October 18, 2017

Bones of Contention

Bones of Contention

Paleontologist Mary Schweitzer made worldwide headlines in 2005 for announcing that she had discovered soft tissue preserved in 68-million-year-old bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.  Immediate reaction from the paleontological community was skepticism, as it should have been.  The conventional wisdom has been that no original proteins from once-living cells could remain. If the delicate structure of soft body parts is discernable in a fossil that is normally because these parts were converted to some type of hard mineral during the fossilization process.

Reaction in the young-earth creationist community was also immediate but joyful.  Answers in Genesis said:

“…the presence of tissue and protein fragments still remaining in dinosaur fossils poses a direct biochemical challenge to the standard geologic dating paradigm. If dinosaur fossils are at least 65 million years old, how has this biological material survived? How could these bones not yet be fully fossilized even after millions of years? These questions raise significant issues about contemporary dating methods.”

Coming on the heels of the 2005 publication of the failure of the R.A.T.E. (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) study to make the slightest dent in the reliability of radiometric dating, Schweitzer’s study must have seemed to be a major “bone” thrown to the YEC camp by the paleontological community.  As Randy Isaacs of the Christian American Science Affiliation (ASA) said:

“In this book, the authors admit that a young-earth position cannot be reconciled with the scientific data without assuming that exotic solutions will be discovered in the future. No known thermodynamic process could account for the required rate of heat removal nor is there any known way to protect organisms from radiation damage. The young-earth advocate is therefore left with two positions. Either God created the earth with the appearance of age (thought by many to be inconsistent with the character of God) or else there are radical scientific laws yet to be discovered that would revolutionize science in the future. The authors acknowledge that no current scientific understanding is consistent with a young earth. Yet they are so confident that these problems will be resolved that they encourage a message that the reliability of the Bible has been confirmed.

[C]laims that scientific data affirm a young earth do not meet the criterion of integrity in science. Any portrayal of the RATE project as confirming scientific support for a young earth, contradicts the RATE project’s own admission of unresolved problems. The ASA can and does oppose such deception.”

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952.

So the publication of Schweitzer’s study in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (an actual one, not a creationist one) seemed to lend some credence to the young-earth view, at least to those already predisposed to wish a concordance between scientific evidence and biblical evidence.  But the YEC “good news” was not to last.  Of course the radiometric dating of the Hell Creek Formation where the T-Rex bone was found was well established with multiple lines of evidence.  The actual problem for the paleontological community was not the dating of the bone, but what they thought was the conventional wisdom of soft tissue preservation.  It turned out the paleontological community didn’t know everything they thought they knew.  And that’s what science is about, correcting what we think we know with additional evidence.

The long explanation of what Mary Schweitzer found can be seen here and a shorter version can be read here.  The tl:dr explanation is that the heme iron in the dinosaur blood, after death, is let free from its other bonds. It forms minuscule iron nanoparticles and also generates free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules thought to be involved in aging.  The free radicals cause proteins and cell membranes to tie in knots.   They basically act like formaldehyde, preserving the tissue.

Answers in Genesis addresses the explanation by citing it as one, albeit the most popular, model of how preservation could occur.  They then quote Schweitzer thus:

Dr. Schweitzer, who continues to be one of the leading researchers in dinosaur tissue, has provided a valuable summary of the discovery. She concludes that we have “two alternatives for interpretation: either the dinosaurs aren’t as old as we think they are, or maybe we don’t know exactly how these things get preserved.”

They are, of course implying she acknowledges that the “young” age of the bones is a viable explanation.  You know the drill; same facts just different presuppositions.  But as she notes herself, for example in this interview with Biologos:

“If you believe 24/7 creation is really the only interpretation possible and ignore tons of evidence that the earth is billions of years old and that life was a simple construct that got way more complex over time, that’s fine—we may be wrong about the science (I don’t think we are, but as a scientist I have to leave that minute possibility open).”

Mary Schweitzer at the ‘scope. Source: God and Nature, Summer 2014.

