Some creationists have invented their own hypothesis for the diversity of life, based on categories of supposedly unrelated animals called baramins (from Hebrew roots literally meaning created kinds). However, their baraminology is nebulous nonsense, and the only way to honestly believe it is to be ignorant. I know because I used to believe it, and was forced to give it up when I learned how ignorant I was.
None of the outspoken young-earth creationists seem to know what a “kind” is, or how to define the limits of what they call “microevolution”, and that’s because most of them don’t understand what they’re talking about, and the rest know they’re making it all up. There’s a joke among people who understand evolution, that you know you have a real transitional form when half of the creationists say it’s obviously the ancestral kind, and half say it’s obviously the descendant kind. If their hypothesis had any basis in fact, they would be able to agree which kind the transitional form belongs to, but they can’t even define what the basal kinds are, let alone which animals belong to each. How could we expect them to accurately classify life forms when they don’t have a classification system to begin with?
A species is probably best defined as a snapshot of an interbreeding population at one point in time, because as soon as you add time there are exceptions to every definition of the word (and as you’ll see in a bit, there are some complications for the timeless definition as well). If you divide a population into two separate groups and give them time, their genetics will eventually drift far enough apart to make interbreeding impossible, thereby turning into two new species, neither of which are exactly the same as the parent species even if they look the same. This is evolution. That’s essentially all there is to it; there’s no barrier preventing a population from changing too much.
What creationists call “microevolution” is the fact that genomes change over time. What they call “macroevolution” is the fact that sometimes breeding populations split up into different groups that proceed to change separately from each other. It really is that simple, and put in those terms, the stupidity of baraminology should be painfully obvious. There’s nothing constraining two different groups to change in the same ways, so as to remain superficially similar enough to be classified as the same kind by creationists. But let’s go into more detail anyway, just to be thorough.
First, some creationists will define a kind as a group of organisms that are capable of interbreeding. Thus, dogs are a kind, cats are a kind, and some salamanders are simultaneously two different kinds because they both can and cannot reproduce with other closely related salamanders. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, but I’m just saying it in a ridiculous way. What I’m talking about is what happens when a species begins spreading around a physical barrier, changing as it goes, and then the two branches meet on the other side. If the process took long enough, the meeting branches cannot reproduce together, because they are genetically too different. However, if you work your way back around, every population may be capable of reproducing with the neighboring population it branched out from. Let’s illustrate this to make it really obvious:
This is called a ring species, and it has been documented all over the world, around lakes and bays and oceans and mountain ranges, with salamanders and birds and plenty of other animals. Since every population is genetically compatible with another population, such that all of them are linked together in one continuous chain, aren’t they all the same species? Or since the populations at the ends are genetically incompatible, are they different species? If they are, then where do you draw the line separating them?
Ring species illustrate perfectly the arbitrary human nature of organism classification, the way that time complicates our definition of “species”, as well as the first small steps down the long road of evolution. A barrier splits a population into multiple groups, which then adapt to their own niches and over time drift so far apart that a future snapshot will show two separate species where there used to be one. That is called allopatric speciation; there are other ways it can happen because all you need is for two or more groups to stop interbreeding, but physical barriers are the most common.
Another way that creationists often try to group animals into kinds is by considering their emergent physical traits, like grouping all lizards into one kind. The problem is that many physical traits, while arising from a genome, can’t tell us a lot about that genome itself. Animals that seem very similar can be more genetically different than animals that look nothing alike, as we’ll see later when I talk about dinosaur chickens.
Basic traits shared by many animals are not always produced by one single code, as we would expect if they had a common designer, but instead are created by a variety of different modifications to pre-existing genes in separate lineages that were subjected to similar environmental challenges and selective pressures, a process called convergent evolution. It’s the reason that marine mammals, reptiles, and fish all have flipper-shaped appendages, despite some of them being descended from ancestors with feet. Your eye, like every other vertebrate eye, has the light-sensing cells placed behind a bunch of supporting tissue. Octopuses and squid, on the other hand, have the light-sensing cells in front, indicating that they evolved separately. We can see the same thing in the genome. Octopuses and humans have very similar eyes, which have a few notable differences but serve the same function, emerging from different code.
Creationists seem to think that the probability of these things happening by “chance” is so remote it had to be done by an intelligent being. But I think their math is bad. They haven’t factored in the possibility that there are many different ways to achieve the same results, nor the preferential selection over time for results that are more likely to result in more results. Given enough time and the right environment, an accurate computation of the probability of life forming could conceivably approach 100%. Probabilities are a little weird when time is involved, which trips up a lot of people who are accustomed to thinking about probabilities for single instantaneous events like flipping a coin. But I digress.
