Eugenie Scott's picture

Fungi and the Flood

Ah, California living. Land of fruits and nuts. And fungi. Impressed one day by the unusually high number of kinds of mushrooms at my local produce store (I stopped counting at 25), I posted a picture of the array on my Facebook page. Whereupon Jim Strickland waggishly warned me about using the term “kinds”, a taxonomic term of creationists that fails to map onto any actual scientific taxonomic system.

“Kinds” are critical to an important aspect of creation science, the role of Noah’s flood in shaping the Earth and living things on it. Henry M. Morris’s flood geology, A troop of Berkeley mushrooms extended from earlier work by George McCready Price, explains the current status of Earth and its creatures as a function of Noah’s flood. All humans are descended from Noah and his sons and their wives. All animals are descended from the male and female of each kind taken on board the Ark (seven pair of clean animals, one pair of unclean animals, as defined by Jewish dietary laws in Leviticus and elsewhere).

Plants were not taken aboard the ark (except for food for the animals and people); they had to fend for themselves during the approximately one year that the planet was covered by water. It’s difficult enough to define “kind” sufficiently broadly to allow for portage of all the varieties of animals, present-day and prehistoric, without having to share space on board with the enormous diversity of plant life. So creationists traditionally have decided that God’s directive to Noah to take male and female of every kind didn’t apply to plants. And not all animals: land animals only. God said he would send a flood that would kill “all flesh, wherein is the breath of life” (Genesis 6:17, KJV). Plants, you’re on your own–as are creatures of the lakes, rivers, and oceans.

My joking reply to Jim, then, was that plants, since they don’t “breathe” like animals, aren’t “alive in the biblical sense”, so I was off the hook for using the term “kinds”. Not to be put off, Jim correctly countered that fungi aren’t plants–taxonomically, they are a type of eukaryote (having nucleated cells) that is actually closer to animals than to plants. The biggest dissimilarity between plants and fungi is how they make their living: plants photosynthesize with chlorophyll, which fungi lack. They are heterotrophs. A large number of known fungi are decomposers.

So that got me curious about the creation model for fungi–for some reason, that topic hadn’t crossed my path before. (So much creationism, so little time.)

Young Earth Creationists believe that today’s universe has to be shoehorned into an interpretation of the Bible that requires special creation, a perfect world with no death and no decay until the Fall of Adam and Eve, a global literal Noachian Flood, and so on. The Bible comes first; other observations are made to fit. This, of course, is why creation “science” cannot be considered to be science. You can’t start with a conclusion and collect information only to support it, ignoring or explaining away all the data that refute your conclusion.

I hypothesized that creationists would believe that mushrooms and other fungi had been created with all other living forms, but not as decomposers–since Eden had no death or decay. After the fall, when sin, death, disease, and other bad stuff came into the world, either God repurposed them to become decomposers, or they just happened to have the genetic variation to become decomposers–creationists accept evolution within the kind, so mushrooms could have evolved to become decomposers. Because mushrooms don’t inhale (“breath of life”), they aren’t animals, and Noah didn’t have to clutter up the Ark with them.

Hypothesis in hand, I found on the website of Answers in Genesis an extensive article considering the role of fungi in their creation model. Creation science proponents work so hard to make science match their reading of the Bible: the author tries to decide which kinds of fungi were created on which days of creation. On day 3 with the other plants? Or on days 5 and 6 with land animals?

But lots of fungi are decomposers. What did they do for a living if there was no death before Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden? A careful interpretation of Genesis solves the problem: biblical “death” is different from what we think of as “death”. To get around the necessity of having some living things die in order to justify the creation of decomposers, “death” is defined by the AiG author as death of entities with souls. Adam and Eve and the other creatures in Eden were given “herbs” (plants) to eat, and, leaving aside the issue of whether animals have souls, clearly plants do not. There would of course in Eden be scraps of plant matter left over from the human and animal feeding, hence the need for fungi. All part of God’s plan. There is a quite extensive discussion in the article (clearly written by someone who knows a lot about fungi–though under a pseudonym) about the various mutualist relationships between fungi and many hosts/symbionts. All part of God’s plan.

So the “kinds” of fungi is yet another example of young Earth creationist hair splitting over biblical interpretation as well as the facts and theories of science. Sad, really, that such mental gymnastics are required to maintain a literalist religious position that, frankly, most fellow Christians do not feel is necessary to their faith. Sadder still that good science, evolution, is sometimes kept from students because of fear of pushback from people with these views, as can be seen any week on the NCSE website.