She is simply using the rhetoric of even-handedness to keep from antagonizing those Christians who “ignore tons of evidence that the earth is billions of years old” needlessly.  Because the other interesting aspect of this story is that Mary Schweitzer is a relatively conservative evangelical Christian who is trying to educate her fellow Christians in as irenic a manner as possible.  From the Biologos interview:

“One of the churches I go to is very conservative—But the pastor and I have discussed what I do, and we have agreed to disagree on some things. I think that’s the appropriate attitude to have—after all, God is the only one who knows for sure—he is the only one who was there.”

Well and good.  Mary Schweitzer seems to be a very nice person who is trying very hard not to pick a fight.  She is just trying to be a good scientist and a good Christian at the same time.  The money quote, for me though, is this (from the Biologos interview):

“One thing that does bother me, though, is that young earth creationists take my research and use it for their own message, and I think they are misleading people about it. Pastors and evangelists, who are in a position of leadership, are doubly responsible for checking facts and getting things right, but they have misquoted me and misrepresented the data. They’re looking at this research in terms of a false dichotomy [science versus faith] and that doesn’t do anybody any favors.

AIG tries to spin the evidence to look as if the “evolution community” just will not face the possibility that one explanation could be that the bones aren’t “millions of years” old but are only 5,000 years old.  So the “evolution community” just has to come up with some ad hoc explanation to preserve their “millions of years” bias.  As Scott Buchanan (the author of the long version of the explanation) notes:

Now, consider this individual:  When he was discovered in a Danish peat bog, looking so dapper, the police were summoned on the assumption that he was a recent murder victim. This “Tollund Man” was in fact a murder victim, but the crime (likely a ritualistic human sacrifice) took place over 2200 years ago. It happens that the chemical conditions in the bog into which he was thrown facilitated preservation of skin and some other soft tissue. Notice that with this and other bog-persons, the wrong approach would be to insist that, because normally human skin does not endure for thousands of years, they must have died recently. Instead, researchers took into account other dating information to realize these bog people were over a thousand years old, even though the preservation mechanism was not initially known. Comparing 2200 years of preservation here, versus complete flesh decomposition within a month on the Tennessee body farm, we have a factor of more than 25,000 difference in rates of soft tissue degradation.

This again makes the point that rates and modes of protein and soft tissue decomposition can vary dramatically, depending on circumstances. Thus, it is absurd to say that because proteins disappear in a million years under one set of conditions, therefore protein remnants could not endure for more than 100 million years under some other conditions. The claim that “We know that substantial fragments of proteins, even in some cross-linked form, cannot survive for 80 million years” is simply not true. Since that claim (in one form or another) is at the heart of the young earth interpretation of these fossil tissues, the young earth case here collapses.

Yes, the young earth interpretation collapses, yet again.  And Mary Schweitzer’s bones of contention aren’t the boon to the young earth case they were hoping for.


  1. Ronald Avra says:

    Thanks for the research.

  2. Ok I understand the impulse to charity here but I think we are well past that point. YEC is simply borne out of ignorance or dishonesty and I’m not sure what purpose is served in pretending any longer that some kind of serious conversation is going on about it. These folks have rich friends and enormous political influence and are doing incalculable damage to our educational system. Secular scientists have long since begun to push back. Scientists who retain some faith need to realize that when they waffle they are functioning as enablers. Would anyone say “God is the only one who knows for sure” whether or not the earth is flat? Are we going to “agree to disagree” whether or not Queen Elizabeth is a reptilian space alien?

    Thanks for the post, Mike, but it is sad and exasperating that it remains necessary in October of 2017.

    • Stephen: I share your exasperation. However, bear in mind that Mary’s quotes in the post were from 2005. Although she is a very private person, note the following from this September 2017 article:
      From: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/09/i-don-t-care-what-they-say-about-me-paleontologist-stares-down-critics-her-hunt

      “She rejected many fundamentalist views, a painful conversion. “It cost me a lot: my friends, my church, my husband.” But it didn’t destroy her faith. She felt that she saw God’s handiwork in setting evolution in motion. “It made God bigger,” she says.”

      From another interview: “When I was first beginning grad school in paleo, someone said to me, “I think what you do is completely irrelevant. I was really hurt…” (http://thewell.intervarsity.org/voices/unlikely-paleontologist-interview-mary-schweitzer-part-2). That someone was her first husband.

