Blog Archives

What is the “Soft Tissue” Found in Dinosaur Bones?

An analysis (with link to full scholarly critique) of this deceptive and slippery claim, which creationists continue to promote despite rebuttals from the very scientist whose work they are misdescribing. The red “blood” colour is merely iron oxide; the preserved structures are encased in bone mineral; the only preserved organics are fragments of notoriously tough connective proteins, stabilised by cross-linking over time (I would add from my own scientific experience that the microcomposite bone-collagen structure will add further stabilisation); and the scientist responsible (Mary Schweitzer, who happens to be a devout Christian) has herself protested against the use of her data to promote an indefensible Young Earth agenda.

Letters to Creationists

For fossils as old as dinosaurs (over 65 million years), the conventional wisdom has been that no original organic material could remain. If the delicate structure of soft body parts is discernable, that is only because these parts were converted to some type of inorganic mineral in the fossilization process.

However, over the past two decades, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer has rocked our world by presenting visual evidence of soft tissues recovered from the interior of dinosaur bones, and biochemical evidence indicating that these are in fact the remnants of the original cells and structures from within the dinosaur bone pores. For instance, here is a network of blood vessels, containing little round red things that look like red blood cells:

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 [6]. 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…

View original post 1,013 more words

Dino poop and the age of the Earth

The Holyrood Dinosaur, John Mason MSP, has pooped again. Last month he told us that science can’t disprove the theory that the Earth was created in six days. He’s quite right, of course; according to his chosen standards, no one can ever disprove anything. This month, however, he is busy telling us what is or is not important for schools to teach. His exact words, according to the Sunday Herald, were

… you can argue science is all about theories, but there is enough to teach in science without having to go into how old the earth might or might not be.

Good idea. Let’s just take out of the science syllabus everything that requires having to go into how old the Earth might or might not be. Goodbye to:

Everything to do with the Big Bang, the initial formation of hydrogen and helium, the formation of gas clouds, gravitational collapse, and the conversion of hydrogen to helium within stars

Red giants, supernovas, and the formation of the heavy elements (“heavy” in this context means anything heavier than helium)

The formation of the Sun, then the Earth, then the Moon, in that order (sorry, Genesis 1:1 – 18), from the collapsing and sorting of the material in the planetary nebula

Radioactive dating, and how we know the radiometric clock runs true

The whole of geology, including plate tectonics, mountain forming, the time needed to form and erode sediments. And while we’re at it, the whole of geography, geochemistry, mineralogy, and the science of looking for fossil fuel deposits and other useful materials, like building stones and metal ore

The entire fossil record. After all, it is full of missing links, and the more fossils you find, the more missing links there must be in between them

Human palaeontology and archaeology. These tell us that our ancestors split off from the ancestors of other kinds of ape some 5 million years ago, and that the Egyptians were in the middle of building the Great Pyramid when Noah’s Flood is supposed to have happened (funny that the work doesn’t seem to have been interrupted)

Anything whatsoever to do with ev*l*t**n. After all, ev*l*t**n takes a very long time, and we can’t prove that there was so much time available because we can’t prove that the Earth was not made in six days.

Dino poop. Together with the formation of petrified wood, coal, oil, and natural gas (did I mention them already?), the much-misdescribed mineralised blood vessels of dinosaurs, all other minerals formed by displacement or metamorphosis, and anything else that takes a really long time

So what should we teach instead? Luckily, John Mason has already given us the answer:

… some people believe that God created the world in six days, some people believe that God created the world over a longer period of time and some people believe that the world came about without anyone creating it; considers that none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold, and further considers that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of all of these different belief systems.

So this is what we should make children in Scotland’s schools aware of, in the time freed up by the above deletions.

Analysing a dinosaur’s poop gives valuable information about its diet. And in the case of the Holyrood Dinosaur, confirmation that the diet is dangerously lacking in science, logic, common-sense, or anything else even vaguely connected with reality.

Deselection, anyone?

Roll over Nessie – dinosaur alive and well in Scottish Parliament

DinoMule

From Truth Be Told, text handed out in school assembly at Kirktonholme non-denominational Primary

 Post featured in this Sunday’s Herald, here

If you thought (like the books handed out to the children in Kirktonholme Primary) that dinosaurs were almost wiped out in the Flood and then used as beasts of burden until finished off by Nimrod the Mighty Hunter, I have news for you. We have a real live dinosaur sitting in the Scottish Parliament.

John Mason, MSP for Shettleston and a member of the governing Scottish National Party, has just tabled Motion S4M-12149, asking the Scottish Parliament to resolve that

… some people believe that God created the world in six days, some people believe that God created the world over a longer period of time and some people believe that the world came about without anyone creating it; considers that none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold, and further considers that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of all of these different belief systems.

