Young-earth creationists (YECs) are actively promoting a radical new model of the origin of the diversity of life on Earth. (1) This speculative view borrows a number of elements found in any typical evolutionary biology textbook. For example, modern YECs claim that most and possibly all species alive today—except humans—are related to numerous other species via common ancestors (though they seldom use such language). They further claim that the act of speciation from those common ancestors has occurred via observable and testable evolutionary mechanisms such as genetic drift and natural selection (again, usually without using words like “evolutionary”).
However, their version of the origin of species has several significant differences from evolutionary theory as commonly understood by biologists. First, they reject common ancestry of all species. Instead they promote separate common ancestry of large groups of species they call “kinds.” These are often asserted to be roughly equivalent to the taxonomic group of Family (though there are numerous examples where this scope is widened or narrowed). They accept that genetic variation is the raw resource necessary for species to adapt and speciation to occur, but vehemently reject the evolutionary principle that mutations accumulated over time are the source of meaningful variation (though they seldom if ever propose a reason why mutations cannot accomplish this). Instead, many YECs propose that useful genetic variation was supernaturally pre-loaded into the common ancestors of today’s species and expressed during the process of speciation (though again, the specifics of this mechanism are never clearly stated).
Possibly the most striking difference between conventional evolutionary theory and the YEC proposal for the origin of species is the pace at which YECs believe that evolutionary mechanisms can create new species. YECs claim that species, at least initially after (and depending on who you ask, before) the flood, were created by evolutionary mechanisms very rapidly—sometimes within just a few generations. They believe the mechanisms of speciation have resulted in the formation of hundreds of thousands of new species in just a few thousand years.
In contrast to this fast-paced origin of new species, conventional evolutionary theory has established that the process of speciation is typically very slow and usually requires thousands to millions of generations to produce entirely distinct species from an ancestral population.
We can illustrate the profound difference between the YEC understanding of the origin of species and that of conventional evolutionary theory through the study of canid origins. Ken Ham and the Ark Encounter claim that all 36 extant (still-living) species of canids (foxes, wolves and domestic dogs) along with dozens of extinct species all evolved from a single ancestral pair—an Ark kind—in less than ~4,350 years. Evolutionary biologists studying the evolution of canids have concluded that all canids do indeed share a common ancestor… but no less than 12 million years ago. Even wolves and coyotes, which are considered “sister species,” meaning they diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently and are more closely related to each other than to any other species, have been separate species for over 1 million years. These conclusions are based on fossil evidence, geographic distribution, comparative anatomy and the observed similarities and differences in their respective genomes. 12,000,000 years vs 4,350 years equates to a radically different proposed pace of speciation, albeit with the larger number consistent with observed rates of evolution today. This is why the YEC model has been called the hyper-evolution or rapid-speciation hypothesis.
The prominent (and de facto chief) YEC apologist, Ken Ham, has never participated in scientific research on speciation and maintenance of biological diversity (or, indeed, any scientific research at all) and so lacks first-hand knowledge of how the speciation process might happen. Why then are he and other young-earth apologists so convinced that extensive hyper-speciation has occurred recently and by natural processes? In small part (2) it is because he has placed his faith in the speculations and advice of his employees and a small network of scientists within the creation science community.
Make no mistake, to suggest that two animals could have had descendants that would become every single individual of 40 different species of canids, including jackals, dholes, maned “wolves” and the many not-closely-related “foxes,” within just a few hundred generations is a radical claim. (3) I have not met a geneticist whose jaw hasn’t hit the floor when I explained that this is what YECs are promoting. I’m not saying it isn’t possible that thousands of geneticists could be wrong but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not scattered pieces of anecdotal evidence, conjecture and appeals to vast conspiratorial suppression of the truth.
So who are these YLCs (Young-Life Creationists)?
So who are the scientists in the position of providing extraordinary new evidence to supplant conventional biological theories? Put another way, who are the scientists providing Ken Ham and other YEC apologists with evidence that gives them the confidence to claim that a cat and lion or a gray fox and a wolf evolved from single pairs of common ancestors on the Ark 4,350 years ago?
