Is baraminology bogus?
If you follow creationist websites and publications, you may have noticed a numbers of papers and articles that are sharply critical of statistical baraminology over the past few years. For those who don't follow these things, statistical baraminology is shorthand for a set of analytical tools that I've used for more than 20 years to explore the creationist concept of the "created kind." I've focused on these methods because they help me to explore fossil creatures, which cannot be addressed by the traditional hybridization method for identifying created kinds. I've tried to examine interesting case studies, like fossil horses, four-legged "whales," and feathered dinosaurs. For the past thirteen years, I've been nearly exclusively focused on hominins (so-called fossil "ape men"), but I've also published a significant survey of mammal baraminology. Last year, I addressed a very significant challenge to the methods, and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to do so.
I confess that this research has been fascinating and surprising in great ways. I'm continually surprised by how robustly hominins sort into groups, by how much distance correlation can be corroborated by other clustering methods, and by how often I seem to find created kinds in roughly the place I think they ought to be. I continue to find that intermediate forms like feathered dinosaurs or four-legged "whales" appear to be members of their own unique created kinds rather than true evolutionary transitions. At the same time, I'm also cautious and skeptical. I continue to get results that are hard to interpret. There are plenty of puzzling results in my mammal papers, Galapagos monograph, and Animal and Plant Baramins. I'm still not sure what to make of Homo floresiensis, which for some reason doesn't cluster with any other taxa. But there are lots of reasons that these weird results might happen, and those reasons are sometimes testable. So we should keep exploring!
That's my history with statistical baraminology in a nutshell. As for the published criticisms, I have not formally responded to most of them. Other than some comments on hominin baraminology five years ago, and papers last year, I've said pretty much nothing to the stream of criticism. My silence was and is motivated by not wishing to get into a protracted fight. In my younger days, I would have gladly joined the fray, but I don't want to fight any more. "Love your neighbor" is more than a platitude. Jesus really meant that. I've also remained silent because I have other things to do. I'm running a ministry, working on my own research, and so forth. I hesitate to allocate the time I would need to respond in detail to everything that's been written. Finally, I've been reluctant to address most of these criticisms because they lack substance. They are largely just misunderstandings or misapplications of statistical baraminology, and correcting them publicly is as awkward as reading them. But I have been encouraged by some folks to say something, so this is the best I can do for now.
First, I will remind my readers that I'm a young-age creationist. I believe the universe is only thousands of years old and that God created all of what we see in just a week's time. I also believe that science is a great tool for understanding God's creation, and I believe that studying God's Word the Bible is just as important as the science. I also recognize that the Bible does not address every question that I have. I fervently believe that humans are a special creation made in God's image and not evolved from apes, but the Bible does not tell me what to think about Neandertals. There, I have to use science to evaluate the evidence and make an informed decision. There are lots and lots of questions that science brings up that the Bible does not answer directly, but the framework the Bible describes allows us to place nearly everything into a creation model context. So the Bible may not spell out what to think about four-legged whales, Neandertals, or feathered dinosaurs, but it provides a lot of guidance about the creation of animals that lets me figure out where they might go in a creation model.
With that said, should we "trust" the information reported by evolutionary scientists? That's a complicated question. Insofar as the entire scientific enterprise depends on accurate reporting of results, then yes, we have no choice but to trust their data reporting. Since the public nature of scientific publication guarantees that your mistakes will be part of the record, there's a strong motive to make sure your work is accurate, and that's a good reason to accept published data as it is. Furthermore, given that 90% of creationist research depends on reinterpreting published data, nearly all of creationist research would grind to a halt if we stopped trusting basic data reporting. So when it comes to information about fossils (like measurements, anatomical descriptions, and so forth), I would trust an evolutionary scientist who has examined the fossils personally before I trusted an amateur creationist who has not. There's nothing about being an "evolutionist" that makes a person inherently untrustworthy when it comes to reporting basic data (I would not say the same for reporting interpretations of data, which must be treated with a great deal of skepticism).
