On a recent Tuesday, a dozen or so Liberty University students are in the midst of a lecture in one of their required courses, creation studies.
This is an advanced section of the course, and many of the students are biology majors. Neuroscientist David DeWitt, their professor, leads a lecture on natural selection.
He draws on an example from the documentary film “March of the Penguins” that shows female penguins journeying to find food, and then a seal singling out one to attack.
“Which penguin gets eaten?” he asks. “The one that’s genetically inferior, or the one that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
That element of chance, he argues, begins to unravel the idea of natural selection, or “survival of the fittest,” a key mechanism in the theory of evolution.
At the front of the class, a slide on DeWitt’s presentation displays a biblical passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11.
“I have seen something else under the sun,” it states. “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong; nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
As universities everywhere this month mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his “Origin of Species,” which details his theory of evolution, Liberty University has a focus that is unabashedly different.
“At this university, we’re going to be celebrating creation,” announced Law School Dean Mathew Staver to a cheering crowd of students at a convocation service in early February.
Liberty is on the front lines in the battle of creationism vs. evolution. And it has a battalion of creationist lawyers, scientists and professors in dozens of areas who weave creationism into their coursework and teach students on how to refute the theory of evolution.
“One of the distinguishing fac-tors of Liberty is that every single student here takes a class called creationist studies,” said Campus Pastor Johnnie Moore. “It’s kind of at the core of our identity.”
Liberty leans toward young- Earth creationism, DeWitt said, which is a literal interpretation of the Bible that God created the heavens, Earth and all life in seven days, less than 10,000 years ago.
Creationism as a course of scientific study is shunned at many universities, where it is not recognized as a scientific explanation for the origin of life.
Biochemist Michael Behe, who recently spoke at Liberty as part of its counter-evolution events, readily acknowledged that minority view. A tenured professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Behe told students that his colleagues vehemently disagree with his views on intel-ligent design, which states that life was designed by an “intelligent agent.”
At Lehigh University, his colleagues have posted a disclaimer on the department’s Web site.
It states that faculty members are “unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory… It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.”
Biologist Doug Shedd, a professor at Randolph College, said creationist views are not taught alongside evolution in his or most other college-level science classes.
“The scientific community in general thinks that there is no place for that,” he said. “The creationist views and views on intelligent design are views that people might be interested in exploring. But not inside science, because those views lay outside the realm of science.
“If science is about anything, it’s about testability. And creationism, at its heart, is untestable.”
Instead, he said, those ideas traditionally are pursued in course areas such as comparative religion, sociology or anthropology.
At Liberty, the science classroom is exactly where students learn about creation, and the content also is woven into many other areas of coursework.
The college is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award degrees in science programs including biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, nursing, psychology, engineering, health sciences and kinesiology.
DeWitt, who is director of the school’s center for creation stud-ies, teaches biology and two versions of creation studies — one for students in the sciences that includes more “scientifically detailed subject matter,” he said, and another that most students take, which does not.
He teaches both evolution and creation.
“I show them side-by-side — Here’s the human. Here’s the chimpanzee,” he said. “If I would not present evolution and their best evidence and arguments, then I would not be a scholar and I would not be providing the best service for the students.
“I actually teach more about evolution than I received in my undergraduate (biochemistry) program at Michigan State (University). I also teach a lot more about creationism.”
DeWitt’s personal views are critical of evolution, he said.
“If a frog turns into a prince with a kiss then it’s a fairy tale. If a frog turns into a prince over millions of years, it’s science,” he said, referencing the theory of evolution. “It’s almost ridiculous.”
“I’m a scientist, and I’m not denigrating science. I’m critiqu-ing the idea that millions of years is the magic wand that makes it possible.”
Like many others, DeWitt said he once believed that evolution was guided by God.
But that view changed when he was in college.
“Molecules-to-man evolution is incompatible with the creationist account in the Bible,” he said.
Back in the classroom, he expanded on his example from “March of the Penguins.”
“Natural selection does operate on some level. The seals are going to be faster than the penguins, no matter what. There’s all these other factors that come into play,” such as learning, disease and luck, he said.
Randolph College’s Shedd said the scientific community at large is in agreement that evolution occurs.
“That, as far as I’m concerned, is a fact,” he said.
But whether natural selection is the sole mechanism that drives evolution, he said, is still under some debate.
“Sometimes, creationists can get somewhat obsessive about the fact that Darwin didn’t get everything right on the first try,” Shedd said. “And what scientist did?”
Staver said that the theory of evolution “has impacted everything,” including his area of expertise — law.
An evolutionary model for arguing cases, for example, now impacts the creation of law, he said.
Instead of the previously accepted practice of basing arguments on the original source, the U.S. Constitution, Staver said, now lawyers instead use case studies that build upon each other and “evolve” over time.
Law students at Liberty “have to understand both sides” in order to critically analyze cases, he said.
They also must learn the details of evolution versus creation “so they are comfortable and confident in advocating their position,” he said.
“You clearly see it in some of the more social areas such as marriage and abortion. But it really permeates all the areas of law.”
Moore said Liberty students, no matter which program they’re in, should understand arguments that support the creationist perspective so they can defend their beliefs.
“What we’re doing is, we’re training Christian young people to go into culture in various occupations; to be good Christians in their area of influence,” Moore said. “We want them to be as prepared to represent Christ and the Bible and Christian val-ues in culture as they are prepared to excel in their careers.
“And one key part of that is — Who is God? And Liberty believes God is creator.”