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Genetic Diversity on Noah’s Ark

Published: 17 October 2020 (GMT+10)

Pete B., UK, writes to ask:

dna

Hello, I have a question from a scientifically trained Evolutionist family member regarding post flood speciation and allele frequency that I am not feeling qualified to answer satisfactorily. Thank you for all your hard work.

The question: In a pair of animals (on the ark), the animals can only carry two alleles each of a given gene, giving a maximum total of four alleles of a given gene. However, many species of animal have many alleles of a gene; 5 or 6 is not uncommon. In the various species of a “kind” there are even more alleles for a given gene. If even microevolution does not work, then how do these new alleles arise from the four alleles of the animals on the ark?

Dr. Robert Carter, CMI–US, responds:

These are fascinating questions. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to answer them in print!

First, we need to consider pre-Flood diversity. We have no idea how much genetic diversity existed among most animal kinds. Humans are a little different because we know we started with two people and we know the population was reduced to eight people 1,600 years later, at the Flood. In fact, we can model the genetic effects of the Flood and the post-Flood time period on humans.

But we cannot do this for animals because we simply do not know the underlying population genetics. We cannot assume God created two of every animal. All we know is two of each were on the Ark, and we do not know how closely related the pairs were. Even for the clean animals, just because there were more of them does not necessarily mean we should expect more diversity among them today. This is for several reasons. First, clean animals tend to be cared for in flocks, thus they should have a higher level of inbreeding and less genetic diversity from the start. Second, some of them may have been sacrificed or eaten soon after the Flood, thus reducing their numbers (although I tend to minimize the effects of this in my mind).

We must also treat each type of animal according to their population history. Would we expect as much diversity in elephants as we do in mice? No. The former has had a historically smaller population size and has been reduced to very small numbers in recent centuries. They also have a long generation time. The latter has always been numerous and reproduce phenomenally quickly. Thus, there are many species and subspecies of mice, with many karyotypic (chromosomal) differences among them.

And we cannot forget that different ‘kinds’ were created with different DNA repair and maintenance systems. It simply might not be fair to do one-to-one comparisons.

We also cannot discount the fact that some places in the genome are much more variable than others. Usually, when an opponent is claiming there is too much allelic diversity they are focusing on those regions (e.g. the HLA genes).

And we must not forget that Lamarckian inheritance has recently been reintroduced as a viable concept. In fact, recent evidence shows that RNA is absorbed by developing sperm in the epididymis.1,2 Thus, ‘acquired traits’! The ‘Weismann barrier’3,4 has been breached and we can no longer say that strict Mendelian inheritance applies in all cases.

The definition of the word “allele” is also a problem. An “allele” can mean one of several things. If you are considering a single letter in the genome, there are, at most, four alleles (A, C, G, or T). But if you are considering an entire gene, there are as many possible alleles are there are letters (to the fourth power!). Given many generations, chromosomal recombination can lead to an increasing number of ‘alleles’ because the initial versions of a gene get scrambled to make more versions.

Finally, over 4,500 years has gone by. That is plenty of time to account for the accumulation of a lot of genetic diversity. Take humans. The bulk of our variation is biallelic and spread throughout the world. These variations are great candidates for “created diversity”.5 And there is no way to say that God did not front-load Adam and Eve’s reproductive cells with many different genomes, meaning that the genetic diversity of humans today may depend, in part, on how many children they had. There are myriad additional variants that are geographically restricted. These are excellent candidates for post-Flood mutation. Given that there are over seven billion people, and given that we have had thousands of years for variations to arise, why would anyone be surprised that there are genes with more than two versions?

I trust that I have given you and your friend enough to chew on. What seemed like a simple objection to creation is actually a deeply nuanced and interesting walk through disparate fields of details and data. Please take some time to study!

diverse-people

Sally S., NZ, writes:

Hi, my question is about Rob Carter’s Three Daughters of Noah video and the three separate MtDNA lineages. Can you tell which son they married?

Dr. Robert Carter responds:

This is a very interesting question, but the answer is more nuanced than most people expect. First, regarding my video presentation, I have learned to be a little more circumspect about the number of mitochondrial lines on the Ark. In fact, there were a maximum of three (or four if Noah’s wife had a daughter after the Flood). If any of the three girls were sisters, the number of lineages becomes 2, or maybe even 1. If the latter is true, all the variation we see in the mitochondrial genome is post-Flood. And if they are daughters of Noah (in other words, if the three brothers married their own sisters), the question of Noah’s wife is irrelevant because all four women would then have the same mitochondrial genome (discounting any new mutations).

