Just how many animals where on Noah’s Ark according to 6-day creationists? That answer has varied considerably over the past century. With the completion of the Ark Encounter, the most visible attempt to show the feasibility of preserving all land animal diversity from a global flood, more people are being exposed to a modern answer to that age-old question. The group – Answers in Genesis – who constructed the Ark Encounter theme park have provided the lowest estimate to date: a max of 6700 total animals.
To rationalize their small Ark population they have become increasingly vocal about how modern biological diversity – the abundance of species – is the result of rapid speciation of ancestral “kinds” following a severe biological bottleneck during Noah’s flood just 4350 years ago. We could call these ancestors of modern species progenitor kinds or proto-kinds but just what is a “kind” and just how are the boundaries of one kind versus another determined? How a “kind” is defined is directly related to how much speciation and the pace of that speciation that young earth creationists must postulate.
If a kind were equivalent to a species then no speciation would be required but every species – both living and extinct – of air-breathing land animals would then require boarding rights on Noah’s Ark. If a kind were equivalent to the taxonomic category of an “order” of animals then Noah would only need a couple hundred animals on the ark. For example, only one pair representing all rodents, another pair for all carnivores and so forth. Given the Ark Encounters low estimate of animals on board it should be obvious that they have a very inclusive understanding of what a kind is. But has a kind always been this inclusive?
Today I want to survey how the boundaries of what constitutes a biblical kind have changed by looking at the creationist’ literature over the last 40 years.
The ever-changing understanding of how many kinds were on Noah’s Ark
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the YEC literature began to regularly talk about their views of massive post-flood speciation. Seeds of this rapid-speciation model have existed since at least the 1940s and in the future I hope illustrate this through some writings from that time. However, direct references to post-flood speciation and discussion of the meaning of “kinds” and how they may have speciated after the Flood are virtually non-existent even if speciation within kinds might have been accepted by the YEC leaders. Following the publication of The Genesis Flood by Drs. Morris and Whitcomb in 1961 more questions were raised about the carrying capacity of the Noah’s Ark but little was written about species and their origins.
From my creationist’ book collection I picked out 10 books written in the 1970s and early 1980s whose primary topic was evolutionary theory or at least included sections about evolution. I tried to determine what the authors views were about how many species were on the Ark, how many species may have formed since Noah’s flood and their opinion of natural selection. Unfortunately, all of the authors except one focused solely on the origin of groups like birds, amphibians or dinosaurs and none talked about species within families.
A seminal YEC book, more than a decade later, sought to define the capacity of Noah’s Ark and how the animals could have been preserved. That book by John Woodmorappe was titled: Noah Ark: A feasibility study (1996). In it, Woodmorappe suggested that a biblical kind could be roughly equivalent to a genus: “In most cases, those species descended from a particular original kind would be grouped today within what modern taxonomists (biologists who classify living things) call a genus (plural genera).” As a result he predicted that Noah would only need to have had representatives of 8000 kinds of animals on the ark or about 16,000 individual animals. In 1997, a YEC writer and speaker, using Woodmorappes as his reference, asks the 10,000 dollar question: “How did all the Animals Fit on Noah’s Ark?” (Creation 19(2):16–19 March 1997) Sarfati’s answer was similar to that presented at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky: Today’s species are the products of speciation from a much smaller number of original common ancestors preserved on the ark.
Almost 20 years later, scholars at Answers in Genesis have significantly broadened the definition of a kind to roughly match the scientific category of family. By doing so, they have been able to shrink the number of kinds Noah needed to care for by more than 75% over Woodmorappe to fewer than 1400 kinds and at most 6700 animals. Even more surprisingly, they consider this a very conservative upper estimate indicating that they think that “kinds” could be even more broadly defined. For example, we will see that they suggest that all 1240 species of bats may be of one kind rather than the 22 kinds they are currently place in (How many bats where on Noah’s Ark?). Likewise all ruminates (giraffes, pronghorn, deer, antelope, sheep, goats and cows) are currently placed into several kinds but it has been suggested that they may all be a single kind (Mammalian Ark Kinds)
As the definition of a kind grows larger and larger, the number of animals on the Ark grows smaller and smaller
So just how many separate kinds did God create? Young earth creationists have gone from talking about tens of thousands to 8000 (Woodmorappe, 1996) to a max of 1400 (Ark Encounter) with strong hints that it may well be fewer than 1000. Where will this slippery slope end? 500, 250, possibly only 100 kinds? Apparently God’s original creation contained very little initial species diversity.
