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Creation 40(3):36–39, July 2018

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Margaret Wieland interviews bird expert and former renowned evolutionist Dr Jon Ahlquist

Dr Jon Ahlquist

Dr Jon Ahlquist is a molecular biologist, ornithologist and artist who before his retirement specialized in molecular phylogenetics. With a B.S. from Cornell University, and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Yale University (all in biology) he subsequently taught and researched at Yale. He then held professorships at Ohio University, the University of Louisville (Kentucky), and several South Carolina universities. The subjects he taught include: ornithology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, avian biology, mammalogy, animal ecology, conservation biology, principles of systematic biology, systematic zoology, molecular evolution, and molecular systematics. In 1991, he and his frequent collaborator Dr Charles Sibley (1917–1998), formerly of Yale University, published Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, which presented a new and subsequently very influential phylogeny (evolutionary history) for birds. Known as the Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy, it was based on DNA-DNA hybridization techniques. He is author or co-author of 62 scientific publications.

Fig. 1: Jon at work on his painting of a Night Heron

It has been said, “If there is one word that makes creative people different from others, it is the word complexity”1—a fitting comment on Dr Jon Ahlquist, whose life has so many fascinating details, they far exceeded the available space.

Early life

Born in 1944 to American offspring of Finnish refugees, Jon’s early life was one of stability grounded in a strong Lutheran faith. His parents gave him a King James Bible for his seventh birthday. A prodigious reader, Jon was determined to read it right through, though “it was not easy going for a kid.”

At around eight years old, Jon made a personal commitment to Christ:

It was in the basement Sunday school of our Lutheran Church; we were watching a movie about the life of Christ. I was taught a belief in a literal six days of creation, a real Adam and Eve (as well as a real Job and Jonah), a worldwide flood, and the veracity of the patriarchs. None of the Bible’s history was allegorized.

Developing interests

Thanks to his fifth-grade teacher assigning each of his class of 10-year-olds to “create a bird book”, a budding ornithologist was born. From that grew a life-long interest in watching, listing, drawing/painting, and photographing birds. And a scientific career devoted to birds.

As Jon grew, so did his talent as an artist (figs 1, 2). At just 15, a mentor organized a one-man show of 30 of his best paintings. Especially given his age, Jon’s efforts were seen as newsworthy. His now much higher profile helped him sell most of the paintings he produced throughout high school, where he wore his faith on his sleeve.

Editor of the school’s weekly newspaper, he wrote many editorials touching on spiritual matters. He still has a copy of his valedictorian graduation speech:

It was evangelical. The message in a nutshell was: ‘You are now going out into the world. What are you going to choose—God or mammon?’ There are about a dozen direct references to Christ. The gymnasium burst into applause at the conclusion. I’m sure there were unbelievers in the audience, but in those days nearly all accepted the principle that our nation was founded largely by believers and guided by biblical principles.

University—and alcoholism

Jon began his tertiary education in biology at Cornell University. A large part of him would have simply preferred to take up his first love, painting, full-time. Jon thinks he would have quit by the end of the first semester except for the family pressure to succeed.

Then, amazingly, his studies took a turn for the better. He joined Dr Charles Sibley’s ornithology course in his second semester. Suddenly, birds and biology made sense—albeit in the framework of evolution—and so he ‘hung in there’. A ‘theistic evolutionist’ at this point in his life, Jon moved on to Yale in 1966, following Sibley. The two began a collaboration that would last for many years and produce fame and some fascinating science.2

But Jon wasn’t truly happy and, early in his uni years, he began drinking heavily.

Another of Jon’s paintings, ‘Long Shadows’. The bird depicted is a young crow.

Alcoholism is a sin; it puts something else in the place of God. … I was cutting off my conscious contact with God and grieving the Holy Spirit. To cut a very long story short, I found Alcoholics Anonymous and, with the help of God, following AA’s 12 steps with a Christian emphasis, and some very fine friends, I found my way back to both sobriety and sanity.

