Ken Ham and his staff have demonstrated their confusion about biological classification yet again and also shown they don’t read primary literature before jumping to their own conclusions. The latest example comes courtesy of a new flowering-plant fossil which was recently described in the literature as an ancient “lily.” Ken Ham on the AiG website and on his Facebook news program was quick to declare that the discovery of a 115 million-year-old “lily” flower as proof that lilies have always been lilies:
“This find is no surprise to biblical creationists. God created each kind—including the kind that includes lilies—to reproduce according to their kinds. So, we see great variety within a kind, but lilies stay lilies.”
The popular press article the Ken Ham sites is titled: Oldest completely preserved lily discovered. I understand how he and his staff could be confused if they only read the title. However, the article doesn’t say this “lily” was a member of the lily family as Ken Ham goes on to imply. That family (Liliaceae) includes over 700 species of plants that most people think of as lilies and which Ken Ham undoubtedly believes are all members of a single created kind. However, the article talks about the fossil being a member of the basal monocots many of which are grouped together in a much broader group, the taxonomic Order of Liliales or “lilioid monocots” which includes dozens of families of monocot plants one of which is the lily family. Members of the Order Liliales can collectively be called lilies. In fact, the Class Liliopsida includes all of the monocot families and thus a botanist could refer to all monocots as lilies. For example I could generically call grasses, palm trees and orchids all lilies. It is the larger sense of “lily” that the title of the Science Daily article was using to describe the type of plant found in the Cretaceous-aged rock.
The picture that Ken Ham used in his blog post was that of a typical lily in the lily family but this is certainly not what this ancient plant looked like. The Science Daily summary article is not crystal clear about the taxonomy and so Ken Ham could have jumped to an erroneous conclusion by not reading it carefully. However, had he or his research team, which he credits as helping him write his article, taken the time to obtain and read the original research article they certainly should have realized that this fossil represents something very different than anything that any of their followers would recognize as a lily.
To illustrate all we need to do is pull out two lines from that original work:
“Compared to other monocots, the fossil displays plesiomorphic flowers (at least for the visible characters) but a very specialized kind of inflorescence that is unknown in living relatives.”
Here they indicate that this plant has a special flower structure that is unknown in any living species of flowering plants. It is NOT a member of the lily family. In fact the authors go on to talk about features of the flowers and plants that have similarities to more than three different Orders of monocots. They analyzed many characters and then used those characters to determine what particular living plants this plant was most similar to and conclude:
“In this analysis, a single most parsimonious position was recovered sister to Dioscoreales + Pandanales.”
Wow, this fossil is so unlike any living plant it doesn’t belong in any know living family and it isn’t even more similar to the lily family than other families. Not only that, it doesn’t even belong to any living Order of monocots and the two most similar Orders are not the Liliales which includes the lily family. Therefore this fossil is not even close to being something like an Easter lily. In other words, it is unique. It belongs in its own group sister to (most closely related to) either the Order Dioscoreales or Pandanales.
This is equivalent to saying that we found a new vertebrate and it is most similar to the Order Carnivora which includes felines and canines but it is not a carnivore but it also isn’t a member of any other Order of mammals. It is is own unique type of mammal. However, it is a mammal.
Back to our fossil. Yes, this plant really is a flowering plant and it belongs to the class of monocots but it isn’t like any living flowering plant and can’t be classified with any of them other than saying it is a monocot. Again, this is like saying we found something new and all we know is that it is a mammal.
Does Ken Ham really believe that finding something so different that it belongs in a new Order is just one “kind” of organism giving rise to variation within a kind? Does he think that all 700 lily species along with arums, orchids etc are all the same “kind” of thing and that if we see an orchid we should think, of that is just part of the variation of the lily kind? I don’t think so. I think he just doesn’t understand taxonomy and in this case just didn’t bother to read the article and find out what a “lily” is.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe it is possible that Ken Ham has already considered this. Maybe his understanding of the “lily kind” is that God created an original kind, maybe all of the the monocots, that is equivalent to that of an Order or Class of organisms. That original created kind then evolved into the lilies, orchids, grasses, palm trees and other families we have today. In this sense he could truthfully say that this fossil shows that a lily has always been a lily but to say so he will have to have a very broad view of what constitutes the limits of a “kind.” Will he next be telling us that any carnivore fossil is just a carnivore and that dogs and cats are the same kind? Are all primates the same kind? Maybe all dinosaurs were a single kind and thus any new fossil of a dinosaur proves that dinosaurs were always dinosaurs. Just how inclusive will a kind become for young earth evolutionists?
Lastly, there is a great irony in his falling for this “lily” fossil. If he had read the original research he would have discovered that this fossil represents a great transition fossil. It has characteristics that span a variety of modern groups of monocots. It exists at a time when the lily, orchid, and other lily-like families had not yet distinguished themselves as identifiable families. The presence of a plant just like the one found here is what evolutionary biology would expect. Plants like this one would have been the ancestors that gave rise to the particular families that we recognize today.
Original article and abstract:
Coiffard, Clément & Kardjilov, Nikolay & Manke, Ingo & E. C. Bernardes-de-Oliveira, Mary. (2019). Fossil evidence of core monocots in the Early Cretaceous. Nature Plants. 5. 691-696. 10.1038/s41477-019-0468-y. All the major clades of angiosperms have a fossil record that extends back to more than 100 million years ago (Early Cretaceous), mostly in agreement with molecular dating. However, the Early Cretaceous record of monocots is very poor compared to other angiosperms. Their herbaceous nature has been invoked to explain this rarity, but biogeography could also be an explanation. Unfortunately, most of the Early Cretaceous angiosperm record comes from northern mid-latitudes. The Crato plattenkalk limestone offers a unique window into the Early Cretaceous vegetation of the tropics and has already yielded monocot fossils. Here, we describe a whole monocotyledonous plant from root to reproductive organs that is anatomically preserved. The good preservation of the fossils allowed the evaluation of reproductive, vegetative and anatomical characteristics of monocots, leading to a robust identification of this fossil as a crown monocot. Its occurrence in Northern Gondwana supports the possibility of an early radiation of monocots in the tropics.
Cover image: Orchid By Nicolas Perrault II – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39266239