I have examined the past twenty years of publications in Young Earth Creationist journals including the Creation Research Society Quarterly journal, the Journal of Creation (Creation Ministries International) and Answers Research Journal (Answers in Genesis) in addition to several lesser known creationist journals (e.g. Journal of Creation Theology and Science Series B: Life Sciences).
From those journals and popular articles on young-earth websites I have compiled a list of the authors of articles that have provided commentary, analysis, or research that have contributed to developing a young-earth view of the origins of biological diversity. We could call these authors young earth biologists (YEBs) or young life creationists (YLCs). I prefer YLCs because it stresses that all life and its diversity is young (i.e. has recent origins). These YLCs are de facto “experts” in the YEC movement who are shaping a six-day creation interpretation of biology.
In addition to the primary experts, there are many others who have contributed articles on biological topics related to species diversity and their origins. However, most of these individuals have published just one or two articles and are professors at small Christian colleges committed to a young-earth paradigm. Most probably needed a publication for tenure or promotion and these creationist journals provide a sufficient outlet to show some research activity. Having followed the creationist journals for more than 20 years I have found this to be quite common. That leaves us with just a handful of young earth creationists that have truly devoted themselves to developing an understanding of biology in light of a young earth paradigm. How many are there? I have identified eleven individuals (Table 1) only half of whom have written explicitly about speciation and the origin of diversity of Ark kinds. (4) The number of papers that have been published in the YEC literature that propose any mechanisms at all for rapid speciation is less than a few dozen. The number that actually purport to test those hypotheses is smaller yet.
Table 1: Twelve influential YLCs (Young-Life Creationists) along with information about their earned degrees, fields of study and current positions if known or applicable.
Dr. John Sanford – PhD (1980) U of Wisconsin – Plant breeding/plant genetics (President, Logos Research Associates)
Dr. Jean Lightner – D.V.M (Before 1985) The Ohio State University – Veterinary medicine (Independent writer)
Dr. Jonathan Sarfati – PhD (1980s) Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) – Chemistry (Senior Scientist at Creation Ministries International)
Dr. Kevin Anderson – PhD (Before 1990) Kansas State University – Microbiology. Creation Research Society (Director of the Van Andel Creation Research Center for the Creation Research Society)
Dr. Randy Guliuzza – M.D. (Before 1990) University of Minnesota Medical School – Preventive Medicine Physician (Employee of the Institute for Creation Research)
Dr. Jerry Bergman – PhD (1992) Columbia Pacific University – Human Biology (Instructor at Northwest State Community College in Ohio)
Dr. Jeffrey Tomkins – PhD (1996) University of Georgia – Genetics (Full-time employee of the Institute for Creation Research)
Dr. Todd Wood – PhD (1999) University of Virginia – Biochemistry (President of Core Academy of Science)
Dr. Georgia Purdom – PhD (2000) The Ohio State University – Molecular Genetics (Full-time employee of Answers in Genesis)
Dr. Robert W. Carter – PhD (2003) University of Miami – Marine Biology (Full-time employee of Creation Ministries International)
Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson – PhD (2009) Harvard University – Cell and Developmental Biology (Full-time employee of Answers in Genesis)
Dr. Peter Borger (Peer Terborg) – PhD University Groningen, Netherlands. Systems biology and genetic networks and signaling systems in particular. Independent YEC writer
Dr. Peter Line – PhD in Neuroscience. Associated with Logos Research Associates and Creation Ministries International. Has written articles for young earth publications on hominid fossils.
Dr. Gordon Wilson (Professor of Biology, New Saint Andrews University, Moscow ID) – PhD George Mason University 2003 in environmental science and public policy.
Despite this very limited scientific foundation, Ken Ham and other YEC speakers believe that what amounts to little more than speculation by most YLCs is enough of a basis to confidently proclaim or insinuate that thousands of geneticists and evolutionary biologist are either ignorant of how organisms change and adapt to their environment or are willfully engaging in deception. Mainstream scientists have engaged in tens of thousands of research projects over 150+ years, testing dozens of mechanisms of species formation and adaptation including mutation rates, natural selection, genetic drift, epigenetics, etc… Yet, we are told that a handful of people who have little direct experience or even formal training in these fields can pen articles and find evidence that are then claimed to overturn all that previously collected wisdom (which is usually casually dismissed as a “lie,” though specific “falsehoods” are conspicuously unmentioned). One’s confidence in these scientists is misplaced if one believes them because they are providing answers that fit a particular biblical interpretation.