Will the striking similarities of the genomes and many other physical traits of whales and hippos cause creationists to one-day suggest that whales are simply ungulates that God provided with “directed mutations” to help them adapt to an aquatic habitat and thus place them in the ungulate group as taxonomists have – a single ungulate kind? Will the lack of any fossil record in flood-rocks of any modern-day mammal groups lead creationists to suggest that few mammals existed prior to the Flood and that most mammal species are the result of post-flood evolution?
Are manatees simply aquatic elephants and shared a common ancestor on the ark? Will all carnivores be considered one kind with cats, dogs, weasels, bears and seals all related by a single common ancestor? By what criteria can they say this is not possible? Lack of hybridization (see below for more on criteria)?
This might sound fanciful but if you were to take an anti-evolutionists of the 1970s to the Ark today they might be very shocked to see the vast amount of evolution on display there. Even today, most Christians who were brought up on YEC literature have the perception that special features of animals were created directly by God not by any natural processes over time.
Through the Looking Glass: Pushing the limits of kinds to new extremes
Let’s take a closer look at bats. Consider this quote from the Ark Encounter website about the origin of bat diversity:
“It is quite possible that every bat is a member of the same kind, in which case only fourteen would have boarded the Ark. But without solid data to show that the various bat families can interbreed, we have split them into 22 kinds, representing living and extinct families. Since the Ark had to house 14 of each kind of bat, then using the worst case scenario, there would have been 308 bats living on board.”
In a talk at the Creation Museum last month, Ken Ham reiterated this same claim saying “and we believe that all bats are probably the same kind.” That the Ark Encounter team can speculate that “it is quite possible that every bat is a member of the same kind” is a mind-blowing statement. How could the incredible array of diverse characters that are found among the bats be contained in just a few ancestors just 4000 years ago? Bats are so diverse that scientists classify them as an order with suborders and then families within those suborder. Genetically and morphologically bats are at least as diverse as the orders of rodents, carnivores and ungulates. Each of these orders of mammals contain many families which the Ark Encounter believes are separate kinds.
To suggest all bats are derived from a common ancestor would require phenomenal amounts of new diversity which could only be generated naturally by mutations. So far this is something that no creationist is willing to consider because that sounds like the creation of new information and mutations are considered degenerative by YECs. If they admit that mutations can create new features they might as well pack up their anti-evolutionary pamphlets and join the evolution crowd.
But seriously, if Ken Ham is willing to speculate that all 1240 living bat species and countless extinct species would have been derived from just a single set of common ancestors on the ark what is to stop him there? Why not propose that the ancestor of bats might not have been able to fly? Couldn’t God have anticipated the new niches that would open up after the Flood and programmed the genetic diversity required for making arms able to take flight into a non-flying common ancestor which was stored on the ark? Why not? This might sound absurd but the very idea that 1240 species of bats could evolve from a common ancestor in just a few hundred years is completely absurd already. You might respond, doesn’t the Bible mentions bats? Yes, but it also mention foxes and dogs which also didn’t exist as species until after the flood according to YEC hyper-evolution. So the bats mentioned in the Bible could simply have been the post-fall adapted winged mammals.
The non-scientist might respond, but a bat is a bat right? That sounds reasonable, but please consider that this is equivalent to saying a carnivore is a carnivore, a primate is a primate, or a rodent is a rodent. The carnivores such as cats, weasels, wolves and hyenas aren’t that different from one another so why not include them all as members of the same kind? If bats are the same kind then surely cats and dogs can be too, right?
