Before I begin I wan to apologize to my progressive creationists friends for what will be a critical article. I know and respect many followers of Hugh Ross and find that his work has been helpful in many areas of the creation debate. However, after reading the following article from August 8th 2010 by Hugh Ross entitled, “Thank God for Whales“ and knowing a thing or two about whales since I am actively engaged in research on several species of whales I had to make comment.
What is Progressive Creationism?
First, for those that don’t know what is progressive creationism let me provide this very brief overview: Progressive creationism is the belief that God created new forms of life gradually, over a period of hundreds of millions of years. As such it is a form of old earth creationism as it accepts the tenets of modern geology and astronomy but when it comes to the evolution of organisms PCs hold that new “kinds” of plants and animals appeared successively over time via divine intervention. As a result they generally don’t believe in a universal common ancestor for all groups of living things but do for “kinds.” A difficulty in defining PC is getting a grasp on what is a kind. In this respect there are similarities here with creation scientists who also don’t believe the mechanisms of evolution are sufficient to explain the origin of major groups but they may have different definitions of what the created unit (a kind) may be and how change occurs within those kinds.
Hugh Ross on the Reason for Whales
I am going to start with a few quotes from the article. You can read the whole article by following the link on the title above. The gist of the article, I believe, is to attempt to answer the big picture question: why are there so many whale species? The fossil record is loaded with whale fossils including many many more whales species that are extinct than are alive today. I think it is safe to say that the average person has little appreciation for the diversity (number of species) and the total numbers of whales in the world. What most people hear about whales is that there are some that are hunted to near extinction. This tends to create the impression that whales are rare animals. Yes, there are many rare and endangered species of whales but there are many that are very abundant. Today there are 88 species of cetaceans recognized to be alive today making them one of the most diverse families of mammals. The cetaceans include the dolphins, porpoises, and the toothed and baleen whales. I don’t know total population number estimates but I would think it would be safe to say that there are millions of cetaceans alive today.
Back to Ross and cetaceans. The fantastic variety and abundance of whales has raised the question, where did all these whales come from and why the tremendous diversity in the fossil record? Let us look at what Ross proposes:
…According to the fossil record, at least once every few million years a whale species disappeared only to be rapidly followed up by the appearance of a new and different species. In other words, whales have the greatest, not lowest, number of “transitions” in the fossil record. And these fossils provide evidence for a Creator, specifically for the idea that God created and designed life, rather than simply permitting natural processes to evolve them. …
This is true. The cetacean fossil record is amazingly rich and shows nearly every possible transition from one cetacean to another including the origin of dolphins from toothed whales. In fact, there is a clear progression of fossils in the record over time from toothed whales to elongated body forms with more and more adaptions to an aquatic habitat and eventually baleen whales (those whales that don’t have teeth but have a large system of “strainers” in their mouth to gather plankton). Most young earth creationists focus on the fossil record of how whales evolved from land mammals and generally ignore the extensive record of transitions among the cetaceans themselves. Ross, does not but I don’t understand how it follows that because there are lots of transitions fossils that this is evidence of design over and against natural processes (why natural processes can’t be God’s design and must be contrasted with design is what I have never been unable to understand about progressive creation). But, returning to Ross:
I believe that all these “transitional forms” for whales show up in the fossil record because God likes whales. Knowing their propensity for rapid extinction, He kept on making new ones. Evidence shows an apparent progression from fresh water habitats to sea coastal regions to proliferating throughout all the world’s oceans. God must have had His reasons for gradually expanding both the habitats and populations of whales. A new research study on sperm whales sheds some light on at least one of those reasons and provides us with more understanding for why God is so enamored with whales.
Here is where I get really confused. Transitions fossils exist because God like whales? And how do we know this, because whales have a propensity for rapid extinction. Ross, seems to mix natural processes with supernatural processes at a whim. How does he know they have a propensity for rapid extinction. He seems to accept the standard interpretation of evidence of many fossil types that are found in rock layers that then are replaced by different cetacean versions in the next layer of rock. He accepts that this is evidence of whales naturally going extinct but why must the process of extinction be more natural than the process of change, into, or creation of, new whales. He wants to say that whales go extinct but rather than some of them changing into new species by providential mechanisms God simply sees the extinction coming and replaces the extinct species with a new and improved created version.
