DALLAS — Most scientists believe Charles Darwin got it right: Single-celled creatures evolved into complex ones through a process of natural selection and genetic adaptation that over eons turned a primordial swamp into shape-shifting cells, into ape-like primates, into people.
His theory is taught in virtually every science classroom in the world. It is used to demystify the complexity of life, translate the language of DNA and make sense of geology, biology and paleontology.
Scientists call evolution a unifying theory, a weight-bearing wall that frames our understanding of the natural world.
But at the Institute for Creation Research in northwest Dallas, a group of nine Ph.D.s from places like Harvard and Los Alamos National Laboratory say all that molecules-to-man stuff is nonsense. And they're out to prove it.
The biblical story of Genesis is literally true, they said. God created the heavens, earth and life in six sequential days lasting about 24 hours each.
The universe is not 13.8 billion years old (as astrophysicists calculate by measuring the rate of cosmic expansion), the earth is not 4.5 billion years old (as geologists conclude by using radioisotope dating on ancient rocks), and humans did not split from chimpanzees and gorillas about 4 million to 7 million years ago (as suggested by genetics and the fossil record).
Young-earth creationists like those at ICR argue that everything in the known universe began 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, a numeric range they calculate using the genealogy of the Bible — Adam lived 930 years and begat a son named Seth, who lived 105 years and begat Enos, and so on.
"Our attempt is to demonstrate that the Bible is accurate, not just religiously authoritative," said Henry Morris III, CEO of the nonprofit with a 49-person payroll and an annual budget in the $7 million range.
"The rationale behind it is this: If God really does exist, he shouldn't be lying to us," he told The Dallas Morning News. "And if he's lying to us right off the bat in the book of Genesis, we've got some real problems."
Morris knows ICR's professors are pariahs among their peers, their positions are ridiculed as "pseudo-science" by researchers around the world, and even many pastors reject the group's literal reading of the Old Testament.
This spring, televangelist Pat Robertson said on the Christian-themed television show "The 700 Club" that people would "have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that this earth that we live on only has 6,000 years of existence. I think to deny the clear (geologic) record that's there before us makes us look silly."
Colleges and universities have taught evolution almost exclusively for nearly the last 100 years. One of the results, Morris said, is that about 10 percent of Christians hold to the strict interpretation of Genesis advanced by ICR — one that argues humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that Noah loaded the adolescent Jurassic-era creatures on the ark in pairs with every other animal species on the planet, and that natural wonders like the Grand Canyon were formed in months instead of millions of years.
Nine out of 10 Christians, Morris said, don't buy it. Instead, they attempt to reconcile spiritual texts and science. For example, progressive creationists believe each day described in Genesis was actually billions of years. Others suggest God created the universe in a way that allowed evolution to progress without supernatural intervention.
And some subscribe to the "intelligent design" theory, which proposes that the universe is so beautiful and complex, logic suggests it is the work of an omnipotent architect, rather than the result of an unguided process like natural selection.
"Most Christians are like most people," Morris said. "They don't want to be thought of as weird. They don't want to go against the majority."
Christian apologetics are in Morris' blood. His father, Henry Madison Morris, founded creation science. A college professor and hydraulic engineer, he co-authored "The Genesis Flood" in 1961, which argued that the epic biblical rainstorm was responsible for the geologic signatures scientists use to support their theory of an ancient planet.
The earth doesn't look old, creationists say, it looks flooded. Morris founded ICR in San Diego in 1970, as a research arm of the growing "young-earth" creationist movement. The nonprofit moved to Dallas in 2006 and now employs six members of the Morris family.
ICR earned a three-out-of-four star rating from watchdog group Charity Navigator in 2013, which means it meets or exceeds industry standards for efficiency. ICR's administration costs are low; about $1 out of every $10 donated is spent on administration.
The research center operates quietly, promoting its books and offering its scientific speakers for evangelical conferences and seminars. But ICR generated headlines in 2009 when it sued the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board after the agency refused to certify a master's degree in science education program that would have taught both creationist and evolutionist views, while favoring creationism.
When Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published in 1859, it generated spirited scientific debate, but it did not become a social and political wedge issue until more than 60 years later. At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1925, substitute science teacher John Scopes intentionally violated a new Tennessee law that made it a crime to teach any theory contradicting the Bible.
The ensuing "Monkey Trial" sparked an oratorical spectacle between titans of the time: William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and leader of the crusade against evolution, and famed lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow.
Scopes was ultimately convicted and fined $100, but the verdict was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
By the time Henry Madison Morris began questioning evolution in the 1950s, Darwin's theory had largely won the nation's intellectual battle on the issue.
"I remember being upset that my father was — I'm not sure ostracized is the right word — but knowingly distanced by the rest of the scientific community," said Morris III. "It became clear his stand on creation was the source of the conflict and I was just always defensive for Dad."
The stigma persists today.
Scientists who sign on with ICR know there is no turning back. They'll probably never be hired again to work in academia or at a government-sponsored lab.
Jason Lisle, an astrophysicist and the research director at ICR, said he has no chance of winning a Nobel Prize, even if he makes a groundbreaking discovery. Secular scientists, he said, would never bestow the field's highest honor on a creationist.
Many of ICR's scientists, like Lisle, grew up in conservative Christian homes that promoted young-earth creationism, while others began questioning established scientific theories later in their academic careers.
"I think everyone here is doing it because we believe in the message, and we ultimately want people to be saved," he said. "We want people to realize the Bible is trustworthy in matters of history and when it touches science. And because you can trust it in those areas, you can trust it when it comes to how to inherit eternal life."
Lisle said his team analyzes the same data as secular scientists — but they interpret it differently and often find flaws in accepted assumptions.
For example, Lisle cites the "spiral winding problem" as evidence that galaxies cannot be billions of years old. Essentially, he said if stars had been swinging around galactic centers for billions of years, they'd look more like massive phonograph records than what we see through telescopes, which are loose, hurricane-shaped spirals.
Or oceans — if they'd been around a billion years, they should be more salty. Or genetic mutations — if humans are hundreds of thousands of years old, there should be more genetic wrinkles in our DNA. Or dinosaur bones — if they're millions of years old, scientists should not be recovering soft, protein-based tissue in them.
"It's not proof, but it's certainly clear evidence that perhaps these fossils are not 65 to 85 million years old as evolutionary naturalism says," said Frank Sherwin, a zoologist at ICR.
Sherwin says tissue like that would last, at most, 500,000 years. And 10,000 years seems more likely.
"Evolutionists say in response to this, 'We have to rethink this process of fossilization,'" Sherwin said.
"But our rejoinder is, 'What's to rethink? It looks like this creature died perhaps centuries ago.'"
Scientists at ICR believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God and are unapologetic about reviewing data with a Christian worldview.
"All scientists have a philosophy that guides their interpretation of the evidence," said Lisle. "Most secular scientists are not even aware what their philosophy is — they tend to inherit it like the measles, from whatever their professors taught them. But we find that when we interpret the data through biblical lenses, it fits very well and makes sense."
That lens is what irritates many secular scientists, who say the unflinching spiritual faith skews scientific objectivity, a touchstone of the field. It's no surprise, they say, that ICR's researchers find exactly what they're looking for.
"The problem is, they're not scientists," said Ron Wetherington, who teaches human evolution and forensic anthropology at Southern Methodist University. "They cherry-pick data in order to use it to justify the Genesis account of creation."
Real science, he said, works the opposite way. Researchers don't line up facts to support a hypothesis. Natural laws and theories like evolution are constantly pressure-tested by the scientific community, checking for flaws and leaks in the logic.
Wetherington carefully notes he is not criticizing or ridiculing people of faith. In fact, he said the vast majority of believers in the world have no problem reconciling Scripture with science.
"If you do not believe the text is literally true, but rather that it is metaphorically true, then in fact there is no conflict," Wetherington said. "If you believe God created a world hundreds of billions of years ago that led to the evolutionary transitions that we see from the pre-Cambrian era all the way to today, that is at least as magnificent a testimony to creation as any words in the Bible."