CABAZON, Calif. — Dinny the roadside dinosaur has found religion.
The 45-foot-high concrete apatosaurus has towered over Interstate 10 near Palm Springs for nearly three decades as a kitschy prehistoric pit stop for tourists. Now he is the star of a renovated attraction that disputes that dinosaurs died off millions of years before humans first walked the planet.
Dinny’s new owners, pointing to the Book of Genesis, contend that most dinosaurs arrived on Earth the same day as Adam and Eve, some 6,000 years ago, and later marched two by two onto Noah’s Ark. The gift shop at the attraction, called the Cabazon Dinosaurs, sells toy dinosaurs whose labels warn, "Don’t swallow it! The fossil record does not support evolution."
The Cabazon Dinosaurs join at least a half-dozen other roadside attractions nationwide that use the giant reptiles’ popularity in seeking to win converts to creationism. And more are on the way.
"We’re putting evolutionists on notice: We’re taking the dinosaurs back," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, a Christian group building a $25 million creationist museum in Petersburg, Ky., that’s already overrun with model sauropods and velociraptors.
"They’re used to teach people that there’s no God, and they’re used to brainwash people," he said. "Evolutionists get very upset when we use dinosaurs. That’s their star."
The nation’s top paleontologists find the creation theory preposterous and say children are being misled by dinosaur exhibits that take the Jurassic out of "Jurassic Park."
"Dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark? Give me a break," said Kevin Padian, curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley and president of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland group that supports teaching evolution. "For them, `The Flintstones’ is a documentary."
Tyrannosaurus rex and his gigantic brethren find themselves on both sides of the nation’s renewed debate over the Earth’s origins and the continuing fight over whether Charles Darwin’s "The Origin of Species" or Genesis best explains the development of life.
Science holds that dinosaurs were the Earth’s royalty for about 160 million years. Their reign ended abruptly, possibly after a meteorite smacked into the planet, but they’re considered the forebears to birds.
Unearthing dinosaur bones that are millions of years old "doesn’t prove evolution, but it shows the Genesis account doesn’t work," said Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education.
Drivers who pull off Interstate 10 in Pensacola, Fla., are told a far different story at Dinosaur Adventure Land. Its slogan: "Where Dinosaurs and the Bible meet!"
The nearly seven-acre museum, low-tech theme park and science center embodies its founder’s belief that God created the world in six days. The dinosaurs, even super carnivores such as T. rex, dined as vegetarians in the Garden of Eden until Adam and Eve sinned — and only then did they feast on other creatures, according to the Christian-based young-Earth theory.
About 4,500 years after Adam and Eve arrived, the theory goes, pairs of baby dinosaurs huddled in Noah’s Ark, and a colossal flood drowned the rest and scattered their fossils. The ark-borne animals repopulated the planet — meaning that folk tales about fire-breathing beasts are accounts of humans battling dinosaurs, who still roamed the planet.
Children romping through the $1.5 million Florida theme park can bounce on a "Long Neck Liftasaurus" swing seat; launch water balloons at a T. rex and a stegosaurus, and smooth their own sandbox-size Grand Canyons, whose formation is credited to the flood. A "fossilized" pickle portends to show that dinosaur bones could have hardened quickly.
"Go to Disneyland, they teach evolution. It’s subtle; signs that say, `Millions of years ago"’ said evangelist Kent Hovind, the park’s founder. "This is a golden opportunity to get our point across."
Carl Baugh opened his Creation Evidence Museum in the 1980s near Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas, where some people said fossilized dinosaur tracks and human footprints crisscrossed contemporaneously. The Texas museum sponsors a continuing hunt for living pterodactyls in Papua New Guinea. Baugh said five colleagues had spotted the flying dinosaurs, "but all the sightings were made after dark, and we were not able to capture the creatures."
Organizers at Creation Research of the North Coast in Humboldt County, Calif., dream of building their own reptile park but lack funding and acreage. So do leaders at Project Creation in Mount Juliet, Tenn., who would need to raise about $1 million to assemble 30 to 50 pterodactyl and brachiosaur replicas to mingle with live chickens and goats.
At the Institute for Creation Research museum in Santee, a San Diego suburb, officials plan to enlarge the paleontological offerings.
"We like to think of (dinosaurs) as creation lizards, or missionary lizards," said Frank Sherwin, a museum researcher and author.
A 50,000-square-foot Answers in Genesis museum and headquarters is under construction near the Ohio-Kentucky border, where the group hired a full-time dinosaur sculptor. When the facility opens in 2007, the lobby will spotlight a 20-foot waterfall and two animatronic T. rexes hanging out with two animatronic children dressed in buckskins.
The creation museums are riling mainstream Christian denominations that believe the Earth is billions of years old and that God uses evolution as a tool. This conviction makes modern science compatible with their faith in a creator.
"Taking the Bible as astronomy or physics is blasphemy. They’re treating it as an elementary textbook, and it’s not," said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an ordained Dominican priest.
"We believe that God created the world…. They misread, misquote and misuse the Bible, but they will lose out to science," said Ayala, a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist and founder of Reasons To Believe ministry in Pasadena, frets that "young-Earth theologians" damage the credibility of scientists who are Christian and push intellectuals away from religion.
"I’d put them in the same category as flat-Earth people and the people that think the sun goes around the Earth," he said. "They think they’re defending the truth, but the young-Earth model has no scientific integrity."
Advocates of the intelligent design theory, who assert that certain features of life are best explained as being the products of a creative intelligence, bristle at being lumped in with young-Earth creationists. There’s little question that the Earth is billions of years old, said John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a public-policy think tank in Seattle that is critical of Darwinian theory.
"Critics would rather tar everyone with the brush of creationism," said West, who teaches political science at Seattle Pacific University. "I think the idea that Genesis provides scientific text is really farfetched."
Creationists defend their dinosaur museums and attractions as a way to teach a grander purpose: If the Bible’s history is accurate, then so is its morality.
"If (evolutionists) convince people that dinosaurs are exotic, strange creatures, they’ve won right there, and the Bible looks like a book of Jewish fairy tales," said Sean Meek, executive director of the Tennessee group Project Creation.