Young-earth evolution: How modern creationists embrace their own undoing
Expanded from a 2015 guest post for Panda’s Thumb and Naturalis Historia, this article explores recent evolution of teachings within the ranks of young-earth creationists.
As the young-earth creationists at Answers in Genesis worked to complete their Ark Encounter “theme park” in Northern Kentucky, an impressive amount of time and energy went to the development of a new creationist zoology called baraminology. For neocreationists, the familiar system of Linnaean taxonomy (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species) has far too much evolutionary baggage. To replace this, they have introduced the concept of baramins, a term for the groups of organisms purportedly created by God just a few thousand years ago.
These “created kinds” allow these creationists to advance a peculiar mix of natural selection and pseudoscience: that all modern land species today evolved from a small group of distinct animals on board Noah’s Ark. This consolidation of numerous species into smaller parent groups is driven primarily by the space on Noah’s purported vessel. The smaller the menagerie the Ark was purported to have contained, the more feasible the whole idea seems, and so there is pressure among creationists to come up with ways that the vast array of species today could have been represented by a relatively low number of ancestral pairs.
As creationists struggle to build out their new taxonomy, the challenges they face provide a surprisingly clear picture of exactly where their pseudoscience breaks down.
The evolution of creationism
Young-earth creationism is a relatively recent development. The earliest creationists had no particular dispute with deep time or mainstream geology; rather, religious objections to Darwin’s theories had to do with their implications for human identity. Some opposed the idea of common descent because they felt it took God out of the process of creation; more protested the shocking notion that the various races shared the same origins.
Originally, creationists insisted that the natural selection described by Darwin was as much a myth as universal common descent. A species could produce a variety of breeds by varying small characteristics, but all the breeds remained part of the same collective population. They believed God had created all species essentially in the same state they are found today.
By the time organized religious creationism synthesized its young-earth position — complete with six-day creation and the full-size Noah’s Ark, as described by 1960’s The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris — the argument had changed. Apologists began advancing a distinction now familiar to those who exposed to creationist ideas: the concept of microevolution and macroevolution.
While these terms have valid definitions in modern biology, they have different meanings for creationists. Microevolution is the term they use for change or variation that takes place within a “kind” of organism, while macroevolution is used to describe “change between kinds”. To creationists, microevolution is a viable, observable natural process, but macroevolution is impossible.
This, of course, begs the question of what constitutes a “kind”.
The most common example, provided by even the earliest creationists, is the difference between dogs and cats. The diversity of dog breeds, they explain, is the result of microevolution, or variation among a large population of canids— initially only among domesticated dogs, then all dogs, dingoes, and wolves, and now expanded to include foxes and other genera— but that a dog could never, ever evolve into anything like a cat. They claim microevolution is characterized by a loss or filtering of genetic information, moving from a more complete genome to a restricted one; they argue macroevolution (e.g., to get from a dog to something like a cat) would require adding new information to the genome and is thus impossible.
A creationist’s best friend
The comparison of dogs and cats provides a simple, readily-accessible rule suitable for the lay audiences courted by Answers in Genesis and other creationist groups. It’s easy to remember: small changes “within a kind” are natural, observable variation (and part of God’s plan); large changes “between kinds” are evolutionary nonsense with no evidence. They trot out the example with dogged regularity:
The same example is even used to build out additional polemics against their caricature of mainstream biology:
While these simplistic arguments are embarrassingly easy to refute — the March 2018 tweet above obscures the difference between artificial selection by breeders and natural selection by environmental change — they remain convincing to the millions of evangelical Christians who continue to believe evolution is a secular conspiracy. However, as with most pseudoscience, the flaws become evident when you try to follow the idea to its natural conclusion. The work done in constructing the new Ark Encounter does exactly this.
Filling the Ark
The tale of eight righteous people keeping tens of thousands of animals alive on a prehistoric wooden barge for the better part of a year strains credulity, even for true believers like Ham. In order to make the whole affair seem more feasible without appealing to an endless string of miracles, the designers of the Ark Encounter push to minimize overcrowding. Since the dimensions of Noah’s vessel are set by Genesis, their only way to reduce crowding is to consolidate more and more species into an ever-shrinking number of baramins. Perhaps no better example of this arises with the very illustration used most often by creationists: cats, dogs, and the rest of Order Carnivora.
Answers in Genesis has repeatedly posted large, detailed lists of various species, families, and orders with attempts to organize them according to the new creationist taxonomy. One of the largest such postings, by retired veterinarian Jean Lightner, organizes the majority of Order Carnivora into eight distinct baramins: cats, civets, dogs, hyenas, bears, weasels, mongooses, and red pandas.
