July 14, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Revising Dinosaurs

Reconstructing a lost world from fossils is an inexact science.  The realization that two species of dinosaur were different growth stages of the same species is just one example of the difficulty of drawing conclusions about past ecological conditions.  It raises additional questions about the mental visions we have of the world of dinosaurs.
    PhysOrg reported that Torosaurus, sporting a larger frill with holes in it, turns out to be an older stage of growth of the familiar Triceratops.  The article explains that “juvenile dinosaurs weren’t just miniature versions of adults.  They looked very different, and their skulls changed radically as they matured.”  Re-examination of familiar species at different stages of growth have revealed “extreme changes in the skulls of pachycephalosaurs, tyrannosaurs and other dinosaurs that died out about 65 million years ago in North America.”
    Speaking of tyrannosaurs, paleontologists still seem unable to decide how fast and fierce our old friend T. rex was.  This month, National Geographic claimed it plodded like an elephant because of a natural speed limit of 180 feet per second in nerve signals.  The picture of T. rex lumbering about looking for dead meat doesn’t make a good movie, but new evidence suggests tyrannosaurs spent some time looking for “Meat that doesn’t fight back.”  New Scientist teased that tyrannosaurs may have been “history’s most fearsome… scavengers?” while Live Science left room for some hunting of fast food between the comfort food.
   John Scannella and Jack Horner studied dozens of triceratops specimens in Montana.  “Even in Triceratops that were previously considered to be adults,” they found, “the skull was still undergoing dramatic changes.” Scannella recognized the perils of interpreting an ecological system from bones.  “Paleontologists are at a disadvantage because we can’t go out into the field and observe a living Triceratops grow up from a baby to an adult,” he said.  “We have to put together the story based on fossils.  In order to get the complete story, you need to have a large sample of fossils from many individuals representing different growth stages.”
    But what is to be made of “Mojoceratops,” a new specimen from Canada that Nicholas Longrich of Yale named after having a few beers? (see Science Daily and Live Science).  Is it really a new species, or does the fame of finding something new play into the classification?  The article claims it’s a more extravagant version of an existing species named Chasmosaurus.  Longrich admitted, “So far, we really have no good explanation for why there are so many dinosaurs in the area and just how they managed to coexist.”  He also just wanted to have fun with the name.  “You can do good science and still have some fun, too.  So why not?”
    Good science and fun are not mutually exclusive, to be sure.  But the public often trusts the depictions of dinosaurs from the experts in their visions of what the ancient world looked like.  Hollywood does, too (more or less).  One hopes that between beers the paleontologists are striving for accuracy.  “Without considering changes in shape throughout ontogeny,” Scannella said, “we overestimate dinosaur diversity and hence produce an unrealistic view of the paleoecology of these animals.”  Horner and Scannella worked with many graduate students and volunteers to try to falsify their hypothesis that Torosaurus was a mature form of Triceratops, but “Every avenue of investigation we took in attempts to falsify the hypothesis only supported the idea further,” Scannella said.  They never found a juvenile Torosaurus; all the skulls were large and few in number compared to Triceratops.
    Admirable as their caution was before lumping Torosaurus with Triceratops, they appeared to leap less carefully into other interpretations about Cretaceous ecology.  They even brought global warming into the tale:

“A major decline in diversity may have put the dinosaurs in a vulnerable state at the time when the large meteor struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period,” Scannella said.  “It may have been the combination of the two factors – lower diversity and a major global catastrophe – that resulted in the extinction of all the non-avian dinosaurs.”
    If the apparent decline in diversity wasn’t triggered by a meteor – a relatively uncommon event – Scannella said, “It may have been caused by circumstances which are more likely to affect diversity today, perhaps large-scale sea level fluctuations or climate change.”

One wonders if Scannella said these things in the “May” season.
    An article on Science Daily claimed that ostriches can provide clues about dinosaur movement.  They noticed that ostriches use their forelimb wings aerodynamically to control their speed and direction.  “The results of this new study could mean that some of the largest and fastest-moving dinosaurs, such as the 8m long Gigantoraptor, also used feathered forelimbs for increased stability and manoeuvrability when moving at speed.”  Here, they not only extrapolated a phenomenon fourfold or more into an unseen world, they put feathers onto a creature on which no feathers were found.
    If it’s data the dinosaur hunters need, a new treasure trove opened up in Alberta.  Live Science reported the world’s largest dinosaur graveyard – thousands of Centrosaurus skeletons covering 568 acres.  The discoverers believe a herd of the cow-sized dinosaurs got trapped in a local flood: “The likely culprit in this scenario was a catastrophic storm, which could quickly have routinely made the waters flood up as high as 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 meters), if experiences with modern floodplains are any guide.”  They believe that scavengers came in after the water lowered and fed on the carcasses.  “The researchers now hope to take lessons they have learned in Alberta to compare it to other parts of the world in an effort to pinpoint signs of past catastrophes elsewhere.”

