What Mean These Bones?
Fossils found in unusual conditions and strange locations tell a silent story. Humans often cannot resist making up their own versions of the plot. Consider the following discoveries. Listen to the stories told about them, and ask: what is the probability the stories are true? How could we ever know? Who is qualified to be the chief storyteller?
- Glacier-saurus: Bones from a six-ton sauropod were found 10 years ago at 13,000′ elevation near a glacier in Antarctica. New interpretations about it were reported by EurekAlert and PhysOrg. The National Geographic article includes an artist’s interpretation of the ecology when it lived. What put this monster meat in the freezer?
The evolutionary story is that this dinosaur, named Glacialisaurus hammeri, lived 190 million years ago. NG quotes a paleontologist saying that the discovery so far south “was probably due to the fact that major connections between the continents still existed at that time, and because climates were more equitable across latitudes than they are today.” He added that the bones are “important because they help to establish that primitive sauropodomorph dinosaurs were more broadly distributed than previously thought and that they coexisted with their cousins, the true sauropods.”
- Armadillo in the sky: An armor-covered mammal called a glyptodont was found at 14,000 feet in the Andes, reported National Geographic News. This represents the “oldest glyptodont known from any significant skeletal remains,” said one paleontologist. How did it get so high in the mountains? One paleontologist said that when it lived, the mountain wasn’t there. “For me, the real question is what this tells us about the history of uplift of the Andes mountains and how it impacted this group of animals.” Some glyptodonts, which look like fat, stiff armadillos, grew to the size of a small car, the article said.
- Double-decker dino: Dinosaur bones sitting in a Chicago museum have been re-interpreted as those of a large carnivorous beast rivalling T. rex. Found in Niger 10 years ago, Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis was one of the largest meat-eaters that ever lived. “It was part of a ‘very weird ecosystem’ of huge bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs that inhabited the Saharan Cretaceous landscape,” the article claims. The BBC News story shows it larger than a double-decker bus.
Why did this beast grow so large? A paleontologist explained: “The dinosaur seems to have evolved because these shallow seas divided up the land so it led to different groups of dinosaurs in different places.” Obviously, “that has implications for how life reacts to high temperatures and high sea levels,” he said. National Geographic News quoted a paleontologist calling this “evolution in action,” even though humans have only observed static, dead bones. “The study suggests that the newly described species is evidence for rapid evolution after shallow prehistoric seas inundated North Africa.” That part of the story was certainly not observed.
Another speculated, “It may be that these giants arose by allopatric speciation, whereby biological populations are physically isolated by a barrier, in this case a seaway, and evolve in reproductive isolation” (see entry on allopatric speciation from 01/15/2003). She thought that interpretation holds for living species; “However, that hypothesis can’t be tested with ancient fossils!”
- Underground forest: A farmer in Michigan was astonished to find something under his land when the Department of Transportation started digging a pond for him in exchange for fill earth. Lo and behold, a prehistoric forest came to light. The report on Science Daily quoted a forester saying, “We find a lot of trees lying on the forest floor, but this was the first time I’ve seen so many trees thousands of years old and so well preserved in the soil.” Well, gosh darn, whaddya know. “What could bury a whole forest 15 feet underground? It had to be a single catastrophic, violent event, and it must have happened a long time ago for 15 feet of soil to build up.”
A professional colleague speculated with him that “the trees were either transported or mowed down by the last glacier to move across the Keweenaw, before Lake Superior covered the peninsula” about 10,000 years ago. They want to perform radiocarbon dating on the logs, many of which are 20 feet long and 2 feet in diameter.
- Mammoth targets: Rocks from space played asteroids against mammoths 35,000 years ago, claims a report on the BBC News. Tusks from Alaska and Siberia appear to show scars of meteorite debris. A researcher explained, “We think that there was probably an impact which exploded in the air that sent these particles flying into the animals.” Bones of bison from the same period show re-growth, indicating that the smaller mammals survived a “calamitous event” that took down their bigger neighbors. They’re not sure, though; “Maybe, these were tusks from dead animals that were just exposed on the surface, so when this thing blew up in the atmosphere, it would have peppered them.” The date could range from 13,000 to 35,000 years ago, they said.
Previously, scientists attributed the extinction of mammoths to humans or climate change. Can space impacts really explain this? It can’t hurt, at least (that is, it can’t hurt the theory, even if it hurt the animals):
For us the difficulty is that we see patterns but we don’t understand what the underlying process is; so it becomes difficult to ascribe causation,” he [Dr. Ian Barnes from Royal Holloway University of London, UK] explained.
“Just as in a modern crime scene, it’s very difficult to piece all the evidence together and say precisely what was going on; which event led to any particular outcome.”
But he added: “Certainly, you can’t imagine it helped the animals having a large meteorite hit the Earth’s atmosphere and pellet them with shot.”
- Polar warming: A polar bear jaw has been found in the Arctic, reported the BBC News. The article claims this jawbone is up to 130,000 years old. That makes the evolution of polar bears 30,000 years older than previously thought. Why is this good news? Well, if “further discoveries can show the iconic Arctic beasts have a deeper evolutionary heritage, then the outlook for the animals may be more positive than some believe,” because they would have survived one interglacial period – i.e., global warming. Hence, “This is telling us that despite the ongoing warming in the Arctic today, maybe we don’t have to be quite so worried about the polar bear.”
A paleontologist in the last story was honest about the storytelling: “This is just how I interpret it. But this is science – when you have little data, you have lots of freedom.” The only question is whether free interpretation can really be called science.
PostScript: National Geographic News posted an article today about the massive dinosaur pit in Spain (see 11/30/2007, bullet 2). The consensus is that this graveyard, containing over 8,000 individuals, was caused by a flood. Evolutionists are also saying this shows that the period when they were assumed to have lived – 70 million years ago – had more biodiversity than thought. “Having so many dinosaurs together at the same site is a big deal,” one paleontologist commented. “This group of dinosaurs living in the same place in the same environment hadn’t been established before.” The pit includes huge titanosaurs, among the largest land animals that ever lived; they are among the most abundant creatures at the site. Must have been some flood.
The interpretation of these finds is left as an exercise. That’s a difficult exercise, because fossils don’t come with written documentation. Science cannot provide definitive answers about one-time, past events. Paleontologists try to piece together a story from multiple clues, and weave together scenarios that are more or less plausible. Never forget, however, a point emphasized by philosophers of science: theories are always under-determined by the data. This means an almost infinite number of theories could be concocted to fit the same set of observations. It’s especially true for past events that cannot be checked directly.
So whose interpretation will carry the day? Aha; now we enter the realm of “political” science. The reigning Darwin Party wields an iron fist over its totalitarian dictatorship. Remember: totalitarian means total; it means that it is a crime to even think out of line with the regime. That is why interpretations outside the Party never get heard. The paleontologist who claimed he had little data but lots of freedom was putting a positive spin on how much freedom there is inside the Party paradigm.