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.

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