Concerning the question of who was married to whom, this cannot be answered. The reason is that the nations were divided along patriarchal (Y chromosome) lines at Babel. I fully expect the people were freely mixing prior to that. The Bible says they were of one language and one purpose and intentionally sticking together prior to Babel. Thus, the sons of Shem could have married the daughters of Ham, the sons of Ham the daughters of Japheth, etc. This would have scrambled the mitochondrial lineages among the post-Babel clans.

In the end, everybody is descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, everyone is descended from the three wives, and the contributions from those six people are approximately equal in all people on earth. Anyone who is tempted to depict Ham with African (or Asian) features needs to think again! These features had to arise after Babel, through inbreeding, within the post-Babel people groups. The only exception is the Y chromosome (which represents but 1% of the genome) that has been passed from those three fathers to the over three billion males alive today, in unbroken lines of descent. But the answer to how many Y chromosome lines we would expect is similar to the answer for mitochondria: it depends on many unknown factors, but the maximum is three, and that only if Noah passed on mutated versions to any of his sons. Being that Noah was so old, it is entirely possible that one or more of the son’s Y chromosomes were very different from their father’s.

Personally, I take comfort in the fact that there are so many possibilities. Yes, on the one hand this makes for complicated and sometimes ambiguous answers. But, on the other hand, it gives us a lot of flexibility in our creation model. We are not easily shoved into a box and discounted by the opposition.

References and notes

  1. Sciamenna, I. et al. The active role of spermatozoa in transgenerational inheritance. Proc. R. Soc. B 286:20191263, 2019; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.1263. Return to text.
  2. Chen, Q. et al. Epigenetic inheritance of acquired traits through sperm RNAs and sperm RNA modification, Nature Reviews Genetics 17:733–743, 2016; https://www.nature.com/articles/nrg.2016.106. Return to text.
  3. Weismann was a famous German Darwinist (and probably the inspiration for ‘Professor Wiseman’ in the Curious George children’s books). It was he who first suggested that there were two cell types: ‘somatic’ body cells that did not pass on genes to the next generation and reproductive ‘germline’ cells that did. For more information, start with the Wikipedia entry: wikipedia.org/wiki/Weismann_barrier. Return to text.
  4. Sabour, D and Schöler, H.R., Reprogramming and the mammalian germline: the Weismann barrier revisited, Current Opinion in Cell Biology 24(6):716-723, 2012; pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22947493/. Return to text.
  5. Sanford, J.C. et al. Adam and Eve, designed diversity, and allele frequencies. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism (J.H. Whitmore, ed.), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship, pp. 200–216, 2018; creationicc.org/abstract.php?pk=363. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Edward N.
As an observation, one pair of amphibians can produce hundreds of eggs at a single breeding event. The offspring, however, are not clones of each other. This illustrates that each egg and sperm has a unique genetic code.
Laurence H.
The three sons of Noah were the fathers of three major races or tribes, Japtheth the walled city dwellers ,Shem the Arabs and Hebrews and Ham the Hamitic race. There is no mention of the Asian race. I read an article many years ago that put forth the idea that Noah may have had other children post flood that were the Asian forbears.I thought it interesting that you mentioned that possibility. Laurence
Robert Carter
I do not like to contradict people directly, but in this case I must. There is nothing factual in what you wrote, and it contradicts the Bible. For example, in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) the descendants of Ham settled in Africa, Asia, and Europe. What, therefore, is a "Hamitic" race? You said Shem was the father of the Arabs, but you neglected the descendants of Ham that settled in Arabia. If you are going to use the Bible as a guide, use the WHOLE Bible. We cannot cherry pick data to fulfill some preconceived (and often ill conceived) notion.

And what do you mean by "three" major races? Are you referring to the outdated and very much incorrect idea that there are "Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid" races? This poppycock has been soundly rejected by modern genetics, and rightly so because it has it roots in racist and anti-biblical 19th century evolutionary anthropology. Yes, if you go to the extremes of the map (say, Iceland, Japan, and Tanzania) you can find people who look very different. But if you go anywhere in between you will find people who are a gradation of the extremes. There is no cutoff. There is no line of demarcation. There is no way to bin people into distinct racial categories. To make this even more difficult, all people groups on earth share about 10 million variations, meaning we are clearly closely related and came from a single source population (i.e., Babel). And more recently it has been discovered that there are no (yes, zero) fixed differences among people groups. In other words, Africans and Europeans share millions of variants, but there is not a single variant that is found in 100% of Africans and no Europeans, and v.v.

