We are currently in the midst of an extinction crisis. Species are disappearing at an ever-accelerating pace. It is striking that not long ago the idea that any species could go extinct was unthinkable. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was one of the first to suggest that extinction was a possibility. But during Leclerc’s lifetime, the critic could always claim that we simply hadn’t sufficiently searched out the earth to find the living members of those species observed in the fossil record. Not long after, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) made detailed observations of the remains of mammoths and concluded that they were a different species from living elephants and that it was unlikely that any were still alive. Combined with the discovery of dinosaur and sea reptile fossils (plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs), the idea that many kinds of organisms that had lived in the past were truly extinct today became firmly established.
Today, paleontologists agree that 99% of all species that have ever lived on earth are extinct. If that is true, the millions of species alive today are but a tiny fraction of the total diversity of life over earth’s history.
Extinction and the Young-earth Timeline of Life on Earth
Young-earth creationists (YECs) also believe that most species that have ever existed are now extinct. In striking contrast to standard theory, they believe that God made every “kind” of organism over a 72-hour period about 6000 years ago. All the diversity of organisms that would ever have existed was present at the beginning, though they believe members of each “kind” had since divided into species that were adapted to particular environments. About 1500 years after their creation, all life on earth experienced a cataclysmic event—a global flood—that killed 99.99% of living things. However, representatives of each air-breathing land vertebrate kind were preserved on Noah’s Ark. Though the full diversity of the original kinds (however see footnote 1) were preserved on the Ark, this did not prevent a subsequent massive reduction in the diversity of life. Soon after departing their vessel of salvation YECs propose that more than half of all the diversity of kinds that God formed in the beginning went extinct including tens of thousands of species that “hyper-evolved” from pairs of animals on the ark. (footnote 2)
Oddly, we find that the YEC view of biological origin and diversity includes God killing trillions of animals though saving representatives of each “kind.” But then after preserving every kind of animal that He had created for 1500 years from Creation to Flood and then preserving them through that Flood, more than half went extinct in a short period of time. We will explore the YEC extinction pattern illustrated in the table below a bit later. First though, let’s look at the YECs’ problem of extinction by examining the history of the pterosaurs.
What is the Young-earth natural history of Pterosaurs?
There at least 75 and possibly 200 or more genera of pterosaurs identified in the fossil record to date, with more being discovered each year. The known fossils have been organized by palaeontologists into 25 families of pterosaurs. At the Ark Encounter, a themed attraction that includes a life-sized Noah’s Ark, there is a sign that list all the “kinds” of animals they propose Noah preserved on the Ark during a global flood just 4350 years ago. They place the pterosaurs into 18 “kinds.” These “kinds” of animals can be thought of as a classification group roughly at the familial level—like canine or feline families of mammals—and are thought to be the “kinds” of animals that God created during the days of creation about 6000 years ago. These “kinds” do not share a common ancestor but were created separately from one another though they may share many “design elements.” For example, all the pterodactyl-type pterosaurs are one “kind” or family of pterosaurs. Hence, when they refer to pterosaurs, they are applying a collective name for 18 (it is not clear to me how this number was chosen by YECs) separately-created forms of living things that rapidly diversified (speciated via evolutionary mechanisms) into hundreds of species, prior to their all becoming extinct.
When a YEC says that pterosaurs are extinct, they are expressing confidence in the fact that no member of at least 18 families are observed to exist today. So when and why did they go extinct? The YEC believes that hundreds of species of pterosaurs must have been alive at the moment the global flooding event commenced about 4350 years ago. Otherwise, how would their remains be left for us to find in those Noahic Flood deposits? But they don’t believe that the Flood could have caused the “kinds” to go extinct because God had said that Noah was to bring two of every “kind” of vertebrate land animal onto the ark and this would have included representatives of all 18 kinds of pterosaurs.
After the flood waters abated, about 4350 years ago, pairs left the ark entering a new world with no vertebrate animals on land other than those that had been preserved on the ark. But what happened to them after that?
Apparently all 18 pterosaur kinds didn’t find the post-Flood world very inviting. We have no evidence that pterosaurs survived after stepping off the Ark. There is no fossil record attesting to their post-Flood existence despite the abundant evidence of hundreds of species of pterosaurs in what are claimed by YECs to be a Flood fossil record. It is an odd extinction pattern, to say the least, given that each of these kinds of animals, which exhibit wildly different shapes, sizes, and diets, are claimed to have been created independently by God during the creation week. Why would all of such different kinds of animals have immediately gone extinct in the post-diluvial world—after God having commanded Noah to collect and preserve them from destruction on the Ark? It would be difficult to argue that 18 separately-created animals would have the same deficiency precluding survival in the new post-diluvial world.
Inexplicable YEC extinction patterns go beyond Pterosaurs
But the strangeness of the YEC extinction pattern doesn’t stop here. Let’s contrast this pattern—thousands of species present in Flood deposited rocks and no evidence of their existence after the Flood, despite having survived the Flood—with other groups of organisms. The Ark Encounter considers the animals we call bats to be the collective name of 25 separately created flying mammals who all share some similar features (thought not due to common ancestry).
All 25 kinds of bats must have existed before the Flood since they were created on the 6th day (or the 5th day if you classify them with the birds as “flying things”). All 25 kinds therefore must have been on Noah’s Ark. What evidence do we observe as to when bats lived on earth? The fossil record of bats stands in stark contrast to that of pterosaurs. All bat fossils are found in what the majority of what YECs claim are “post-Flood” rocks or rocks that were formed in the period after the animals left the Ark. As such, these must be the descendants of the pairs or animals that Noah preserved for repopulating the world. In fact, the Ark Encounter recognizes that seven kinds of bats are extinct and only known from fossils, but these fossil kinds are only found in post-Flood rocks.