Then a bit later, in reference to a paper on the evolution of whales Ross says:
The paper also inadvertently implies an answer as to why God created a sequence of whale species such that the habitat of all whales gradually increased from just fresh water locales to partly salty river estuaries to the seas adjoining continental landmasses to all the oceans of the world. With the Sun becoming progressively brighter as it continues to convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion in its core (the increasing core density causes the Sun’s nuclear furnace to burn hotter), God stepped in to compensate for the increasing solar luminosity, in part, by progressively creating new species of whales so as to gradually increase the range and population of whales. As these changes took place, the fertilization of Earth’s photic zones increased, resulting in a progressively greater removal of greenhouse gases from the planet’s atmosphere. Thus, even as the Sun brightens, the progressive removal of greenhouse gases from Earth’s atmosphere keeps the surface temperature ideal for life.In dramatic fashion Lavery’s team has shown us that sperm whales should not be taken for granted. They are a unique species, designed like no other to serve the planet’s life, and human beings in particular…
Ross takes the sequence of whales as inferred from the fossils as essentially accurate. But rather than ascribe this sequence of smaller mammals in fresh water passageways gradually adapting to a more and more aquatic lifestyle with the deep sea diving whales as most derived as the result of an evolutionary process Ross purposes these transitions as discrete, despite the abundant transition fossils!, creative events that were part of God’s plan to deal with a Sun that was becoming progressively brighter. Irrespective of the how unlikely it would be that Sperm whales would every have been numerous enough to make a meaningful dent in greenhouse gasses, I find this whole explanation a rather delicate and unconvincing dance to maintain a fine-tuning argument. Maybe its the Calvinist in me that want to shout out that the contortions that Ross goes through to make sure God is involved in the creative process are an affront to God’s sovereignty rather than supporting it. It is examples such as this one that have caused many to claim that PC is a God of the gaps explanation. I am sure that Ross is convinced that the mechanisms of evolution are insufficient to explain all the transitions between these fossils and so feels that this warrants proposing continuous de novo creative events by God but is an explanation of transitions between species via natural selection any less amazing, any less God directed, and any less an evidence of God’s design and hand in creating than many hundreds of thousands of small fine-tuning creative acts? In fact, rather than having a hand in creation why not say he guides all of his creation all the time. I don’t find that there is much to gain in our appreciation for God’s handiwork by saying that God didn’t create and sustain a fully functional creation but has to constantly tinker with it to make it come out right.
Do progressive creationsists (a la Hugh Ross) attempt to read the specific purpose of all design into all current events as well as past events? I don’t know PC well enough to answer this question but if they don’t not then why attempt such a course for past events? Like the 17th and 18th century natural theologians, I think we glorify God by describing it and learning from the creation but to assign specific purpose and define miracles outside of the context of special revelation seems a risky proposition.
Addendum: Speciation according to YEC and Progressive Creation
So where do species come from? Young earth creationists believe God created Baramin (kinds). Because kinds are the basic unit of living things, they say that Noah only had two of each kind rather than two of each species. So only two canines verses representatives of 30 to 50 species. But then how did species of canines come to exist and what is a species? Since most YEC don’t believe new information has been created with the original creation they suggest that all the genetic variation needed to “create” all the species of canines today was created in the original kind and that variation sorted out by a natural selection type mechanism. With respect to Cetaceans, many YECs will claim that there may have been as few as two or three different original cetaceans and that all the present species and fossil species are the result of genetic re-assortment. That is a LOT of species formation that they are unwilling to ascribe to special creation. For most YEC’s there were at most 20,000 species (and probably a lot less) on the ark but there are millions of species of animals alive today. That is a lot of evolution, err, genetic sorting going on!
What about progressive creation? Interestingly, PCs have a variety of definitions of species but for the most part they try to explain, like for the whale species, that species are created progressively over time and new information (eg. new genes or new characteristics) were definitely added by God. So the progressive creationists has God continuing his creative activity through history whereas young earth creationists are more reliant on natural mechanisms for species formation.