Young-earth creationists like to talk about two types of evolution, one is real (microevolution), and the other is a lie from the pit of hell (macroevolution). They act as if their were a chasm between the two as large as the Grand Canyon. But when their literature is explored identifying where microevolution ends and macroevolution begins gets very fuzzy.
In our just published peer-reviewed paper, Dissent with modification: how postcreationism’s claim of hyperrapid speciation opposes yet embraces evolutionary theory, we illustrate how young-earth advocates have redefined the terms macroevolution and microevolution to advance their own view of the origins of biological diversity. We show that the boundary between micro and macroevolution has no clear demarcation in the practice of young-earth creationism despite their rhetoric. This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of macroevolutionary theory (e.g. universal common descent) that aren’t real points of disagreement but finding where fiat creation and evolution mix are murky waters.
Two days after our paper was published I was notified of a new post from Creation Without Compromise which illustrated just the problem we outlined in our paper. The title of the post was “Why I am a six-day evolutionist?”
With a provocative title like this you may wonder, is there such a thing? As I expected, the author, Jon Dyskstra who is not a biologist, was drawing the reader in with this title to explain that you don’t need to compromise on young-earth creationism if you understand that a small amount of evolution is perfectly acceptable as a creationist. That evolution is microevolution.
To make his point he sketches out a picture of a massive gulf between microevolution, which he believes all creationists should accept because it is obvious and a part of how God made organisms so they could adapt to a changing environment, and macroevolution which all Christians must reject because it is neither observable nor can it—in his estimation—explain the vast amount of biological diversity and most importantly is counter to the truth—again in his estimation—proclaimed in Genesis.
This distinction between micro and macroevolution sounds so obvious if you read Dykstra’s post. But is it? Let’s look at what Dykstra does to create such a clear distinction between the two. He explains that evolution can mean two different things and then he gives his definition of microevolution and macroevolution:
Evolution is often used to describe the small changes that animal species may undergo over time. Perhaps a species of bird might, on average, start having larger beaks – scientists would readily call this evolution. This particular use of the word is sometimes referred to as microevolution. Animal species are adaptable (just think of how dogs have adapted in a variety of ways to meet different needs) so this use of the word isn’t particularly controversial.
A second use of the word is where the battle actually commences. “Evolution” can be used as a descriptor for the theory that says man evolved from a single cell, which in turn emerged from the primordial soup eons ago. This molecule-to-man hypothesis is sometimes called macroevolution and it directly conflicts with the six-day creation account given in Genesis 1 and 2.
To the typical non-biologist these might sound like reasonable definitions. But the distinctions are not as clear as he makes it seem. He earlier had provided an illustration of how some fish of the same species have lost eye-sight when they enter into caves. He claimed this is “clear example” of evolution in action. Here we see natural selection happening and it is acting on some mutations that can be useful under particular environmental conditions. These are evolutionary mechanisms but he emphasizes that these are changes that occur that allow adaptation of populations within a species. In the quote above he say that “species are adaptable” and then gives the example of dogs presumably referencing different dog breeds.
By defining microevolution as small changes within populations of a species Dykstra has done an admirable job of defining microevolution in a way that an evolutionary biologist would recognize. But is this what most young-earth creationists believe when they use the term microevolution? No doubt most—but not all*—young-earth apologists will agree that this type of change is happening to all organisms today. But limited to only within species? Hardly. The prevailing view among young-earth leaders today is that natural selection, mutations including reorganizations of genomes, and other evolutionary mechanisms are sufficient not just to help populations within species adapt to local conditions but also are sufficient to generate hundreds of new species from common ancestors. In other words, for many YECs microevolution is equated with the origin of new species. However, when they do so what they are describing is well beyond the typical definition of microevolution of standard evolutionary theory and of Dykstra but rather is macroevolution as our paper explains.
Does Dykstra believe microevolution is limited solely to changes within species or might he also believe that foxes, wolves, coyotes and African wild dogs are all derived from a common ancestor? Based on other posts on the blog Creation without Compromise and the works he frequently references I expect he might also accept these as examples of acceptable evolution which other creationists conveniently label “microevolution” to make it sound safe. But if so, he is not just accepting microevolution but is also swallowing rather a considerable amount of what evolutionary biologist refer to as macroevolution. YEC are lumping into micoevolution the origin of new species of new genera and sometime even new families of organisms.
What Dykstra appears to be doing in this post is presenting only the most extreme ends of the evolutionary spectrum as if to suggest there is no ground between the two giving the appearance that one can be accepted and the other easily discarded. This is much like how Ken Ham treats the creation-evolution debate as if you must accept his thesis or become an atheist.
