Genetics and geographical distribution
Published: 14 April 2011 (GMT+10)
Not all the feedback we receive from atheists is necessarily hostile. Matthew B. writes in with a couple of scientific questions. His messages are printed in full, followed by responses from CMI-US’s Dr. Robert Carter.
I am impressed and pleased for your level of devotion to this website, but unfortunately do not agree with it.
I shall not attempt to waste your time by trying to answer questions which you have already tried to answer on this site, but restrict my email to just two questions which I feel have not been adequately explained/rebutted.
1) Do you dispute the evidence from genetic distribution of characteristics as evidence for evolution? It is scientifically proven that certain animals/plants share certain genetic characteristics, and it is accepted that they can be arranged into a hierarchy that fits independently with the hierarchy specified and predicted by evolution. Would you care to describe the creationist perspective?
(NB/ Please do not use the traditional ‘God made that hierarchy’ answer; I would prefer to know why if that is the case, and have scientific reasons given).
2) Do you dispute the evidence for evolution from the geographical distribution of life? It is accepted that the distribution of plants and animals fits with the theories of evolution and plate tectonics. Having visited the (generally recognized) best examples of this theory’s consequences in person (Madagascar and the Galapagos), I am astounded that anyone can dispute the sound logic and hard proven science surrounding this issue. Please describe the creationist ‘rebuttal’ of this argument in a way that would satisfy a biologist/geographer (as myself).
I hope to hear some good sound answers to increase my respect and understanding of the creationist worldview. Please bear in mind that I am an atheist, and as such do not see the Bible as evidence in any way for the view of creationism. Good luck!
My kindest regards,
I will do my best to answer your detailed challenge.
1) Evolution predicts similarity due to common ancestry. Creation predicts similarity due to common design. Finding hierarchical relationships, therefore, proves neither. True, creation makes no specific predictions about the nature of those similarities. We would happily incorporate many scenarios into our model. But the same is true of evolutionary theory (e.g., horses and bats sharing a close genetic relationship does not topple the theory in the minds of the holders of evolutionary theory). I would suggest you familiarize yourself with Walter ReMine’s The Biotic Message. He says the message is plain for all to see: near-hierarchical relationships that defy evolutionary explanation is what we would expect from a Creator. One can most easily see this in the rise of horizontal gene transfer theory that has come out in light of the many surprises found at what was expected to be the base of the tree of life.1 There are other surprises, at all levels, in fact.
2) Biogeography is a fun topic, but it is not the death-knell of creation. I, too, have been to the Galápagos, and Madagascar is on top of my list of places I want to visit next. Unlike you, I have also been to the Wallace Line (I stood on the rim of the Gunung Agung volcano on Bali, looking out as the sun rose above the peaks of Lombok, and wondered why the plants and animals on the other side of the narrow strait were so different. The answer, of course, is that during the low water stand at the height of glaciation Bali and Lombok were the extreme ends of two separate landmasses.).
We have several articles that discuss biogeography on creation.com, but the best summary of the creationist position appears in an article by Dominic Statham in the latest Journal of Creation.2 Are you sure biogeography is such a great case for evolution? While it is true that there are some cases that fit the model, there are many that do not. For example, up until recently, marsupial fossils had been found on all the continents except Australia (the Australian finds were recent and indicate that conclusions about fossil distributions should be held tentatively).3 Why? If one of the defences I have read in the evolutionary literature pops into your mind, I would be less than satisfied with your answer.
The Galápagos is probably the best example of the creationist position. What mechanism brought the animals there in the evolutionary model? Rafting. In his report, Captain Fitzroy even commented about the piles of trees and shrubs washed up on the southern shores of the islands in the archipelago.4 Huge rafts made of plant material, some over a mile in diameter, form even today off the mouth of the Guayas River (Guayaquil, Ecuador). I have seen some of the smaller ones from a plane.5 It is possible for even large animals to survive for long periods of time on such rafts. What would one predict from the Genesis Flood? Huge vegetation rafts with plants and animals being distributed along oceanic currents—rapidly.
Summary: Plant seeds, spores, and vegetative structures were dispersed across the globe by oceanic currents during the Flood. Post-Flood climate and environment dictated which plants could survive in a given locality. Transport by rafting, wind, animals, and people added to the distribution patterns. Air-breathing animals dispersed from the Ararat region by walking, flying, and rafting, arriving at the most distant locales in relatively short order. People dispersed in a single mass wave, with many localized permutations, from the Middle East. That is what we believe and we believe there is abundant evidence for this position.
Dr. Robert Carter
Matthew wrote back:
Dear Dr Carter,
Thank you very much for your reply! I am pleased that there is some good reasoning behind the creationist science of your response.
However, I feel that there is one point you have not adequately justified.
