In April 26, 2007, Chapman University hosted the W.M. Keck Foundation Student Research Day, a gathering of the school's various science departments, so students could showcase their research and the public could nerd out. The keynote speaker that day was a titan in Orange County's scientific community: Francisco Ayala, a professor at UC Irvine and one of the most respected evolutionary biologists in the world.
Ayala's email signature reminds recipients he is a 2001 National Medal of Science Laureate and received the prestigious 2010 Templeton Prize, an international scientific award awarded for his “public role in defending science practice and religious faith”—but he's selling himself short. UCI's largest library is named after him. He has published more than 1,000 papers and 35 books, both popular and academic. According to the UC Irvine Faculty Directory, Ayala is actually three professors in one: university professor and Donald Bren professor of biological sciences, ecology & evolutionary biology; professor of philosophy; and professor of logic and the philosophy of science. He also has a badass accent, a vestige from his youth in Spain, which grants him even more elder-scientist gravitas.
The New York Times has described Ayala as a professor “always on the road,” often speaking at churches “in defense of the theory of evolution and against the arguments of creationism.”
But none of Ayala's qualifications are important to Bill Morgan, perhaps Orange County's most influential creationist. To him, the esteemed professor is a jerk.
During the W.M. Keck lecture titled “Darwin and Intelligent Design,” Morgan claims, Ayala described a classic empirical example of natural selection: peppered moth evolution. During the Industrial Revolution, England's trees became darker after being covered in pollutants for years. The lighter peppered moths, which were originally the most populous, began to die off because their camouflage was rendered less effective. Simultaneously, the darker peppered moths became more prevalent, since they were able to better hide on the newly darkened trees.
Morgan says he attended the lecture with his then-9-year-old daughter. Afterward, she wrote Ayala a letter: “Peppered moth population changes are an example of natural selection, which all creationists believe is true,” she wrote. “But you began with moths and ended with moths. . . . There were no new animals.”
Ayala's response, according to Morgan? Ayala smugly told her that when she takes college-level biology, she'll understand—and that was that.
The story was odd. It ran counter to the professor's carefully constructed public image as an intellectual who welcomes all debates about evolution. Morgan didn't save either letter. Ayala's executive secretary, however, did, and Ayala forwarded both to the Weekly.
“My daddy heard your talk at Chapman,” the letter began, with the rest of it proceeding as Morgan earlier describes, with his daughter critiquing Ayala's points and asking how moths got “feet” and “eyes.” She also suggested Ayala read her father's comic books, which are a collection of creationist talking points accompanied by relevant Clipart photos.
But Ayala's actual response differed from Morgan's description—characteristically terse, but not rude or dismissive. “I did not use moths to prove evolution, but to show how natural selection works in a simple case. When you study biology, you will be able to understand how evolution works,” he wrote to the young girl, adding, “Thank you for your letter.”
In an interview with the Weekly, Ayala calls Morgan a “liar” and says that he was “sad to see someone distort the facts in the name of religion,” particularly given that science and religion should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Ayala added that it was “difficult to comprehend people who make false accusations and lie for the sake of God.”
Before the letter confusion, I tried to arrange a meeting between Ayala and Morgan so the two could discuss their philosophical and scientific differences, with the hopes of finding some common ground. The history between them—along with Ayala's stellar reputation for respecting the religious and reaching out to the public—made the professor seem the perfect candidate to partake in a healthy, casual discussion about the state of the debate with his ideological opposite.
Ayala thanked me, but he declined; he doesn't think “such debates or discussions are worthwhile.”
Pressed for an explanation, he says that the circumstances of debates or an interview are such that people can't explore in depth any of the scientific evidence. Instead, they just turn into rhetorical exchanges that don't accomplish anything. “Look, the evidence for biological evolution is stronger and more abundant than the evidence for other scientific theories, such as the atomic theory, the heliocentric theory or the expansion of the galaxies,” Ayala says. “What is needed is better scientific education, not debate.”
After unearthing the exchange between him and Morgan's daughter, he wrote, “You may understand why I do not want to have public discussions . . . with the likes of Mr. Morgan.”
The problem for evolution, though, is that there are more Bill Morgans than there are Francisco Ayalas.
* * *
Morgan has developed an impressive rhetorical gymnastics routine to define his opponent's beliefs. As they see it, life won the Mega Millions several times over. Billions of years ago, stardust mixed with energy derived from an unknown source. Such energy and matter, coming from nowhere and thus violating the First Law of Thermodynamics, somehow perfectly rearranged itself to create life from non-life, thus violating Pasteur's Law of Biogenesis. Those simple life forms—bacterial organisms, essentially—then spent billions of years magically evolving into the millions of forms of life we see today.