STV story here. Herald story here.

John Mason MSP

Source: Scottish Parliament website

John Mason’s challenge to me and pretty well every other scientist on the planet: prove the world was not created in six days. Now here’s my challenge to Mr Mason: prove you are not a dinosaur.

Via Amused Atheist

What is the evidence that you are not a dinosaur? Why is it not a valid belief for people to hold that you really are a dinosaur? How does the evidence compare with the evidence against a 6-day creation from geology, physics, astronomy and cosmology, geography, and I haven’t even started on the fossil record or molecular biology. I have decided that I believe, as a matter of faith, that you really are a dinosaur, and I maintain that this is a valid belief for people to hold, and further consider that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of this different belief system.

P1000073

Red soil layer produced by weathering between lava flows at the Giant’s Causeway. Click to enlarge. Photo by author

Off the top of my head, the evidence from geology presented by the geologist (later Bishop) Nicholas Steno in 1669, who established the science of stratigraphy. The evidence of Siccar Point, one of the most famous locations in Scotland, where rocks have been laid down, tilted, eroded, and covered by more rocks, as described over 200 years ago by the geologist (and theist) James Hutton. The evidence of the geological column, established during the 19th century by clergyman-geologists like William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick. Other evidence for lengthy processes between geological events, like the weathering at the Giants’ Causeway.

Physics: radiometric dating, first used by Rutherford and colleagues over 100 years ago, and checked and cross-checked many thousands of times since, using different isotope pairs. (And how do we know the clock runs true? Because, since the work of George Gamow in 1928, we have known that decay rates depend on fundamental physical constants, and if they had been different, so would the laws of physics and chemistry and we wouldn’t have the rocks anyway.)

Edinburgh to Siccar Point June-Jly 2012 051

Exposure immediately SE of Siccar Point, 80 minutes drive from Mr Mason’s constituency. Photo by author.

Astronomy and cosmology: around 1920, the Jesuit priest Georges Lemaitre had worked out (although Edwin Hubble gets most of the public credit) that the further away galaxies are from us, the faster they are receding. So running the film backwards, we infer an initial Big Bang (or, as Lemaitre called it, “Primal atom”) where all the matter in our Universe was aggregated at a single point. And according to the best curreent estimate, that took place 13.8 billion years ago, with a further 9 billion years needed to get from there to the processes forming our own Solar System. Making 6 days wrong by a factor of around half a trillion.

How the Sun vibrates. Observed power density plotted against frequency (milliHertz). This curve gives information about density and pressure within the Sun, and hence, when combined with long-established models of how stars work, its composition. Public domain via Wikipedia.

How about helioseismology? We can observe vibrations spreading throughout the Sun, use the data to infer how much of the Sun’s original hydrogen has been converted to helium, and calculate how long this would have taken. The answer comes out at 4.5 billion years, which is also the age of the Solar System as inferred from radiometric dating.

As to how far we know the galaxies to be, we can work that out by looking for supernova explosions. Simplifying slightly [I have to say that, because if they find any detail out of place the Creationist shout “Gotcha!”] all supernova explosions of a certain type release the same amount of energy. And apparent energy depends on distance. And we know that the speed of light hasn’t changed, because we can make sense of the patterns of light emitted by the most distant stars, so the laws of physics that dictate the speed of light haven’t changed since the light left these galaxies.

So we know that we have seen galaxies 12 billion light-years away. Which means that they’ve been receding from us for 12 billion years. Not 6 days.

Geography: we have the facts of plate tectonics, as shown by the movement of continents (which we can now follow directly by satellite), and confirmed by palaeomagnetism, showing how the earth’s plates have moved relative to its magnetic field. The reasoning is so simple that a child can follow it, and in fact I’ve reviewed a children’s book that explains it.

And remember, we haven’t even started on the fossil record, or the life sciences.

AliceRoberts

Prof Alice Roberts, palaeoanatomist, with skull of close relative of distant ancestor. From Prof Roberts website.

Now the evidence that John Mason is not a dinosaur. Pretty thin by comparison. Comparative anatomy? If you accept that, you will also have to accept that comparative anatomy shows we’re chimps, with some twenty or so known extinct species more or less intermediate between us and our last common ancestor with the other two surviving chimp species. Physiology and molecular biology? Tush! Go with that, the same kind of evidence as we use in our law courts to establish family relationships, and you end up second cousin to a monkey and fourth cousin to a mushroom. Not what you have in mind.

Intelligent behaviour? On present showing, pit you against a velociraptor and my money’s on the ‘raptor, every time.

And so I think all Scottish schoolchildren, or at a very minimum all schoolchildren in Mr Mason’s constituency, be made aware of the theory that Mr Mason is an Intelligently Designed dinosaur. Otherwise we risk bringing them up with closed minds; minds closed against what we know from overwhelming evidence to be utter absurdities. And that would never do.

