Of Splitters and Lumpers

One of the oldest specialties in biology is the field of taxonomy. Taxonomists are biologists who determine the scientific names of organisms and then group organisms into a hierarchy designed to organize the vast array of living things into an orderly system. Historically, taxonomists have used evolution to do a lot of their grouping, and that has produced a number of controversies and sometimes some radical changes. The tree shrew, for example, was changed from an insectivore to a primate because it seemed to fill a niche in a particular theory about the evolution of man.

Some taxonomists operate on the belief that if two organisms share a few major characteristics, they should be placed in the same group. This belief system has caused the name lumper to be applied to their basic approach. A second approach to taxonomy says that if two organisms differ in any significant way, they should be placed in separate groups. This approach has been called splitters.

In anthropology, the splitter/lumper tug of war has gone on for a long time. Louis Leakey, Donald Johanson, and other well-publicized anthropologists tend to put a new name on every find they make. Many anthropologists feel that a large number of these forms are simply racial variations of the same thing. Most flow charts seen in the media tend to follow the splitter mentality with each fossil form being fitted into the author's theory. The well-publicized Time-Life flow chart actually had a form named Ramapithecus sequentially out of order with the actual ages of the specimen to fit the theory they were espousing. Names like Cro-Magnon, Peking, Neanderthal, Fonte-Chavade, Steinheim, and Rhodesian are splitter labels. They indicate where the specimen was found, and the general public seems to be led to believe that they were different species. The fact is that it is almost sure that they are racial variations of man and were very human in every way.

Another interesting part of the splitter/lumper situation is the fact that the Bible is definitely of the lumper persuasion. The Hebrew word "min" is translated "kind" in virtually all translations of the Bible. In Genesis 1:20-28, the kinds are defined as "flesh of fish, flesh of fowl, ... flesh of beast, ... flesh of man." It is important to understand that the Bible does not say "flesh of bluejay, flesh of stellar jay, flesh of Canadian jay, etc.--it just says "flesh of fowl." The obvious fact that animals can change to fit changing environments explains why these variations exist. Biologists call this evolution, and much of the conflict in the evolution/creation discussion has taken place because people have assumed that the Bible is saying that species cannot change. Species do change, but kinds do not. The Bible is very consistent in its taxonomy. When Noah collects the animals for the ark in Genesis 6-8, the same four classifications are used. In theory, Noah could have done what he did with a rowboat. When Paul discusses the kinds of flesh in 1 Corinthians 15:39, the same four kinds are given. These are not complete nor exhaustive taxonomic reviews, but the message of methodology is clear.

The final area we would like to mention where the splitter/lumper question becomes relevant is the Church. There are mindsets in religion which would like to see anyone who assents to the idea that "there is something out there" to be considered a Christian in good standing with God. There are others who believe that to be a Christian, a person must adhere to not only a selected group of practices, but must also hold to a prescribed listing of views on a wide range of topics--political, economic, medical, educational, and psychological in nature.

In taxonomy, what happens in practice is that things get grouped on the basis of compromise by the splitters and lumpers, and while huge arguments take place, there is usually enough of a consensus that the job gets done. In the Church, there are also an increasing number of debates about who should be considered a Christian and who should not be. We would suggest that it is not up to any human to make that judgment. Only God knows the heart of a person and has the wisdom to know what should be done. We can define moral practices that we will condone, and we can and should dictate that as a body we will worship and work together in ways we can find in the Bible. We cannot make accurate subjective judgments about others on points of methodology or secular beliefs, and no where in the Bible are we told to do so.

Biblical disfellowshipping was over matters of moral turpitude, and false teachers were identified as vile deliberate distorters of truth.

"There shall be false teachers among you...denying the Lord...through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you..." ( 2 Peter 2:1-3).

No where do we see division over personalities or over someone who had an honest misunderstanding. It was clear what a false teacher stood for and how he conducted his life.

When the Church does its job of bringing people to Christ and allowing His Word to do the convicting, the division produced by splitters and lumpers stops. If this is done, the Church gets out of squabbles over irrelevant issues and does the work it was designed to accomplish.

                            --John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, May/Jun97