Turnabout is fair play

Phil Senter has published the most deviously underhanded, sneaky, subtle undermining of the creationist position I've ever seen, and I applaud him for it. What he did was to take them seriously, something I could never do, and treat their various publications that ape the form of the scientific literature as if they actually were real science papers, and apply their methods consistently to an analysis of taxonomy. So on the one hand, it's bizarre and disturbing to see the like of Ken Ham, Jerry Bergman, and Henry Morris get actual scientific citations, but on the other hand, seeing their claims refuted using their own touted methods is peculiarly satisfying.

Senter has published a paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology that takes their claims at face value and analyzes dinosaur morphology using their own methods. 'Baraminologists' have published a set of taxonomic tools that use as input a matrix of morphological characters for an array of animals, and then spits out numbers that tell whether they were similar enough to be related. You can guess what the motivation for that is: they want to claim that Noah didn't have to carry representatives of every dinosaur species on the Ark, but only representatives of each 'kind', which then diversified rapidly after the big boat landed to generate all the different species found in the fossil record.

The problem for them is that Senter found that it works far too well. Using creationist techniques, all of the Dinosauria reduce to…eight kinds. That makes the boat haulage problem relatively even easier.

Here is the summary diagram, illustrating the derived creationist tree of common descent. Oops.

Summary of results of taxon correlation analyses across Dinosauria. Each boxed group of silhouettes indicates a group for which taxon correlation found within-group morphological continuity; for silhouette groups in different boxes, taxon correlation found morphological discontinuity between the groups. Dotted lines represent uncertainty as to whether morphological discontinuity is truly present. On the cladogram, triangles indicate paraphyletic groups.

At first, the results of the taxon correlation analyses appear to imply good news for the creationist world view, on several fronts. First, seven major dinosaurian groups (birdlike coelurosaurs, Tazoudasaurus + Eusauropoda, Stegosauria, Ankylosauridae, Neoceratopsia, Hadrosauridae and basal Hadrosauriformes) are separated from the rest of Dinosauria by morphological gaps (Fig. 15). Creationist inferences that variety within Eusauropoda (Morris, 1999) and Ceratopsidae (Ham, 2009) represent diversification within separately created kinds are congruent with these results. Second, each morphologically continuous group found by taxon correlation includes at least some herbivores. This is congruent with the creationist assertion that all carnivorous animals are descendants of originally herbivorous ancestors (Unfred, 1990; Gish, 1992; Ham, 1998, 2006, 2009; Larsen, 2001; McIntosh & Hodge, 2006). Third, although creationists have answered the problem of room on Noah's ark for multiple pairs of gigantic dinosaurs by asserting that only about 50 'created kinds' of dinosaurs existed (Ham, 1998, 2001, 2006, 2009; Morris, 1999), the problem is solved even better by the results of this study, in which only eight dinosaur 'kinds' are found.

Awww. I guess I'm going to have to become a creationist, now that the evidence shows that dinosaurs are related by common descent…oh, hey, wait. Isn't that what evolution says? And isn't that easier to accommodate within the idea that they did this over millions of years, rather than the freakishly unrealistic hyper-speciation within a few thousand years that the creationists insist on?

However, a second look reveals that these results are at odds with the creationist view. Whether there were eight dinosaur 'kinds' or 50, the diversity within each 'kind' is enormous. Acceptance that such diversity arose by natural means in only a few thousand years therefore stretches the imagination. The largest dinosaurian baramin recovered by this study includes Euparkeria, basal ornithodirans (Silesaurus and Marasuchus), basal saurischians, basal ornithischians, basal sauropodomorphs, basal thyreophorans, nodosaurid ankylosaurs, pachycephalosaurs, basal ceratopsians, basal ornithopods and all but the most birdlike theropods in an unbroken spectrum of morphological continuity. The creationist viewpoint allows for diversification within baramins, but the diversity within this morphologically continuous group is extreme. Also, the inclusion of the Middle Triassic non-dinosaurs Euparkeria and Marasuchus within the group is at odds with the creationist claim that fossil representatives of the predinosaurian, ancestral stock from which dinosaurs arose have never been found (DeYoung, 2000; Ham, 2006; Bergman, 2009).

So, effectively, these results, made using the creationists own tools, demonstrate a genetic relationship between a diverse group of animals that evolution predicted, and confronts young earth creationists with the problem of a kind of frantically prolific speciation that is unimaginably rapid. If species are that fluid and can change that rapidly, their own claims of fixity of species are patently wrong.

The final word:

The results of this study indicate that transitional fossils linking at least four major dinosaurian groups to the rest of Dinosauria are yet to be found. Possibly, some creationist authors will hail this finding as evidence of special creation for those four groups. However, such enthusiasm should be tempered by the finding here that the rest of Dinosauria--including basal members of all major lineages--are joined in a continuous morphological spectrum. This confirms the genetic relatedness of a very broad taxonomic collection of animals, as evolutionary theory predicts, ironically by means of a measure endorsed and used by creation science.

This is so wonderfully, evilly devious. Superficially, it seems to support creationist methods—but what it actually is is a grand reductio ad absurdam. Laugh wickedly at it now, but laugh even harder when you see creationists citing this paper in the future, as you know they will.

Senter P (2011) Using creation science to demonstrate evolution 2: morphological continuity within Dinosauria. J Evol Biol. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02349.x.