During debates, Morgan often produces a “magic wand” and waves it around whenever a pro-evolution speaker says that evolution occurs over time. Many atheists, Morgan points out, have faith in the idea that the bacteria you find on shower curtain are distant cousins of Homo sapiens—in other words, they have faith in time. Intelligent and unbiased observers, he insists, realize that the likelihood of such an occurrence is infinitesimally small. “One hundred percent certain,” he says, “that we do not have bacterial ancestors.”
To Morgan, the most scientifically consistent explanation is Young Earth creationism: Life began “several thousand” years ago, created by God, in one great creation event, by creating two adult forms for every animal, one of each gender. He believes that many micro-evolutionary mechanisms work—speciation, for example. However, he rejects macro-evolution, stating, “Whales make whales, and bacteria make bacteria.”
While evolutionary biologists such as Ayala scoff at Morgan's beliefs, they're in the minority among the American public. In May, Gallup took a poll of 1,012 adults living in all 50 states; 46 percent of respondents said they believed that God created humans in present form, while 32 percent believed that God guided human evolution. A mere 15 percent said that humans evolving without any involvement from God most accurately described their beliefs. The numbers have remained remarkably static since 1982, when Gallup began polling on the topic.
The poll numbers aren't an accident. In fact, creationism's enduring popularity is helped by an underground network of activists spread across the United States. Far from the halls of academia, activists teach creationism in homes, churches, the streets—even college campuses, where they can occasionally be found arguing with a student or professor.
Locally, after steadily building his reputation over the past 20 years, Morgan is the go-to creationist guru. He writes a prolific amount of pamphlets, tracts and comics, all self-published, all featuring correspondence with a few Ph.D.s sympathetic to creationism that give his literature the sheen of science, with titles such as “219 Reasons to Believe in God and Design,” “The Flood of Noah: Ridiculous Myth or Scientifically Accurate?” and “How Long Ago Did Adam and Eve Live?” They circulate through Orange County Christendom and beyond. Much of Morgan's writing is compiled on his website, FishDontWalk.com, on which his 500-slide PowerPoint presentation defending creationism and attacking evolution is freely available to anyone who wants it. He has been a featured speaker at hundreds of churches—even some mosques—nationwide. Pick any city in Orange County, and odds are that Morgan has spoken there.
Before becoming a dad, Morgan taught two or three creationist classes per week. He claims to want to lessen his speaking schedule to spend more time with his three kids—but Morgan recently gave four creationism lessons in just one week. He's also a frequent speaker at religious conferences, from youth organizations to homeschooling groups, and speaks on behalf of Santa Ana-based Logos Research Associates, a group of Christian scientists that investigate biblical questions from a scientific perspective. Morgan thrives on debate, saying he is “willing and able to debate anyone” on radio programs and podcasts, in lecture halls and church meeting rooms—if there's a platform for him, hostile or sympathetic, the fiftysomething man will take it.
He lives in a quaint Orange County neighborhood of 1960s-era one-story homes, with well-cut, well-watered grass. About half of the houses on his street have an American flag hanging above the porch, Morgan's included. The extremely comfortable, worn-down, black couch in his living room was the same one he became a creationist on in 1987, two years before he decided to become a Christian again.
Morgan grew up in a stable, upper-middle-class home in Buffalo, New York. Every Sunday until he was 14, Bill attended the local Presbyterian church that his grandparents co-founded because “if I was bored to death for an hour, I thought I would be entitled to go to heaven.” After learning about the theory of evolution in his freshman-year, high-school biology class, Morgan decided he no longer believed in God and stopped attending church services. Shortly after losing his faith, his mother, without any explanation, stopped attending church, too. “I never really thought about it,” he says. “It was just something that we stopped doing.”
After graduating from the University of Buffalo with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, Morgan moved to California because of the weather; on his first night in the state, he made out with a girl and broke someone's nose. Morgan's early twenties proceeded to follow what he called the “sinful life”: working at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on nuclear submarines, playing beach volleyball, drinking every weekend, trying to get laid and occasionally smoking pot.
One day in 1987, his roommate showed him a short Christian comic that explained creationism. Morgan was “stunned” the comic's author, the late Dr. Bolton Davidheiser, had a Ph.D. in zoology from Johns Hopkins. He spent several months reading creationist literature, as well as textbooks about evolution, eventually concluding “how awful the fossil evidence was for ape-man to man evolution.” Academics were betraying the truth, he felt, which partially inspired him to become more of an activist than a silent believer. On June 12, 1989, Bill Morgan decided he was a Christian and was going to start living like one—almost two years after becoming a creationist.
