Image: 3D visualization suggesting DNA, a free to use Unsplash image by user Braňo.

Back in August, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) posted a discussion to YouTube entitled These Scientific Papers Destroy Evolution. In the discussion, Dr. Mark Stengler asserted that three papers from secular scientific sources favor creation and work against evolution. He did not discuss any paper’s findings in detail, but the Institute has provided links to all three papers. In this post, I’ll examine one of the papers. Curious readers may first review the discussion here:

Preliminary Remarks

Evolutionary theorists tend to present their ideas in two steps: (1) usually accurate recitation of present-day observations, often organized statistically; (2) an evolutionary story proposing some progression from one type of organism, represented by one part of the observed data, into another, represented by another part of the observed data. Those are the main steps, but they often don’t stand alone.

An additional aspect of the case for any proposed story is often (3) description of some observed change over time within a single type of organism, sometimes described as “microevolution,” but more often (and more deceptively) as just “evolution”, under the influence of “natural selection.” This supplementary description of within-kind variation is supposed to prove to the reader that evolution is a fact, allowing him to accept a grander across-kinds evolutionary tale. A reader convinced by this has fallen for an obvious non sequitur, but that’s not the only thing bothersome about (3). The terminology is also problematic. Though the phenomenon described by “natural selection” is not debated — some varieties of an organism do “naturally” survive and reproduce more successfully than others — the term “natural selection” is misleadingly anthropomorphic. Thinking individuals select; nature does not. The associated term, “survival of the fittest,” is similarly unhelpful, being a tautology: all that defines an organism as “fittest” is its survival (and reproduction), so “survival of the fittest” communicates no meaning beyond the word “survival” or the word “fittest” alone.

The Most Important Thing Is to Tell a Good Story

But we’ll set aside these quibbles about terminology and look just at the main two steps. As you might have noticed, every time evolutionary theorists endeavor to tell a story about evidence (about observations or data), they take for granted that evolution of all life from a common ancestor by means of chance variation and natural selection — that is, Darwinian evolution — is a fact. If one does not take this for granted as they do, one likely finds the persuasive force of these evolutionary stories positively underwhelming. Insofar as any individual can adopt a neutral and unbiased attitude toward the evidence, he will discover that other stories, evolutionary or creational, can seem just as plausible as (or more plausible than) the Darwinian ones.[1]

Preliminary remarks concluded, let’s examine the first paper, entitled “Why should mitochondria define species?”[2]

On the Misleading Prefatory Note

Presumably in response to learning how creationists were using the paper, the authors added the following prefatory note in late 2018: “This study is grounded in and strongly supports Darwinian evolution, including the understanding that all life has evolved from a common biological origin over several billion years. This work follows mainstream views of human evolution. We do not propose there was a single ‘Adam’ or ‘Eve’. We do not propose any catastrophic events.”[3]

Having read the paper, I find this note amusing. Saying that the paper “strongly supports Darwinian evolution” is like an advocate of punctuated equilibrium asserting that the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record “strongly supports” Gould and Eldredge’s ad hoc version of evolutionary theory, which they created to explain away that very lack. (A possible pop-culture illustration of Gould and Eldredge’s “hopeful monsters” theory might be the X-men films. Just because you wish it could be true doesn’t mean it’s either plausible or possible.) Here is a more honest and accurate wording of the prefatory note: “This study presupposes, and will treat as undeniable fact, Darwinian evolution….This work, though it offers no evidence to buttress this belief, is written by authors who embrace Darwinian evolution as an article of faith. Following this mainstream faith of secular scientists, we rule out any interpretation of the data herein explored that our fellow believers might think compatible with creationism.”

Explaining Away What Doesn’t Fit ≠ Evidentiary Support

Far from offering evidentiary support for Darwinism, the burden of this paper is to suggest ways that scientists who take Darwinian evolution for granted might explain (or explain away) the evidence provided by comparative analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which indicates that the animal kingdom exists, not as a continuum of interconnected lifeforms, but in discrete kinds. Within these discrete kinds, observed variation in mitochondrial DNA is small; between them, such variation is large; and, because Darwinian evolution is an undeniable fact, we must assume that the large gaps have been crossed by transitional forms that are no longer extant.[4] This is the same situation in mitochondrial DNA that Gould and Eldredge sought to explain away in paleontology: evidence does not show a continuous tree of life where one form transforms gradually into another; instead, it shows discrete kinds, limited variation within kinds, and large gaps between kinds.