Scannella talked about putting together a story.  We often criticize the storytelling in Darwinism, but not all storytelling is just-so storytelling.  Obviously there was some kind of story with the dinosaurs.  The bones are brute facts; how did they get there?  Creationists will say they are antediluvian creatures who perished in the Flood.  Evolutionists fit them into their story of deep time, evolution, and extinction.  But here is the issue with stories about the unobservable past: like Scannella said, paleontologists are at a disadvantage.  They cannot go out into the field and observe a living Triceratops and watch how it grows.  Nor can they see its total environment, and how it interacted with other dinosaurs and other creatures.  Each plant and animal fossil in the same strata adds to the puzzle, but we cannot know how many other pieces are missing; as Sagan used to say of SETI, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  Moreover, one cannot watch a rerun of what happened with the origin and extinction of dinosaurs.
    This is limitation on Biblical creationists, too; they have a framework in the Flood narrative of Genesis 6-9, but that is a condensed account.  It doesn’t provide details of what was living in the future land of Montana or Alberta and how specifically they perished in what order.  They, too, have to take the puzzle pieces and try to make sense of them within their general picture of the Flood.  There’s lively debate and argument in creationist journals about the details.  It’s a built-in limitation of historical sciences; one cannot observe, repeat, and test one-time occurrences.  Even if you can recreate similar occurrences, or find analogies (like current flood-plains), the scientist can only assess and argue the plausibility of the resulting story.
    Every theory about the past is theory-laden.  Even the naming and classification of the dinosaurs is theory-laden.  It took a jolly inebriated human being to name “Mojoceratops” and decide it was a new species.  Deciding what the continent was like when it was buried, and what caused the burial of 568 acres of Centrosaurs, and whether a local flood (or something larger) buried them – none of those answers jump unprocessed out of the data.  This is why skepticism and argument is important in science, especially in the historical sciences.  Creationists admit they have a framework of interpretation (the Bible), but evolutionists pretend they are bias-free.  Creationists routinely look at both sides of the creation-evolution controversy, but evolutionists deny a controversy exists.  Evolutionists argue over some of the details, but they never question their framework: billions of years of evolution.  The potential is real for intellectual inbreeding and stagnation in the evolutionist camp, but they refuse to acknowledge it.  They deny anyone outside their paradigm a seat at the table, so they continue to place uncooperative details into a fixed paradigm (e.g., 04/30/2009).  That’s when storytelling becomes just-so storytelling.  The plot is massaged just so the data fits into the agreed-upon story.
    One way to decide which story is better is to have a sentient eyewitness explain what happened.  That’s exactly what creationists claim to have (at least for their general outline): the Biblical record of a global Flood, not just a series of past catastrophes, which evolutionists agree are needed to interpret the evidence.  Evolutionists, ruling eyewitness testimony out of court, are stuck with just-so storytelling.  They think that’s better.
    How to evaluate interpretations?  It becomes an issue of credibility.  There are no value-free guidelines of credibility, either.  Occam’s Razor is a guideline but not a law of nature.  Avoiding contradictions, special pleading and ad hoc rescue devices are usually valued.  Making stuff up out of thin air (just-so storytelling) to preserve a belief is frowned upon (or should be).  But stories cannot be judged simply by the number of scientists who believe them, the institutions that support them, and the political or financial power behind them.  Better one truth-teller than a thousand know-nothings.  Is there a God who told the truth about the history of the world and the origin of all life and mankind?  That would constitute sufficient evidence to accept His word (see II Peter 3:3-9, written by an eyewitness of Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection – and Jesus spoke of the Flood as true history; see Luke 17;26-27).  One can choose which storyteller to believe, but one cannot eliminate storytelling altogether.  A story with an Eyewitness would seem preferable to any reasonable judge or jury, if it were not for modern science’s prior commitment to the philosophy of naturalism.

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Categories: Birds, Dinosaurs, Fossils

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