And, no I did not mention that there may have been other children of Noah after the Flood. The Bible clearly says all people today descend from Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 9:18-19). There is no mention of any other sons. I do open the door for the possibility of a daughter of Noah being born after the Flood, but this is rhetorical only. It puts a cap on the possible number of mitochondrial lineages (4). It is 'rhetorical' because there is no need to invoke an extra daughter to explain the mitochondrial diversity we see in the world today.
Doug L.
Pete B., I would think that your scientifically trained family member needs to apply his scientific training and actually study genetics. It sounds like he's just repeating someone's (misleading) talking points. It would have been very easy for him to get an answer with just a minimal amount of study. Just from reading Nathaniel Jeanson's book, Replacing Darwin, I knew immediately that genetic crossover and recombination, all by itself, could answer the question. And I'm a database guy, not a biologist. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir, so apologies, but it just shows all of us not to be intimidated by someone claiming to have "scientific proof" of evolution or an ancient Earth. There are always good answers to lies! :)
Alf F.
"In the end, everybody is descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, everyone is descended from the three wives, and the contributions from those six people are approximately equal in all people on earth." I'm not a scientist, but is this not a rather grand assumption to make? Close relatives were marrying long after this time. Perhaps (strongly perhaps) only a very small portion of intermixing would have been necessary, if at all, to the safe multiplication of the three lines of Shem, Ham and Japeth. The 16 grandsons surely were complemented by numbers of granddaughters, who would be born over a fairly lengthy time period, meaning some sons could be marrying granddaughters (or more than one). From then on till recent times it would seem to me that people groups have been resiliently persistent, not the least so that end-time prophecy still makes sense. Could you point me to an article dealing more extensively with this?
Robert Carter
Honest question: why is it important to maintain three pure lines? The tenor of the biblical text does not suggest it. In fact, the only way to do so would be to have perfectly exclusionary pairing among the grandsons and granddaughters of Noah for the FIVE+ generations prior to the Babel event. This flies in the face of human nature. It is also so conspicuously absent that the possibility becomes absurd. They were one people, one family, with one language, and who were purposely sticking together so that they would not become disconnected from one another. How could anyone read into this that the descendants of Shem only married descendants of Shem, etc.? Even if marrying was 90% within immediate families, the amount of genetic and genealogical blending would have completely homogenized the population (you can check the math yourself, but it is profound).

The reason "the people groups have been resiliently persistent" is because we have been separated from one another since Babel. The so-called races did not emerge until after we spread out. This was due to the founder effect, genetic drift, and the rise of new mutations within each subsequent small population. There is no reason to appeal to Shem, Ham, and Japheth as the founders of modern people groups.

But wait! Ancient DNA can also inform us about this subject. When the first farmers began to move into Europe from Anatolia, they used two routes (one along the Med coast and then north, another via the Danube corridor). When these two migratory arms met in France they were genetically distinct enough that we can tell them apart. But they were living side-by-side with the hunter gatherers who had been living in Europe for many years already. The farmers and hunter gatherers were more different than Europeans are to Asians today. But the farmers and hunter gatherers eventually merged into the people we call "Europeans". What, then, is a race? I could also add that the Neanderthals (a post-flood people group) were in Europe first and had already merged with the hunter gatherers before the farmers got there.

See also my earlier reply to Laurence.
Laurence H.
Thank you Robert for your reply. We just finished a bible study on Genesis and completely overlooked Gen 9-19.Yes I was quoting from a view of early times. Thanks for the correction.
Laurence
Vladimir S.
Great answer! Would also be interesting to read about hybridization and all of this in some technical paper. That is very important to know, when you talk to people and they ask about DNA of initial pair on the ark. Usually question arises that there could not be enough variation in the first animals pair to get all dog or cat family for example. The same question arises about insects...
Robert Carter
Creation.com is a great source for this sort of information. Here's a paper about diversity among dogs: Karyotypic and allelic diversity within the canid baramin (Canidae). There are others on sheep, cattle, cats, and finches...

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