None of the scientists listed in Table 1 have degrees in the field of evolutionary biology or from evolutionary biology programs. Of them, three (Tomkins, Wood and Sanford) probably were required to take a course in evolutionary biology as undergraduates. The others may have been exposed to evolutionary theory while studying other disciplines but were likely not trained in evolutionary theory by an evolutionary biologist. A couple of these young-earth biologists engaged in research projects that touched on some aspect of evolution theory but none of their dissertations involved testing evolutionary concepts. Only Dr. Wood has demonstrated experience with phylogenetic reconstruction (using DNA sequences to look at relationships of individuals or species) and has published work that shows he has a good knowledge of population genetics.
Dr. Tomkins has the strongest background in genetics and has published a paper in an evolutionary biology journal. However, his contribution to that publication appears to be as a technician who did DNA sequencing and genome assembly and who was not involved in the evolutionary analysis. It does not appear he has ever directed any research that would require understanding evolutionary processes.
Referring to these individuals as experts on evolutionary biology and taxonomy would be similar to asking an engineer to build a bridge only to discover that the person is a chemical engineer. That person would have some familiarity with some principles needed to design and build a bridge but you would probably not want to hire them to build your bridge. The point is that all of these scientists are obviously quite knowledgeable in some area of biology, having obtained advanced degrees, but that doesn’t automatically make them experts, or even competent evaluators, of evolutionary theory. I am a biology professor but there are many courses that we teach in our department that I would not be comfortable teaching myself. If I were asked to, I could—with some considerable effort—teach them at a sufficient level of competency but I would be far from having enough expertise in that field to lead a research program intent on testing the consensus theories in those fields.
These individuals are seeking to be the founders of a biological revolution. They are claiming that thousands of biologists, past and present, who devoted their lives to understanding the causes and means of maintaining and producing biological diversity on Earth are utterly wrong. Despite their own lack of experience in the field of evolutionary biology they are certain that they have the answer. Some even act offended (see: Why don’t more people accept the young-earth view of speciation?) that evolutionary biologists won’t read their work or take their speculations seriously, despite frequently demonstrating a lack of understanding of the very fields they so vigorously critique.
If these individuals desire to overturn knowledge acquired over 150+ years and replace it with a new understanding of how population genetics, mutations, genetic drift, and natural selection operate, they can’t merely have familiarity with evolutionary theory—they must be experts who have a firm grasp of all aspects of evolutionary biology. They need to have performed original research related to testing the many mechanisms of evolution so that they have intimate first-hand knowledge of the data and how evolutionary theory interprets that data. After all, one cannot hope to refute something that one does not even understand.
I have written before about how important it is for YLCs to attend scientific conferences (A Challenge to Ken Ham: Send Your Employees to Professional Science Conferences) so they can understand what they are trying to overturn. I have also questioned how they review their own manuscripts in light of how few YLCs exist. What do you imagine happens when one of the above YLCs submits a manuscript and sends it to a YEC journal? It is unlikely that editors will be able to find a reviewer who has as much or more knowledge of the topic than the author. Most YLC manuscripts likely discuss topics which no other young earth creationists alive can fully understand and evaluate. The result are articles that contain many basic errors. It would be as if I didn’t have anyone else read my blog articles before I posted them. They will surely contain numerous grammatical errors or worse, because it is difficult to evaluate one’s own work.
The academic world of young-life creationism is a small club. It is made even smaller by the fact that the members of the club are also part of rival creationist organizations that don’t always communicate well with each other. No doubt there are some exclusive clubs within the existing scientific community which study very specific fields. These small groups also suffer from some of the same problems in peer-review and group-think. However, evolutionary biology is not one of these areas. The network of scientists studying evolutionary processes is very large and any individual’s manuscript can be reviewed by multiple other experts with no personal connections to the authors.
