Baraminology Examined and Critiqued

Me and Sinornithosaurus at the Carnegie Museum, 2013

I was intrigued by a post last week on the Panda's Thumb, a blog which is known for its criticism of creationism.  Actually, criticizing creationists is pretty much why the blog exists at all.  In a recent post, Jonathan Kane (self-described "armchair paleontologist") examined creationist discussion of feathered dinosaurs.  In my own experience, feathered dinosaurs are kind of a sore spot for some creationists.  I personally don't have a problem with feathered dinosaurs.  If God wanted feathered dinosaurs, then there will be feathered dinosaurs.  Other creationists see things differently, to say the least.  They react rather angrily to the evolutionary treatment of feathered dinosaurs, in which the dinos in question (like Sinornithosaurus above) are used to support the notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

I found Kane's article pretty well-informed, all things considered.  It's not perfect by any means, but he makes some very thoughtful points about feathered dinosaurs and creationists' general hostility towards the idea that something other than birds could have feathers. He even cites David Cavanaugh's abstract from the 2011 CBS conference as well as a paper I wrote (along with Paul Garner and Marcus Ross) for the 2013 ICC.  He has some marginally nice things to say about me and my colleagues (as nice as PT can ever get towards creationists), and I think the blog post is worth reading and considering.

In the comments on Kane's article, John Harshman directed my attention to a post he wrote called Baraminology of the Flood.  He said he couldn't get any creationists to respond.  OK, challenge accepted.

Harshman's article is a review of a 2009 paper by Kurt Wise on "Mammal kinds: How many were on the ark?" from a volume I edited for the Core Issues in Creation series.  Wise's article introduces the Post-Flood Continuity Criterion and applies it to the terrestrial mammals to try to discern how many created kinds of mammals were on Noah's Ark.  Harshman calls it "a fine example of the cargo cult science of young-earth creationist baraminology."  What is "cargo cult science?"  Harshman say it "refers to attempts to ape the surface features of science, perhaps in hopes of gaining a similar degree of prestige."

OK, first of all, there is no prestige to be gained in creationism.  We certainly don't get it from non-creationist scientists.  We're certifiably bonkers to them.  You're also not going to get prestige from other young-age creationists by writing an article about the Post-Flood Continuity Criterion that the average creationist has a difficult time even understanding and publishing said article in a book that has literally sold dozens of copies since it was published.  So let's forget about the "prestige" thing and look at this question of mimicking the "surface features of science" without actually being science.  Based on his opening paragraphs, I thought for sure I knew where Harshman was going in his article, but he surprised me.  And confused me.

After describing Wise's "assumptions" in the PFCC article, Harshman begins his conclusion with this paragraph:
The fact remains that, given his assumptions and specifically excluding hominids, his method for determining kinds is perfectly valid. The assumptions are correctly followed where they lead. So where does this become cargo cult science? It’s in the failure to consider other implications of the scenario.
OK, call me silly, but I would have thought he would critique the assumptions directly.  After all, Wise assumes that a global Flood was a historical event and that the fossil record can be interpreted according to Flood geology.  Surely those are nonsensical (or at least unwarranted) assumptions to those who are not young-age creationists, right?  And if your assumptions are bad, it doesn't matter how good your logic is, you're going to end up with nonsense at the end.  Garbage in, garbage out, right?

So what is this business about considering "other implications of the scenario?"  Harshman lists five other implications that Wise ignores.  Here they are:

  1. Wise ignores Flood sediments.  Why don't mammal fossils appear in the Flood?
  2. Wise ignores the conclusion that "any species that appears both before and after the K-T boundary must be a separate kind from any other."
  3. Wise also ignores the missing post-Flood fossils: "most kinds ... became extinct too soon after the Flood to leave any fossil record at all."
  4. Wise ignores "plants, aquatic animals, forams, and such."
  5. Wise's K/T Flood/post-Flood boundary ignores the fact that Mt. Ararat (where the Ark landed) is a Pleistocene volcano and therefore couldn't be the final resting place of Noah's Ark.

That's a very strange list.  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Wise ignores the Flood sediments because he's developing a Post-Flood Continuity Criterion.  I suppose if he was writing a paper on Flood geology and the fossil record, he would need to deal with the fossils of the Flood sediments, but that's not this paper.
  2. Actually, that was the exact conclusion that Wise reached in his 1992 paper "Practical Baraminology" [PDF].  So that's not something he ignored.
  3. That's a really interesting point that Kurt and I talk about a lot, especially in the context of dinosaurs (because people love dinosaurs).  For the mammals, where did the multituberculates and other Mesozoic mammals go?  But again, if you're using a Post-Flood Continuity Criterion, then why would you need to talk about fossils that don't appear in the post-Flood?  Those are interesting questions, no doubt, but that's a different paper altogether.
  4. Since this is a paper about mammals, then I'm not sure why we would include plants or other non-mammals.  If it makes you feel any better, Roger Sanders is trying to extend Wise's work by applying the PFCC to plants (ICC abstract).
  5. Yes, that is exactly correct, except Wise never made the claim that Noah's Ark is on the mountain we now call Mt. Ararat.  I have denied the presence of the Ark on Ararat for the very reason that Harshman cites.  I found out about the post-Flood volcano "Mt. Ararat" from ... you guessed it, Kurt Wise.

I guess that Harshman thinks Wise's paper is "cargo cult science" because it's not the paper Harshman would have written given Wise's assumptions.  That is one of my biggest pet peeves from modern peer review: Instead of getting comments to review the paper that I wrote, I get complaints about the paper that I didn't write.  Deep down, I'm sure Harshman thinks that Wise's paper is junk because of the creationist assumptions, so let's cut him some slack and go with that.

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