That said, no scientist really "trusts" much of anything. Scientists always try to replicate earlier results, and in that regard I'm no different. My big surveys (mentioned above) have looked at a lot of published character matrices only because I wanted to generate a lot of case studies that others could follow up on. I wanted to get a sense of what we could see as a first approximation. With hominins, however, I've been far more critical to the point where I went through all 391 published characters to find more information on Homo floresiensis. Now, I'm generating even more original data from casts, scans, and photographs. Do I "trust" scientists to report accurately? Yes but no.
What I don't want to do is get to the point where I reject methods or data only because it does not conform to my preconceived notions about creation. Science is emphatically not a tool to confirm our biases and preconceived beliefs. That's quite literally the opposite of science. Or maybe I should say that that's more of a postmodern, deconstructionist stereotype where science is culturally constructed and not producing actual knowledge. I'm a realist, and I don't believe that science is just a word game. Unless I have a good reason to reject my methods or results, I'm not likely to do it. Especially when I keep getting the same result. But I still retain that scientific skepticism that drives me to keep exploring. It shouldn't need saying that baraminology is not infallible.
Another important point to remember is that the purported existence of feathered dinosaurs or four-legged whales or bipedal apes is not really a question that's suitable for baraminology. The categories "dinosaur," "whale," or "ape" almost certainly contain more than one created kind, and those sorts of categories aren't exactly what statistical baraminology is after. I dabbled a little with these kinds of categories when examining birds and dinosaurs, but we did not try to identify any created kinds in that study. We simply noted places where discontinuity between groups of created kinds was evident. Only in evolutionary biology does it make sense to be dogmatic about whether a thing is a "bird" or a "dinosaur" because those groups really exist as branches of the evolutionary tree. We creationists don't accept a single evolutionary tree, so "bird" and "dinosaur" take on different meanings as groups of baramins. And as far as I can see from my experience, there are a lot of weird cases where I'm not sure what to call a fossil. That does not undermine creation because I can still identify created kinds that those creatures might belong to. But whether or not feathers are limited to an artificial category called "bird" is not a hill worth dying on. It's certainly inappropriate to use it as a litmus test of orthodoxy or a basis for harassing people.
Furthermore, whether australopiths walked upright or some dinosaurs had feathers is a question of the fossil evidence rather than statistical baraminology. Even when we can all agree that certain fossils are called australopiths or dinosaurs, the attributes of the fossils themselves determine their attributes. Statistical baraminology has nothing to do with it. If I find a dozen traits in australopiths that match what I expect from a biped, then it's sensible to conclude that they walked upright. We can debate what those attributes might be and how to interpret them, but statistical baraminology is only suitable for telling whether this or that group of fossils belongs to a created kind or not. It can't tell you if dinosaurs had feathers or australopiths walked around on two legs.
To the question of the methods themselves, particularly distance correlation, it is quite easy to use it in an arbitrary fashion that yields absurd results. This was a subject I discussed in detail with colleagues twenty years ago. The question is deceptively simple: What is the created kind, and where should we look for them? After a detailed study of the Hebrew term min ("kind"), we became skeptical that min was ever intended to be a technical category, a biological "created kind." But looking at the Genesis description of creation, I could see a few important features. First, Genesis 1 mentions no species by name (except maybe human beings), so when we look at evidence of species change, the Bible didn't seem to prohibit that per se. At the same time, Genesis 1 does mention large groups of creatures such as wild animals, beasts of the field, flying things, creeping things, and swimming things. The picture at the conclusion of creation week is one of a fully functional creation with an intact ecosystem of multiple sorts of animals. That would preclude evolution of all things from a common ancestor, but I think we can probably get even more specific. For example, we might think that "creeping thing" could include rats and mice, which are rodents. But other rodents are much larger, like beavers or capybaras, and maybe they wouldn't be creeping things? So maybe the mammalian order Rodentia is really composed of multiple baramins? Now that's a bit fuzzy and speculative, but you can do similar reasoning with other groups. "Beasts of the field" would probably include cows and sheep, which are members of Artiodactyla. They would presumably be separate from other artiodactyls like the deer, which are wild animals. Putting all that together, I thought maybe something between species and order should be where we look for the created kind. Since I know that members of different genera can cross and produce offspring (and are therefore members of the same created kind), I further narrowed my search to families. And that's consistent with historical claims of creationist scholars in previous generations. Not all of them of course, but there were those who believed the created kinds were approximated in today's world by families. That gave me a context of where to look for created kinds. Are they always families? No, but it's a place to start looking, and it seems to come up a lot in baraminology research: Canidae, Equidae, Felidae are all mammal families that we suspect are created kinds.