Were materialism and naturalism true, this procedure would be reasonable, since evolution of all life from a common origin through chance processes and natural selection seems the only option in that case. Since materialism and naturalism are false, however, this procedure guarantees that one, though always striving to “learn,” will never know the truth (2 Timothy 3:7).

Varieties of DNA & the Analysts Who Love Them

Beings of our sort have more than one type of DNA. We have nuclear DNA, DNA that resides in the nuclei of our cells. We also have mitochondrial DNA, separately inherited DNA that resides in our mitochondria. Nuclear DNA includes the sex chromosomes that so confound today’s transgender mythologists, XX for females, XY for males, plus some other rare combinations resulting from tragic defects in a fallen world.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to all children. Y chromosomes are passed down from fathers to sons. Nuclear DNA other than the Y chromosome is passed down from both parents to their children, each child getting half his DNA from either parent. This situation allows scientists to compile interesting data sets and trace out complex patterns of inheritance. While the current paper focuses entirely on mitochondrial DNA, it does suggest near its end that Y-chromosomal data comports with the picture provided by the mitochondrial.[5]

For an interesting lecture on some analysis of this sort, see Dr. Robert Carter’s Midwest Creation Fellowship lecture entitled “Meet Your Ancestors: Adam & Eve,” embedded below. Dr. Carter is with Creation Ministries International.

If you’d like to go into considerably more depth, consider Ken Ham and Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson’s discussion playlist entitled “The New History of the Human Race,” embedded below. Ham and Jeanson are with Answers in Genesis. The lectures provide an overview (and, when they were made, a preview) of some of the material Jeanson includes in his book Traced: Human DNA’s Big Surprise.

Paper Basics with Commentary: Missing Mitochondrial Links in the DNA Strata

Fundamentals covered, on to the basics of the paper. This will be a simplified overview of key points that I think must be what Dr. Stengler has in mind when he indicates that the paper favors creation over evolution. Readers who want to dig into the fine details and learn all the specialized terminology may download and review the full paper for themselves.

Our Invisible Variation Has Disappeared!

Now, most mutations in mitochondrial DNA do not show up in animals’ phenotypes, the visible characteristics that make them more or less “fit” to survive and reproduce. This makes such mutations “invisible” to natural selection. As a result, what the article calls “neutral” variation tends to accumulate over time. Why, then, is there so little variation in the mitochondrial DNA of different species of animals? (Really, one would better borrow the biblical term “kind” here. The article points out that biological scientists employ a variety of definitions of “species” that do not agree. The point of the article’s title is that the discrete clusters of mitochondrial DNA one can observe, islands of low variation separated from other clusters by large variations, should be used to define “species” objectively. This would perhaps bring “species” more into line with biblical “kinds.”[6])

In the case of humans, what researchers find is that the variation in mitochondrial DNA is so low that all such DNA would have been identical roughly 100,000 years ago.[7] Though the authors take it for granted that the species existed before that point, this apparent “resetting [of] mitochondrial variation to zero” needs to be explained. One explanation would be a “gene sweep” where “A positively selected allele…sweep[s] through the population.” Of course, this requires that a “postively selected” change occur in the mitochondrial DNA. Since changes in this DNA are not typically visible for selection, the authors must assert that “It is reasonable to hypothesize that somewhere on the mitochondrial genome there arises a positively selected amino acid substitution leading to the replacement of the entire linked genome in the population.”[7] The authors deem this hypothesis reasonable because of “The plausible but unproven possibility of selection for a single allelic case of amino acid substitution,” apparently.[8]

Ad Hoc Eve Avoidance

Lest readers miss the point, the authors add the following: “One should not mince words about what a mitochondrial genome sweep requires: the entire population’s mitochondrial genome must re-originate from a single mother.”[9] Obviously, of course, re-origination and just plain origination in the first place cannot be distinguished from one another based on the evidence. Both would show up in the mitochondrial record as the starting point of accumulated variation. So, it appears, the most simple and straightforward explanation of the data would be that all humans alive today originate from a single mother at some point in the past, which the secular scientists’ methods of dating place at around 100,000 years ago. I believe that Jeanson and other creationists call this individual mother “mitochondrial Eve.” (Compare Genesis 3:20.)

