somehow the past had to be interpreted in terms of the present. The main conceptual tool in that task was, and is, the principle of uniformity.7

Evolutionists believe in absolute uniformity back to the beginning of time. But that is an assumption, a (deistic or atheistic) religious belief. They have no eyewitnesses or any other method to confirm the validity of that assumption. Creationists, on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of the eternal Creator, know that there have been two disruptions to the normal course of nature: (1) God’s curse on creation when Adam sinned, and (2) the Flood of Noah’s day. Those two events are critically important in determining, among other things, when and how the fossils of former living plants and animals and the rock layers that entomb them were formed.

In describing the geological controversy in the late 1830s over the identification of the Devonian rock formations, Rudwick wrote about those early geologists,

Furthermore, most of their recorded field observations that related to the Devonian controversy were not only more or less “theory laden,” in the straightforward sense that most scientists as well as historians and philosophers of science now accept as a matter of course, but also “controversy laden.” The particular observations made, and their immediate ordering in the field, were often manifestly directed toward finding empirical evidence that would be not merely relevant to the controversy but also persuasive. Many of the most innocently “factual” observations can be seen from their context to have been sought, selected, and recorded in order to reinforce the observer’s interpretation and to undermine the plausibility of that of his opponents.8

The facts don’t speak for themselves. And evolutionists repeatedly mistake assumptions and interpretations for factual observations. Creationists can fall prey to this mistake also. But the more conscious a person is of his assumptions and the more honest he is in making those assumptions public, the more objective he can be. But the assumptions still influence the observations and the interpretations. For example, an evolutionist going into the Grand Canyon will never ask the question, “Could what I will observe be the result of the global flood of Noah’s day?” It is excluded as a possible explanation before he ever looks at the evidence. A creation geologist however will be looking for the evidence that confirms God’s eyewitness account of that event.

In commenting on the difference between the “hard” experimental sciences and the historical sciences, the famous atheist evolutionary paleontology professor at Harvard, Stephen J. Gould, said,

The Nobel prizes focus on quantitative, non-historical, deductively oriented fields with their methodology of perturbation by experiment and establishment of repeatable chains of relatively simple cause and effect. An entire set of disciplines, different though equal in scope and status, but often subjected to ridicule because they do not follow this pathway of “hard” science, is thereby ignored: the historical sciences, treating immensely complex and non-repeatable events (and therefore eschewing prediction while seeking explanation for what has happened) and using methods of observation and comparison.9

Gould’s equally famous atheist biologist colleague at Harvard, Ernst Mayr, wrote,

Evolution is a historical process that cannot be proven by the same arguments and methods by which purely physical or functional phenomena can be documented. Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations.10

But the inferences from observations are heavily influenced by the worldview assumptions of the observer. Evolutionists have a naturalistic (atheistic) worldview; young-earth creationists have a biblical worldview. Creationists also make inferences from their observations, but they are guided in those inferences by the truthful eyewitness testimony of the all-knowing, eternal Creator who has given us in the Bible a totally accurate historical account of the key events in history to understand the world we live in. Evolution is a man-made myth about the past based on a conscious rejection of that perfectly truthful eyewitness testimony.

Again, please note that in a court of law, truthful eyewitness testimony is evidence. And no reliable judge will rule such testimony out of court. It is critically important evidence, and in fact more important than any circumstantial physical evidence (e.g., dead body, pool of blood, broken door jam, etc.), for trying to figure out what happened in the unrepeatable past to explain the evidence existing in the present. The bias of the prosecuting attorney and the police can cause them to misinterpret the circumstantial evidence. More than one innocent person has been sent to prison for years because of such “overwhelming evidence.” In many other cases, the prosecution seemed to have a watertight case until the defense found a reliable eyewitness that proved the defendant was innocent. And when the circumstantial evidence was reexamined in the light of that testimony, the faulty interpretations and biases of the prosecution were exposed. The eyewitness testimony provided a far superior interpretation of the physical evidence.

So it is in origin science, God’s testimony in the Bible is evidence (the most important evidence) to carefully consider in working out the origin and history of the universe and life on earth. God’s Word does not tell us all the details we would like to know, but it does give us the “big picture” within which to work out the details as we study the scientifically observed evidence of past events that we have available in the present.

So despite evolutionists’ denial, there is a vital distinction between operation (experimental, observational) science that builds our technology and finds cures for disease and origin (historical) science that tries to work out the origin and history of the universe. Evolutionists deceive themselves and most of the world (including many Christians) by equating the two.

A Challenge to Debate—Refused

At the end of the January 30 radio interview, I challenged Mr. Phelps to a public debate about the scientific evidence related to origins and to do it at the location of his choosing. He refused, instead hiding behind the false demand that I publish my objections to evolution in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and behind the red herring excuse that he would be giving credibility to a creationist to debate me.

But I submit that the real reason he refused is because he can’t defend his position in the free-marketplace of ideas. I only had biology and chemistry in high school and one physics course in college. I have no credibility in the scientific community and little even within Christian circles. With his BS and MS degrees in geology, winning a debate with me should be very easy. If evolution was really true and all the scientific evidence confirmed it, a debate with me would be a great way for Mr. Phelps to demolish any credibility I have within the Christian community and to make creationists look like the ignorant, gullible fools that he and other evolutionists think we are. Too bad that he is unwilling to defend his views in a formal public debate.


  1. George Grinnell, “The Origins of Modern Geological theory,” Kronos 1, no. 4 (1976): 74. Lyell was president of the London Geological Society in 1835–1837 and 1849–1851.
  2. Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), 77.
  3. Ibid., 293.
  4. I realize that modern geologists are open to great catastrophes to explain some features of the geological record. But uniformitarianism is still the default way of thinking for most geologists.
  5. I.e., the first few decades of the nineteenth century.
  6. The leading British historian and philosopher of science in the first half of the nineteenth century, William Whewell, discussed this different kind of science at length. See The Great Turning Point, 228–233.
  7. Martin J. S. Rudwick, "The Principle of Uniformity," History of Science 1 (1962): 82.
  8. Martin J. S. Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 431–32; italics in the original.
  9. Stephen J. Gould, “Balzan Prize to Ernst Mayr,” Science 223 (January 20, 1984): 255.
  10. Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 13.


Get the latest answers emailed to you or sign up for our free print newsletter.

See All Lists

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390