They plan to become doctors, researchers and professors, but these students from Liberty University, an evangelical school, also believe God created the Earth in a week, some 6,000 years ago.
Each year, a group of biology students at the Christian university based in Lynchburg, Virginia, travels to the Natural History Museum in Washington to learn about a theory they dismiss as incorrect — Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The young “creationists” examined a model of the Morganucodon rat, believed to be the first and common ancestor of mammals that appeared some 210 million years ago.
Lauren Dunn, 19, a second-year biology student, was unimpressed.
“210 million years, that’s arbitrary. They put that time to make up for what they don’t know,” she said.
Nathan Hubbard, a 20-year-old from Michigan and a first-year biology major who plans to become a doctor, regarded the model with suspicion.
“There is no scientific, biological genetic way that this, this rat, could become you,” he said, seemingly scandalized by the proposition.
Liberty University is the most prominent evangelical university in the United States, with some 12,000 students who adhere to strict rules and regulations regarding moral conduct.
Its biology curriculum includes a course on “Young Earth Creationism”, which juxtaposes Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” with the Book of Genesis.
“In order to be the best creationist, you have to be the best evolutionist you can be,” said Marcus Ross, who teaches paleontology and says of Adam and Eve: “I feel they were real people, they were the first people.”
David DeWitt, a Liberty University biology professor, opens his classes with a prayer, asking God to help him teach his students.
“I pray that you help me to teach effectively and help the students to learn and defend their faith,” he says.
Strongly-expressed faith is not unusual in the United States, a country where 80 percent of the population claim to believe in God and ascribe to established religions.
Polls taken in the last two years found that between 44 and 46 percent of Americans believe that the Earth was created in a week, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Creationism, an increasingly popular theory in the United States and elsewhere in the world, rejects Darwin’s theory that all living species evolved over the course of billions of years via the process of natural selection.
The school of thought has adherents among Jehovah’s Witnesses and some fundamentalist Muslims, but in the United States it has won most converts in the evangelical Christian community.
Former president George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, is among those who say evolutionary theory does not fully explain the Earth’s creation, though the ex-president also noted he is not a “literalist” when it comes to the Bible.
Creationist belief has implications for the way people understand a variety of fields, including biology, paleontology and astronomy, but also impacts questions about climate change and educational debates.
At the Smithsonian Institute, among crowds of weekend visitors, the Liberty University students visited the evolution exhibition,.
But Darwin’s explanation for why giraffes have long necks — that they evolved over time so they could reach higher foliage — and displays of fossil evidence failed to sway them.
“Creationism and evolutionism have different ways of explaining the evidence. The creationist way recognizes the importance of Biblical records,” said Ross.
He teaches his students that dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the Earth some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago during the Biblical flood that Noah survived by building an ark.
He says carbon-dating techniques that have been used to suggest the Earth is in fact billions of years old are simply not reliable.
He doesn’t reject one prominent theory that dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive asteroid that collided into Earth, but suggests the collision coincided with the Biblical flood.
Though Ross acknowledges that the United States is among the most welcoming environments in the world for creationists, he said it can be difficult to convince people to take him and his beliefs seriously.
“The attitude is when you are a creationist you are ignorant of the facts,” he said.