That the most straightforward and obvious interpretation of the data is that all humans alive today are descendants of the same ancient female has naturally excited creationists. This, of course, is unacceptable, so Stoeckle and Thaler instead propose that what happened many years ago was that, for whatever (definitely not catastrophic) reason, a previously larger human population dwindled to a small number, but definitely not to a single breeding pair. After that, some other environmental influences, about which we can today only speculate (at least it seems purely speculative to me at this point), further reduced the variation. In order to allow time for the further reduction in variation within this population so that, by our day, it would look like everyone descended from one woman, they expand the time estimate from roughly 100,000 years ago to from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Adding time, as you probably know, solves all problems in evolutionary theory.

Conclusion: Creative Storytellers Run Amok

Since no one on any side of any issue assesses evidence objectively and without bias, pointing out Darwinians’ bias and lack of objectivity in this paper seems pointless. When strictly applied, the scientific method arguably allows always-biased humans to simulate unbiased objectivity. Sadly, though, evolutionary storytellers make minimal use of the scientific method. After all, it isn’t easy to perform falsifying experiments to test tales about the unobservable past. Despite this, popular scientism in our day invariably presents evolution, a daily more ad hoc and untestable thought system, as the archetype of “true science.” If those who pointed out problems with these stories were not “being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired” for doing so, it would be tempting just to ignore or laugh at this nonsense.

The scientistic worldview obligates researchers like Stoeckle and Thaler to find a way to interpret all data so that they fit the only model of origins capable of preserving their naturalistic, materialistic outlook. Though a catastrophic event reducing humanity to a single breeding pair (or, at least, to a population with only one fertile female) would seem to me compatible with an evolutionary outlook — I mean, why not? — Darwinians don’t think this way. Since such a catastrophic event smacks of the biblical Flood, and since such a small human population also sounds far too biblical, evolutionists feel like they have to disown the possibility. That their approach implies that modern humans must have originated as a whole population of “hopeful monsters” over too short a time to leave fossil evidence of transitional forms doesn’t seem to bother them. I would guess that having just a male and female miraculously mutate into Homo sapiens sapiens would be more likely, insofar as vanishingly small probabilities that both round to 0% can be compared and contrasted. But I’ve obviously been biased by years of exposure to creationism.

Parting Shot: Epigenetics and Invisibility

Another irksome development for evolutionary speculation has been epigenetics. Basically, it turns out nuclear DNA has a complex control system that enables organisms to adapt to their environment, and pass along these adaptations to offspring, without having their DNA change at all.[10] This control system exposes and activates, or hides and deactivates, DNA segments in response to the environment. In essence, this makes many DNA changes that should affect the phenotype and make the organism either more or less “fit” in the eyes of natural selection (to indulge the standard personification of blind chance) invisible in much the same way most mitochondrial DNA variation is invisible. How such a complex higher-level control system could have developed by chance is hard to imagine, as well, though however it came to be, it has certainly improved “fitness.” The “wonders of evolution,” indeed!

Thanks for reading.


[1] Though it would be more proper to call today’s Darwinism “Neo-Darwinian evolution,” I’ve left off the “Neo-” because the paper we’re going to examine does so. Since Darwin knew nothing of genetics or mutation, some prefer to call newer evolutionary theory that takes such information into account “Neo-,” or new. But it is the heir to Darwin’s theorizing and the contemporary expression of the Darwinian spirit, making reference to it as simply “Darwinian” reasonable, as well as parsimonious.

[2] Mark Y. Stoeckle and David S. Thaler, “Why should mitochondria define species?”, Human Evolution 33:1–2 (2018), pp. 1–30.

[3] Stoeckle and Thaler, 1, paragraph break removed.

[4] Stoeckle and Thaler, 19.

[5] Stoeckle and Thaler, 22.

[6] The paper does note, however, that those species that have been most studied by expert taxonomists tend to correspond fairly well to the species designations indicated by the mitochondrial data (Stoeckle and Thaler, 3).

[7] Stoeckle and Thaler, 1, 19–22.

[8] Stoeckle and Thaler, 19.

[7] Stoeckle and Thaler, 16.

[9] Stoeckle and Thaler, 19.

[10] I don’t know if anything similar happens with mitochondrial DNA. I haven’t run across any researcher saying that it does, but my reading on the topic has been very limited.