While Dykstra uses the limited definition of microevolution that comports well with other evolutionary biologist, his understanding of macroevolution is far more restrictive than that of the evolutionary biology community. He treats macroevolution as if it is primarily a theory of universal common ancestry. While that is a possible conclusion one might come to studying macroevolutionary theory that is not the sum total of what macroevolution refers to. We provide some popular definitions of macroevolution in our paper. Here are a few of those:
“Evolution occurring above the species level, including origination, diversification, and extinction of species over long periods of evolutionary time.” Evolution: Making Sense of Life 2nd edition (Zimmer and Emlen 2015)
“Large evolutionary change, usually in morphology; typically refers to the evolution of differences among populations that would warrant their placement in different genera or higher-level taxa.” Evolutionary Analysis 3rd edition (Freeman and Herron 2004)
“Macroevolution can be defined simply as evolution above the species level, and its subject matter includes the origins and fates of major novelties such as tetrapod limbs and insect wings, the waxing and waning of multi-species lineages over long time-scales, and the impact of continental drift and other physical processes on the evolutionary process.” From: Symposium on Macroevolution (Jablonski et al. 1997)
Notice that none of these definitions explicitly speak of universal common ancestry. Also note that they all are speaking of the patterns of change at or above the level of species. The changes from a common ancestor species of carnivore into many species of carnivores each of which continue to evolve into more species that can be distinguished as canines or mustelids or felines are macroevolutionary patterns and processes.
The gap between microevolution and macroevolution is not what Dykstra paints it to be nor is it even clear there is a gap at all. And that is a big problem for creationists. Those YECs that attempt to explore whether evolutionary mechanisms can explain the divergence of organisms can be distinguished from God-created separations between organisms cannot agree about where the boundary between adaptation and creation lies. Worse yet, they can’t identify how changes to organisms might not results in the formation of new “kinds” of organisms in the future.
In 2017 Answers in Genesis biologist Dr. Jeanson and at the time Institute for Creation Research astronomer Dr. Jason Lisle published a paper in a YEC journal exploring how hundreds of species could evolve from a single pair of animals preserved on Noah’s Ark. They astutely recognized that while they believed they could find a biblical starting point for kinds (the original ancestors of each group of living thing on earth) there was an unanswered question: what would stop the members of a single “kind” of animal from changing so much that the descendants might not be considered all the same kind? They put it this way: “hence, robust YEC explanations for the origin of a vast number of species must explain not only how genetic mechanisms produce many phenotypes, but also how these processes did not transform one “kind” into another.”
Exactly! Where is the endpoint of speciation and how far can organisms change? Are the species we see today those endpoints, perfectly adapted for their environments? This vision of constant change of organisms is contrary to the popular YEC literature presented to the lay Christian and even a good bit of the Intelligent Design (ID) literature who portray species alive today as perfect end products designed to do what they do where they are living. Take Douglas Axe in his ID-promoting book Undeniable what states that “all organisms are ‘busy wholes’ that can’t be anything but what they are and thus are not becoming something different.” Leaders of YEC organizations are sending a different signal. That organisms have changed from one species to another dramatically and over a short period of time. But if that is the case, what is to stop them from changing to so much that future YECs might not recognize the descendants of one “kind” as being two separate kinds.
If species lose the ability to reproduce with each other, become more distinct over time then it stands to reason that some organisms once thought to be the same kinds will someday be thought of as two separately created kinds. For example what about foxes and the other species of canines. Most YECs today and maybe Dykstra recognize foxes, wolves and coyotes as members of a single created “kind” and thus sharing a common ancestor. The evolution of these kinds of canines from a common ancestor is described by macroevolution theory. But in the future as foxes and wolves continue to change could there be a time in which they become different enough that a future YEC will look the descendants and tell us that these two had to be separately created because of differences X, Y and Z? This is what Jeanson and Lisle are posing as a problem for YEC theories of hyperspeciation.
Dykstra has presented a caricature of both the standard evolutionary and young-earth creation models of origins. In doing so he can accept the obvious evidence that evolution has and continues to occur to all organisms on earthy. But he can maintain his young-earth credentials because he can define-away the parts of evolutionary theory that don’t comport to his biblical interpretation. A six-day evolutionist? Yes, but a confused one.
* Notably Dr. Randy Guliuzza from the Institute of Creation Research who has been writing about how natural selection is not real for many years.