The bible refers to bats as birds, because we used to classify animals based on their external traits and what they do, rather than their genetic ancestry. As I’ve just shown, though, two different genes could produce the same result. Likewise, two animals with very similar genomes could have very different traits, for example the great variation among dogs is commonly cited by creationists to explain how animals can diversify within their kind. Yet what are the limits of a kind? If you’re going by the physical traits, there are a whole line of fossil forms as well as numerous living species which are physically not as different from wolves as a lot of dog breeds. So we must conclude that all of those, with their slight variations on the same basic form, must belong to the same kind.
But at that point, you’re looking at an unbroken line of slightly modified dogs going all the way back to ancient carnivores that also share a lot of features with cats. So we can include cats in this kind as well, because they also have a long line of fossil forms, each with only slight physical variations from each other, which converges with the dog line at ancestors with traits of both. Remember, you can find greater physical variation within a single modern species than between each of these transitional forms from the fossil record, so if you’re using physical traits to classify them, they should all fit into one kind.
It only snowballs from there. If dogs are all descended from a common ancestor, then all carnivores are related by the exact same reasoning. And all mammals. And all vertebrates. And so on. We have thousands upon thousands of transitional forms showing incremental changes for almost all major developments in the evolution of animals, and creationists ignore all of it. I was taught that none of those fossils existed, so imagine my surprise when I saw them for the first time!
Rather than simply looking at physical traits, then, we should look at the genome. If there were distinct kinds that were originally created, we should be able to see that clearly. Animals with a shared ancestry would share a unique and recognizable basic genome, with specific modifications accumulated over time that should show up in any descendant of the population in which the modification originally arose. For example, a specific mutation shared between two groups of animals should indicate that they diverged after that mutation arose in their shared ancestors.
As it turns out, all living things share a basic genome, on top of which are accumulated modifications chronicling their evolutionary history, all of which perfectly matches the story told by those transitional forms in the fossil record. A gene that controls the development of the human hand also controls the development of the fins on fish, the ends of birds wings, and so on…and it is far deeper and more extensive than hands. So not only do physical traits hint at evolution from a single common ancestor, but genetics proves it as conclusively as anything can be proven. There is only one kind of life on this planet.
Creationists claim that this just means the different organisms had a common designer. And I would agree…they were all designed by the blind force of natural selection acting upon separated populations of a common ancestor. That is exactly what we observe happening in the present. That is exactly how creationists explain the diversity of cats and dogs. From a common origin, multiple separate lineages were derived with different traits.
“But wolves devolved into poodles by losing information! In order to gain new and different traits, you have to add information!”
No, you don’t. The irony is that in order to make that statement, the creationist is using a remarkable trait that was made possible by a “loss of information”. See, primates have a gene that helps to suppress brain tumors. That’s great, maybe god designed it to reduce our incidence of brain cancer. Except in humans that gene is broken. A mutation caused it to stop working, and the result was, on one hand, an increased chance for tumors. So why didn’t the lineage with the broken gene die off? Because mutation isn’t a simple matter of being helpful or not; often it’s both. There’s a benefit and a drawback, a price to pay for something new. In this case the benefit was greater than the drawback…the loss of that gene allowed our brains to grow much bigger.
That’s why we’re smarter than chimpanzees. Because our version of a tumor suppressing gene, which we share with all primates, is broken. We are capable of having this conversation because we are literally broken monkeys with a higher chance of developing brain tumors. Also because we figured out how to make fire and cook our food, which enabled us to consume more energy with less effort and feed a brain that now uses a full 20% of the body’s total energy.
There were several factors at work, because evolution is never just random mutations. Creationists always forget about the environmental factors mercilessly eliminating genes that confer a serious enough disadvantage in reproduction. They don’t know that we drove several cousin species of humans extinct as we spread throughout the world, because they don’t even know we used to share the planet with many other species of humans, or that we can extract their DNA from ancient bones and see how they are related to us and other apes, or that most of us inherited a few percent of our DNA from other human species that mingled with Homo sapiens many thousands of years ago. They know none of this, and I find that profoundly sad.
Even worse, they don’t know that while our head lice diverged from chimpanzee head lice around the same time we diverged from chimps, our pubic lice diverged from the pubic lice of gorillas much later than that. I think everyone should know this.
Another interesting case of removing genes can be seen in experiments with chickens that turned off the genes responsible for the development of beaks, wings, and a short bird tail. Without adding anything extra, you would think that turning off genes essential for the physical development of the animal would cause some horrific deformity. But instead, the chicken embryos developed reptilian snouts with teeth, arms with hands, and a long reptilian tail.
This demonstrates a very important truth: every modern organism retains much of the genome it inherited from its ancestors. Sometimes new traits are developed by the original genes being edited, and sometimes unused genes are randomly lost, but sometimes the original ones are still there and just superseded by other genes. Turning off those newer genes makes the development of the affected structure revert to its ancestral form…in the case of the chicken, those were obviously dinosaur body parts. You can see it in humans who are very occasionally born with tails. We can examine the genomes of different groups of animals, like birds and crocodiles, and find the ancestral genes that they share. In fact, genetic analysis of birds and crocodiles confirmed what we already suspected from the fossil record: they’re more closely related than lizards and crocodiles (birds are descended from dinosaurs, which share a common ancestor with crocodiles, and that ancestor in turn shares a common ancestor with lizards).