I am not sure that your theory actually requires that there be a flood in the history of Earth. You suggest that this flood requisitely dispersed seeds, animals and vegetative rafts (as in the example of Galapagos). Why is this? Surely over both the timeframes of evolutionary theory and creation theory rafts floating across the sea are possible, and do not necessitate the help of a cataclysmic ‘biblical flood’. Although I see it as very difficult to envision the mechanics of a flood on such a scale, I can see it being rather difficult for such rafts to remain hospitable and intact following the impact of a massive body of water with great velocity and potential. On a religious note, wasn’t the flood intended to purge the Earth? Wouldn’t a deity intending to wipe out life (save Noah and co.) consider the possibility of vegetation-rafts providing a safe haven for wildlife? Anyhow, I do not see any conflict of science or ‘belief’ between evolution and creation when it comes to the dispersal of seeds etc., as the mechanisms necessary would exist (as far as I am aware– please say if I am wrong) both in a godless world and a created one (i.e. wind, the sea, rivers, animals).
Returning to the matter of the Galapagos, what is the creationist explanation for the adaptations of Galapagos Giant Tortoises and their different shell shapes relating to the niches on their respective islands? Hopefully we can agree that this is natural selection at work, as the species itself has not changed. Nevertheless, are these changes not homologous and translatable to the divergence of the ancestral iguana to become the different species of the marine and land iguanas? How is this explained differently to natural selection?
Regarding marsupials, I shall not pretend to be an expert in the matter!
Your point, however, sounds fascinating, and I would love to study it further to provide an evolutionary based theory for you to analyse, and refine your creation-based concepts accordingly.
My other issue is that of your answer to genetic hierarchies. Firstly, if it neither proves nor disproves evolution, it cannot be taken as evidence against it. Likewise, it cannot go in favour of creation theory. Secondly, the scientific method is the pursuit of truth based upon observation. If extensive observation points towards one hypothesis, then science will pursue the formation of a theory, which is then tested and peer reviewed (as I am sure you are aware). My problem therefore, is this. If we observe a distribution of characteristics both in the current pool of characteristics of living organisms and fossilized organisms, we can study it and form a theory. If the genetic distribution reflects this also, then the theory has more evidence. This is (from what I can glean) the case with evolution, where genetic hierarchies demonstrate the expected pattern and same pattern as with physical characteristics and properties. So, as you say, genetics is not conclusive ‘proof’ (if such a thing could exist for anything) of evolution, rather a ‘non-contradiction’ that give a bit more weight to the scientific model.
I hope you appreciate my attitude to the ongoing ‘evolution vs creation’ debate. I accept that certain presuppositions between scientists and YECs prevent a universal agreement from being drawn up, but a lot of scientific inaccuracies exist between the theories which can be sorted by discussion and application of good science.
My best wishes (and a merry Christmas!),
Dr. Carter responded:
The reason our theory requires a Flood is that our theory is based on revelation. The Bible plainly teaches it, various biblical authors reference it as history, and the global extents and effects of it are demanded by the wording used (See our Noah’s Flood questions and answers page). Yes, it is difficult to visualize the Flood itself, and, yes, such rafts would generally not be hospitable to life, especially since the entire purpose of the Flood was to purge the earth of both people and air-breathing animals, but you assume an "impact" of "a massive body of water with great velocity and potential." This is reading something into the text that is not there (even if it is likely).
I think, though, that I need to clarify a point. The massive mats of vegetation would aid dispersion after the fact, not during. The Flood was amazingly destructive, as evidenced by many facts, including the massive deposits of coal (well-sorted plant material) on regional scales. I visited Mt. St. Helens a few months ago (See After devastation … the recovery). It was my first time there and I was struck by the fact that there is still a substantial log mat floating on Spirit Lake. This was thirty years after the eruption! It is residual material like this, floating on the oceans and drifting around the earth for decades that would aid dispersal of the air-breathing animals after the Flood.
Galápagos tortoises, etc.: The creationist explanation for the species on the Galápagos is similar to our explanation of world-wide patterns: a few of these animals arrived on the Galápagos (via rafting), managed to survive, grew into a population, and spread to neighboring islands via small-scale dispersal events. Each of the islands is separated by enough water to provide limited isolation for each sub-population (on a short time scale) and founder effects, genetic drift, private mutation within each sub-population, and, perhaps, a dose of natural selection6 would drive each sub-population apart. Please note that many of the ‘species’ are freely interfertile,7 but are prevented from interbreeding by geography alone. This is even true for species living together on a single island, as the females tend to stay at high elevation. Thus, the largest island has five main volcanic peaks and five ‘species’ of giant tortoise. I suppose, so far, that this is exactly the evolutionists’ position. We differ, however, in the time required for these changes to occur, the mechanisms behind it, and the extents of possible variation. Darwin said he could see no limit to the amount of variation that natural selection could produce. We believe quite strongly that life is not designed to be infinitely mutable, that a living organism is designed to change but that too much change will ruin the complex system keeping it alive, that Darwin failed to provide a mechanism that would allow for infinite mutability, and that modern genetics has not rescued him.
