Pushing the Envelope of Creation-based Biology
The new generation of creation scientists are young, smart and sophisticated. Along with geneticists, taxonomists, and palaeontologists, experts in DNA sequencing analysis and phylogenetic analysis (the search for relationship patterns) are asking new questions and revisiting old issues. No longer do they concentrate on fighting evolutionary theories. They don’t need to. Rather, they are forging new creation-based theories. With this positive approach, they are certain to attract yet further support from Christians in educational and professional circles. It was to learn more about some new initiatives that I attended a conference in Lynchburg, Virginia on August 5-7, 1999.
The roots of the August conference go back to 1941 when biologist Frank Marsh, in a self-published book, proposed that the term “baramin” be applied to the created kinds of organism mentioned in Genesis 1:11 and in following passages in the Old Testament. Mr. Marsh coined his term from the Hebrew words “bara ” meaning “created” and “min” meaning “kind”. However it is all very well to agree that God separately created the biological kinds, and quite another thing to determine their exact identity. Was it the species that we see today which constituted the created kinds? Mr. Marsh did not think so. He suggested that organisms which can breed with each other, or hybridize, are in fact members of one “kind” or baramin.
According to present usage in biology, individual species are distinguished on the basis of their continued existence in nature. Separate species generally do not breed together in the wild. Many are however able to do so under special circumstances such as in a laboratory or zoo. Thus within the dog family we distinguish coyotes, domestic dogs, wolves and foxes, all of which are able to interbreed. According to Marsh’s criterion, all these animals would be placed within a single baramin or dog kind.
If several species are members of a single created kind, then there must have been a process of change which led to the varied expressions within the kind that we see today. During the 1990s a few scientists have adopted the Marsh hypothesis and developed it further. Walter Remine defined “holobaramin” as the complete set of organisms descended from a created ancestor. Dr. Kurt Wise, about the same time, defined baramin as all descendants of an “archaebaramin” or original created ancestor. In addition Dr. Siegfried Scherer, director of the Institute of Microbiology at the Technical University of Munich, has published on the same concept. He prefers the term “Basic Type”, defining this as all extant organisms which are able to hybridize. (e.g. Siegfried Scherer. 1998. Basic types of Life. in Wm A. Dembski. Editor. Mere Creation. IVPress pp. 195-211) Apart from these individuals, interest in created kinds or baramins has been rare in creationist circles, and of course totally absent within secular science. For example, neither term appears in the index of Dr. Leonard Brand’s 1997 book Faith, Reason and Earth History: a Paradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design (Andrews University Press).This situation however may be ab out to change.
In 1997 the Baraminology Study Group was formed. The mandate of this small, semi-formal group was to provide a forum for discussion of creation biology and systematics. Its first objective was to promote the development of baraminology into a scientifically rigorous discipline with Biblically sound precepts. Among the founding members were palaeontologist Dr. Kurt Wise of Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee and Dr. Peter J. Williams (specialist in Old Testament Hebrew) from Cambridge University in England. This group, in close collaboration with the Biology/Chemistry Department at Liberty University in Lynchburg, organized the conference on the theme “Baraminology ’99: Creation Biology for the 21st Century.” The program was loosely divided into two sections. The first was concerned with theories and methods relevant to baraminology. The second part would involve a case study. Camels were chosen as the object of the case study since information on these animals is available from the Bible, palaeontology, hybridization experiments and DNA sequencing.
A consideration of the Biblical treatment of the Hebrew word min was the first order of business. According to Dr. Williams, this word occurs thirty one times in the Old Testament, four times in the Apocrypha and seven times in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The usage in the latter two sources however is not like that in the Old Testament. The Biblical occurrences are unusual in that they are all preceded by the preposition lamedh (according to), have a possessive suffix and with one possible exception, are singular. Dr. Williams suggested that the singular usage might in fact be a “distributive singular”, understood as a plural. He also mentioned attempts to define the boundaries of baramin by considering creatures mentioned in Leviticus 11 and Dueteronomy 14. Apparently many readers consider that each creature mentioned in these passages is in fact a separate min, and this may indeed be the case, but it is not demanded by the text.