      It seems to me she may have been overly irenic in an attempt to preserve her first marriage, which unfortunately, she couldn’t. Apparently, her first husband divorced her because she no longer believed in YEC and held to “evolution”. I don’t think she so even-handed towards YECs anymore, as they have seriously misrepresented her and her work.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Her first husband actually divorced her because she went “evolutionist”?

        What does that tell you?

      • Thanks for the info. My respect for Dr. Schweitzer increases but my sadness too. It IS different when it costs you something. I’m not in her situation but I do wonder if I would still be on speaking terms with my family back in Georgia if I was around them more than twice a year at holidays (and in the last couple years, alas, for funerals)?

      • Am I reading about Islam or Christianity here?

        I guess she’s not being stoned. Just excommunicated.

        Honestly the line between the two is very, very thin to me now. Or really Christianity and any other religion.

  3. Christiane says:

    I am concerned for the ‘colleges’ and ‘universities’ that ‘teach’ YRR ‘science’. I have no idea how they handle factual information that exists regarding geology, or do they even try to present it? What kind of education ignores natural sciences in what they reveal about the age of the Earth?

    Do educational institutions that teach YRR ‘science’ also claim to prepare people for the medical fields? And for teaching in the public schools where a teacher MUST use the mandated curriculum? Or, my goodness, for the military which is very much relying on good science with all of the modern technical warfare equipment?

    I have ‘sympathy’ for the YRR in this respect: I feel sorry for the young people. I think they get ‘caught in the middle’ and for some, this must be extremely difficult to handle at such a young age . . . . it’s not fair that they are collateral in ‘the culture wars’ and yes, YRR is just another front for those wars . . . . .

    YRR children . . . . what are the stats on them ‘leaving the faith’ as they grow older?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I remember a passing aside from Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, that YEC and Pre-Trib Rapture eschatology are almost always found together. Like they’re part of one and the same package.

      • Christiane says:

        oh dear, I wrote YRR instead of YEC . . . . my bad . . . . need coffee break, like now 🙂

        HEADLESS, any ideas of why the YEC and the Pre-Trib stuff are found together? It’s an interesting observation, and there must be some reason behind it that might provide some insight into the ‘true believer’ craziness.

        • Christiane: The Father of YEC is George McCready Price who was a follower of Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventists. You could consider her the Mother of YEC. From 1844 to 1863 White experienced between 100 and 200 visions, including “seeing” the events of Genesis 1-2, and Noah’s flood in a very literalistic manner. Price took her visions and “scientized” those into what he called his “Flood Geology”. At the time Price made little headway with geologists, and for that matter, with most pastors/theologians who accepted the old age of the earth. In 1961, John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, using Price’s “Flood Geology” as the basis, published “The Genesis Flood.” This was really the beginning of “creation science”. The tie in with Rapture Theology is that Ellen G. White was an early disciple of William Miller. Miller prophesied that Jesus would return October 22, 1844. That strain of Christianity has always had a strong “Jesus is coming back at any moment” flavor to it.

          • Christiane says:

            Thanks, Mike-the-Geologist

            this is fascinating information . . . . I expect that the willingness to ‘give up’ reason may have been a symptom of some deeper needs or some great anxiety, which I think IS seen among those who insist that they will see Our Lord come back before they die . . . . . strangely, we had a Presbyterian gentleman in the family who went bonkers over ‘reincarnation’ and joined up with some cult out in Va. Beach VA that had a founder who believed in reincarnation. I never saw him as having ‘anxiety’, but maybe he did, and was trying to deal with the idea of facing his own mortality in a way that helped him reduce that angst. (?)

            Thanks again. I’ll be doing some follow-up reading, yes.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            The real kicker is the SDAs have a VERY unique interpretation of Revelation (dating back to the original Millerites), Completely Different from the Hal Lindsay version but PROVEN by the same Verses.

            And the BABBECs (Born Again Bible Believing Evangelical Christians) denounce the SDAs as a CULT! CULT! CULT! CULT! CULT! (Remember Kingdom of the Cults? Devoted an entire chapter to the SDAs.) Yet these same BABBECs swallow and digest Ellen White when it comes to YEC choreography. What Gives?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            P.S. In many ways, Ellen G White was to William Miller what Brigham Young was to Joseph Smith. Both took a religious splinter movement reeling from/declining after a Great Disappointment regarding its founder (Miller’s failed End-of-the-World schedule/Smith’s death) and stabilized/reorganized it into a self-sustaining religious system. Two survivors of the 19th Century’s Burned-Over District.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Note sure. The author just mentioned it in passing.

