The Book of Mormon warns against some of the many fallacies made by
the elite and educated ranks who find many reasons to mock religion and
deny Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Nephi 9:28-29).
One of the great ironies in science is the ease with which scientists
and educated thinkers stop thinking once they think they have something
figured out. Don’t be shocked: they are human too. In spite of all that education, they can readily fall into the trap of clinging to old paradigms, proudly thinking they now know something for themselves, when real science
should take the humble attitude of recognizing that it is tentative and
that numerous untested assumptions sometimes go into the mental models
we create when we interpret data. This vulnerability is especially great
when we make judgments about things that are not simply straightforward matters
like how much something weighs. When science is applied to resolve moral
issues or matters of faith, for example, look out. It is an inadequate tool for some purposes.
interesting illustration of the problems in blindly relying on “established” scientific knowledge involves the recent discovery that
soft matter–cartilage, skin, muscle tissue, etc.–may have been
preserved in some actual dinosaur finds. Sounds crazy, right? Dinosaurs
are millions of years old, and obviously soft tissue could not possibly
last that long so it’s just not possible. Dinosaurs are fossils. Rocks.
After millions of years, nothing else but fossilized rock can remain.
Science has spoken, and as we all should know, when science has spoken,
the debate and the thinking are done. At least that’s how some
scientists apparently responded when Mary Higby Schweitzer, a woman and a
known evangelical Christian, of all things, dared to claim that she had
solid evidence for soft tissue from ancient dinosaurs. The woman is
Mary Higby Schweitzer and her story is ably told by Barry Yeoman in “Schweitzer’s Dangerous Discovery,” Discover Magazine, April 2006.
Schweitzer gazed through a microscope in her
laboratory at North Carolina State University and saw lifelike tissue
that had no business inhabiting a fossilized dinosaur skeleton: fibrous
matrix, stretchy like a wet scab on human skin; what appeared to be
supple bone cells, their three-dimensional shapes intact; and
translucent blood vessels that looked as if they could have come
straight from an ostrich at the zoo.
By all the rules of paleontology, such traces of life
should have long since drained from the bones. It’s a matter of faith
among scientists that soft tissue can survive at most for a few tens of
thousands of years, not the 65 million since T. rex walked what’s now
the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. But Schweitzer tends to ignore such
dogma. She just looks and wonders, pokes and prods, following her
scientific curiosity. That has allowed her to see things other
paleontologists have missed—and potentially to shatter fundamental
assumptions about how much we can learn from the past. If biological
tissue can last through the fossilization process, it could open a
window through time, showing not just how extinct animals evolved but
how they lived each day.
This is a huge advance. What breathtaking finds are
waiting to be revealed in the soft tissue and perhaps even the DNA of
these ancient kings and queens of the planet? Hurray for Mary Higby
Schweitzer and for her unusual background and her faith that helped her
see things other scientists have probably been missing (and accidentally
destroying) for decades.
Mary is an evangelical
Christian, but also accepts that the earth may be billions of years old
(that fits my understanding of the evidence as well). There are other
things about her I really like:
In 1989, while dividing her time between substitute teaching and her three
children, Schweitzer steered back toward her childhood fascination with
dinosaurs. She approached Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur scientist,
and asked if she could audit his vertebrate paleontology course at
Montana State University. He appreciated her refreshingly nontraditional
mind. “She really wasn’t much of a scientist—which is good,” says
Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies.
“Scientists all get to thinking alike, and it’s good to bring people in
from different disciplines. They ask questions very differently.”
Schweitzer’s first forays into paleontology were “a total hook,” she says. Not only
was she fascinated by the science, but to her, digging into ancient
strata seemed like reading the history of God’s handiwork. Schweitzer
worships at two churches—an evangelical church in Montana and a
nondenominational one when she is back home in North Carolina—and when
she talks about her faith, her bristly demeanor falls away. “God is so
multidimensional,” she says. “I see a sense of humor. I see His
compassion in the world around me. It makes me curious, because the
creator is revealed in the creation.” Unlike many creationists, she
finds the notion of a world evolving over billions of years
theologically exhilarating: “That makes God a lot bigger than thinking
of Him as a magician that pulled everything out in one fell swoop.”