After his conversion, the then-single Morgan, decided to start exclusively pursuing Christian women. So when a cute junior-high-school teacher asked him to teach a lesson on creationism to her class, Morgan instantly agreed, despite being “scared to death” of public speaking. He never got a date with her, but the experience hooked him on teaching creationism. “I then began calling churches out of the Yellow Pages,” he says, “offering a free 'Creation vs. Evolution' lesson, and things grew from there.”
It wasn't a smooth beginning. Morgan's first creationism lessons had him speaking too quickly out of nerves, and he had volunteers help him to read his comics. Eventually, as he started giving more lessons, Morgan invested in looking more professional. “I made overheads and bought an overhead projector . . . now it's PowerPoint.”
Morgan's willingness to speak wherever he's asked—and to do it for free—helped his influence snowball. Every time he spoke to a new Christian group, someone from the audience representing another group requested he speak to them. His speaking schedule is now self-sustaining—no more fingering through the Yellow Pages. And wherever he goes, he gets email addresses for his Creation vs. Evolution Newsletter, which now reaches about 4,500 people, from Sunday-school teachers to important church bureaucrats.
Al Siebert, executive director of Southern California Youth for Christ, says his organization always asks Morgan to speak at its annual student-leadership conference, which is usually attended by 1,500. “Bill's a popular seminar leader,” says Siebert. “He'll speak three times at each conference and always fill up the room. People will be sitting on the floor to hear him speak.” Siebert says that because of Morgan's ability to connect with youth—”he really speaks their language”—Youth for Christ often recommends him as a speaker at Christian clubs on college campuses.
“He's not some celebrity,” Siebert adds, who sought out Morgan after hearing about him from a youth pastor in the area, “but he's very well-known and respected on a grassroots level, especially in Southern California.”
* * *
When Morgan appeared on the nationally syndicated radio program Coast to Coast AM, he told a story about the most dangerous encounter he has had while spreading creationism. He was handing out creationist literature to students at Pacifica High School. A veteran at “witnessing,” Morgan knew what he was doing. He wasn't blocking anyone's access; he was across the street on public property, and, Morgan claims, he politely gave the literature to students who were willing to take it.
“And then this teacher came running out, with his eyes bulging. He said, 'You have stop this! It's against the law,'” Morgan told show host George Noory.
Morgan asked which law was being broken. He then explained that no California, municipal, or federal laws prohibited him from handing out literature.
“And so [the teacher] said, 'Well, if you don't stop, I'm going to kick your you-know-what!'”
The teacher eventually backed down, realizing that Morgan was in the right—legally speaking.
For Morgan, it's not just about preaching to the choir. He doesn't eschew the chaos; he thrives from it. When members of the blog forum the Good Atheist heard that he would be speaking at a local high school, they wrote suggestions about how to deal with Morgan, whom the site's founder referred to as an uneducated “clown.” They summarized his arguments in one sentence: “I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, so God did it.” He also appeared on an atheist podcast, The Rational Response Squad Radio Show, on which the hosts took specific passages from Morgan's literature and attacked him. The discussion devolved from there, with the hosts mocking his answers and Morgan trying to keep his cool under assault. He later described the incident as an ambush, not a debate; he didn't agree to return.
Morgan seems to enjoy debating the most when his opponent is highly educated. He once flew at his own expense to New York to debate Dr. Walter Jahn, a biology professor at the State University of New York, Orange. “We had two debates and had a nice lunch together in between the debates,” Morgan says.
He prefers to debate the scientific aspects of evolution and creation, but he's willing to debate anyone—including Orange County's resident atheist bomb-thrower, Bruce Gleason. In fact, Morgan was set to debate Gleason at his church in Garden Grove, but when Morgan's pastor found out that Gleason's intention was to “assassinate the character of God,” he cooled to the idea and canceled the debate.
Both Gleason and Morgan were bummed and say they hope to find another venue for debate in the future.
“I've been to a Backyard Skeptic meeting. I like Bruce,” Morgan says. He then explains why everything Gleason believes is wrong and motivated by less-than-glamorous intentions; Gleason says, with characteristic self-confidence, that Morgan is “a good guy” who would have been “blown away” by his anti-religious presentation. He then compares creationism to 9/11 conspiracies.