Evolution, the Horrible Science – antidote to creationism

EvolveOrDie1For some time I have been looking for a good way to immunise children (and others) against the absurdities of creationism, as the virus spreads  across the Atlantic. I may have found what I’m looking for in the children’s section of my local public library.

Horrible Science – Evolve or Die. Horrible Science is a sister series to Horrible Histories, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the UK. This book promises, and delivers, “science with the squishy bits left in”. We learn, for example, what “coprophagous” means, and that rabbits are coprophagous, and why. And what coprolites are. And how this relates to the personal habits of leaf-eating dinosaurs and why we think they must have produced thunderous farts.

All part of a calculated strategy of demystification, which is one of the most delightful things about this book. Scientists are shown disagreeing, admitting ignorance, being proven wrong, being mean to each other, and you could be a scientist too. Children (and adults) who read this book will end up less frightened of science, more impatient with the pomposity, complexity, and jargon that goes with bad science teaching, sceptical about authority, and aware that any scientific claim must be based on evidence and could be overturned by further evidence.

EvolveOrDie2The book does this by example, rather than by exhortation. For example, we have Alfred Wegener being laughed at by his contemporaries, although we now know he was right about how continents drift and even about how molten rock beneath them makes this possible (I never knew he got that bit right too, although as I said in an earlier post it was Arthur Holmes who explained what drives the process). We are given four separate theories about what wiped out the dinosaurs, and when we are told which one is correct (or rather, as the book says, “the one most scientists favour”) we are given a quick rundown of the evidence; cratering on planets and asteroids, other collisions between Earth and smaller asteroids, the monster crater off the coast of Mexico, and the iridium-rich layer laid down some 65 million years ago all over the world. When we are told that the adder’s tongue fern has 630 pairs of chromosomes, we are also told that no one knows why.

We hear about mosquitos, malaria, and mutations, and the evolution of drug resistance by malaria parasites. We are given numerous other examples of evolution, with discussion of how complex organs originated. The wings of pterosaurs could have started out as temperature control membranes, and the lungs of land animals are directly related to those of lungfish. The eye, of course, elaborated in stages from a simple pinhole like the one still found in snails. I would have liked a page or two here on dinosaur feathers, still a rare novelty when the book was first published (1999), but well established by the time of the current (2008) edition.

We are also repeatedly reminded that science is a human activity, and that humans often make fools of themselves. So we have a Hall of Fame, with Lamarck, Darwin of course (not Wallace, though he does get a fair mention), Hippocrates who got inheritance wrong but at least had a go, Mendel, Wegener, Watson and Crick (I’d have liked to see Rosalind Franklin too, of course),[1] and Louis and Walter Alvarez, each of them fleshed out with details of their times, accomplishments (more varied than I’d realized), and at times shortcomings and absurdities.

You are invited to make your own observations; “Could you be a palaeontologist? You need a hammer, goggles, tons of patience!” There follows a very clear explanation of the difference between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks, and reasoned advice that sedimentary rocks are what you should be looking at when fossil hunting. The section on Mendel is followed by a suggested experiment on pollen transfer using nasturtiums and a paint brush, and there is a very squishy suggested experiment (see below) to illustrate the principle of continental drift.

EvolveOrDie3An amazing amount of information is clearly and accurately presented in the book’s 142 pages. This includes an excellent account of the species concept, and “the way that one species separates into two” (the book successfully avoids jargon terms such as “speciation”), illustrated by the way that English has diverged between the two sides of the Atlantic. This is used later in a very clear explanation of how hominids and chimps have both diverged over the same length of time from a common ancestor. Not a trivial point. One of the most common and most irritating questions that creationists coach children to ask is “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” A child (or teacher) who has read this book will immediately realise that this makes as much sense as asking “If I descended from my grandparents, why do I still have cousins?”

I particularly liked the way the book treats continental drift. You’re invited to test your teacher by asking for an explanation of the fact that identical mosasaur fossils are found in both South America and Africa (long distance swimming, or riding logs, or vanished land bridges – an explanation that was actually taken seriously for many decades – or identical evolution in both continents, or the two continents having once been joined together). This leads on to the idea of continental drift, and hence to what we grown-ups call biogeography; you find mosasaurs on both sides of the Atlantic, because they evolved before it opened, but the difference between Old World and New World monkeys is the result of evolution since that time.

