The Ark Encounter in Kentucky is a monument to the young-earth creationist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis—particularly the story of the Flood in Genesis 6-8. That interpretation stands on a literalistic hermeneutic which assumes that Genesis provides a framework for answering questions about the physical and temporal origins of the Earth and the reshaping of that Earth, including all the life on it, by a recent global catastrophe.
One question likely to be asked by every Ark Encounter visitor is: How could Noah and his family have preserved the full range of God’s created land animals? The creators of the Ark Encounter go to great lengths to resolve this question.
I had an opportunity to tour the large timber-framed model of Noah’s Ark in July. The reconstruction of the Ark is truly an impressive structure. But is it really big enough to house representatives of every animal on Earth? That depends partly on the interpretation of one Hebrew word: min. This is the word translated “kind” in Genesis in our English Bibles. Since, according to Genesis 6:19, God only brought “kinds” of animals to the Ark, then the number of animals that the Ark needed to accommodate would be directly related to the quantity of land animal “kinds” that he created in Genesis 1.
So what does min mean? The answer is not clear. Hebrew scholars aren’t sure how to relate this term to our modern categories of animal life, or if they relate at all. If kinds are equivalent to species, the Ark Encounter—however impressive—is still far too small. This problem has only come to light in the past two centuries. In the 18th century, the known number of land animal species was much smaller than today and most fossil species like dinosaurs were unknown, and so it seemed feasible that all the known species on Earth could have been preserved on Noah’s Ark. But since then, the number of known species has exploded beyond the bounds of what any vessel could possibly hold.
When modern young-earth creationism, then called deluge geology, was founded by Seventh Day Adventists, the term min was employed to solve the problem of too many species by equating the term to that of groups of species we categorize as genera. Today, Answers in Genesis continues that tradition but greatly expands the boundaries of a min by proposing that a min is equivalent to a much broader taxonomic category. Rather than species or even genera, a min is said to be roughly equivalent to what scientists recognize as a family (e.g., great apes, canines, bears) and possibly even an order (e.g. bats). Therefore, a single min could represent 10s, 100s or a thousand modern species of animals. A necessary consequence of this modern young-earth interpretation of min was that the species you and I recognize today are not what God created and preserved on Noah’s Ark. Rather a representative pair of ancestors to all species of each min are said to have been on the Ark. Thus, those ancestors must have given rise to many distinct descendant lineages that we call species today.
This origin of species from a common ancestor occurred by evolutionary processes. This is made clear by an exhibit on the Ark Encounter where we learn that, “species give rise to new species, modified characteristics develop over time, and the fittest animals survive.” This is a reasonable description of Darwin’s explanation for the origin of species by means of natural selection. Many visitors to the Ark Encounter may be surprised to discover exhibits which embrace Darwin’s mechanism – natural selection – for producing new species albeit with some strict limits. Along with other natural mechanisms of change the Ark Encounter has proposed what I call a “post-flood rapid speciation model” of modern biological diversity to solve the problem of the limited dimensions and manpower of Noah’s Ark.
RIGHT: An example of an extinct "kind" on the Ark Encounter. The unlabeled pair of animals appears to represent the extinct synapsid Cotylorhynchus which was one of many strange prehistoric species who had features similar to both mammals and reptiles. Photo Credit: Joel Duff
Significantly, no one ever proposed rapid post-flood speciation in the 6-day creation model prior to Darwin. The Scriptures do not demand this modern interpretation of a biblical “kind”, nor has the church historically understood that hundreds of species evolved from common ancestors that God created and preserved on the Ark. Only when the Ark got too small – because of scientific discoveries – to hold all of God’s created animals did the alternative hypothesis become necessary. Ironically, this approach openly involves adjusting an interpretation of the Bible to respond to modern scientific discoveries, which is exactly what young-earth creationists routinely accuse non-YECs of doing.
Is there evidence for the rapid post-flood speciation proposed by AiG?
If there were only 1400 or fewer “kinds” on the Ark, as claimed on the Ark Encounter, and today there are more than 34,000 land-animal species and countless additional extinct species, is there evidence for this sudden appearance of thousands of new species over just hundreds of years? Absolutely none. Scientists and natural philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries (long before Darwin) did not document new species forming before their eyes, nor have the tens of thousands of species they described changed into new species since then.
Importantly, the Bible also paints a picture of species living thousands of years ago that display characteristics that we observe today. Old Testament passages refer to foxes in Israel and describe their behavior in ways that are strikingly similar to the red fox species that live there today (see Song of Songs 2:15; Ezekiel 13:4; Matthew 8:20). Wolves and domestic dogs are also referred to in the Bible and ancient Near-Eastern literature in terms familiar enough to identify them. And this is only a sampling of the familiar animals mentioned by the Bible whose descriptions correspond well with modern species. This is a strong biblical testimony to the consistency of species boundaries over long periods of time.