But the Pacifica High encounter colors Morgan's creationist zeal and betrays whom he feels is the Truth's biggest enemy: public education. His wife, a former teacher, home-schools their children because they “oppose a lot of the philosophies in the schools,” adding that his wife likes “to incorporate God's place in history, literature and science. . . . The schools are either silent or hostile to God. We believe knowing God is part of being educated. God or no God is the most important issue in life and should be investigated and a part of education.”
The scholar's most powerful place is in the classroom, where professors can explain evolution to hundreds of students at a time. Morgan certainly recognizes that absent any favorable education reform, the modern lecture hall and classroom remain creationism's greatest threat—which is why he teaches.
Still, he isn't afraid of higher education. When asked what he'd do if his kids end up as biology majors at a public university—where belief in evolution is a de facto requirement for graduation—he isn't concerned.
“They're ready. I've prepared them,” he says with a grin. “They can take the class and get an A, but they don't have to believe it. I took a biology class at Orange Coast College. I never questioned the professor during class, but afterward, I would speak to him and tell him why I didn't believe some of it. I got an A, too.”
* * *
It's 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday at Calvary Chapel WestGrove in Garden Grove—not the most ideal time for a public lecture. Indeed, more than half of the 75 chairs in a meeting room with purple walls are empty, even as activity buzzes around the rest of the campus. Yet Morgan's enthusiasm isn't deterred.
Dressed in his standard lecture attire—Napoleon Dynamite glasses, a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie, khaki pants, and a just barely necessary comb-over—he looks every bit the stereotypical mechanical engineer he is by trade, the trade that feeds his family and allows his second career as a creationist speaker flourish. Standing at the foreground of an open stage holding a microphone, Morgan is in his element.
He starts the meeting, described as a “Creation Lesson” in ads, with a brief prayer. “When I pray, I ask God to bless our time as we seek truth,” he says. Two Calvary Chapel members then lead attendees in listlessly singing “How Great Thou Art” and “My Redeemer Lives,” the afternoon heat stifling any joy for the Lord. Once the song ends, the PowerPoint comes on, and Morgan goes to work.
“What is the best one-word answer to give when someone asks you, 'Why do you believe in God?'” he asks the audience.
“Creation?” one girl asks.
“Nope. Close, though.” he responds.
“The Bible?” another child offers.
“Not quite. Design,” Morgan says, switching to a slide with the word written in all caps.
A few heads nod. He continues, “Does anyone know how many miles of blood vessels are in the human body?”
Morgan's son gives a knowing look from the front row but stays quiet. A few guess, but no one nails the answer.
His son bursts out, “Sixty thousand miles!”
“Right,” Morgan tells him—and the audience. “Isn't that amazing?”
Next, a picture of Mt. Rushmore appears. “Was this natural or done by design?”
The next slide contains a diagram of the human eye. “See how the eyeball is turned and pulled by those tiny, specific muscles? The medial rectus rolls them upward, while the Superior oblique turns the eye downward and inward. Could that have come from chance?”
He points to a few other complexities in nature: an estimate of the number of simultaneous chemical reactions occurring in a living organism, the number of cells in our bodies, the respiratory system.
“So if all of this was designed, what does that mean?”
A pause, then someone gets it. “There must be a Designer.”
Morgan then begins the anti-evolution part of his lesson, designed to undermine and—although he'll never admit it—mock the theory of evolution.
The audience, albeit small, is as diverse as it is faithful. There are crying babies and elderly women in wheelchairs; scientists and manual laborers; whites, blacks, Asians and, Morgan points out, one Latina.
After he finishes, half a dozen or so kids—including Morgan's—give PowerPoint presentations. Instead of reciting a similar, watered-down version of the previous lecture, each kid has chosen his or her own topic (e.g., spiders, why the Earth is just right for human life, ants). And each only passively references creation.
During his presentation about spiders, a kid describes how complex and fascinating is the design of a spider. Another shows the amazing design and machinery of an ant colony. Design, designer; no one says it, but everyone had absorbed the creationist's gospel.
After the kids have their turn, Morgan becomes more serious and focuses on the parents.
“Being able to practice public speaking at an early age, these kids have an advantage,” he says. “And we need to make sure that our children are able to defend creation and inform others.
“And don't believe anything I tell you,” he finishes. “Just listen to the facts that I present, do your own research and come to a conclusion.”
Follow Adam O'Neal on Twitter: @adamtoneal.
This article appeared in print as “Captain Creationist: Bill Morgan is waging a war against evolution, one lecture at a time.”