Thursday, June 05, 2008

Some Unkind Words About "Kinds"...

I was looking at Ken Ham's blog this afternoon because, well, I'd just cleaned up two piles of puke at work* and figured that reading a few of the Hamster's offerings wouldn't be that bad by comparison. As usual, the power of the Young Earth Creationists to be stupid is something that I shouldn't have underestimated. Apparently the Creation Museum here in Kentucky has a petting zoo (almost everything in Kentucky has a petting zoo) and the petting zoo recently succeeded in breeding a zonkey. Readers may remember our friend the zonkey, which is a sterile hybrid of a zebra and a donkey, from this post about artificial insemination pioneer Ilya Ivanov. While zonkeys sometimes occur in the wild, Ivanov could make the things on demand. (You know, in case we need thousands of them for...something.)

In any event, Ham holds up the zonkey as a triumph of the idea of "kinds". That is to say, the Young Earthers, forced to retreat from absolute anti-evolution rhetoric by the forces of obvious and observable reality, have now come up with an idea of limited evolution wherein basic body plans denote what can and cannot interbreed. Donkeys, horses, and zonkeys belong to the "horse kind"; tigers, lions, and Big Fluffy Puss-Puss belong to the "cat kind"; humans are their own "kind" apart from other primates (of course); and vampires, werewolves, and mummies are all part of the "monster kind". The creationists have even made up a field of "study", baraminology (which is so new that my spell check won't accept it), that is devoted to talking about "kinds" without, to my knowledge, actually publishing any peer reviewed research on the subject. Curiously, one of the things they've never really gotten around to is actually defining what a "kind" is. By ignoring secular taxonomy in favor of Biblical "baramins", Young Earthers have the luxury of adjusting the definition of "kind" to narrow it down to the species level (as with humans) or to broaden it out to include entire orders and beyond as it suits them.

Basically, this YEC concept is used to explain away observable evolution, visible changes within populations, and genetic similarities between certain animals. It creates certain difficulties, however, for those of us who are prone to thinking too hard about such things. For one thing, while it's touted as an anti-evolution concept, it requires (in the 6,000 year-old Earth context in which it is couched) super-fast hyperevolution to work. For example, AiG says that there were originally only 50 "kinds" of dinosaurs, and yet science has documented approximately 700 species of dinosaurs. Let's examine what those two numbers mean: AiG maintains that the story of Noah's Ark actually happened, and that it happened around 2300 BC. They further maintain that every "kind" of dinosaur was represented on the ark. These "kinds" of dinosaurs must therefore have undergone a ludicrously rapid speciation in order to get from 50 "kinds" to 700 species and then die off without a trace before, say, the birth of Christ. That's around 650 new species of megafauna appearing in less than 2500 years - hardly an anti-evolution position, but rather a pseudo-evolutionary one!

The point isn't really to try and make any sense or advance any understanding of the natural world. The point behind all this wrangling about "kinds" is to figure out some way to keep humans separate from all other animals. Using it as a sensible opposition to evolution (which it isn't) is a distantly secondary concern to the true goal: trying to set humans apart from all other lifeforms. As far as I can tell, humans are the only organisms with a "kind" all their own. Even the giraffe, which is often held up by creationists as being so bizarre as to be incapable of having evolved naturally, is acknowledged by AiG to share a common ancestor with the okapi. Talking about kinds lets the Young Earthers admit the reality of evolution without having to say it out loud - it's like a kid standing in his parents' living room with a baseball bat and admitting that he "might" have been responsible for the broken lamp.

Easily observable and repeatedly verified phenomenon like the appearance of drug resistant tuberculosis can only be explained in evolutionary terms, and deep down the Young Earthers know that. They have to own up to at least some evolution, so they try to invent new concepts like "microevolution" and "kinds" to downplay the significance of observed evolution. When they can't lie outright about the findings they're uncomfortable with (See this picture from AiG in which the shaded area is purported to represent the only bones found of ambulocetus, a transitional whale, then look at this picture of the actual skeleton.), they retreat to their weak "evolution-but-not-evolution" positions and try to stall out the discussion.