I can write no better summary of the present state of YLCs attempt to edit Darwin than that provided by Lars Cade (guest writer here on Naturalis Historia) and so I quote him from a personal communication to end this post:
“Despite their lofty ambitions, most YLC biologists seem to lack both the desire and the ability to produce anything approaching rigorous scientific research in support of their assertions. (5) On the one hand, they often deride modern evolutionary theory as “a theory in crisis,” yet on the other, also seek to “replace Darwin,” (6) tacitly (and occasionally explicitly) acknowledging evolution as the prevailing theory of biology. Unfortunately, while they are armed with the “certainty” that they are correct, based mainly on their understanding of Scripture (and its associated timeline), they generally offer little else to convince anyone but the already-swayed that their views are correct. Thus, they have little to no impact outside their target audience—Christians who desire a “scientific” apologetic for their pre-existing beliefs. At the same time, these assertions leave those without faith, but with education in these fields, more skeptical of Christianity than ever. Rather than defending the faith, the bold but unsubstantiated assertions of YLCs are serving only to drive people away from it.”
- This is a “new model” for young-earth adherents. This is not an attempt to bring back an older, traditional understanding of the origin of biodiversity. Put another way, this isn’t your great grandfather’s beliefs. Instead it is an attempted re-synthesis of Darwinian evolution. It isn’t so much a replacement of Darwin but an attempt to edit Darwin. They want to harness the obvious explanatory power of evolutionary mechanisms and, yet, subject them to a vastly shortened chronology of Earth history.
- I say “small part” because YECs such as Ken Ham come to approach the problem of the origins of biological diversity already convinced that hyper-evolution has occurred because it is a necessary accommodation to their interpretation of scripture. Finding any evidence of rapid speciation simply acts as confirmation of their prior convictions. I think it is important to take note that an appeal to scripture for support of post-flood hyper-speciation does not provide the eye-witness testimony one would expect if such processes had occurred within YEC required chronology. The biblical authors never record observing a species giving rise to another species. In fact, the descriptions of animals in the bible (e.g. horses, foxes, dogs, wolves, ostriches, lions etc..) all appear to confirm that species that we see today are the same as they were then. For a more on the lack of biblical support for hyper-speciation see: Ken Ham’s Biblical Evolution–I have a book that says otherwise.
- For example, cheetahs, one of the more famous bottlenecked populations, are a single species that is thought to have been reduced to around seven breeding individuals about 10,000 years ago. They have extremely low genetic diversity—within a single population—to the extent that practically any cheetah can donate or receive a skin graft to or from any other with no immune response. That all canids have the same common ancestors supposedly 4,350 years ago yet exhibit no such homogeneity is beyond absurd to those with training in population genetics.
- Such a small number of individuals responsible for attempting to overthrow the collective wisdom of thousands of living and past scientists should in itself give one a reason to approach YLCs with skepticism. This is especially true when one considers there are hundreds of Christian biologists who have more experience and familiarity with the evidence than most of these 11 individuals and yet they find no merit in their biological proposals. Why have so few Christians with the experience to assess the evidence come to the defense of YLCs and not joined them in the revolution?
- In particular, a case could be made that Todd Wood and Peer Terborg breaks the general YLC mold. They have published a number of data-driven hypothesis-testing research papers (for example HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE) which demonstrate a strong desire to test both his own hypotheses and those of other YLCs. I disagree with the conclusions of these papers but from what I know of Todd Wood in particular, he earnestly seeks to re-think the history of life from a biblical perspective while not fearing to allow data to question specific YEC hypotheses while maintaining core YEC commitments.
- The phrase “replace Darwin” is used by some YECs. I use it in the title of the post for that reason but I don’t think it is an accurate depiction of what they are trying to do. They aren’t trying to replace Darwin but rather they wish to edit Darwin as noted in Footnote 1. We should also note that YECs hold up Darwin as if he is synonymous with evolutionary theory but the latter has many more components to it than Darwin ever articulated or knew about.
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