Creationists discover evolution – with a vengeance!

It will come as no surprise to readers of The Panda’s Thumb, but creationists have inadvertently discovered the modern theory of evolution. True, they have had to modify it, just slightly, to allow for zillions of species to have evolved from a few basic “kinds” in a few thousand years. They do not accept innovation but rather claim, without either evidence or convincing argument, that all genetic variation has somehow been preloaded into the original “kinds.” And of course they do not accept universal common ancestry.

That is more or less what I got out of a new paper, “Dissent with modification: How postcreationism’s claim of hyperrapid speciation opposes yet embraces evolutionary theory,” co-authored by sometime PT contributor David MacMillan. Mr. MacMillan, who used to be a young-earth creationist and a great fan of the Ark Park, graduated with a degree in physics and is now a law student. He is no longer a young-earth creationist but identifies as a liberal Christian. The principal author of the paper is R. Joel Duff, a biology professor at the University of Akron and the proprietor of the blog Naturalis Historia; Prof. Duff also describes himself as an evangelical Christian. The third author is Thomas R. Beatman of Carnegie Mellon University, a former student of Prof. Duff.

I will not go into great detail, but the authors describe what they consider to be a new wave of creationism: young-earth creationism with hyper-evolution. They call this view postcreationism, presumably by analogy with postmodernism. Postcreationism has been around in some form for a while, but it seems now to be, dare we say, maturing, so this paper is very timely.

Postcreationists make a sharp distinction between microevolution and macroevolution. To a biologist, macroevolution is evolution at the species level or higher; to a postcreationist, there is an unspecified barrier to prevent evolution above the level of the “kind,” which in the real world corresponds roughly to the family. The postcreationist study of kinds is known as baraminology (bara, he created, is the second word in the Hebrew Bible, and min is the Hebrew word for kind). One of the problems for postcreationist “research” is that they cannot identify the unspecified barrier that limits microevolution and prevents one species from evolving to establish a new baramin. Indeed, if they cannot find such a barrier, then they cannot argue effectively that two species in different baramins could not have shared a common ancestor. It seems to me, then, that postcreationism stands or falls on the ability to find a barrier to macroevolution, or an upper limit to microevolution. Expect a lot of motivated reasoning.

Professor Duff and his colleagues show how the postcreationists have rediscovered evolutionary biology – up to a point. Recognizing that Noah could not have housed one (or seven) pairs of every species of land-dwelling animal, they postulate a certain number of kinds, or baramins, on the Ark. These kinds evolved into all known species, dead and alive, with lightning speed: in about 5000 years. In studying precisely how the original kinds may have evolved, postcreationists have, in effect, rediscovered what we already know about evolutionary biology, with one caveat: they refuse to extrapolate beyond the original kinds to a common ancestor. Indeed, Prof. Duff and his colleagues cite a paper by an Answers in Genesis biologist who used a computer program to calculate a phylogeny of carnivores. The program assumed a universal common ancestor and showed that some species in a given family were genetically farther from each other than were the ancestors of each kind from their universal common ancestor. The biologist, Nathaniel Jeanson, who has a PhD from Harvard, nevertheless denies that different carnivore families are related and stands by a limit to microevolution within a kind. Perhaps he needs to take an eraser and erase some of the lines on his phylogeny. Better yet, devise his own computer program that extrapolates backward only so far and, with no ad hoc assumptions, stops before finding a common ancestor.

Although it is not germane to the rest of the paper, the authors note that postcreationists like to distinguish between operational science and historical science. The distinction is not completely unreasonable, but what they call operational science is mired in the present and sounds a great deal like engineering. Historical science includes cosmology and archaeology, and is not trustworthy because it requires you to make deductions about the past, sometimes the dim dark past. In other words, as Ken Ham so eloquently phrased it, Were you there? Mainstream scientists do not draw such a sharp division between historical and other science, and argue that historical claims may be verified empirically using precisely the same methods as any other scientific endeavor.

Finally, since a critic is paid to be critical (a term that is not necessarily pejorative), I will note that the paper is clearly presented and includes an excellent figure and a variation by Mr. MacMillan. I am not sure I like the term postcreationism, because they are still creationists. Besides, what will we call their next iteration? The paper is a little technical in parts, but anyone ought to be able to read it and get the gist. The authors conclude by noting,

It is important for educators to be aware that creationists have appropriated and mangled mainstream scientiic terms in defense of their young-earth creationist biology and alternative natural history. We have identified and described an ideological movement within young-earth creationism we call postcreationism: a belief in hyperrapid speciation model of the origins of biological diversity. The example of carnivores presented here, offers an opportunity to challenge students’ misconceptions about evolutionary models of the origins of biological diversity.