And here’s the final nail in the coffin of baraminology: the size of a genome can and does increase. Sometimes a chromosome gets duplicated, or a virus gets incorporated (several percent of your genome is made of old viruses, which you inherited from and share with other animals). There’s a process called horizontal gene transfer in which organisms basically share genetic material like we might share recipes for pecan pie. There are lungfish, plants, even single-celled organisms with genomes far larger than the human genome, and one of the most prolific chromosome copiers is a fern with over 1200 chromosomes. So the size of the genome says nothing about the emergent traits or complexity of the organism, especially since most of the genome isn’t actually used.
Recently scientists have experimented with removing large portions of genomes from bacteria, mice, and other organisms, with no change in function. If these organisms came from an intelligent designer, why do they have a bunch of unused DNA that can also be found in the genomes of many other kinds of living things that look exactly like they are genetically related? I would expect that if an intelligent designer added non-functional DNA, it would at least carry a message. As it is, all of this extra DNA, which is found in all living things and shared between them, carries only the message inherent to its nature: we all came from a common ancestor via a process of trial and error.
So, external traits aren’t necessarily indicative of genetic relation, and they can change dramatically with only a tiny change to the genome. New traits (or old suppressed ones) can be gained by removing genes. The size of a genome can grow and shrink, and only a fraction of it is actually used. The parts that aren’t used are random broken genes, viruses, and artifacts from ancient ancestors that can be found in all of their descendants, even across the imaginary barrier of “created kinds”. Every modern organism retains unused genes from its ancestry, which in some cases can be reactivated to develop traits that haven’t manifested in their lineage for millions of years.
Faced with all of this crushing reality, there’s only one reasonable question for creationists: if your god actually designed all of this, why did he do it exactly how evolution would have done it? Why did he put far more effort into making sure every piece of evidence is consistent with evolution than he put into designing our eyeballs? Any competent designer would recognize the benefits of putting the sensor that collects light in front of the wires that provide energy to the sensor, and octopus eyes are a practical example proving that it’s a realistic and superior design, yet this god did it the inferior way for all vertebrate eyes. It’s like he was an employee who zoned out and spent four hours putting widgets together backwards and never noticed the mistake.
If this being is capable of meticulously editing old viruses into everything he created in order to form a picture of past genetic inheritance that matches every other piece of evidence…if he is capable of coming up with completely different code to perform the same function, and distributing those distinct genomes in such a way that they are perfectly consistent with evolution…if he is capable of producing billions of years worth of annual sediment layers, and continental drift, and dozens of stacked forests grown on top of previous forests each buried in volcanic ash, and desert landscapes, and massive deposits of marine evaporates, all with a one-year flood that leaves no trace (especially in the formations that could only exist in the absence of water)…if he is capable of using that flood to sort fossils into perfectly separated layers around the entire planet that line up with the evolutionary history written in the genomes of all life…couldn’t he make better eyeballs? And couldn’t he at least leave behind a single clue somewhere in the chaotic mess that is our genome, to indicate that it was the product of something other than trial and error?
The discovery and decoding of DNA was the ultimate vindication for Darwin, and a proper understanding of it is all the proof you need that baraminology is utter bullshit. You could take a small fraction of the genome from the little Japanese plant Paris japonica, rearrange it, and end up with a human genome. In the real world, organisms are limited by their ancestry and lack of control over changes to their genome. But at the genetic level, there is no barrier to changing any organism into any other kind of organism, because they are all made from the same basic stuff, and they all got where they are in the same basic way. Four different molecules that naturally stick together, stringing along in random order until one specific bit happens to be really good at replicating itself. Then that sequence spreads everywhere, and keeps replicating, until one specific instance shows up with a modification that makes it even better at replicating itself. Repeat for billions of years.
The god of creationism would be maliciously deceptive, a cruel monster who wanted us to discover evolution and believe it, who wanted us to think that our existence is due to billions of years of trial and error and suffering and sex, who specifically designed us to be fundamentally flawed so that we would suffer from it. Because if he designed the life on this planet, he intentionally did it in such a way that his influence would be undetectable, and put most of his effort into writing genes that literally serve no purpose except to mislead us about our origins. At the same time, he used inferior designs for our eyes, feet, backbones, and more, which are directly responsible for suffering that will afflict nearly every human who ever lives to adulthood, suffering that could’ve been avoided simply by using more intelligent designs.
Our own DNA is among the strongest evidence against creationism, because the only sorts of designers that would come up with it are either evil, or not intelligent at all. When you understand the reality of the choice, an unthinking and uncaring natural process seems a lot more reasonable, and indeed more comforting, than an evil god.