Sunday, November 26, 2006


Breaking News

I was leafing through my October 2006 copy of Natural History and noticed a small piece, "Lucky Break," on the discovery of traces of bone marrow in 10-million-year-old fossils of frogs. This is actually fairly old news but I had missed it. The researchers speculated that the bacteria that consumed the skin and muscle couldn’t fit through the minute pores in their bone to attack the marrow.

Instead, even smaller sulfur molecules seeped in and chemically fixed the marrow in much the same way formaldehyde would.
They also surmise that, since sulfur-rich mud is not uncommon in the fossil record, there might be many more such finds possible, including among already collected specimens. Paleontologists are naturally reluctant to go breaking open the intact bones they find. The scientist in this instance, Maria E. McNamara, was studying frog fossils that had been accidently broken in collection.

Anyway, I got curious to see how the creationist community was reacting to this find and was somewhat surprised when I found a mention at William Dembski's Intelligent Design blog, Uncommon Descent. The frog marrow was brought up in connection with a number of similar finds, the most famous of which was the discovery of still pliable blood vessels inside a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex femur.
The occasion for one of Wild Bill's minions to post about this topic was the discovery of 400,000-year-old bear DNA. But there was little or no explanation of its relevance. that's where the comments section took over.

One poster, "bFast," starts out saying:

Though I am not a young earther, I find this evidence to be a compelling case for a young earth.
"BC" reasonably wonders:

I’m not entirely sure why the article is posted here unless ID is attempting to promote the young earth theory - in which case Intelligent Design simply collapses into young-earth creationism. 400,000 year old DNA should be no less surprising to old-earth IDists than to Evolutionists.
Having realized his mistake (it's really, really hard to pretend in court that a young-Earth position is scientific), bFast quickly retrenches:

The truth is that soft tissue usually doesn’t survive very long at all, a few years is most usually plenty enough to dispose of it. If we add a world-wide flood killing off the dinosaurs, as the YEC hypothesizes, how much soft tissue would survive? Very little soft tissue surviving is consistent with the YEC hypothesis.
Now, having neatly reversed directions, bFast goes back and answers BC's question:

I would suggest that ID, if agnostic on the question of a young earth, is solidly biased towards an old earth. With that in mind, this find is almost as surprising to the ID community as it is to the scientific community at large.

I believe that there are two primary reasons why this article is being discussed in this forum:

1 - IDers have a committment (sic) to let the evidence take them where it will.
[All right, class, if you don't settle down right away and stop giggling you're all going to get detention!]

This is evidence. It must find its way to fit into our understanding.

2 - This is an excellent example showing that the scientific community doesn’t "know" as much as it thinks it does. Further, it shows that our expectations inform our observations. IE, we didn’t find soft tissue earlier because we were not looking.
BC, after noting the claim about following the evidence, neatly skewers bFast:

Okay, but the IDists who continue to believe in an old-earth in light of this finding - aren’t they in pretty much the same position as evolutionists?

To put it another way, it seems like IDists could say that there is too much evidence for an old earth to let this evidence (and other preservation of soft tissue) change them to a young earth view. It might be rationalized that soft tissue survives much longer than previously imagined. But, that position is identical to the evolutionists position. Further, it raises questions about why IDists who use these rationalizations are "[letting] the evidence take them where it will" whereas evolutionists who take this view are not - since both use the same rationalization.
Not quite, BC! Since bFast seemed to have missed answering your query, let me. While scientists are certainly often surprised by their results (many cite that as one of the greatest pleasures of science) they realize that all the evidence about the world must be assumed to be consistent or else science is merely wheel-spinning. It's quite true then, as bFast says, that the evidence must fit into our understanding. If a piece of evidence can't presently be reconciled with our present understanding (our theories and hypotheses), then we have to go back and find more evidence and/or revise our understanding.

But, and this is important, science has all the time in the world. It is an open-ended process that needs only stop if our species goes extinct ... in which case, science will be the least of our cares. There is no need to rush to judgment and one or a few anomalous results shouldn't overturn a otherwise well-supported theory until we are really sure we understand what is going on.
Of course, the formation of fossils by geochemistry, a subject called "taphonomy," doesn't bear directly on the biology of evolution. And Ms. McNamara wasn't looking for what she found but found it nonetheless. On the other hand, people have been looking for convincing evidence of design starting long before Darwin published, without success.

In any case, scientists like unanswered questions. Contrary to the inference that bFast would like you to draw, scientists love to tell you about what they don't know ... they call it "my research project" or "this really exciting new area of research."

But the very last thing scientists as a group do is throw up their hands and say, "we can't find a reason for that, so God must have done it." They've been burned too often in the past when other people came along later and showed how things supposedly impossible except by divine action turned out to have natural explanations. Now, maybe there is or was something out there that God did that science will never be able to find an answer to. That's okay. Science isn't looking for the answer to "life, the universe and everything." It's got quite enough on its plate already just looking at the empiric evidence at hand.

About the rest of what bFast said, I'm afraid he told a little fib or two. As Paul Nelson, a leading light at the Discovery Institute, said just a few days ago:

The intelligent design debate has nothing to do with the evidence. It has everything to do with what we are going to let that evidence tell us.
You see, Nelson and the rest of the IDers have an answer that they very, very much want to be true. And they aren't going to let the evidence tell them otherwise.

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