Conveniently for creationists, this means the ~250 extant terrestrial carnivoran species (plus numerous extinct relatives) would be represented by only 16 individuals on the Ark, as depicted below.
As the Ark Encounter neared completion in 2016, designers worked to build out models that would be used to depict each original pair. The problem arose when they began to imagine what each of these original “created kinds” must have looked like.
Because creationists insist all genetic information ultimately traces back to a divine author, rather than being generated by the iterative process of mutation and natural selection, they must claim adaptation and speciation only take place as a result of information loss. This requires each “original created kind” be the ultimate representative of all its descendants, which in turn guided their designers in coming up with the models for the Ark project. Combining the characteristics of all extant cats to form a super-cat, all bears to form a super-bear, and so forth produces a picture of what each “Ark kind” would have had to look like:
The problem is obvious. Creationists claim that the various baramins all have intrinsic, essential differences that render them totally unique and distinct from one another, but the presumed ancestors of each of these groups are all very, very similar. In fact, if creationists were presented with only the eight “ancestral” species depicted above, they would likely group most or all of them into a single baramin based on their obvious similarities. There is more morphological and genetic variation within each of the “kinds” proposed by Answers in Genesis than there is within the collective group formed by their ancestors.
There is more morphological and genetic variation within each of the “kinds” proposed by Answers in Genesis than there is within the collective group formed by their ancestors.
Of course, this is exactly what biologists expect. A basic definition of evolutionary biology is descent with modification: small genetic changes accumulating over time to produce greater and greater divisions. Biologists recognize that all modern carnivorans did descend from the miacids, a species of small, placental carnivores found in strata shortly after fossils of the last non-avian dinosaurs. It is only natural that species variation within any given modern carnivoran family is greater than the variation among the original group of carnivoran ancestors, as creationists are now unwittingly demonstrating.
Wouldn’t it be easier for creationists to claim a “super-carnivore” species — one that survived the flood as a single pair on board Noah’s Ark and thereafter multiplied into the many species shown above? Shortly after the original version of this article was posted, I sat down for coffee with Answers in Genesis author Nathaniel Jeanson and posed that very question. How do creationists decide whether two groups are part of the same baramin or different ones, particularly when their ancestors would have appeared so similar? After all, creationists once claimed dogs and foxes were completely distinct, unrelated kinds, but now consider them to share a common wolflike ancestor. They originally claimed domestic cats, saber-toothed cats, and tigers were separate creations, but now say they all evolved from one large catlike pair on the Ark. Even giant pandas and black bears are now considered by creationists to be closely related.
I asked Jeanson where it stops. Is it possible that hyenas are similar enough to dogs that they both could share an ancestor? What about civets and mongooses, or red pandas and badgers? Could it be possible that seals and sea lions are simply the descendants of some aquatic bear, adapted to life in the ocean during the past few thousand years? After all, that would neatly explain why pinnipeds are notably absent in the fossil layers that creationists identify with the Flood.
To my surprise, Jeanson admitted he really didn’t know. Maybe hyenas are descended from the same ancestors as dogs. “These are new fields of research,” he explained, and so they haven’t yet decided just how much information could be packed into a single original breeding population. Jeanson even left the door open to consolidating all carnivorans into just two or three original Ark pairs.
Of course, they couldn’t actually do this. Creationists have spent the last sixty years insisting cats, dogs, hyenas, and bears (along with numerous other families) are all separate, distinct kinds which couldn’t possibly share a common ancestor. They would have to explain how two or three common ancestors for all carnivores is still only “microevolution” if they wanted to keep insisting that “macroevolution” is impossible.
Even so, the confusion is evident for those visiting the now-complete Ark Encounter. As I walked through in September of 2016, I was struck by the fact that few or none of the “Ark kinds” depicted bear concrete resemblance to any creatures alive today.
For example, Answers in Genesis now claims both giraffes and okapis evolved from a single short-necked ancestor (depicted at left), despite voluminous arguments for nearly a century that the long neck of the giraffe is an example of intentional, specific design.
As I walked through, the confusion was reflected by the fellow visitors eagerly shuffling from cage to cage. “Are these supposed to be turtles?” asked one obvious homeschooling dad, furrowing his brow as he stared at a representation of caseids, prehistoric shell-less synapsids.
As thousands of visitors funnel through the Ark’s doors every year, I can only imagine that the confusion will mount. It seems that Ark’s enthusiastic depiction of the variation and speciation presumed to have taken place since the Flood may end up being the most obvious endorsement of real science that Answers in Genesis could ever make.
David MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC and features in the 2019 independent documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs. His upcoming book explores the impact of science denial in America and what it took for him to leave it behind.
Adapted from original post at pandasthumb.org in December 2015.