What Characters Should Baraminology Use?

Darwin's Finches

The question of character choice, particularly for statistical baraminology, is one I’ve been mulling over for a while. That proper character selection can have a massive impact on the outcome of a baraminological study should be obvious from the very first application of statistical baraminology by Robinson and Cavanaugh back in 1998. Using DNA, ecological, karyotypic and morphometric data, they lumped apes and humans into the same baramin. Given human uniqueness according to the Bible (Genesis 1:26-28), this is an impossible result. Only by throwing out the DNA and karyotypic data were they able to separate apes and humans. Personally, given the later aberrant and conflicting results produced by statistical baraminology that the method is a large part of the issue, but we’re going to ignore that to ask the question for this article in order to explore the philosophical one related to characters.

For the original baraminology study of Robinson and Cavanaugh, four types of data were used: DNA, karyotypic, ecological, and morphological. As baraminology has evolved over the years, the first three have nearly completely fallen from use, in part due to Robinson and Cavanaugh and later Wood in 2002 arguing that DNA data gave aberrant results and thus should be avoided and in part due to Robinson and Cavanaugh’s second 1998 study finding that ecological data did not permit felids to be their own baramin while it morphology and DNA did. Given that morphology was the one constant that produced what was believed to be accurate results, morphology came to dominate the field.

It is important to ask before going any further, what a character is? And no, to all the theater nerds out there, it does not mean someone playing a part in a play, film, or television show. A character is a biological sense is an aspect of an organism or its surroundings which can be used to identify it. Thus the length of a femur is a character, just as having white fur is a character, or the presence or absence of a second dorsal fin. Even environmental and behavioral characteristics can be characters. So what type of characters are appropriate?

On the face of it, ecological characters make sense. After all, similar niche’s should be shared by related organisms across the world. However, if you look at Felids, which we know from hybridization studies are related, this idea falls apart. The snow leopard lives in the Gobi desert. The Jaguar enjoys the lush Amazon jungle. The two are worlds apart in terms of habitat, yet share the same genus, meaning they are not just in the same baramin, but are closely related. Dozens of similar examples could be cited. Polar bears are denizens of the arctic. Panda bears love lush bamboo forests. Jackals are at home on the African plain. Wolves enjoy arctic tundra. I trust you get the picture. Organisms from the same baramin are often found in wildly different terrains. Thus ecological data on its own cannot be used to provide evidence of continuity within a baramin, or discontinuity between baramin. The design God built into the original created kinds was simply too flexible in many cases for ecology to work.

Karyotypic data would seem to hold more promise. After all, the number of chromosomes should be consistent across one created kind right? I had that assumption at one point but it simply does not hold up. Most species of Kangaroo have sixteen chromosomes, but one has twenty, and a wallaby species has ten. Most weasels have 38, the European polecat has 40. The Bengal fox has 60 but the Red Fox has 34, the Kit Fox has 50, and the Fennec Fox 64, all of which are members of the same genus! You would expect that with that big a karyotype spread, these foxes would look nothing like each other. Yet if you google pictures of the species, you’ll find they are all recognizable as foxes. That will be important to remember later on so keep it in mind.

Given that karyotype and ecological data do not work, what about behavioral data? Again, problems become immediately apparent. Lions live in prides. Leopards, tigers and jaguars are generally solitary. Jackals and wolves live in groups. Coyotes tend to be solitary. Most kangaroos and wallabies live on the ground: the tree kangaroo lives, rather shockingly, in trees. Again, there are incongruities noticeable immediately. Members of the same kind do not behave the same necessarily. This makes the value of behavioral data minimal.

This brings us to the last two types of data: morphological and DNA. It is difficult to separate these two because, as Cserhati and Tay argued in a 2019 paper, DNA codes for morphology. However, there can be nuanced changes that are not genetic, particularly epigenetic changes. Therefore we will treat these two as separate character types.

Morphological characters are incredibly common in baraminological studies. In fact, they have been the dominant type of character for the last twenty-five, going on thirty years of baraminology. Morphological characters were commonly used at the time because they were commonly available in the literature. Since creationists almost never (one exception I know of) collect their own data, they are inherently reliant on the potentially biased data of the evolutionists to make their case. Even assuming the data is unbiased, morphology can only go so far. Creatures with common morphological traits may not be members of the same baramin. Assuming they are is akin to the evolutionary assumption that common traits are the result of common ancestry.

To circumvent the homology problem, statistical baraminologists have appealed to both continuity and discontinuity simultaneously. In other words, traits are common within a baramin, but not common to those outside (and yes I am simplifying a little, this is not a technical paper). There may be some truth to this, but I don’t think its a final answer, for reasons that would require a technical paper to explain. Basically the takeaway here is there are issues with morphological data.

Genetic data fairs no better. The potential for bias exists in the alignment method chosen, the possibility for incorrect genome assembly, and so on. Further, what matters is not so much the DNA assembly, as how it is read. Sequences of DNA can be read multiple ways and produce different proteins when they are read differently. This greatly complicates using DNA as data for baraminology. I don’t think we’ve developed a mature enough system for reading DNA for it to be stand alone data.

Given the issues presented by the different types of data, what should we be using? I think we can rule out karyotypes, ecology and behavioral data up front. They are clearly uninformative from the examples provided. Morphology and DNA have their own problems as well. However, as Joubert pointed out in 2011, created kinds have maintained what he termed an “essential nature”. This essential nature has not changed since the beginning. Given that DNA and morphological appearance (and to some extent behavior), are what make animals recognizable, it seems a combination of morphology and DNA is advisable. This, to my knowledge, has not been done for nearly twenty-years. Technology has advanced, we have an overabundance of DNA data. It’s time to start using it in baraminology alongside morphology.

Do you know what’s going to happen when you die? Are you completely sure? If you aren’t, please read this or listen to this. You can know where you will spend eternity. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us, we’d love to talk to you.

References:

Joubert, C. 2011. Created Kinds and Essential Natures: A Biblical and Philosophical Response to Evolutionists. Answers Research Journal 4:103–112. 

Robinson, D.A., and D.P. Cavanaugh. 1998a. A quantitative approach to baraminology with examples from the catarrhine primates. CRSQ 34:196–208.

Robinson, D.A., and D.P. Cavanaugh. 1998a. A quantitative approach to baraminology with examples from the catarrhine primates. CRSQ 34:196–208.

Wood, T.C. 2002. A baraminology tutorial with examples from the grasses (Poaceae). Technical Journal 16:15–25.

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