Traditionally, of course, Bible believing Christians have understood the various animals named in the Bible, each to be a separate kind. Alternatively, the model promoted by some of the speakers was that a burst of change, within each created kind, took place during approximately a 500 year period following the end of Noah’s flood. One of the speakers is developing a model which might explain such a burst of change. The process might have resembled modern biotechnology. However unlike biotechnology, these events would proceed without human intervention. Scientists of the Baraminology Study Group contend that the burst of change ended as quickly as it began. If these speculations were correct, then the created animal kinds on the ark might have been as few as 2000, if we assume that the baramins were roughly comparable to the family level recognized in our present taxonomic classification schemes. According to this view, there would be on average about 100 present day species in each mammal baramin and about 1000 species in each insect baramin. Alternatively, if the creation kinds are comparable to the genus rather than family level, there would have been about 16,000 different kinds of animal on the ark. According to John Woodmorappe in his 1996 book Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study (Institute for Creation Research), there was plenty of room to accommodate even this many creatures.
It is all very well to speculate on the nature of baramins, but by what technique(s) do these scientists propose to identify them? The first criterion for such identification is hybridization. It is the assumption of these scientists that only organisms within a created kind can successfully engage in sexual reproduction. While the Bible does not necessarily deny that successful hybridization between created kinds is possible, this is the working assumption of the model. Obviously hybridization experiments between appropriate species and genera is the first step in such a research program. Also considerable data already exist in the scientific literature. These trials do not have to be repeated. Moreover the criterion of hybridization can be used to test other distinguishing features of separate baramins such as DNA sequence differences. Despite its advantages as a distinguishing tool, hybridization is not a fool proof criterion. Failure to produce a hybrid does not necessarily mean that two organisms are in separate baramins. Some quite simple barriers to breeding can exist even within a kind (such as a St. Bernard dog and a Chihuahua). Moreover different people might adopt different measures of success. Everyone agrees that offspring which reach fully fertile sexual maturity are a successful outcome. However, what about fully mature offspring which are sterile (like mules)? Or what about offspring that die before birth, or even embryos that at least manage a few cell divisions? In general, as long as the observed development results only when the egg has been fertilized, then these scientists consider all the above possibilities as “positive” outcomes. Based on such criteria, the geese, swans and ducks for example, members of the family Anatidae, would all be considered members of one baramin.
Biology at the end of this century however has moved far beyond breeding experiments. We now find ourselves preoccupied with computer based studies. The speakers assured us that such research has the potential to strengthen conclusions about the identity of baramins. One graduate student discussed the use of computers in searches for lines of descent, commonly called evolutionary trees or phylogenies. On this topic another participant at the conference once remarked “One can build a phylogeny based on any set of sequences. Evolutionary relationship is always, always, always (did I emphasize that enough?) an assumption. Using current methodologies to build phylogenies does not really provide evidence for evolution.” Despite the close tie of such analysis to evolution theory, our speakers maintained that computer analysis can be used to distinguish baramins.
The graduate student pointed out that the number of possible lines of descent goes up astronomically with even small numbers of species added to a calculation. For example, for ten species, two million different lines of descent can be plotted whereas for fifty species, the numbers expand to 10 followed by 73 more zeros!! Obviously powerful computers are required to deal with such numbers. But how does a scientists wade through all the possibilities? A number of fancy equations are available, each with advantages and disadvantages. The objective of such analysis is generally to discover an evolutionary line of descent. If the data are not mathematically constrained into a branching tree pattern however they often seem to fall naturally into star shape d patterns and net-like groupings of species. These latter patterns are easily accommodated within the creation model but not within evolutionary scenarios. Moreover when one or several species in the analysis are positioned far from the main cluster, it is most likely that individuals from more than one baramin are involved.
Another speaker, a recent Ph.D. in DNA sequence analysis, discussed another technique for identifying gaps between baramins. Neither this nor the analysis above, stands alone. They merely provide additional information on the identity of baramins. Any numerical data can be used in such a study. When DNA sequences are used, the computer must first calculate degree of similarity within a group of related species. The computer then calculates a number of possible phylogenies (lines of descent) for this data set. Normally the data do not exactly fit any calculated pattern. The difference between a pattern and the actual data is calculated as error and the error is squared. If another species from the same baramin is substituted for one of the original set, the error sum of squares will not differ significantly. If however a species from a different baramin is substituted, there will be a significant difference in the sum of squares value. Thus numerical data can help to distinguish which organisms are in separate baramins. Obviously this mathematics based task is monumental.
Such intensive material was a feature of the conference. In addition, we heard about interesting new approaches to the identification of designed biological systems. It is evident that the story of creation-based research in biology is about to expand tremendously. The important thing is that creation-based questions are being asked and creation-based research is being pursued. Not all hypotheses will prove valid. Nobody expects that. However in time, some very interesting new insights about the creation will have been gained. It is an exciting time to study biology.
Subscribe to Dialogue