Why is there no physical evidence that any bats were killed and preserved as fossils during or before a global Flood? There is a distinct gap in the fossil record between the last (the most recent) pterosaur fossil in the fossil record and the first (the oldest) bat fossil. The point is that no bat has ever been found with a pterosaur and all pterosaurs fossils (tens of thousands of them) are found in what YECs say are “Flood” rocks.
There is no a priori reason to believe that pterosaurs should not be preserved in post-Flood events. And on the other side, bats are very fragile and would not be expected to be preserved except under very special conditions which, ironically, YECs often claim would only have been present during a global flood. The YEC should predict that bats fossils would be found throughout the Flood fossil record and should be less prevalent in post-flood rocks, but we find the very opposite instead.
We could provide hundreds of additional problematic patterns within the fossil record for YECs, but we’ll provide just one more example for now: What about carnivores? YECs say there are at least 12 different “kinds” of carnivores including canines, felines, bears, weasels, hyenas, etc. Every species of all of these kinds of carnivores are known solely from post-Flood rocks and thus would represent species that evolved after leaving Noah’s Ark. But if all 12 of these kinds existed from the days of creation how did any member of any of these 12 kinds avoid being preserved in the flood rocks when millions of dinosaurs and mammal-like synapsids and thousands of pterosaurs all were preserved in those Flood rocks?
YEC propose massive biodiversity losses due to recent extinctions
Pterosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg of what is a rather shocking outcome of the YEC understanding of the history of biological diversity. By my count (see table below) using what the Ark Encounter lists of extinct and living “kinds,” 54% (754 kinds!) of all the land vertebrate animal kinds that God created have gone extinct since the catastrophic global Flood 4350 years ago. Yes, YECs believe we co-exist with less than half of the kinds of animals that lived with Adam and Eve and through the time of Noah. And remember that “kinds” are the equivalent to families of organisms. Losing a kind today would be like saying that all canines, felines, finches, or great apes suddenly disappeared.
Each of these families includes dozens or hundreds of species and so if we talk about species extinctions then the YEC believes that fantastically high rates of extinction have occurred only a few thousands years ago and possibly within only a few decades or few hundred years.
Combined with the common YEC claim that the world is “running down” due to mutations and other effects of sin’s corruption of nature, it may not be surprising to many YECs that the diversity of life is being lost from this world. However, the tremendous loss of species and entire “kinds” of animals a few thousand years ago and continued losses today should cause the young-earth advocate to wonder about God’s purpose in these extinctions and what the future may hold.
The well-known evangelical preacher John MacArthur speaking about Christians responsibility for the environment:
“The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet–it is going to have a very short life. It’s been around six thousand years or so–that’s all–and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.
I’ve told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it. Peter says God is going to literally turn it in on itself in an atomic implosion so that the whole universe goes out of existence (2 Peter 3:7-13).
This earth was never ever intended to be a permanent planet–it is not eternal. We do not have to worry about it being around tens of thousands, or millions, of years from now because God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. Understanding those things is important to holding in balance our freedom to use, and responsibility to maintain, the earth.”
Maybe this is why some YECs are not impressed with, particularly concerned by, or even acknowledge the current extinction crisis that scientists have been reporting to the public. After all, if the current rate of species loss is far less than the extinction rates just a few thousand years ago when, potentially, tens of thousands of species were going extinct each year, why be too concerned about hundreds of species going extinct today?
It is pretty clear what John MacArthur believes the future hold and I expect that many, though not all, YECs ascribe to a similar view. One has to wonder, if extinction can happen so rapidly and recently and they believe that speciation is not occurring at the same rates as extinction then they must believe that the future is rather bleak. The planet seems destined to become less and less biologically diverse even if humans were to do their utmost to protect biological diversity–which is rarely part of the YEC agenda. In fact we already know that domestic animals—most of which only can survive because we care for them—now far exceeds wild animals. If we combine current rates of extinction combined with YEC theoretical expectations we might wonder what the world will look like in the not so distant future when 50% more of the earth’s biodiversity is lost.
For the young-earth advocate, higher rates of past and present extinction rates without at least offsetting origins of new species and new biological novelties can only point to a future of rapidly decreasing biological diversity leading to a world that has lost much of the glory of the original creation or even the pre-Flood world.
Footnote 1:It is unclear to me that YECs must believe that every “kind” of air-breathing land vertebrate that God made was preserved on the Ark. Why couldn’t some “kinds” of animals that God created have gone extinct prior to the Flood? There is no Biblical argument that I can see that requires the preservation of all living kinds. Rather we are told that Noah was to bring two of each kind on the Ark. Presumably those would be two of every kind that existed in his day and does not preclude some of the kinds that Adam presumably named having gone extinct before the Flood. YECs might say that every “kind” of organism that we know of is found in the Flood or post-Flood fossil record. Yes, that is true. Every kind we are aware of is in the fossil record and so by definition if organisms that were alive at the time of the Flood they were preserved but how can a YEC know that there were not “kinds” of animals that went extinct before the Flood and therefore we have no record of because they had no ability to be preserved? Where any of us there at the time of creation to see all the animals that were created but went extinct as soon as Adam and Eve sinned and thus did not survive to be part of those that needed to be preserved on the Ark?
Footnote 2: Some pairs of ark kinds may have gone extinct immediately without producing offspring but YECs believe that all “kind” of animals underwent rapid diversification (speciation) into many species soon after departing the Ark. But the vast majority of these species (e.g. 100 or more canines, felines and at least as many elephant species) and sometimes every species of a particular kind went extinct.
Cover image: By Mark Witton – https://peerj.com/articles/2908/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55123135
Editing kindly provided by MC