I do have some criticisms. Much too much is made of “living fossils”, ignoring how far they actually differ from their ancestors. For example, it was already known when the current version of this book appeared that coelacanths are a diverse clade. Of the dozen pages in the section on hominid evolution, one is wasted on Piltdown Man, a forgery exposed 60 years ago. And while it is inevitable that the human evolution section has a rather old-fashioned appearance about it (in 2008, Ardipithecus was only represented by fragments, it was not yet known that humans and neanderthals had interbred, and Australopithecus sediba was still undiscovered), it is nonetheless too apologetic about the deficiencies of the (then) fossil record. After all, The Last Human, which lists 22 separate species, had appeared in 2007. I have already mentioned dino feathers as another development that should have been included in the 2008 update. However, all of these criticisms are at a high level, and reflect my sensitivity towards what the creationists call “weaknesses” in the science of evolution.

I particularly value this book because it builds on what every child knows; the poo-laden squishiness of reality, fascinating, beautiful, and cruel. Children who have read this book will have no difficulty in recognising the creationists’ prelapsarian perfection, with its vegetarian velociraptors and lamb-cuddling lions,  for what it is – so much dino dung. And they will know how best to respond – with a dino-size fart or if, like me, they are pretending to be grown-ups, with a philosophical and factual analysis, which will come to much the same thing.


[1] The central role of experimental crystallography in unravelling the structure of DNA was acknowledged by giving a share of the resulting Nobel Prize to Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s nominal boss. Franklin herself was by then ineligible because she was dead. She is remarkable for having been involved with two separate Nobel prize winning enterprises, the other one being the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus.

Answers in Genesis supporter providing Religious Observance at Scottish “Non-Denominational” School

Creation_Museum_10Calderglen High School, a publicly funded school in East Kilbride near Glasgow, has a seven-member chaplaincy team,   which, according to the School’s website, “provides for the school a rich and key resource for the curriculum”. The team includes three representatives of Baptist churches, three from the Church of Scotland, and one, Dr. Nagy Iskander, from Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. Generally speaking, the Church of Scotland accepts scientific reality, while views within the Baptist churches vary. So what of Dr. Iskander, who holds the balance?

On the school website, he says

I am interested in Science and the Bible and always happy to tackle questions in this area, so please feel free to contact me about any questions regarding Science and the Christian faith.

What he does not say is that he is an out and out supporter of biblical literalism, singled out for praise by Answers in Genesis, and a welcome visitor and occasional speaker at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, where you will learn that the fossil record is a result of Noah’s Flood, and that “Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs.” You will also find on the AiG web site recorded lectures by Dr Iskander, in which he states that belief in the literal truth of Genesis is foundational to Christianity. As for the relationship between Science and the Bible, Dr. Iskander had this to say to his local newspaper, on the occasion of Answers in Genesis’ Scottish Conference this month:

Both the creationists and evolutionists have the same facts – we have the same earth, the same geological layers, the same fossils – but when we examine the facts we might come to different conclusions, depending on our starting point.

And in case you are charitable enough to see some wriggle room here (note that weasel word “might”) for reconciling science with Dr. Iskander’s view of religion, consider this, from his statement to a reporter from the [Glasgow] Sunday Herald:

Creation according to the Christian faith is a supernatural act of God, so it will not be repeated and we can’t test creation in the lab. Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that either. My view on this is we should mention everything – we should examine all the evidence and all the facts and have an open and civilised discussion about all of this without excluding one or the other.

In response, I cannot improve on the words of my friend Roger Downie, Professor of Zoological Education in a letter he sent to the Sunday Herald (published 16 June):

Your quotation from Dr Nagy Iskander illustrates why creationists should not be let near science classes. He said ‘Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that…’ On the contrary, evolution through Darwin and Wallace’s process of natural selection is happening all the time, sometimes quite quickly. Since Dr Iskander is said to be a surgeon, I would hope that he is fully aware of the evolution of the antibiotic resistance that has made hospital procedures so risky. Science advances through the testing of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Both medicine and biology have greatly benefited from this process. I presume Dr Iskander’s medical practice is based on such advances, rather than the superstitions of previous times.

It is perhaps unkind to describe pre-scientific views as “superstitions” when considered in the context of their time. But to put such views forward today in the name of religion, as serious alternatives to scientific knowledge, brings religion itself into disrepute.

Who appointed Dr. Iskander to his position with the school? Were they aware of his Young Earth creationist views? What do the school’s own teachers, including both the science teachers and those who teach about religion, think of his role, and does he have any influence over their teaching? How often does he address the school, and on what subjects? Are parents notified of his views and influence? Do he and his fellow members of the Chaplaincy Panel receive any payments or reimbursements from the school? And does the school obtain any materials from a company called Christian Schools Scotland, of which he is a director?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but intend to find out by addressing a Freedom of Information request of the school. I will let you know what they say.

PS: Today’s small country viewing here is the Cayman Islands, population 55,000.

Illustration: Humans living peacefully before the Fall with vegetarian tyrannosaurs. Public domain photo of actual exhibit, through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_Museum_10.png

%d bloggers like this: