It is said that beauty is only skin deep and that you can’t judge a book by its cover. These sayings seek to communicate our understanding that the exterior of an object often presents a false picture of the true nature of what is inside.
If we were to ask how might we measure the difference between two species of animals there are multiple methods by which we might make that assessment. The simplest approach would be to just observe exterior visible traits such as skin color, hair type and height. But do such traits accurately represent the true differences between species? In many cases they don’t even if we might not immediately understand why.
A tweet (below) by the president of Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham, provides us with an illustration of how easy it is to mistakenly judge an animal solely by its cover.
Ken Ham states that the “differences between the Great Dane & Yorkshire Terrier are much greater” than those of the wolf and coyote which all biologists agree are different species. Ken Ham seems to think the “difference” between canines can be judged by simply looking at pictures of canines with our eyes. Could Ken Ham be right that these recently domesticated breeds have “greater differences” than two species that have been evolving for over a million years (he erroneously states evolutionists say this has happened over thousands of years)?
If all we could do was judge a canine by its cover we might come to that conclusion but biologists have far better ways to measure relationships of organisms including measurements of physiological and life-history traits, protein and DNA sequences and even behavioral characteristics. For the canines that Ken Ham references these other traits clearly show that domesticated dog breeds are remarkably similar to one another while a coyote and a wolf show vastly more differences. For example, reading the DNA sequence of the mtDNA genome (Testing YEC hyper-evolution from common ancestors with mtDNA) we find that a Great Dane and Yorkshire Terrier differ by only 0.2% of their genome while the sequences of the wolf and coyote genome differ at 4% of their DNA code.
Ken Ham’s tweet spreads a common misconception about biological diversity but he should know better than to apply only visual appearance as his only measure of differences. After all, he wrote a book about human races called “One Race, One Blood.” In it he argued that although some humans appear quite different externally we are all very similar inside. In effect our differences are not what they may seem at first sight. He summarizes his book in a chapter of “The Answers Book, 2” this way:
“But some people think there must be different races of people because there appear to be major differences between various groups, such as skin color and eye shape.
The truth, though, is that these so-called “racial characteristics” are only minor variations among people groups. If one were to take any two people anywhere in the world, scientists have found that the basic genetic differences between these two people would typically be around 0.2 percent—even if they came from the same people group. But these so-called “racial” characteristics that people think are major differences (skin color, eye shape, etc.) “account for only 0.012 percent of human biological variation.”
Ken Ham is quite correct here. The adage that our differences are only skin deep is true. Human beings are remarkably similar. Ken Ham should know then that his comparison of domestic dog breeds to species of canines is deceptive. He should be aware that using his own measure of differences for humans—i.e. genetic difference—dog breeds are as similar, if not more so, to each other than people characterized in separate racial groups. Yes, two dog breeds are genetically more similar to each other than you are to most other people on earth.
The irony of Ken Ham tweet is that he clearly knows that external appearances can be a poor indicator of the genetic relationships and shared common ancestry of a group of individuals. If he understood what he has just said here about people and applied it to his canine example he would realize—or maybe he does, but doesn’t care—that he is sending mixed messages.
Let’s illustrate this with a more dramatic example. Consider the animals in the picture below. Would Ken Ham be tempted to believe that sugar gliders and flying squirrels are more similar to one another than a flying squirrel and an American red squirrel? The former are classified in very different groups—marsupial vs placental mammals—while the latter pair are both types of squirrels but at first sight appear to be much more different from one another. I expect he would know enough about these organisms to realize which two really have greater differences. However, he should also know enough about canines—at least his employees who are paid to know this stuff should have told him—to know better than make the statement he makes in his tweet.
Ham’s canine tweet suffers from multiple errors
Ken Ham’s tweet has managed to be wrong at nearly every level including even when he reports what evolutionists have concluded. Coyotes and wolves are not thousands of years old but rather biologists have estimated that the divergence of wolves and coyotes took place 1 to 2 million years ago though the actual time to diverge from a common ancestor may have been only tens or hundreds of thousands of years. So he greatly underestimates how divergence time of these species and the total time—millions of years—they have had to accumulate genetic differences and hence why they exhibit far greater genetic divergence than do domesticated dogs. But he also underestimates the time of divergence for the Great Dane and Yorkshire Terrier. Great Danes are thought to have existed as a breed for up to 4000 years going all the way back to ancient Egypt. Yorkshire Terriers as a specific breed are much younger having an origin less than 200 years ago. However, we would have to go back at least 4000 years to find a shared common ancestor of these two breeds thus they have accumulated their differences over that period of time.
Ken Ham also appears to believe that evolutionary theory necessitates that if two species have been around for a long time that they must become more different visually over time. Yes, all species are becoming genetically more divergent from others other time but the external features of a species may remain remarkably consistent over time as a result of natural selection. For example, I have worked with plant species that to most people would appear to be as similar as two individual wolves but they are genetically more different than a dog is from an elephant.
As we said before, despite more than 4000 years of accumulation of genetic differences between these two dog breeds they have genomes that are more similar to each other genetically than yours and mine—unless you are a family member reading this:-).
So why then do Great Dane and Yorkshire Terriers appear to be so different if genetically they are so similar?
The fact that dog breeds can look so different despite having been created much more recently is due in great part to the fact that rather than natural selection crafting their characteristics over thousands and thousands of generations, dog breeds were determined by years of intentional selective breeding which had a specific goal of sorting specific characteristics into groups of individuals. No biologists would predict that natural selection would create the dog breeds we see today. Dog breeds are not adapted via natural selection to live in any environment other than with man on whom they now depend. Wolves and coyotes live in similar complex ecosystems and thus express similar traits needed to survive in those environments. A wolf with short legs and a snout that can’t contain its tongue is not going to survive well in an alpine forest but it may do just fine in your home on a special diet provided by you.
Purposeful error or misunderstanding of science?
Based on his writing about human diversity it appears Ken Ham should be aware that his argument that there are greater differences among domestic dogs than canine species is utterly vacuous. Is he simply using his audiences understandable misconceptions about genetic diversity to make further his point or does he really believe that domestic dogs are more different from each other than coyotes and wolves? This wouldn’t be the first time that his statements have contradicted each other but it could be that he just doesn’t understand the science of either humans or canines. I’m not sure what is the cause of these errors but if it is the latter I would hope that he holds his staff responsible for not providing him with correct information.
** A recent article by David MacMillan introduced me to this tweet by Ken Ham. David is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC and features in the upcoming independent documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs which examines how YECs use dinosaurs in their ministry.