Even so, I don't think the point of "kinds" is to legitimately oppose evolution, not in the end. It just doesn't do a good job of it, and it admits far too much when you read between the lines. No, the main point of all so-called "bariminology" is undeniably the human "kind" sitting high atop its lonely throne. Separating us from our primate cousins is the ultimate purpose. Reality forces the Young Earthers to admit common ancestry in the animal kingdom, but as long as they can sequester humans in their own kind, they remain special, the God-created focal point of the universe. After all, once you've established yourself as the ultimate purpose of the existence of the entire cosmos, everything else is small potatoes.

*Good ol' direct care social services, man.


Three Ninjas said...


Someone on Ray's blog just challenged me to name just one transitional fossil, so I named twelve, and they were like "Oh yeah??? Go look those up on Creation On The Web!"

It's the famous Argument from Oh Yeah, as popularized by Jay Novella.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

You've got a much stronger stomach for hanging around on Ray's than I do, man.

I kind of wish the Louisville Zoo had a zonkey, though. Seems like that would add an interesting twist to the petting zoo area, which at this point consists of a mule and approximately 97 varieties of goat.

Three Ninjas said...

Nah, I can only take it in spurts. I get really worked up about it. When I start thinking about it as I fall asleep, that's when I have to take a break. Sometimes I pray about it, and I feel better afterwards.

Jay said...

Jason -

Every fossil is a transitional fossil, just as every living organism is transitional.

Classical creationists want to see a discrete series of steps between species, but the reality is that evolution is a much more continuous process than that. Drawing the line between two very closely related species is often a non-trivial task.

One of the most frequent things we see on IIDB is when a creationist appears with a completely wrongheaded set of notions about evolution, and absolutely refuses to be educated about it, then runs off claiming victory for refuting a concept that nobody else ever agreed with in the first place.

(Argument from Oh Yeah. I've gotta remember that...)

Three Ninjas said...

Actually, no fossil can be transitional. You can't prove that animal had babies! JK!

If I try to explain to the Comfort Food Christians that every fossil is a transitional fossil, I think it might do more harm than good.

What's IIDB?

Skippy the Skeptic said...

IIDB is the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. It's the home of some of the best religion discussion on the internet, IMHO. The moderation there and the emphasis on proper citation help to force the discussions onto a somewhat higher level than, say, Ray's place.

The only problem there is that sometimes certain discussions can on for weeks or even months (which in and of itself isn't bad, of course), and that can make it sort of hard to just dive right in unless you're willing to read 30 pages of posts first.

Jay said...


scripto said...

Richard Sternberg of Expelled/Smithsonian/Boohoo-they made me turn in my library books fame also served as advisor to a Bryan College Baraminology group.

See. It's all good.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Great link Scripto. I checked out the website for the Ocassional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group and I found their mission statement ironic: "OPBSG is committed to publishing constructive scientific research in creation biology."

I would make the argument that constructive scientific research and "creation biology" are mutually exclusive.

Scanning the articles, I note that one is a review of a 17th century defense of Noah's Ark. How constructive...

Jay said...

By the way, Jason -

Skippy or I can provide you with a number of good, broad, introductory evolution books that might be useful if you intend to fight the good fight at Ray's.

One really good book is Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, which is not merely informative, but a great read as well.

Three Ninjas said...

Introductory? Are my comments that dumb? :-)

I am beginning run out of books to read though. Can you recommend some more intermediate ones?

Garret G said...

I am doing some remedial catch up reading myself- The Blind Watchmaker...then I will move on to Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Jay said...

Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale is a good read, and gets into some fairly intricate topics.

Douglas Futuyma's Evolution and Nicholas Barton's Evolution are both excellent college level texts. The late Stephen Jay Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory is another good read.

Jane said...

What is the solid, irrefutable proof for evolution* or creation?

*The evolutionary theory, from the great bang that started the universe to the millions of years where change and chance created what is seen today.

Not the "gradual changes through time" evolution.

Three Ninjas said...

