Soft Tissue, Equivocation and Religious Necessity

In the summer of 2003, a remarkably well-preserved T-Rex specimen was unearthed in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. A small team of researchers, led by Mary Schweitzer, took a piece of its femur, dissolved away the outer mineral matrix and were greatly surprised to find structural remains of blood vessels – hollow and flexible. Within these vessel-remnants were red, round micro-structures resembling blood cells. Their findings were subsequently published in the March 2005 issue of Science magazine, in an article titled “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex1. This discovery was not the earliest (or latest) regarding so-called “soft tissue” found in paleontological excavation2. But it has been the research most often referenced by Young-Earth Creation (YEC) organizations such as Answers in Genesis (AIG) and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), due largely to the counter-intuitive findings. Soft Tissue – wow! Isn't this an evidence for recent creation?

Well, given the way the YEC websites characterize “soft tissue,” you might think so.

Soft Tissue

For example, Dr. David Menton, an AIG author, wrote this: “Scientists have recently made the startling discovery of a dinosaur skeleton that still retains well preserved soft tissue including blood vessels, cells and connective tissue. … It certainly taxes one’s imagination to believe that soft tissue and cells could remain so relatively fresh in appearance for the tens of millions of years of supposed evolutionary history.

A 2006, AIG website article “The Scrambling Continues”states this: “Last year at about this time, it was disclosed that scientists had made an amazing discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex thigh bone that still retained well-preserved soft tissue (which included blood vessels and cells). … Dr. Schweitzer found flexible connective tissue and branching blood vessels, as well as intact cells.

And Brian Thomas, M.S. wrote this: “In recent decades, soft, squishy tissues have been discovered inside fossilized dinosaur bones. They seem so fresh that it appears as though the bodies were buried only a few thousand years ago. Since many think of a fossil as having had the original bone material replaced by minerals, the presence of actual bone--let alone pliable blood vessels, red blood cells, and proteins inside the bone--is quite extraordinary. These finds also present a dilemma. Given the fact that organic materials like blood vessels and blood cells rot, and the rates at which certain proteins decay, how could these soft tissues have been preserved for ten thousand, let alone 65 million or more, years?”3

This sort of characterization (e.g. pliable blood vessels, intact cells, so fresh, well-preserved, soft, squishy), and many other YEC examples I could have quoted, give the distinct impression that scientists basically broke into the bone, looked inside, and found material resembling what a butcher might be familiar with although with some aging4. A quick search of Spectrum commenters over the past several years suggests to me that this is indeed the idea communicated by YEC apologists. For example:

  • It's like when they found soft tissue on a Tyrannosaurus rex bone which was suppose to be 68 million years old. They are doing back flips now trying to explain it.”

  • Is '200 million year old’ soft tissue and blood cells, discovered by Darwinists, not ‘good evidence’ for at least young life on earth? “

  • So, anything that doesn't fit, gets set aside or explained away as an anomaly; or they attempt to discredit it; such as the discovery of soft tissue in dinosaur bones which are supposed to be millions of years old.”

But, are YEC writers using the term “soft tissue” in a way consistent with Schweitzer and other paleontologists? No. Paleontologists simply mean this: any material from an organism that is not considered hard parts of the creature5. Hard parts include bone and shell, which, comparatively, resists decay and retains its structure long enough so that, in rare instances, fossilization may occur.

This definition says nothing whatsoever about the condition of the material when found. But YEC uses the phrase “soft tissue” to connote freshness and existence of actual tissue. And this would be the most natural idea that would come to mind for anyone unfamiliar with the way scientists use the term. But YEC writers have not explained the proper definition to their audience. They have taken advantage of this likely reader (mis)understanding to communicate something quite different from what it is supposed to mean. There is a word for this sort of of argumentative move -– equivocation.

Equivocation

Equivocation is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time. A writer can use a term that was meant in one way but silently slide from that definition to a distinctly different one. An obvious example is: “Sure philosophy helps you argue better, but do we really need to encourage people to argue? There's enough hostility in this world.”

