Friday, April 18, 2014

CMI's 6 cutting-edge facts that support creation

Creation Ministries International (CMI) is an organization that promotes the young-earth view of origins through numerous books, multimedia presentations, and scholarly articles.  Historically speaking, it is an international expansion of Answers in Genesis that split from its parent organization due to philosophical differences.  Though some legal issues have come up between the two organizations in the last decade, they no longer seem to be at odds.

CMI publishes two quarterly magazines: a peer-reviewed scholarly journal called Journal of Creation, and a more layman-focused and evangelistic magazine called Creation Magazine.   In addition to the print materials, CMI also produces a television program called Creation Magazine LIVE!, hosted by Richard Fangrad and Calvin Smith of the CMI-Canada office.  On Wednesday, a new episode of this program was posted online that discussed the most "cutting-edge" facts for creation.  The episode can be viewed here, and I will place my response below.

The hosts open with a statement that I try to make clear anytime I discuss evidence for or against creation.  That is, that all facts are interpretive.  Any observations are only "facts" as far as the parties involved can agree on them.  That is simply a side-effect of being limited and finite human beings (note: I am not saying that there is no absolute truth, but rather that we are prone to being wrong about it).  Because of this, any "evidence" presented in the origins debate can generally be reinterpreted by either side to fit their respective models.  Therefore, there is no, and likely cannot be any, "silver bullet" that definitively proves a recent creation to those who do not believe it.  The program hosts give an example of finding human bones mingled with dinosaur fossils.  Even though evolutionists frequently claim that such a find would be devastating to the old earth timeline, Fangrad and Smith suggest that, if such a find could be unequivocally confirmed, evolutionists would sooner see it as evidence of time travel than of a recent creation.  Nevertheless, planting seeds of doubt can certainly be the first step toward a full conversion of worldview.  Therefore, they proceeded with their list of facts.

Fact #1: Unfossilized dinosaur bones

The show mentions several examples of unfossilized dinosaur bones and materials, including:
  • Red blood cells in Tyrannosaurus rex bones
  • Soft tissue in T. rex bones
  • Soft tissue in hadrosaur bones
  • Dinosaur DNA
  • Soft tissue in a Triceratops horn
  • Various proteins (hemoglobin, actin, tubulin, collagen, histones)
The argument from a creationist standpoint is that these materials should not last 65 million years even under ideal conditions.  Most of the scientific community actually agreed with this statement until it came into direct conflict with their old-earth timeline.

Microscopic structures that resemble blood vessels (left)
and blood cells (right) were found in the bones of a T. rex as
reported in 2005.  Credit: Mary Schweitzer.  Image source.
Many of the claims of soft tissue in dinosaur bones come from the work of Dr. Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist and professor at North Carolina State University.  Her first discovery was made in 1992, when she was a new graduate student at Montana State University.  Looking at the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex under a microscope, she found small structures that resembled blood vessels and blood cells.  The scientific community was extremely skeptical of her findings.  In the following years, she performed various tests to rule out alternative explanations, following the dictations of science.  She found that the "little red round things," as she called them, only appeared inside of the blood vessel channels, never in the surrounding bone or rock.  Further studies with antibodies and spectroscopy confirmed the presence of heme and hemoglobin, which are important components of red blood cells.  Unfortunately, she could not legitimately claim that the structures definitely were red blood cells, as she could only rule out alternative explanations.  However, she appears to be personally convinced that they are, though I don't want to put my words in her mouth.

Even in the face of this evidence, many scientists still rejected the idea that such structures could be preserved.  Tellingly, Schweitzer recalls, "One anonymous reviewer of a paper I had submitted for publication in a scientific journal told me that this type of preservation was not possible and that I could not convince him or her otherwise, regardless of our data."  Despite widespread resistance and skepticism, Schweitzer pressed on with her studies, finding numerous examples of preserved proteins and tissues in other dinosaur remains.  After removing minerals from sample bone from another T. rex specimen, Schweitzer found "hollow, transparent, flexible, branching tubes emerg[ing] from the dissolving matrix—and they looked exactly like blood vessels.  Suspended inside the vessels were either small, round red structures or amorphous accumulations of red material."  She also managed to sequence some of the collagen proteins, finding them to be somewhere between that of birds and crocodiles, ruling out some accusations of contamination from other sources.

As mentioned on Creation Magazine LIVE!, Schweitzer made similar finds in 2009 in the remains of a hadrosaur, Brachylophosaurus canadensis.  With extreme care and rigorous analysis, she quickly demonstrated that the proteins and osteocytes (bone-forming cells) found within the bones were not due to contamination or bacterial activity.  After these latest studies, the scientific community appears to be accepting her conclusions.

Not surprisingly, creationists and evolutionists differ on what the "simplest" explanation of these finds should be.  Creationists say that the bones must not be millions of years old.  Evolutionists say that proteins must be able to last millions of years under certain conditions, though they have not yet demonstrated how this could be done.  A recent paper by Schweitzer attempted to implicate iron as a preservative, but as a review by Calvin Smith of CMI noted, the study does not reflect real-world conditions and only shows that the proteins could be preserved by iron for a few years, not millions.  Nevertheless, evolutionists are convinced that there must be some explanation without resorting to a recent date for the bones.

Finding dinosaur DNA, on the other hand, has been on the forefront of the public mind since Jurassic Park came out in 1993.  Two claims of dinosaur DNA came out soon after the movie, but those were shown to be instances of contamination from other sources.  I have found vague references to Triceratops DNA found around 2000, but I cannot find any papers substantiating the find.  In 2012, Dr. Mary Schweitzer published a paper claiming to have found evidence of the possible presence of DNA in a dinosaur bone, but she stops short of claiming to have actually found it, let alone verifying that it is actually from the original animal.  I will therefore remain somewhat skeptical of Fangrad's and Smith's claim that dinosaur DNA has been found intact.

Fact #2: Carbon-dated dinosaur bones

(See my series on radiometric dating for an explanation and critique of carbon dating and other methods.)
In theory, carbon dating is only effective with specimens less than 50,000-90,000 years old, depending on the sensitivity of the equipment used.  After about one million years, there should not be any radioactive carbon left in a sample closed off to its surroundings.  Because dinosaur bones are thought to be more than 65 million years old, most paleontologists consider the idea of carbon dating them to be a waste of resources, so it is rarely, if ever, done.

This grainy still from the presentation shows the
distribution of radiocarbon dates derived from dinosaurs,
mammals, and plants.
In the interest of knowing all the facts, a team of researchers collected numerous specimens of dinosaurs and other organisms from North America and measured the carbon content of recovered collagen.  They found that all of the bones contained measurable amounts of carbon-14, giving "ages" ranging from 22,000 to 39,000 years.  Furthermore, they found that the the carbon content matched that of fossil mammals such as mammoths and rhinoceroses, which should have been significantly younger, but not of petrified plants that should have yielded a closer age.  The team presented their findings at a conference in Singapore hosted by the American Geophysical Union and the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society.  A (low-quality) video of the presentation is available online.  However, the abstract for the presentation was apparently removed from the conference program pending an investigation.  As a result, there seems to be no official record of the study at all.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the study was never published in a peer-review journal, so it is difficult to investigate the validity of the finds.  Some critics have noted that carbon-14 can be produced in the ground by the decay of uranium, potentially providing a source to contaminate the bones.  However, giving the great disparity between the decay rates of uranium and carbon, I find it unlikely that such a process could ever build up carbon-14 to detectable levels if decay rates have remained constant.  Additionally, the presenter noted several lines of evidence that contamination is unlikely, including the concordance of the dates despite their wide geographic and stratigraphic range, as well as much lower amounts of carbon-14 in surrounding rock.  Until another study is performed to corroborate this one, however, I doubt these claims will convince anyone.

Many people will point out that 22,000 years is still significantly longer than the 6000-year age given to the earth by creationists.  However, creationists don't recognize the accuracy of radiocarbon dating anyway.  The point of this study is not the specific age given to the bones, but that there were still significant amounts of carbon-14 left in the dinosaur bones, and that the amount corresponded to the amount found in more "recent" mammals.  The results are not at all consistent with the old-earth view, which strongly relies on consistent radiometric dating, but they fit nicely within the creationist model, which expects Flood-related specimens to yield carbon "ages" in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 50,000 years.

Fact #3: Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon.  Image source.
Traditionally, the Grand Canyon has been explained as the impact of a small amount of water cutting through the same path over great lengths of time.  Creationists have taken the opposite view, that it was formed by huge amounts of water over a very short period of time.  They frequently point to Burlingame Canyon near Walla Walla, Washington, which was observed to have formed from flooding in six days.  Admittedly, Burlingame Canyon is much smaller than Grand Canyon, but its overall structure is very similar.  Old-earth geologists have gradually come to recognize that the Grand Canyon was more likely formed by catastrophic processes, as continuously-flowing rivers tend to produce floodplains rather than canyons.  However, the date if its formation is still in contention, so calling it evidence for creation might be a bit of an exaggeration.  Nevertheless, the shift in philosophy does demonstrate a triumph of catastrophic thinking over uniformitarianism.