This may sound ridiculous to the anti-evolutionist but that is the point. If you look at the common ancestors of the families of carnivores or the common ancestors of the families of bats they are not all that different from one another. You could say the ancestors look no different than members of a family do today and so they themselves are members of the same family. So bats all have a common ancestor and carnivores do too. If YECs want to find evidence that all carnivores evolved from a common ancestor they need look no further than their own literature. Dr. Jeanson has already provided the evidence in a paper (Mitochondrial DNA clocks imply linear speciation rates within “kinds”) and a wonderful illustration which I show below.
In the above illustration Dr. Jeanson has compared complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequences of many species of carnivores. The resulting phylogenetic tree depicts an evolutionary scenario for how all these species are related to one another. The circles indicate the common ancestor mtDNA genome for all the members of the kind which are in different colors. The center of the tree shows a point where all lines converge. This would represent the common ancestor of all the carnivores. But Jeanson doesn’t accept that such a common ancestor exists. He believes that God made animals at the circles but those circles are not connected at the center. Just look at the tree again though. If you were to go back in time to the Ark and analyze the animals there. You could only have the mtDNAs at the circles. How different would they be? Those genomes would be not more different from one another than the species of one kind are today. Jeanson admits this in his figure legend: “As the black arrows highlighted, the DNA differences separating the roots of different families were short relative to the DNA differences separating the species within a family.” So why stop at the circles. Why not say that God made a single carnivore kind which then became 12 or 13 different sub-kinds of carnivores? David MacMillan has already explored this carnivore problem quite thoroughly. (Dodging Darwin: How Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter is Slowly Embracing Evolution).
You can keep pushing this common ancestry back but how far? Young earth creationists insist there are limits but their changing goalposts for what constitutes inclusion in a kind suggest that they don’t have a firm idea of where the limits of common ancestry are. Creationists think finding common ancestors of kinds is a slippery slope leading to a common ancestor of all living things and they are partly right. But they have found themselves on that slope and are having trouble finding a place to land.
For example, in A Symposium on Creation Vol III, edited by Donald Patten (1971) there is an article by Frank Cousins entitled “Alleged Evolution of the Horse.” Cousins says that horses alive today are horses implying that they are one “kind” though he never uses that term. It seems he believes horses are one kind but he never mentions donkeys, asses or zebras so I can’t be sure how broadly he defines the term “horse.” One thing for certain is that he believes that fossil horses are not horses but rather wholly separate species that are not evolutionary ancestors to modern horses. This is a perfect illustration of just what I am saying about the term kind become more and more inclusive over time. The Ark Encounter includes a recreated horse ancestor that is one of the multi-toed fossil species that Cousins in 1971 insisted couldn’t be related to horses because that would be accepting that evolution has happened.
Biblical Kinds: The Hybridization Criteria
One of the most used criteria for defining the limits of a kind has been the ability of members of a kind to interbreed. While that is frequently used to include members in a kind, the fact is that vast majority of species that are placed in a kind are unable to successfully reproduce or if they can they don’t produce offspring that are fit for their environment. Interbreeding in nature is certainly the exception among species rather than the rule. Furthermore, most species of any kind that have ever existed are extinct and so the ability to interbreed is untestable.
YECs may respond that in many cases mutations have caused changes – carefully qualified as losses of information only – in descendants from common ancestors that do result in two species losing the ability to have genetic interchange. But if mutations separate members of a kind over time, it should be apparent that it will be very difficult to use hybridization alone to define the limits of a kind.
Once two species that can’t hybridize are still placed in the same kind (ie. they share a common ancestor) what then stops anyone from speculating that any two species are part of the same kind? Are red pandas really just raccoons that can no longer hybridize with other members of the raccoon family (kind)? Maybe after departing the ark individual that eventually became red pandas could originally hybridize with populations that eventually became raccoons and skunks but because they got separated they had mutations that eventually caused them to lose genetic continuity with their previous family members? How do we know that this didn’t happen when no one there to witness the time when they could hybridize? Do you see how the boundaries between kinds quickly becomes very arbitrary? This is one of the reasons that the kind has grown more and more inclusive over time.
Cover image: A YEC view of the origin of carnivores. Image created by David MacMillan and published here.