The YEC community has an agenda, that the Earth was created recently, somewhere between 6,000 and perhaps 10,000 years. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, as it could be treated as an hypothesis –- something to try and prove. But equivocation, assuming it is employed deliberately, is fallacious. Now, I can understand how individuals like the Spectrum commenters quoted above have faith in the scientific legitimacy of the YEC sources from which they read about “soft tissue.” It is much harder for me to ignore the choices made by the YEC authors and organizations who read the original research and have an obligation, if they wish to be ethical, to define terms accurately.

This complaint of misrepresentation was made by none other than Schweitzer herself who, interestingly, is also a practicing evangelical Christian. In a 2014 interview she said, “Young earth creationists take my research and use it for their own message, and I think they are misleading people about it. … They have misquoted me and misrepresented the data.”6

Well then, what is the accurate story?7

First and foremost it is not true that intact blood vessels, cells, and proteins were found. The discovered material has been chemically transformed and fragmented, albeit derived from such original substances. Schweitzer herself was very cautious in her conclusions, originally stating that her results were merely consistent with the presence of red blood cells and protein remnants.8 Some of the artifacts were indeed pliable while others were crystallized and inflexible.

Now, it is absolutely the case that conventional science has been quite taken by surprise with such findings -– now coming in over a 20+-year period. But it is not for the reasons YEC apologists infer -– that they must now conclude that the material is young. It is severely misleading for YEC articles, like the one quoted above, to be titled “The Scrambling Continues” –- giving the impression that paleontologists are faced with an inevitable young-earth conclusion and are consequently desperate to save their cherished evolutionary theory.

Researchers initially could not imagine how such “soft tissue” could survive for the length of time consistent with the radiometric dating of the deposition locations. Now, some possible answers to the surprise findings include these: a) it did not survive so long because it is relatively young; b) some artifacts actually can survive and, because scientists did not expect this, no one was either looking for or investigating possible mechanisms of survival. The YEC writers have opted for choice “a” but have used equivocation in describing what has been found -– a move designed to foster a misleading picture of the material in their readers' minds (who mostly are not scientifically oriented). And that skewed picture produces the desired impression -– that the earth must be young. See, they found soft tissue.

Much of the more recent work has now involved extracting and identifying the various “soft tissue” artifacts. In many instances, material found consisted of molecules with one of two properties: extensive cross-linking or chemical makeup similar to graphite9 One such example is blood-vessel artifacts. A blood vessel is an extremely stable structure which, in life, has to withstand significant pressure from blood flow. It is composed, in part, of extensively cross-linked collagen fibrils. A stable biochemical structure, however, is insufficient for preservation. External conditions must also be right –- and they rarely are. However, in Schweitzer's follow-on research, the investigators contend that evidence points to environmental minerals having been precipitated onto surfaces of the preserved tissue, effectively entombing it10. Such molecular structures then, while complex, can remain stable over time, if and when isolated from the usual causes of degradation –- oxygen, water and bacteria.

This is now a very active area of research but enough evidence has accumulated to, at minimum, dismiss the conclusion that it is impossible for such material to survive for the conventionally-postulated durations. This is not a case of old-earth science doggedly and desperately searching for a way out. There are many reasons –- well beyond the scope of this article –- for trusting the dating results presently accepted. And, if anything, the evidence for an old earth has grown significantly over the past 50 years11.

Religious Necessity

The Answers In Genesis organization's Statement of Faith includes the following: “The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science. … The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life, mankind, the earth, and the universe.

Now, whether or not YEC is true, one clear inference is this: AIG is ultimately prevented by this statement from doing pure science. Why? Because the scientific method is not positioned. It lets the data speak. Period. Hypotheses are then formed, tested, and rejected if the evidence so warrants. Of course, this is not to say that all scientists behave this way at all times. People have always gotten caught up in their favored positions, and many scientists also embrace scientism. But, as a method, science is not constrained by adherence to any a priori position.

