Fossil horses—what can they tell us about the origin of stallions, zebras, and other modern species? Biologist Todd Wood, who heads the Center for Origins Research, joined other creation biologists to study this question. The results astonished him and forced him to rethink many previous assumptions about God’s created kinds.
Scientific models change. Both evolutionists and creationists change their scientific models. Sometimes we creationists don’t like it when our models change, but this is no cause for alarm. Our Creator God never changes. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. We rest our hopes on Him rather than on scientific theories.
There’s nothing bad about a person’s changing, though. In fact, it can be a good thing when someone repents and forsakes a sinful lifestyle or when God teaches us something about Himself that we didn’t know before. Those changes are good and nothing to look down on. When scientific models change, it often means that we’ve learned something new, and we’ve adjusted our understanding of the world because of it.
When creationists’ models change, it often means we learned something new and we have a better understanding of our unchanging God or His creation. Sometimes, our better understanding requires us to own up to the need for changes and jettison arguments that we used to use.1 These changes are also good. It means we’re growing and developing as scientists.
What does this have to do with fossil horses? Fossil horses have been used as a propaganda tool for evolution for more than 130 years. In 1876, “Darwin’s bulldog” T. H. Huxley visited the United States and viewed the collection of horse fossils at the Peabody Museum at Yale University. He became convinced that these fossils proved the evolution of the horse beyond a doubt.2
Huxley’s enthusiasm led the American paleontologist O. C. Marsh to draw a very famous diagram of horse evolution.3 The diagram shows parts of six different horse species in the order that they appear in the fossil record. It highlights differences in the hooves, legs, and teeth, apparently showing a gradual transition from Orohippus to our modern horse. Orohippus was roughly the size of a medium dog, with four toes on its forefoot and three toes on its hind foot.
Opponents of evolution did not take kindly to this new evidence of evolution. Describing Huxley’s presentation of horse evolution, Wilford Hall wrote that he “showed a complete misunderstanding” of evolution because, according to Hall, the change from the four-toed Orohippus to the one-toed modern horse was a degeneration.4 Similar arguments have appeared in creationist books and journals ever since,5 spurred on occasionally by critiques appearing in the conventional literature.6
When I was growing up, creationism was making headlines with its legal struggles in Arkansas and Louisiana, and I learned about horse evolution first from creationists. I was as sure as any other creationist that horse evolution is bogus, but as a biologist in training I was curious how many kinds (baramins) of horses God had created. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure how to find out.
In the late nineties, my colleagues and I started working on the problem of created kinds. My friend David Cavanaugh, a man who lives and breathes mathematics, came up with some statistical methods that we hoped would help us to identify created kinds, even in the fossil record. At the time, I was looking around for interesting groups of creatures to apply his methods to, and I stumbled across a set of characteristics of fossil horses. I thought it would be a great way not only to give the methods a test drive but also to revisit the fossil horses and show that they represented several different created kinds.
The results were not what I had expected. In fact, the results were the opposite of what I had expected. We looked at data concerning the shape of horse bones and teeth, but David’s analysis showed a pattern that matched almost exactly the order in which these horses were buried in the fossil record. Not only that, but we found evidence of only one created kind.7 To my surprise, our analysis seemed to support the view that horses have changed significantly in the past.
Now before you break out the tar and feathers, hear me out. We weren’t studying the origin of the first horses, because our analysis included only horses. The Bible plainly teaches the separate creation of animals “after their kinds,” and we continue to believe that. Our analysis supported a single created kind of horse, and a diversity of species that started and ended with horses. We concluded that the “evolution” of the horse was actually the diversification of horse species after the Flood.
I first presented our results (our model) at a creationist conference in 2001, and I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. It doesn’t really matter what scientific field you’re in, getting up to announce a major change in one’s model isn’t likely to go over well. On top of that, our methods were new and generally untried, meaning that there was plenty of room for doubt.
After I finished my talk, one man asked a question that really stuck in my memory: “What are you so nervous about? If that’s what the data showed, don’t be apologetic about it!”
“Easy for him to say,” I thought, but he was right. This is the nature of scientific models. While the Bible (our primary key to interpreting the evidence) never changes, manmade theories change. We learn new things, we throw out old ideas that don’t work, and we develop new ideas that (hopefully) do work. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what scientists do. As Christians, of course, our primary is the Bible.
What does the diversification of the horse kind mean for the larger creation model? I think it gives us some important clues about the earth’s recovery after the Flood. Based on the limited data we have now, I believe that Noah had something like a Hyracotherium with him on the Ark (see sidebar “Is Hyracotherium a Hyrax?”). After leaving the Ark, the offspring of that Ark-horse quickly spread to North America, where we find fossils of Hyracotherium in the post-Flood Green River Formation.8 By Abraham’s day, around two centuries after Babel (and perhaps three or four centuries after the Flood), the Bible describes animals that are essentially modern (Genesis 12:16). We no longer see such rapid change in these modern species (the horses and camels depicted in the earliest surviving art look very much like the animals today).
If our conclusions are correct, something fascinating (we’re not sure what) happened in regions like North America soon after the Flood. This was a time of terrific upheaval, as the planet slowly recovered from the complete devastation of the Flood (see “Continuing Catastrophes,” p. 70). It’s not surprising that living things also experienced an upheaval of their own, as completely new ecosystems established themselves.
What incredible mechanisms did God build into the original kinds to make this possible? Such radical diversification appears to have nothing to do with incremental changes from mutations; it appears to be evidence that God programmed a way for complex ecosystems to be reconstructed in a very short time after the Flood by rapidly establishing successful networks of interacting microbes, plants, and animals.
Despite my initial fears about our horse analysis, we’ve found that our results fit the emerging creation model very well. What does the future hold for creationist research on horses? More change, of course!
Questions still linger. We want to confirm whether all the horses (including Hyracotherium) belong to the same kind. We want to define the boundary of the horse kind and confirm that it is a unique creation. We also want to figure out what could cause such dramatic changes in a kind and why we don’t see changes like that today (there are plenty of suggestions, but very little confirmation).9 There’s still plenty of work to be done and plenty of opportunity for young, upcoming creationists to contribute to the creation model.
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