    • While I’m pretty sure you meant YEC and not the Young Restless and Reformed I am very curious about those same stats for the children of YRR…

      • Christiane says:

        Hi, srs
        you are right, I posted the wrong acronym, having just written elsewhere concerning the YRR and was on automatic pilot

        maybe I need to proof-read . . . . . and drink more coffee . . . . yes 🙂

        And I also wonder about the children of the YRR who have dug deeply into the patriarchal movement and whose mothers undergo ‘special treatment’ in their marriages which cannot be much fun to witness if one loves one’s mother and sees the implied or real humiliation that is meant to ‘keep her in her place’ . . . . I keep thinking why people have no conscience about their children watching all that abuse, and it IS abuse of a human person’s dignity . . . . there are always consequences for modeling unhealthy disrespectful treatment of others in front of children

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Re Acronyms, these days between Microsoft Documentation and the Federal Government, most all possible three-letter combinations are already taken. Some multiple times.

  4. Based on the church my kids grew up in, YEC pushes out a lot. But YRR maybe makes a more complete answer. YEC seems be a tenet of YRR. And based on the now adults that were around the age of my kids, they are leaving in droves. “Leaders” of the church apparently raised atheists and humanists in many cases. Not that that was their plan.

    • Christiane says:

      The mind of the ‘true believer’ needs to be closed to reason, and may even see science and reason as enemies which threaten the belief which is clung to and pushed on dependents as a form of control. In his famous book ‘The True Believer’, Eric Hoffer quoted Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:
      “a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be really effective.” The urge to proselytize comes not from a deeply held belief in the truth of doctrine but from an urge of the fanatic to “strengthen his own faith by converting others.”

      In short, there is no way these ‘true believers’ are going to willingly enter into dialogue reasonably and respectfully with other of different viewpoints, as it would threaten their own intense need to cling to their ‘belief’, even if that belief is irrational.

      Taking a look into the psyche of extremism is a terrifying journey, but it does help explain some of what is being seen today when so many easily-led people are accepting what can only be called ‘an alternate reality’ politically.

    • From my observations, the YRR/YEC link mostly is a Baptist thing. Presby YRRs tend to be old esrthers.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And based on the now adults that were around the age of my kids, they are leaving in droves. “Leaders” of the church apparently raised atheists and humanists in many cases. Not that that was their plan.

      Same pattern as the Massachusetts Puritans.

  5. Interesting reads. After a YEC sex abuse, and a few other issues blew up my (and others) relationship with my church about 12 or so years ago, Mary’s church was one I checked out. I didn’t know about her at the time and this was/is a big church so it was easy to not meet anywhere near all the regulars. Each time I went (at the urging of friends) there was something that happened that drove me away.

    Interestingly the final straw was the lead pastor giving a sermon which was basically science and old earth is just stupid for those of faith.

    I don’t know how Mary deals with this but for me I just couldn’t stay. Plus there were other issues.

    As far as I know I’ve never met Mary and so I don’t know about her relationship with the church except for what I’ve read here.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I don’t know how Mary deals with this but for me I just couldn’t stay. Plus there were other issues.

      Miriam of Nazareth is not the only Mary of Sorrows.

  6. Thanks again, CM, for articles like this. I’m especially heartened by Ms. Schweitzer, whose faith doesn’t waver and continues exploring God’s creation.

    I don’t believe I have thanked Mike the Geologist. My apologies. Your articles are excellent! And your faith shines through them.

  7. mobileknight says:

    This article is like a time warp.

    My first thought was what a Russian friend says ‘Same sh*t, different pile!’

    In 1981 I was in 1st year geology and my paleontology prof had a bee in his bonnet about the creationists. Finally one day after class I approached him and was blunt:

    ‘Whats wrong with these guys, don’t you like religion or what?’

    His reply floored me

    I hate the ways these guys misquote people