AIG (indeed all YEC), however, is so constrained. If you just casually read the above AIG Statement it may seem perfectly orthodox. And that is likely because this is historically the way the Bible has generally been understood by conservative Christians. But, no matter what your personal beliefs might be, I hope you can see that the assertions and positions specified in the statement go well beyond necessity, well beyond what the actual biblical text demands. Interpretive choices have been mingled into the biblical material for so long that, for many, it becomes indistinguishable from what the text states. Then, at that point, believing YEC seems to be necessary.

This is not the first time Christianity has tried to draw a “line in the sand” of orthodoxy that placed it contra science. It happened with Galileo. There was biblical support proposed for why the sun revolved around the earth. At present, it is hard to understand why Christians felt threatened about the topic. And few believers would now understand the Bible in a way that demands this geocentrism. We humans can indeed be wrong.

But I believe present YEC adherents would raise (at least) two major reasons why they think this time it is different. One is the belief that YEC is mandatory, or the entire gospel will also fall. This is a theological slippery slope argument. Second, evolution and a good God seem utterly incompatible. The union of those two ideas seems to inevitably lead to theistic evolution –- a concept that would see God using suffering and death as a creative mechanism. Understandably, this is tough to reconcile. But what we have here is one significant context of the Problem of Evil – the most difficult theological problem for believers. And these problems are widely considered by YECers to be de facto unsolvable. So, with such pre-suppositions, YEC seems to be required.

My reaction is twofold. First, hard theological problems ought to be addressed theologically. They are being obscured by a presumed scientific cover. Second, it is fine to make YEC an investigative premise. That is, start by trying to see if the facts fit the concept of a recent, literal six-day creation. This endeavor has been made, and I have no quarrel with any out-of-the-box attempts. But what the YEC organizations have subsequently produced is not acceptable –- scientifically or ethically. Many, many Christians read YEC material and, without much investigation, accept it because it sounds scientific. More centrally, they are also invested in YEC's presumed religious necessity. And few have done the uncomfortable and time-consuming work of comparing the YEC assertions to conventional science and evaluating them on a scientific and argumentative basis. Do this and a different story emerges.

 

NOTES:

1 Mary H. Schweitzer et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex,Science 307 (March 2005): 1952-55, doi: 10.1126/science.1108397.

2 See, for example: a) Mary Higby Schweitzr et al., “Preservation of Biomolecules in Cancellous Bone of Tyrannosaurus rex,” Journal of Vertebrate Palentology 17 (June 1997): 349-59, doi:10,1080/02724634.1997.10010979; b) Mary Higby Schweitzer et al., “Molecular Analysis of Dinosaur Osteocytes Support the Presence of Endogenous Molecules,” Bone 52 (January 2013): 414-23; c) Sergio Bertazzo et al., “Fibres and Cellular Structures Preserved in 75-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Specimens,” Nature Communications 6 (June 2015): id. 7352, doi:10.1038/ncomms8352.

3 Thomas, Brian. 2009. Dinosaur Soft Tissue Issue is Here to Stay. Acts & Facts 38(9): 18 http:/www.icr.org/article/4827

5 See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_tissue where it states “soft tissue includes the tissues that connect, support, or surround other structures and organs of the body, not being hard tissue such as bone. ... It is sometimes defined by what it is not.”

6 Ruppel E. “Not So Dry Bones: An Interview with Mary SchweitzerBioLogos Blog Jul. 21 2014

7 I do not expect readers to blindly take my word for what will follow. Investigate for yourselves. I am doing my best here to – ever so briefly – outline what the research has found and what the scientific community is doing with it. But I expect many traditionalist readers to question this explanation, perhaps even question my motives. To such skeptics I would especially urge you to make the effort to examine actual sources. It may be more comfortable to only look at, and look for, sources that agree with one's desired position. But there is great danger in this. You will never correct error.

8 See footnote 2a, above; and also: Mary H. Schweitzer at al., “Heme Compounds in Dinosaur Trabecular Bone,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 94 (June 1997): 6291-96.

9 Rana, Fazale. (2016) Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. Covina, CA. RTB Press – p. 54.

10 "Jurassic Period,”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 109 (June 2012): 10218-23,doi:10.1073/pnas.1118448109.

 

Rich Hannon is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

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Weniger Society Meeting on February 15

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