Schweitzer’s career began just as paleontologists started framing their own
questions in more multidimensional ways. Until the 1980s, researchers
were more likely to be trained in earth science than in biology. They
often treated fossils as geologic specimens—mineral structures whose
main value lay in showing the skeletal shapes of prehistoric animals. A
younger generation of paleontologists, in contrast, has focused on
reconstructing intimate details like growth rates and behaviors using
modern techniques normally associated with the study of living
This shifting perspective clicked with Schweitzer’s intuitions that dinosaur
remains were more than chunks of stone. Once, when she was working with
a T. rex skeleton harvested from Hell Creek, she noticed that the
fossil exuded a distinctly organic odor. “It smelled just like one of
the cadavers we had in the lab who had been treated with chemotherapy
before he died,” she says. Given the conventional wisdom that such
fossils were made up entirely of minerals, Schweitzer was anxious when
mentioning this to Horner. “But he said, ‘Oh, yeah, all Hell Creek bones
smell,'” she says. To most old-line paleontologists, the smell of death
didn’t even register. To Schweitzer, it meant that traces of life might
still cling to those bones.
Wow, right under their noses! Dinosaur finds at that site were well known to
smell like cadavers. Dozens of soft tissue treasures had probably been
destroyed over the years, with a treasure of information right under the
offended noses of scientists. It took someone with a different
perspective to dig into what was really there and reveal something
tantalizing. Thank you, Mary Higby Schweitzer!
I also love her approach to science as something that teaches us more about the
handiwork and, yes, humor of God. It is exhilarating.
Mary was lucky to have a supportive and open-minded mentor. Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian was allegedly fired from California State University, Northridge (CSUN)
for publishing a peer-reviewed article in Acta Histochemia about his discovery of soft
tissue on another dinosaur find, also at Hell Creek. Here is part of the story, as told by CBS Los Angeles:
While at the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, researcher Mark Armitage discovered what he believed to be the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site, according to attorney Brad Dacus of Pacific Justice Institute.
Upon examination of the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Dacus says Armitage was “fascinated” to find soft tissue on the sample – a discovery Bacus said stunned members of the school’s biology department and even some students “because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago.”
“Since some creationists, like [Armitage], believe that the triceratops bones are only 4,000 years old at most, [Armitage’s] work vindicated his view that these dinosaurs roamed the planet relatively recently,”according to the complaint (PDF) filed July 22 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The lawsuit against the CSUN board of trustees cites discrimination for perceived religious views.
Armitage’s findings were eventually published in July 2013 in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a CSUN official told Armitage, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!”
Armitage, a published scientist of over 30 years, was subsequently let go after CSUN abruptly claimed his appointment at the university of 38 months had been temporary, and claimed a lack of funding for his position, according to attorneys.
Perhaps the problem may have been that he
wasn’t quiet about how this discovery supposedly supported his personal
young-earth views. If his claims are correct, it was unfortunate and not
a very scientific thing for the university to do. Not surprisingly, scientists and university leaders are humans like everyone else and bring plenty of biases with them in their quest for truth and funding. Sadly, some university systems have become remarkably intolerant of diverging views and enforce uniformity of thought much more than they let on in their P.R. Some pretty extreme abuses happen from time to time. I’m glad Mary Schweitzer’s work was able to move forward and shake things up for the good of all of us.
By the way, other scientists think they have an answer for how soft tissue could be preserved so long. Turns out iron nanoparticles might be doing the trick. They seem to have done well in preserving soft tissue during a two-year period already. Just another 50 million years or so before we’ll be sure.
Related stories: GodfatherPolitics.com discusses some of the initially negative reactions Mary received for her work.