Monday, February 20, 2017

Is Genesis History Q&A



With the movie Is Genesis History? opening this week, I'm bound to have new readers checking up on me and my ideas.  New readers will represent the full spectrum from believers to scoffers, so I wanted to try to address some of the questions I think will come up after seeing the movie.  Here are some questions I imagined people will ask and my responses, in no particular order.

1.  Who are you?  I have a doctorate in biochemistry, with specialty in computational biology, protein evolution, and comparative genomics.  I have been actively researching question in creationism for the past seventeen years, first as a faculty member in the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, then as its director, and finally as the president of Core Academy of Science, a small science education organization in Dayton, TN.  My primary research interest is the large-scale pattern of design revealed by the similarity of organisms.  In other words, why do I have similar genes to oak trees or bacteria?  Evolutionary biologists would say that we are distantly related, but as a creationist, I think there is another explanation rooted in the unbelievably complex revelation of God in His creation.   I'm also pretty enamored with human origins and hominin fossils.

In the midst of all that fun research, I've managed to write a few books, several dozen technical papers, and nine hundred blog posts.  I'm a proud Michigander through and through, and I've been married now for nearly seven years.  I also make awesome pies.  I don't do much on the speaking circuit, so it's understandable if you've never heard of me.  Nevertheless, I am fairly well known in the fairly small world of "professional" creation/evolution scholars.  Welcome to my world!

2.  What is this "created kinds" stuff?  The main subject of my presentation in the movie was created kinds.  Believe it or not, the idea of the created kind is very old.  It stretches back well before Darwin, but it was never systematically studied.  The founder of modern classification, Linnaeus, recognized that "species" could change, even in what he considered their essential characters.  Plant breeder William Herbert also noticed species "malleability" when he experimented on flower hybrids in the early 1800s.  Both of these scholars concluded that God did not create modern species directly but instead created ancestors that gave rise to modern species.  Each believed that the limit of this variation was the classification rank we call genus.  By the early twentieth century, some creationists began claiming that the rank of family was closer to the created kind.  Familiar families include the cat family (lions, tigers, house cats, etc.), bear family (grizzlies, polar bears, black bears, etc.), and horse family (zebras, donkeys, horses, etc.).  Check out my paper "Species Variability and Creationism" [PDF] for more detail on this history.

The modern concept varies from creationist to creationist, but the basic idea is that groups of modern species descended from a common ancestor created by God.  That group of species is the created kind.  For example, God created a generic bunny, from which we get all the different hares and rabbits we have today.  Some creationists add things like how distinct each kind is from all other kinds or how "recognizable" they are.  Some are really stuck on this ancestry thing, and others are more interested in what they look like.  I often get the sense that some creationists accept created kinds only if they're "comfortable" with "that much" evolution.

So "created kind" means different things to different people.  The question I want to know is whether any of this can help us make sense of biology?  It's one thing to speculate about lions and tigers sharing a common ancestor but lions and bears being separately created.  It's another thing when you want to figure out how (we think) we know that.

That's where baraminology comes in.  Back in 1940, in a self-published book called Fundamental Biology, creationist Frank Lewis Marsh coined the term "baramin" from the Hebrew words for "create" and "kind."  Today, creationists use that term to describe a particular methodology that seeks to identify which species belong to which baramins (created kinds).  I've been interested in finding ways to use statistical clustering methods to test whether there are groups that are significantly different from other groups.  Here's a video about bunnies that sort of explains my approach.



3.  Dude, evolution already explains all this.  Don't you understand that?  Oh yes, believe me, I do understand it.  In fact, I've become quasi-famous for saying that evolution is a reasonable explanation for biology.  (To this day, I still don't understand why that post created such a fuss, but there it is.)  But as a Christian, I have more than just biology that I need to understand.  I have the revelation of God in the Bible, the great tradition of Christian theology, and my own faith experience that guide my life and my thinking.  I take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  I cannot merely hold out one part of my life for myself, as if God doesn't care about how I do my science or what I conclude.  All truth fits together, Biblical truth and things we understand from our own scientific experiences.  If you haven't experienced a revelation of God, I'll pray for you.  That said, I believe that the full sweep of truth that I dimly glimpse does not fit with universal common ancestry of all organisms on earth over millions of years.  So even though evolution is an adequate explanation for many features of creation as we now understand them, I still think it's incorrect.

4.  Don't you know that Genesis isn't history?  No, I don't, and neither do you.  I know it's quite fashionable lately among certain evangelicals to imagine that Genesis can be read in different ways and theology can be reworked to accommodate evolution.  I do not believe that is so.  In fact, I'm quite sure this trend is wrong.

5.  Have you read so-and-so's work that shows that you're wrong about Genesis?  Yes, of course I've read that, and so-and-so is wrong.  Next question.

