“News flash: skeptics hack the Answers in Genesis website!” Or, at least, that was the joke Skeptic co-publisher Pat Linse made when I read her some pro-natural selection material from the young Earth creationist organization’s slick online portal.
For years, I’ve been surprised how rarely this is mentioned: young Earth creationists need Darwin to be right — and when you press them on it, they often agree that he was.
Doesn’t sound like the creationism you know? It’s not a hacker’s prank, and it’s not a radical re-thinking of creationism. It is, however, a nuance as important as it is surprising: creationist leaders share Darwin’s belief that species routinely change (and even originate) through mutation and natural selection.
Indeed, according to Answers In Genesis’ (AiG) current web feature “Top 10 Myths About Creation,” it’s a straw-man to suppose creationists think otherwise:
A popular caricature of creationists is that we teach the fixity of species (i.e., species don’t change). And since species obviously do change, evolutionists enjoy setting up this straw-man argument to win a debate that was never really there in the first place.
Lest we have doubt about what they mean when they insist that “species obviously do change,” the same AiG article clarifies,
Species changing via natural selection and mutations is perfectly in accord with what the Bible teaches.
Moreover, many creationist organizations agree that new species originate through these well-understood Darwinian processes. As Creation Ministries International (CMI) explains,
Thirteen species of finches live on the Galápagos, the famous island group visited by Charles Darwin in the 1830s. The finches have a variety of bill shapes and sizes, all suited to their varying diets and lifestyles. The explanation given by Darwin was that they are all the offspring of an original pair of finches, and that natural selection is responsible for the differences.
Surprisingly to some, this is the explanation now held by most modern creationists.
Think about that for a moment. Given the super-heated rhetoric creationists use against Darwin, the magnitude of this concession is staggering: it is nothing less than the assertion that Darwin was right.
Nor do creationists merely concede that new species could, in principle, arise from natural evolutionary processes: they assert that this actually happens. For example, this is emphasized in AiG’s Answer magazine article “Do Species Change?”:
To his credit, Darwin corrected a popular misunderstanding. Species do change. Since Darwin’s day, many observations have confirmed this. In fact, new species have even been shown to arise within a single human lifetime. For example, one study gave evidence that sockeye salmon introduced into Lake Washington, USA, between 1937 and 1945 had split into two reproductively isolated populations (i.e., two separate species) in fewer than 13 generations (a maximum of 56 years).
Likewise, Philip Johnson, an architect of intelligent design creationism, argues that
Darwinian theory tells us how a certain amount of diversity in life forms can develop once we have various types of complex living organisms already in existence. If a small population of birds happens to migrate to an isolated island, for example, a combination of inbreeding, mutation, and natural selection may cause this isolated population to develop different characteristics from those possessed by the ancestral population on the mainland. When the theory is understood in this limited sense, Darwinian evolution is uncontroversial, and has no important philosophical or theological implications.
This process of adaptive radiation was Darwin’s key Galápagos discovery. It is also, bizarrely enough, essential for those biblical literalists who accept a world-wide flood. The reason, of course, is that the Earth has far more extant and extinct animal species than could possibly fit inside Noah’s ark. CMI explains,
Creationists have long proposed such ‘splitting under selection’ from the original kinds, explaining for example wolves, coyotes, dingoes and other wild dogs from one pair on the Ark.
The need for adaptive radiation puts creationists in the unexpected position of arguing that evolutionary processes are even more powerful than mainstream scientists suppose.
The question of time has, however, been seized upon by anti-creationists. They insist that it would take a much longer time than Scripture allows. … Instead, it is real, observed evidence that such (downhill) adaptive formation of several species from the one created kind can easily take place in a few centuries. It doesn’t need millions of years. The argument is strengthened by the fact that, after the Flood, selection pressure would have been much more intense — with rapid migration into new, empty niches, residual catastrophism and changing climate as the Earth was settling down and drying out, and simultaneous adaptive radiation of differing food species.
Now, before I am accused of quote-mining, let me be very clear: all of these authors and organizations emphatically reject the idea that evolutionary processes are sufficient to explain the diversity of life. All insist that intentional, intelligent design played a creative role in biological history — and that there are strict limits to the amount of biological change that may be generated by Darwinian processes.
Modern creationists need to challenge both the unbiblical essentialist ideas that underlie species fixity and the naturalistic ideas that underpin evolution from a common ancestor. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes: yes, species change, but variation has clear limits.
You’re probably familiar with the distinction creationists draw here, between what they term “microevolution” and “macroevolution.” As Creation Ministries International clarifies,
Natural selection, yes. But to infer that this equates to evolution, in the sense in which we are meant to take it (microbes-to-microbiologists), no.
According to this common view, living things may adapt, through evolutionary processes, in response to new ecological niches, genetic novelty, or environmental conditions — but only so far.
How far? Young Earth creationists hypothesize an additional unobserved cap upon the regular evolutionary processes we observe in nature: living things may vary only “within created kinds.”
That’s easy to say, but elusive as smoke to nail down — because no one knows what a “created kind” might be in practical terms. As used currently, the definition seems completely fluid, meaning whatever is convenient. Sometimes “created kind” means “species,” but sometimes not. Sometimes it seems to go much higher up the taxonomic chain: genus, or family, or even order.
Trying to make heads or tails of this is a creationist project called “Baraminology,” or “creation biosystematics.” This, according to Creationwiki, is an effort “to determine which forms of life are related, and which are not” from a young Earth creationist perspective; that is, to figure out where observed evolution ends and creation takes over.
The fossil record shows no such “created kinds” limit (quite the opposite — common descent is a clear fact of biological history), but let’s set that aside for a second.
As it stands today, biologists, intelligent design creationists, young Earth creationists, and mainstream religious leaders (such as the Pope) agree that species may change and arise through the processes Darwin identified.
Let’s just stop for a moment and enjoy that.