Where do young-earth creationists seek evidence for post-flood rapid speciation?
Answers in Genesis infers rapid evolution of species by comparisons with domesticated animals and domesticated dogs in particular. Everyone agrees that all domesticated dogs are derived from the wolf species Canis lupus. In fact they are so similar to wolves that most taxonomists today include domestic dogs in the same species as the wolf preferring to attribute to them only subspecies status (Canis lupus familiaris).
ABOVE: A placard on the Ark Encounter explaining how the domestication of dogs supports the post-Flood rapid speciation hypothesis of Answers in Genesis. Credit: Joel Duff.
It is self-apparent that domestic dogs display great morphological variation in size, shape, and color. These differences are frequently highlighted in young-earth literature just as they are on the Ark Encounter as prima facie evidence that visible changes also can occur within kinds (or, in taxonomic language, families). For the non-scientist, domestic dogs provide powerful imagery for the potential of natural selection to produce many different forms in a short period of time. However, like so many other young-earth arguments, it is a case of describing apples and then suggesting that oranges are the same thing.
The origin of dog breeds from a single species of canine isn’t comparable, temporally or mechanistically, to the origin of multiple canine species. Nor is there biblical or other historical eye-witness reports to support this speculative inference of rapid speciation. To the contrary, the fossil record of canine and vulpine species we see today reveals that most modern species – e.g. coyotes, wolves, foxes, jackals, Dholes, etc. – have existed much as they appear today for many thousands of years. Likewise, Answers in Genesis appeals to gross visual differences between organisms to make their case that the external appearance of a species is but a small part of its biology. Vast quantities of genome/DNA data are available for many canine species. Even a cursory examination of this data reveals that domestic dogs are remarkably similar to one another genetically – far more similar than humans are to one another—confirming their wolf subspecies status. On the other hand, wolves are much more genetically diverse than domestic dogs, even though they appear—superficially—to look rather similar to one another. When other species of canines are compared, genetic differences become far more pronounced. So pronounced, in fact, that the differences between chimpanzees and humans look small in comparison.
You could say the difference we see in domesticated dogs are only skin deep, and thus it would be foolish to use those differences to build an argument for recent common ancestry of hundreds of species.
Equating dog diversification and canine speciation also fails in one other important way: dogs breeds have been “created” not by natural selection but by artificial selection. Domesticated animals have been derived through an intensive process of selection that frequently results in the opposite of what “nature” might do. Artificial selection is an unnaturally strong force that results when a few individual traits are chosen to the exclusion, and sometimes detriment, of hundreds of other characters. For example, spots are selected to make a Dalmatian without considering other characters like deafness that might be linked to the character of interest. Selection, operating in nature, would not exclusively select a character like spot shape or color over a more important character for its overall survival—the ability to hear.
Natural selection rarely, if ever, selects for single or even a few traits to the exclusion of all other traits. Natural selection takes into account the entire organism, and individuals with the best combination of hundreds of genes that contribute to overall fitness are selected. In nature, then, selection on a single gene variant is rarely very strong. As a result, significant changes in allele frequencies (different traits) of multiple traits in nature usually require thousands of generations to be observed. The upshot of this is that natural selection usually takes a long time to shape populations.
Canine species such as coyotes, wolves, and dholes and vulpines such as red foxes differ not just in a few places in their genomes (like domesticated dogs) but at hundreds of thousands of locations throughout their genome. Hence, foxes and coyotes are most certainly separate species by any definition. They have achieved complete genetic separation since their origins from a common ancestor. Domestic dog breeds are not different species. Collectively, they aren’t even a distinct species from wolves, despite more than 10,000 years of intensive selection! This explains why descriptions of animals and plants of the Old Testament match those of animals and plants alive today. The space of 4000 years is simply not enough time for significant changes to have taken place in most species.
Proposed rapid post-flood speciation via natural selection and genetic drift – the mechanisms of evolution – is an attempt to rescue the Ark from overcrowding. But it doesn’t help! It doesn’t solve the problem of space limitations on the Ark and it sends a confusing message to generations of Christians who have been taught that the amazing characteristics of animals in God’s creation were specially created and could not have resulted from naturalistic processes.
Evolutionary creationists would not dispute that speciation is happening today or that diversification by speciation is responsible for the origins of canine and equine species, but they would not equate the relatively quick formation of breeds of animals to the origin of species over the same time frame. Mutation rates, natural selection, and genetic drift have all been studied extensively and been shown to be powerful forces which over time – a very long time – are capable of inextricably and inevitably causing changes to species and even the formation of new ones. The descriptions of animals in the Bible are consistent with the pace of speciation predicted by these studies and an evolutionary creation position.
By acknowledging that speciation happens by God-ordained natural mechanisms, young earth creationists are, unwittingly, one step closer to recognizing that the mechanisms of evolution can be an amazingly powerful force for creation.