In 1988, during his tenure at Ohio University, Jon and Charles were awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for their work on the application of DNA hybridization techniques to bird classification (fig. 3).3 This revolutionized taxonomy by seeming to show at last how to distinguish similarities due to relatedness from ‘convergent’ similarities or homoplasies, i.e. those in which creatures happened to ‘converge’ on the same design, but without any possible common ancestry (evolution) explanation.4

From theistic evolution to creation

Despite espousing evolution at the time, he says he was not an atheist:

I was a ‘theistic evolutionist’. I thought I could simply place the DNA evidence on a secular time scale. You could reasonably accuse me of ‘fence sitting’ and be correct.

But, he says, he did not think deeply about the ramifications of theistic evolution:

Once it was pointed out to me that it meant the existence of evil and death before Adam and Eve, and was therefore biblically impossible, I felt quite stupid.

He was also challenged on the science by an astute Bible teacher. This man pointed out to Jon that the problem was not with the data, it was the interpretation forced upon it. For example, he said that the evolutionary ‘family trees’ Jon was producing for birds proved nothing, since they were generated by an algorithm (formula) that “is instructed to make a tree. It will produce a tree out of any numbers you give it.”

Fig. 2: Airbrush painting by Jon of a silvery-cheeked hornbill (Bycanistes brevis) after a photo he took at the Berlin Zoo. Hornbills are renowned for their unique nesting habits, and live in forests of northeastern and coastal eastern Africa.

Jon was immediately convicted and says:

He was right. How did he figure it out? Part of the answer was that he studied at Grace Seminary while Dr John Whitcomb (co-author of the creationist classic The Genesis Flood) was on the faculty.

Once I got it into my thick skull that Darwinism is just one more humanistic philosophy from the Enlightenment, designed to write God out of everything, the battle was over. It’s not even science, it’s political ideology and demagoguery—end of story. The Holy Spirit had forced me off the fence. I realized that young-earth creation (YEC) was the only truth.

Today my view is that old-earth ‘creation’ of any sort distorts the first 11 chapters of Genesis and, if taken to the logical conclusion, makes God a liar.

Jon thinks that with the world much more polarized than when he retired some 20 years ago, life in academia now, as a biblical creationist, would be much more difficult for him than when he was an evolutionist. He says, “I wouldn’t last a week in that environment now.”

DNA and bird kinds

Jon is collaborating with creationist bioresearcher (and Creation magazine interviewee5) Dr Jean Lightner in seeking to outline the avian Ark kinds, combining the data from DNA with that from morphology/anatomy—and incorporating available information about which species hybridize. This will also involve avian biogeography—the distribution of bird kinds after the Flood, showing among other things how millions of years are not needed for this. Jon hopes to also write a popular book (and possibly children’s books) on birds from a creation viewpoint.

Jon says there are interesting problems for both creationists and evolutionists in bird relationships that highlight the way each interprets the data:

One example concerns the Galliform kind (the “landfowl”: pheasants, quail, chickens, turkeys, etc.) and the Anatid kind (the “waterfowl”: ducks, geese, swans). Any creationist will agree that they represent two kinds. Any person on the street can tell the difference between a chicken and a duck. Any evolutionist will agree they represent two separate lineages.

However, every DNA study, including our own, shows that the galliforms and anatids more closely resemble each other than they do any other group (or kind) of birds. The evolutionist says this means that millions of years ago the waterfowl and landfowl had a common ancestor. As a creationist I would suggest that in God’s master plan of designing birds, there is a fundamental aspect of the body plan that requires similarities in their DNA.

The bird genome has around 2–3 billion nucleotide pairs, the function of which we know very little about. As we learn more, we may be able to discover why ducks and chickens need certain groups of genes in order to function and why there are differences in other kinds of birds, like parrots or hummingbirds. At least the creationist has the potential to discover answers, whereas the evolutionist is left bending the knee to his goddess of randomness.