Are you surprised that we believe in speciation, adaptation, genetic drift, etc.? If so, I suspect you have been taught that creationists believe in the fixity of species (search creation.com for "fixity of species" to see how we deal with this). This is not a teaching of the Bible, but of Aristotle! Yes, most people in Darwin’s day believed it, but they were allowing the weight of one ancient authority to trump another.
Scientific method: All science has to start with a set of presuppositions. As Christians, we start with an ultimate Creator and Lawgiver. Our methodology derives from this and I believe we have a solid and consistent line of reasoning. This approach, coming straight out of the Reformation, has borne tremendous fruit over the years as most branches of science were founded by a person with this view (See the many examples in Scientists of the past who believed in a Creator). Evolutionists start with the assumption of naturalism, that natural processes explain everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. Thus, it is not the data we are quibbling over, but an overarching theory of how to collect, interpret, and act on the data.
You said, "the scientific method is the pursuit of truth based upon observation," then showed how you see confirming trends from observation, correlation between living and fossil forms, genetic relationships of living species, and peer review. I would like to point out that this set of correspondences is all interpreted in the light of naturalism and that the peer reviewers are all naturalists. Throw a creationist on that review board and there is going to be very little agreement on your list of corresponding evidences! Why is this? It is because fundamental assumptions drive everything in science. We cannot escape them as people and our science is not free from the limits of humanity.
Thank you for the refreshing discussion. It is not often that we get a level-headed exchange at this level and I hope you can see that I am trying to answer as forthrightly as possible.
May God bless you with New Knowledge (my version of "best wishes").
Matthew responded one last time:
Thank you again for some logical responses.
I think that the philosophy of your response has triumphed over the science, in that you have described how presuppositions (or as they are mathematically/epistemologically known, ‘axioms’) are fundamental to both science and creationism (if you will forgive me for separating them quite so unfairly). This, in my mind, justifies your position on a fundamental level; count it as a triumph for creationism, as you have persuaded an atheist that your points are justified!
However, as you probably expected me to say, I am not a creationist (please do not take the sentence above without this). The argument from axiomatic construction of theory does not put either science or creation science higher than the other. Therefore, one could conclude that whilst creationists and scientists are ‘correct’ in their stances, neither is in a position to claim the ‘better’ theory. Therefore, I still disagree with attempts to dismantle, disprove or otherwise inhibit the theory of evolution from being taught to those whose scientific worldview pertains to evolution or related branches of science. Although I do think that it is worth creationism existing in the media for people of other persuasions to build on their worldviews. As should be clear from our correspondence, our shared intention is that of building upon and embellishing the intellectual adequacy of our worldviews.
However, the reason that I choose to remain studying mainstream academia with evolution, cosmology etc. is that of non-axiomatic (that is, derived) intellectual satisfaction. That is, if you like, very much a matter of opinion. Basically, I strongly feel that the axioms of science and mainstream mathematically derived academia build a stronger more justifiable theory than creationist axioms do. I feel that the fundamental truths taken to build our current model of science are of greater intellectual value*** than those taken by creationists, such as ‘God exists’, since this cannot be materially demonstrated (as far as I can see), as explained in the attachment below.
So in summary, creationism is valid (in my opinion), but equally valid as mainstream science on an epistemological level, as they are both relying on presuppositions/axioms. However, axioms needn’t be downright admissions to having no reason to assert them, as it may be that those particular axioms are more consistent with the way in which the world is observed to function than others, they do not contradict each other and have a certain intrinsic observability in the universe. Therefore, I feel that I have an intellectual reason to support evolution with mainstream academia over creationism. Since the two theories are derived from many of the same axioms (like a b=b a) there is much that they share in common, and as such I feel that it would be a good idea if both sides of the argument reduce their worldviews to the logical ‘bare roots’ I have been describing, to provide a better degree of communication and review between the camps and hopefully aid to wash over some of the militant hatred and anger that certain members of each persuasion demonstrate. Like a two party political system, science would potentially be a lot weaker without constructive criticism and persistent questioning that which creationist organizations supply, and equally creationism has many points to improve on or repair based on new scientific knowledge based on shared presuppositions.
I agree with your last comment, that our discussion is very refreshing and unusual. I don’t suppose that such level-headedness and logic is often supplied from either creationist or evolutionist when resent or unpleasantness is introduced into the argument. I have already specified that I would not mind any of this being published in any of your magazines etc., and would like to uphold that. I feel that should you wish to publish this then you should be encouraged to. Both sides have a lot to learn from this discussion.