The evolutionary theory, from the great bang that started the universe...

What evolutionary theory is that?

Jane said...

"great bang" is a reference to the "Big Bang" theory.

The universe must have a starting point. The Big Bang theory is an attempt to explain this beginning.


Or turn books on the subject if you prefer.

Three Ninjas said...

I understand what you meant by "great bang". I just don't understand why you included that in your definition of "evolutionary theory" and what the beginning of the universe has to do with evolution.

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Jane said...

From my understanding, the big bang is one most familiar "grand start" theories. By including the "great bang" in my original comment I am referring to the dawn of evolution to give a complete definition of the term.

Three Ninjas said...

Neither the big bang nor any other theories regarding the beginning of the universe have anything whatsoever to do with the theory of evolution. They're not even in the same discipline.

Jane said...


Geology and astronomy are different fields and both studies do overlap at points. For example, the connection between the moon tides on earth.

If someone wanted to prove the existence of the moon, he could use the tide patterns as one evidence. Are earth tides part of astrology? Study of the tides fits under geology. The moon? Astrology. Two different fields, but the application can still made.

If someone who cares to answer my question writes of supporting evidence that is related to another field rather then one in question, it can still apply or even be valid.

Including the big bang bit communicates that.

Also evolution had a beginning, did it not? There is a relation there.Applicable evidence for evolution could be from one field or another.

And where did I mention specific fields? All aspects or theories of evolution are represented, not just the biological or galactic branches etc.

Three Ninjas said...

House MD had a beginning. The big bang is also irrelevant to that.

I'm not denying the existence of overlap, but that does not change the fact that the theory of evolution is a specific thing that seeks to explain a specific phenomenon in a specific field of science.

Your original question is much like asking for irrefutable proof that Jesus rose from the dead, and then defining "rose from the dead" as every event and genealogy in old testament, starting with Genesis 1, all the way up until the birth of Christ and His death and resurrection. Certainly, there is overlap, but the resurrection is a specific event. If I defined it as I have above, one might think I was ignorant of what the resurrection is actually claimed to be, or perhaps dishonestly poisoning misrepresenting these claims.

Are earth tides part of astrology?

I must assume you meant to say "astronomy".

And where did I mention specific fields?

The phrase "theory of evolution" refers to a specific theory in a specific field. That is where you mentioned it.

Jane said...

Yes I did mean astronomy.

Thank you for pointed out that flaw.

And how would you suggest asking the question?

Three Ninjas said...

If you want evidence for the big bang, ask for evidence of the big bang. If you want evidence for the theory of evolution, ask for evidence for the theory of evolution, which does not include the origin of the universe or even, strictly speaking, the origin of life. And again, if you want evidence for a nonsupernatural origin of life, ask for that. If you define evolution as you did, most people familiar with the theory will automatically assume that you don't know anything about the subject.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Jane, seriously: Big Bang Theory =/= Evolutionary Theory. We do not at this point know exactly how the universe began, but that it utterly irrelevant to the preponderance of evidence showing biological evolution to be a settled fact. Universal origins and evolution are distinct subjects from one another.

Red shift and universal background "noise" are fairly convincing evidence for a Big Bang type scenario, whereas, I dunno, all of genetics is pretty convincing evidence of evolution. Look up some of Ken Miller's discussions of primate genetics on Youtube for specific evidence of human/chimp common ancestry, for example.

Jay (AKA JAK) said...

Jane -

I'm arriving late to the party here...

Where did you find a definition of evolution that encapsulates the Big Bang? You seem to be using a very common strawman definition that folks like Ken Ham and Ray Comfort like to throw out on the table.

Evolutionary theory is neutral with respect to the origin of the universe (which is an issue for physicists to deal with, not biologists), and it's also neutral with respect to the origin of life (which is at the fuzzy edge of chemistry and biology). Evolution presupposes that there exists an environment with life in it, and goes forth from there.

Now - if you'd like a very familiar example of real-as-defined-by-actual-biologists evolution, I'd simply ask you: Why do people need to get a flu vaccine every year?