6.  How can you say that creation is a better explanation than evolution?  Now that's an interesting question.  I certainly think that young-age creationism creationism as a whole is a better explanation of the universe, the Bible, and my faith experience than evolution.  I also happen to think that there are parts of the creation model that are better than the conventional model from a "strictly scientific" perspective.  After all, if I didn't think that young-age creationism was the best available explanation, why would I believe it?

When it comes to the pattern of similarities in living things, Darwin himself emphasized the smooth continuity of living things and accounted for discontinuity in a post-hoc fashion: extinction and the "extreme imperfection of the fossil record."  Things have changed a lot since 1859, but the presence of discontinuity remains a persistent feature of biology.  More recently, it's gotten worse, as broad comparative genomics studies have revealed that the great ancestral "tree of life" is actually more like a twisted bramble.  This was explained as a result of rampant gene transfer, but again it was post-hoc.  I don't think there's anything particularly inadequate about gene transfer or the sparseness of the fossil record, but wouldn't it be nice if there was a model of biology that could embrace both continuity (diversity within kinds) and discontinuity (differences between kinds) directly?  And I think there is just such a model, and that's another reason I think it's better.

None of this changes my opinion about evolution though.  There are plenty of things that evolution explains quite well that creationism struggles with.  For example, why are there australopiths?  Why not make humans extremely distinct from the mammals?  Why even make primates at all?  Evolution explains primates as the distant relatives of modern humans, and australopiths fit in that model very well.  Creationism (of any stripe) doesn't really explain that very well.

So I think it's possible and perfectly reasonable to prefer one unfinished model to another that seems "finished" if the supposedly "finished" model actually ignores huge swaths of information (i.e., biblical revelation).

7.  How can you be a real creationist and say that there's evidence for evolution?  OK, I get this question surprisingly often, but I explained it ad nauseum back in 2009 so please read what I wrote then (all of it).  There's absolutely nothing controversial about admitting that your intellectual opposition has a decent case.  That may be strategically inconvenient in debate or in court, but I'm not a lawyer and this isn't a debate.  At least, it doesn't have to be a debate.  So if you're just looking to pick a fight, don't bother emailing me because I'll just ignore you.

8.  I question whether you really understand natural selection.  Yes, I expected someone might be a bit defensive about that.  What I said in the movie (as I recall) was that natural selection had not been observed to produce anything "really new," and I stand by that precisely as I said it.  I realize that there are lots of ways to observe things that look like natural selection had been at work in the past (for example, the uneven distribution of Neandertal alleles in the modern human genome), but that's quite different from observing natural selection working in the present.  There are studies that have seen natural selection work; I'm thinking especially of the Grants' work in Galapagos.  In cases where we've actually directly observed selection, it's mostly made this thing a little thicker or that thing a little longer.  Those are incredibly important, interesting, and frankly, exciting, observations, but that doesn't translate to seeing selection modify an arm into a wing or Hyracotherium into Equus.

Having said that, I do not think that "proves" anything.  I personally don't think natural selection does anything for a creationist, since the time frames we're dealing with are too short.  As for whether it does anything for longer time frames, I'm not all that interested in that question.  You'll need to find someone else to argue with about that.

9.  Where can I learn more about baraminology?  I'm glad you asked.  If you're just a regular joe looking for some basic introduction, here's a nice, short magazine article I wrote that gives another view of what baraminology is.  If you want more than that, check out my book Understanding the Pattern of Life, which you can find at Amazon by clicking this button right here.


If you're still not satisfied, you need to dig up the original technical articles that describe what I do.  Here's a short list to get you started:

10. What you said in the movie about hominin fossils - is that right?  It sure is!  I've been working on baraminology of humans for about eight years now, and if you're interested in that subject, see my recent article on Homo naledi.  If that's too impenetrably technical for you, see this blog post.

Some folks have questioned whether my analysis simply lacks important transitional forms, perhaps even forms that haven't been discovered yet.  I would say that any forms yet to be discovered could certainly alter the statistical analysis that I've done, and maybe they could even show that something like Australopithecus africanus (the "nonhuman skull" from the movie) could be human.  I don't find that prospect threatening or even worrisome.  Science isn't speculation about what hasn't been found yet.  Science deals with the universe as we know it.  It can only deal with the universe as we know it.  Science can also make predictions based on what we know, and that's where things get interesting.  Evolution would predict that there will be forms found to bridge the gap that I've identified that separates humans from animals.  After many different analyses, I feel bold enough to say that I don't think that's going to happen.  If we do end up with a weird new fossil that seems to bridge some gap, I don't know what would happen.  It would depend entirely on the fossil, its attributes, and what the actual baraminology results show.


11.  Tell me more about Core Academy of Science.  I'd love to!  Core Academy's mission is to help Christian science better understand science and faith.  We believe that much of the fuss over science and faith is rooted in a poor understanding of just what science is.  We have educational programs for middle school through adults, with special internships for college-age students, which give them hands-on experience in creationist research.  If you'd like to know more, please visit our website.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.