Lumpers, Splitters and Noah’s Ark19 August, 2010
One of my father’s frequent pithy comments, one of his stock phrases, was, “The world is made up of two kinds of people: lumpers and splitters.” And palaeontologists are no exception. Actually, they may be the definition of lumpers and splitters.
Scientists in almost every discipline are, whether they choose to admit it or not, are natural splitters. Every (well, almost every) budding palaeontologist is a splitter. Why? What better way to get one’s name noticed, to get that elusive grant or, even better, teaching position, than to have your very own genus chalked up on your wall of fame? This means, of course, that species are sometimes described based upon flimsy evidence. One of the most famous was Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus. Othniel Marsh, one of the true giants of early palaeontology, described Apatosaurus ajax based on a very incomplete fossil in 1877. Then, two years later, he described Brontosaurus excelsus based on six skeletons and part of a skull. A quarter century later, the species, which had been split, was lumped back together by Elmer Riggs. Of course, Brontosaurus is such a beautiful name that we continue to use it, though it is a junior synonym.
Recently, three dinosaurs, Stygimoloch spinifer, Dracorex hoqwartsia, and Pachycephalosaurus, have been lumped back together as, possibly, three different ages of the same dinosaur. There is still a great deal of controversy among palaeontologists as to whether the lumpers or the splitters are correct. Hopefully, as more fossils are found and as the existing specimens are studied more closely, the lumpers and splitters will reach consensus as to the accuracy of the taxonomic consolidation. And, most recently, Torosaurus and Triceratops, palaeontologists studying the ontogeny of the ceratopsians found in the Hell Creek formation, are lumping Torosaurus into the senior Triceratops.
And (drum roll please) the Young Earth Cretinists Creationists couldn’t be happier. And why would YECers give a flying fig about the taxonomic nomenclature of dinosaurs? Because the creationists (as the esteemed P.Z. Myers puts it):
. . . are overjoyed that combining two species into one means that “the Ark cargo was even lighter than previously thought”. There’s also some crowing about those arrogant scientists being wrong wrong wrongity-wrong wrong ding-dong! Gloating over an occasional error would be much more impressive if they also ever acknowledged the many times scientists have been right, and the creationists wrong.
Creationists are the ultimate lumpers. To deal with the millions of species, extant and extinct, creationists lump species together as ‘kinds.’ Which, as near as I can make out, means that only one pair of antelope were needed on the ark. And then they radiated out into the hundred or so species of antelope. Only one pair of beetle was needed. And then they radiated out into the 450,000 or so described beetles. Only one pair of cats, one pair of raptors, one pair of Tyrannasauridae, one pair of crocodylians, one pair of primate, one pair of monkey. Nice bit of legerdemain. Nice bit of dishonesty. They even claim that, since Apatasaurus and Diplodocus are similar, are of the same family,
So Noah didn’t need to take an Apatosaurus pair and a Diplodocus pair on board the Ark; rather, just two representatives of their one kind along with all the other dinosaur kinds (Genesis 6:20)—of which it has been estimated previously there were only 55 kinds. (from Creation.com)
All to force the incredible complexity of the animal kingdom (and I’m not even including plants (how did they survive under all the water for that long?)) into the Bronze-age mythology of some Middle Eastern sheep herders. All to force the magnificent tale of life on earth — Snowball Earth, Pangaea, meteor impacts, mass extinctions, 3,500,000 years of the history of life — into a 6,000 year absurdity of received wisdom.
Christianity is based on received wisdom. The older the text, the more authoritative the message. And they insist upon shoehorning science into the ideal of received wisdom. This is why many creationists refer to those who accept the Theory of Evolution as the best available explanation for the diversity of life on earth as ‘Darwinists.’
Charles Darwin, building on the writings of older natural historians, developed the theory of evolution through natural selection. It was, for the time, a brilliant theory. But it was incomplete. For the last 150 years, biologists, geneticists, geologists, palaeontologists, and other scientists have been experimenting and studying nature in order to either tease out the facts or disprove the theory. In 150 years, the facts have added layer upon layer of support to the fact of evolution.
But every time scientists realize that new facts require a new understanding of the process, there are the creationists, pointing and laughing. With an understanding of how science actually works (thesis – antithesis – synthesis (though it is never that simple)), the process is clear. With the worship of received wisdom, any change in understanding brought about by new facts does not reinforce the theory, it invalidates the theory. The messy and confusing path of science is anathema to True BelieversTM, raised on the pablum of received wisdom passed through a designated Authority Figure TM, with no allowance for questioning the theories of the past.
The lumpers of modern literalist Christianity are so sure that they, and only they, have the answer to life, the universe, and everything (it is 42, you morons), that they cheerfully ridicule the splitters. The splitters, these learned men, these scientists who have created the modern world with vaccines, computers, cell phones, cars, airplanes, and television.