Fact #4: Global fossils

Excavation of mosasaur bones in South Dakota.
Like the last fact, this one might be somewhat surprising.  Also like the last fact, this is more evidence for a huge flood than for a recent creation.  The argument made here is that the worldwide prevalence of fossils would be expected from a worldwide flood as depicted in Genesis.  Long stretches of time with noncatastrophic processes would see many creatures die, but very very few, if any, would be preserved as fossils.  Fossilization requires exceptional conditions, particularly rapid burial, which would have been provided in abundance by the Flood.  Paleontologists have come to recognize this, switching from traditional strict uniformitarianism to "neocatastrophism."  Neocatastrophism allows for periodic episodes of rapid deposition and burial separated by long spans of time.  Therefore, rock layers are no longer seen as representing the ages, but as markers of significant events between which the long ages passed.

Fact #5: Order of fossils

Artist's depiction of the hypothetical geologic column,
with associated 
ages and fossils.
Credit: Ray Troll.  
Image source.
Many anticreationists claim that a global flood would have deposited fossils completely randomly, such that no order would be evident in the fossil record.  However, this claim has not been substantiated and is likely false.  It would be expected that organisms in the deepest basins, such as on the deep ocean floor, would be caught up in the sediments and buried first, followed by those in shallower waters, followed by those on the shoreline, and so on.  Organisms would generally be buried according to their immediate environment, and this is indeed how creationists view the fossil record.  I discussed this idea further in my first "Question from a reader" post.

Fangrad and Smith also suggested that while the Flood model can explain ordered fossils, it can also easily account for anomalous fossils, because organisms weren't necessarily strictly limited to their typical environment.  The evolutionary view, however, has a more difficult time accounting for any out-of-place fossil and must either expand the known range (if it is not too out-of-place), reidentify it, or claim that it has been "reworked" by later processes, continuing the cycle of the reinforcement syndrome.

Fact #6: Mutations in humans

Artist's depiction of a DNA mutation.  Image source.
As hosts Fangrad and Smith note, the human mutation rate is the closest thing creationists have to a "silver bullet" because there is yet no response from the evolution side.  The gist of the argument is as follows: given the rate of mutation of human DNA as measured in several studies, and given the measured preponderance of deleterious (bad) mutations over beneficial (good) mutations, the human race (or, arguably, life itself) should not be able to last as long as it is claimed to have existed, even providing for the influence of natural selection.  Alex Williams published a paper in the most recent Journal of Creation issue claiming that given initial perfection and optimal conditions, humans could last 1,500,000 years before our genomes develop so many mutations that it becomes useless and we go extinct.  In a worst-case scenario, we would last 1000 years, and an "average" scenario would allow us 30,000 years.  Others, such as Dr. John Sanford, have estimated our "genetic lifetime" at about 6000 years.

From the evolutionary view, these time limits should not even be this high, because a naturalistic worldview has no reason to start with a "perfect" genome as the creationist view does.  In his paper, Williams estimates that, given the necessity of correcting mechanisms in our cells during the DNA replication process, the first life forms (assuming they already somehow came into being) would not have lasted more than about ten generations.  On the other hand, assuming God made mankind initially perfect and with fully-functioning correction mechanisms at least until the Fall, Williams calculated that the known mutation rates and known number of mutations in the human genome places their beginning at about 4000 BC.

The runaway deleterious mutation rate is a concept known as "genetic entropy," which says that gathered mutations have an overall harmful effect on a population of organisms, rather than providing a larger pool from which nature can select as proposed by Darwinian evolution.  The hypothesis of genetic entropy was finally tested a few years ago by creationists Robert Carter and John Sanford.  These scientists studied the mutations of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus since it was first documented in 1917.  Because viruses replicate so quickly, they were able to study the effects of mutation over tens of thousands of generations.  They found that, rather than increasing fitness, the ongoing mutations actually made the virus less able to adapt to changing conditions.  In fact, the virus went extinct in the 1950s and only made a resurgence because an earlier version of the virus was able to escape into the populace, presumably from a laboratory freezer.  Although this study only demonstrates genetic entropy in viruses, Robert Carter considered it to be "the first experiment designed to test the Darwinian mutation/selection model in any species over tens of thousands of generations."  Apparently, the test failed.

As I said in the beginning, this is not a list of proofs of creation, nor of disproofs of evolution.  Any piece of "evidence" can and will be interpreted to fit one's worldview.  I suspect that a person will only change his/her worldview when it is revealed to be inconsistent with itself, or possibly if a simpler worldview is discovered.  These facts may be a catalyst for such a recognition, and they may sway anyone sitting on the fence, but I strongly doubt they will catapult anyone over the fence.

1 comment:

  1. Its great news to found Dinosaurs biological samples and it can be prevent in ultra low freezer from germs and bacteria.