I may be in a position to hold discussion with Prof. Richard Dawkins in January next year. If I do, I shall certainly raise many of your points. I am a keen supporter of his worldview and have read many of his books, although certainly much of the resent and annoyance he displays is neither necessary, nor beneficial. Hopefully he is open-minded enough to take on some comments. A paradigm shift in the evolution vs creation community is needed, and these logical correspondences could be along the right lines of thinking required to achieve that.
Thank you very much again for your replies; you are probably the best ambassador for creationism whom I have come across. Think of me as an atheist ally to creation science-I do not agree with it, but appreciate it, understand the reasoning and do not dislike it.
***i.e. a b = b a, is an *axiom* for real-number algebra, but has a very real and evident place in our universe, as we can demonstrate that 4 sweets plus one sweet equals the same amount as if added the other way around. This axiom or presupposition builds a very satisfactory, intrinsic theory that supports evidence in the real world. In fact, Einstein’s model of General Relativity builds upon this very axiom and other real number axioms, with certain higher algebraic axioms to build a, in my opinion, equally satisfactory model of cosmology. This reasoning spreads outwards to encompass the entirety of modern science, save some of the more radical, abstract theory such as string theory which cannot really be considered to be ‘fact’ due to lack of conceptual and material evidence.
Dr. Carter’s final response:
This has been a pleasure. If you see Dr. Dawkins, please tell him that you had a pleasant exchange with a man that shares an office with Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, author of Evolution: The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
This has been a very popular book among the members of the creationist community and is a strong rebuttal to Dawkins’ Evolution: the Greatest Show on Earth. Greatest Hoax has material on pre-Darwinian creationist beliefs about the NON-fixity of species, Lyell’s ideas about fixity and his "centers of creation", biogeography, homology, and the Christian roots of science, all of which are pertinent to our discussion. If you really wanted to learn what we believe and why, I could not recommend this book more highly.
I understand that you hesitate to accord creationism the same scientific status as evolution. Thank you for at least admitting that we are on good philosophical grounds. As a former (briefly) evolutionist, I would encourage you to examine the philosophical underpinnings of ‘mainstream’ science. When I did this, the naturalistic construct collapsed like a house of cards. This is why I used that line of argumentation in my second message. Today, I feel that creation is a much better explanation for the world around us, and we are making great strides almost daily in multiple fields. Our case is getting stronger, not weaker, as we learn more about the complexity of the genome, catastrophic geology, cosmology, speciation, climate, radiometric dating, etc., etc. I am a ‘presuppositionalist’, not an ‘evidentialist’, but I am not a creationist solely because I am a Christian and believe the Bible. I am also a creationist because I believe the weight of evidence points to a young, created universe. My presupposition is strong, but I feel it is well justified. Let us end with that.
- Lawton, G., Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life, New Scientist 2699, Jan 21, 2009. Return to text.
- Statham, D., Biogeography, Journal of Creation 24(1):82-87, 2010. Also, search Creation.com for “biogeography”, and the interested reader may want to pick up a copy of Evolution: Good Science, which includes a chapter on biogeography. Return to text.
- Here is the original problem, as expressed by two evolutionists: “Living marsupials are restricted to Australia and South America … In contrast, metatherian [marsupial] fossils from the Late Cretaceous are exclusively from Eurasia and North America … This geographical switch remains unexplained.” Cifelli, R.L., and Davis, B.M., Marsupial origins, Science 302:1899–1900, 2003.The story has changed, now that marsupial fossils have been found in Australia, but the puzzle of their current vs. fossil distribution remains. Return to text.
- FitzRoy, R., Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N, London: Henry Colburn, 1839, p. 505. Available online at http://darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
- A well known evolutionist, who happened to be sitting next to me during the flight out of Guayaquil, pointed these vegetation rafts out to me and told me how large they sometimes get. Since she did not know that I was a creationist, yet, and since she would probably not want to be associated with CMI, I will allow her to remain anonymous. Return to text.
- It is hard to imagine selective differences from one island to the next. Indeed, Darwin himself rote on page 474 of the 1839 version of his published journal, “ … it never occurred to me, that the productions [species being generated, a reference to Lyell’s “centers of creation” idea] of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.” He made an even stronger statement in the 1845 version, pp. 393-394. These documents can be accessed freely at http://darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
- I learned this at the Galápagos giant tortoise breeding facility. For documentation, see http://www.galapagospark.org/nophprg.php?page=parque_nacional_nativas_endemicas_tortugas_wolf. Interbreeding has also been documented between the marine and land iguanas, as well as between many “species” of Darwin’s finches (this information can be found in CMI’s million-dollar documentary, Darwin: the Voyage that Shook the World). Return to text.