Human and ape similarity?

Fig 3: Charles Sibley (left) and Jon Ahlquist (centre) receiving the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the US’s National Academy of Sciences in 1988.

Drs Ahlquist and Sibley may well be best known to non-specialists for applying their DNA-DNA hybridization techniques to man,6 coming up with the well-known alleged ‘98% chimp-human similarity’. Many scientists, including creationists, have critiqued this,7 and the accepted figure these days, with more modern techniques, is in fact much lower.8 Ironically, at the time, there was concerted opposition from evolutionists who were convinced the gorilla was our closest relative. But even at the lower figures, the modern techniques show chimp DNA ‘closer’ to us than the gorilla. Unfortunately, however, the ‘98%’ result made a convenient ‘hammer’ for pounding home the myth that chimps are ‘almost human’, and was avidly seized upon for (and widely influential in) promoting evolution.

Dr Ahlquist says that when he was an evolutionist, he would have agreed with creationists who pointed out that even at 98%, the genetic differences were still huge; tens of millions of DNA ‘letters’. Also, great similarity of DNA is not surprising, given the similarity in form and function between the two. But that similarity is not evidence for common ancestry any more than it is evidence for having the same Designer:

Molecular evidence of any sort proves nothing about evolution, in fact. All we are doing is measuring ‘God’s numbers’—or as Charles [Sibley, his long-term collaborator] used to call them, ‘nature’s numbers’ of genetic similarity or difference. The techniques used by phylogeneticists to make their ‘trees’ are laden with evolutionary assumptions. They simply assume that evolution is a fact and then stuff their data into their algorithms, which therefore will always produce an evolutionary result. Regardless, we all have the same data, the difference is how we interpret it.

The fact that our bodies have a Bauplan [body plan] like that of primates is not coincidental, nor does it have anything to do with evolution. To achieve our function we need to be bipedal, have a large cranial capacity, be omnivorous and have opposable thumbs. This produces certain constraints on our DNA, in the same way that the need to fly in certain ways restricts the design of birds, and thus constrains their DNA.

The bottom line, according to Jon today? “It’s all a part of the Lord’s amazing design.”

Posted on homepage: 7 January 2019

References and notes

  1. By Hungarian-American social psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (b. 1943). Return to text.
  2. Ahlquist, J. E., “Charles G. Sibley: A commentary on 30 years of collaboration”, Auk 116(3):856–860, 1999 | doi:10.2307/4089352. Return to text.
  3. Sibley, C.G. and Ahlquist, J.E., Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A study in molecular evolution, Yale University Press, 1990. Return to text.
  4. E.g. the similarities between the marsupial wolf (thylacine) and its placental counterpart. They cannot be closely related in evolutionary thinking, so the evolutionist unwilling to consider they had the same Designer labels it ‘convergent evolution’. Catchpoole, D., Placental vs marsupial: A tale of two ‘wolves’, Creation 39(3):40–42, 2017. Return to text.
  5. Getting it right: Don Batten interviews veterinarian Dr Jean Lightner, Creation 32(3): 40–43, 2010; compare creation.com/creationist-veterinarian. Return to text.
  6. Sibley, C.G., Comstock, and Ahlquist, J.E., DNA hybridization evidence of hominoid phylogeny: A reanalysis of the data, J. Mol. Evol. 30(3):202–236, 1990 | doi:10.1007/BF02099992. Return to text.
  7. Batten, D., Human/chimp DNA similarity: Evidence for evolutionary relationship? Creation 19(1):21–22, 1996; creation.com/chimp-human. Return to text.
  8. The myth of 1%: Human and chimp DNA are very different, Creation 36(1):35–37, 2014; creation.com/1-percent-myth. See also Tomkins, J. and Bergman, J., J. Creation 26(1):94–100, 2012; creation.com/chimp. Return to text.

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