Interview with Paleontologist Donald Prothero

Posted on February 12, 2014


Donald Prothero

Donald Prothero
Paleontologist, geologist, professor, and author or editor of more than 30 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five geology textbooks. Dr. Prothero’s been a Guggenheim and NSF Fellow, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, and Schuchert Award recipient.

A few days after the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, I had the opportunity to interview paleontologist and geologist Donald R. Prothero about the debate, his role in prepping Bill Nye, and his work as a scientist, professor, and lecturer. I’ve posted the audio from our interview at the top of this post, so you can listen in as Prothero gives us a look behind the scenes.

The first revelation he shared was that lots of influential scientists hang out at Michael Shermer’s house. That’s where Bill Nye caught up with Prothero to talk about the debate. Nye knew Prothero had debated Duane Gish in the early ‘80s. At the time, Gish was the face of creationism, and a full-time debater and critic of evolution. Although a lot has changed in the past 30 years, including the development of Intelligent Design Theory, Ken Ham’s model of creationism is very much like Gish’s. Bill Nye is “The Science Guy”, but he hasn’t really been the “Debate Creationists and Engage In The Culture Wars Guy,” so he consulted veterans such as Prothero and Eugenie Scott at the NCSE.

While most scientists continue their work without bothering to respond to creationist attacks, Prothero has chosen to answer the accusations against his profession.

“If there’s anything that drives paleontologists crazy, it’s the creationists lying about the fossil record,” Prothero explains.

In his book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, he confronts Creationist claims head on. He also deals specifically with Flood Geology, the idea that geological history can be explained as the result of a recent, global flood. Prothero offered his work to Bill Nye, and gave a few examples which he used in the debate – though Prothero adds that it was “mostly Bill” in the end.

Even though Prothero has debated creationists in the past, he doesn’t recommend that scientists engage in the debate format. Other scientists criticized Nye for accepting the invitation and giving Ham and Answers in Genesis undeserved attention. They were also uncertain as to how he would actually fare in a debate – which is often more about style than substance. But Prothero points out that this debate was different; instead of putting the scientist in the defensive position of making an affirmative case for the sufficiency of evolution, Answers In Genesis choose the defensive position of affirming that creationism is a viable model of origins. “What you resolve is really critical,” Prothero explains, “it gave Bill a real advantage.”

Over the course of our conversation, Prothero shared some of his religious background. He was raised in a Presbyterian church, and took Bible study seriously, learning Hebrew in high school and studying Greek in college. He also studied science, of course, and said it was evolution that opened his eyes and led him away from the faith. He added that discoveries made while studying the original languages and history of the Bible were a part of his experience of losing faith. The rest of his family remains religious, many of which are theistic evolutionists, and about half of his colleagues in paleontology and geology are Christians in one way or another. That’s fine by him, he says, as long as they don’t mess with science!

“The scientific community doesn’t ostracize you for those kinds of beliefs, it’s only when you tamper with or distort your science that you can get into trouble.”

I appreciated the chance to get a window into his world. We also talked about Intelligent Design, his appearance on Win Ben Stein’s Money, visiting the Creation Museum, and a few other topics which you can hear in the audio posted above. My following post starts to deal with the content of the debate, and I look forward to hearing your opinions and thoughts.