Back to distance correlation, I've long acknowledged that any set of characters and any set of taxa might produce a clear set of clusters that may not have anything to do with created kinds. If I'm comparing a human, aardvark, and rat to a heron, robin, and cardinal, then I'm likely to find two clusters with humans in the same cluster as the other mammals. But that is not a created kind. It's just a cluster. Likewise, I could very easily find a set of characteristics that would distinguish European people from Asian people, but again, that would obviously be silly. Why? Because we have independent reasons for where we think created kinds will be, and we don't just find clusters and call them "baramins." That's wrong.
In the same way, merely finding significant, positive distance correlation does not automatically mean that the two taxa being compared belong to the same created kind. And if you have significant, negative distance correlation, that does not automatically mean that the two taxa are in separate created kinds. That's an oddly common misconception that is emphatically wrong (and always has been). Distance correlation only tells you one thing, whether or not the distances from two different taxa to the same third taxa are similar or different. That in turn might tell you something about whether they are close together or far apart in character "space." And if you see certain patterns of positive and negative correlations, you could conclude that a particular group of taxa forms a cluster that is separate from other taxa. And then, if and only if that group conforms to what we independently think might be a created kind should we ever conclude that a cluster probably represents a created kind. Otherwise it's just a cluster. (We might also conclude there is a discontinuity between groups of created kinds if we're looking at clusters that include members of multiple created kinds.)
That said, is it appropriate to apply statistical baraminology and specifically distance correlation clustering to a group of taxa that do not conform to what we think is a created kind? Certainly, but what we might find is kind of a mystery right now. I've had people repeatedly tell me that we can find "discontinuity" or "created kinds" at every taxonomic level, which at this point is pure speculation. We don't have enough data yet to make that conclusion. My experience has shown repeatedly that distance correlation within a created kind tends to produce poor clustering. Same deal with distance correlation with many created kinds. There are counter examples of course, but the question here is the trend: What do we see when we look at a lot of these kinds of character sets? Right now, we don't know yet.
Speaking of counter examples, one counter example rarely falsifies much of anything in science. It's possible that a particularly well established counter example will overturn a model, but in the nebulous area of cluster analysis, where specialists can't define what "cluster" even means, counter examples merely require a more careful examination to see why they're counter examples.
Let's talk about a few hypothetical examples. Let's say I selected a good set of characteristics from a sample of taxa that included a dozen different primate species from a dozen different families. What will distance correlation show? It might show a mess, with no clear clustering or it might show clustering. What it probably won't show is a created kind. Why? It's a clustering method that compares distances within a group to distances between groups. If I have only one taxon in each group that I think is a created kind, then there's no within-group distances to compare. In that case, distance correlation can only show us clustering of multiple created kinds.
Or perhaps I want to look at characteristics of different groups of the same species. Maybe I want to look at twenty different breeds of cattle. In that case, whatever clustering I find is not a created kind, because I have good independent evidence that tells me that all cattle belong to a single created kind. Likewise, it is erroneous to focus on individual distance correlations. Distance correlation is all about finding clusters, but there are a number of different reasons that correlations might occur. Often, when doing distance correlation on a single cluster, I find a random hodgepodge of positive and negative correlations or I find poorly resolved clusters that share a lot of examples of significant, positive correlation. Should these results influence the way I interpret clusters that I think really are created kinds? They might, especially if we find lots of examples of putative "created kinds" within groups of taxa that we believe represent single created kinds.
So that's all I have time for right now. In closing, none of what I've written here is new. It's all explained in previous publications dating back twenty years. I'm not saying anything here that's all that different from what I've put in Understanding the Pattern of Life and papers published since then. I'm merely trying to explain how I have always understood the work I'm doing.
One more question: Is baraminology bogus? The jury's still out, but it's not nearly as flawed as my critics believe.
Now I need to get back to the work that I'm actually paid to do. Thanks for reading. May the Lord bless you and keep you and give you peace.
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.
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