IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Evolution debate plays out on creationism's home turf

Image: Display at Creation Museum
A display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., shows humans sharing the land with dinosaurs.Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

PETERSBURG, Ky. — More than a million viewers are expected to tune in online Tuesday night for what may be the most-watched debate over evolution since the Tennessee "Monkey Trial" of 1925. 

A display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., shows humans sharing the land with dinosaurs.Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

Other showdowns between evolution and creationism may have had more impact — for example, the federal court case that went against intelligent-design advocates in 2005. But for pure spectacle, complete with slide presentations, it's hard to beat the face-off here at the Creation Museum between Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham.

Neither debater expects to convert the other one onstage. "I really don't want people looking at it as who won and who lost," said Ham, who heads the museum as well as Answers in Genesis, a Christian outreach organization.

Nye also downplays the expectations. "I don't think I'm going to win Mr. Ham over, any more than Mr. Ham thinks he's going to win me over," he told HuffPost Live last month.

But visitors to the $35 million Creation Museum, which is a half-hour's drive west of Cincinnati, are rooting for the home team. "I don't know the other guy, but I know Ken Ham, and he's pretty good," said Heather Coker, who was going through the museum with her family from Jackson, Miss. She said she thinks Ham could outdo Nye, which led her 14-year-old son Jacob to add: "'Think?' I know."

Sisters Bella, 5; and Laura Katherine Coker, 3, of Jackson, Miss., tour the Creation Museum with their father, John Coker. This display lets visitors address questions to an animatronic Noah - for example, why he built Noah's Ark.Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

How the debate works
It took months to work out all of the details of the 7 p.m. ET debate, starting with the official topic: "Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?"

The two men will take turns, first with five-minute opening statements, then with 30-minute presentations, then with two rounds of five-minute rebuttals. About 45 minutes' worth of questions will be taken from the audience filling the museum's 900-seat auditorium. CNN correspondent Tom Foreman will be the moderator.

Answers in Genesis says more than 10,000 churches and other groups are planning to carry the debate's free live video stream — and says "many more than one million people will be watching."

Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, views the debate as an opportunity to have an open discussion of creation vs evolution. Photograph by Jonathan AdamsJonathan Adams / for NBC News

Among those who may well be watching is Brian Weaver, who stopped by the museum with friends and family on Monday. He's familiar with both sides of the debate, in part thanks to Nye's long-running science TV show for kids.

"We home-school our kids, and we use Bill Nye quite a bit," Weaver told NBC News. "We love his videos from an educational standpoint, but from our Christian perspective, we just gloss over the parts where he gets into an evolutionary perspective."

Where creationism reigns
The Creation Museum definitely glosses over the mainstream evolutionary perspective, and depicts natural history in accordance with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In this museum, all the dinosaur displays date back to roughly 2348 B.C. — the time of the Great Flood, as calculated by Bishop James Ussher in the 17th century. Other displays cast doubt on radioisotope dating and the mainstream view of the fossil record. Still others show how it is that the universe has been around for just a little more than 6,000 years rather than 13.8 billion years as posited by scientists.

MSNBC slideshow: Inside the Creation Museum

The Creation Museum helps support the Christian world view, right down to the dioramas showing humans and dinosaurs sharing a young Earth.

"We want to make it as professional as possible, as first class as possible, cutting edge," Ham said. "Of the people who come here, probably a majority of them would support our position on Genesis, and they're thrilled with the quality. Usually the comment I get is that it exceeds their expectations. They love having a family-friendly place that they can bring their children to in particular, and not worry about what they see and what they read. It teaches what they're teaching their children." 

A diorama at the Creation Museum explains God's creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden.Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

Viable or not?
So is creation a viable model of origins in today's scientific era? For the debaters, that's the key question at issue on Tuesday night. But for the believers, the answer is already there: It's viable enough. 

"There are two ways of looking at the world. You have the same information, the same facts — but two ways of organizing them, two world views," said Michael Pells, a museumgoer who took his 8-year-old son through the dinosaur displays on Monday. "As Christians, we're called on to pass our faith along to our children, and I'm trying to pass that along to our kids. This helps — it's something that's interactive, graphic and exciting for the kids."

Theology student Roger Browning said he favored a live-and-let-live approach to the evolution-vs.-creation debate. "It's not necessary to say that one is right or wrong," he said, as he stood at an exhibit explaining what's wrong with Darwinism. "Both are viable."

Whatever happens on Tuesday, Sid Latham — a friend of Weaver's who is a preacher at the Fayette Church of Christ in Lexington — said he hopes evolutionists and creationists will find a way to get along. "I think we'd get a lot more done if we didn't get offended over what the other side says," he said. and will offer live video coverage of the debate from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., beginning at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday. NBC News Digital science editor Alan Boyle is on the scene.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.