"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 1, 2014
The Stench from Hell Creek: How an Evangelical Christian Woman Shook Up the Scientific Community with a Surprising Dinosaur Find
by Jeff Lindsay

The Book of Mormon warns against some of the many fallacies made by the elite and educated ranks who find many reasons to mock religion and deny Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Nephi 9:28-29).

One of the great ironies in science is the ease with which scientists and educated thinkers stop thinking once they think they have something figured out. Don't be shocked: they are human too.

In spite of all that education, they can readily fall into the trap of clinging to old paradigms, proudly thinking they now know something for themselves, when real science should take the humble attitude of recognizing that it is tentative and that numerous untested assumptions sometimes go into the mental models we create when we interpret data.

This vulnerability is especially great when we make judgments about things that are not simply straightforward matters like how much something weighs. When science is applied to resolve moral issues or matters of faith, for example, look out. It is an inadequate tool for some purposes.

One interesting illustration of the problems in blindly relying on "established" scientific knowledge involves the recent discovery that soft matter -- cartilage, skin, muscle tissue, and so on -- may have been preserved in some actual dinosaur finds. Sounds crazy, right?

Dinosaurs are millions of years old, and obviously soft tissue could not possibly last that long so it's just not possible. Dinosaurs are fossils. Rocks. After millions of years, nothing else but fossilized rock can remain.

Science has spoken, and as we all should know, when science has spoken, the debate and the thinking are done.

At least that's how some scientists apparently responded when Mary Higby Schweitzer, a woman and a known evangelical Christian, of all things, dared to claim that she had solid evidence for soft tissue from ancient dinosaurs.

The woman is Mary Higby Schweitzer and her story is ably told by Barry Yeoman in "Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery," Discover Magazine, April 2006.

Schweitzer gazed through a microscope in her laboratory at North Carolina State University and saw lifelike tissue that had no business inhabiting a fossilized dinosaur skeleton: fibrous matrix, stretchy like a wet scab on human skin; what appeared to be supple bone cells, their three-dimensional shapes intact; and translucent blood vessels that looked as if they could have come straight from an ostrich at the zoo.

By all the rules of paleontology, such traces of life should have long since drained from the bones. It's a matter of faith among scientists that soft tissue can survive at most for a few tens of thousands of years, not the 65 million since T. rex walked what's now the Hell Creek Formation in Montana.

But Schweitzer tends to ignore such dogma. She just looks and wonders, pokes and prods, following her scientific curiosity. That has allowed her to see things other paleontologists have missed -- and potentially to shatter fundamental assumptions about how much we can learn from the past.

If biological tissue can last through the fossilization process, it could open a window through time, showing not just how extinct animals evolved but how they lived each day.

This is a huge advance. What breathtaking finds are waiting to be revealed in the soft tissue and perhaps even the DNA of these ancient kings and queens of the planet? Hurray for Mary Higby Schweitzer and for her unusual background and her faith that helped her see things other scientists have probably been missing (and accidentally destroying) for decades.

Mary is an evangelical Christian, but also accepts that the earth may be billions of years old (that fits my understanding of the evidence as well). There are other things about her I really like:

In 1989, while dividing her time between substitute teaching and her three children, Schweitzer steered back toward her childhood fascination with dinosaurs. She approached Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur scientist, and asked if she could audit his vertebrate paleontology course at Montana State University.

He appreciated her refreshingly nontraditional mind. "She really wasn't much of a scientist -- which is good," says Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. "Scientists all get to thinking alike, and it's good to bring people in from different disciplines. They ask questions very differently."

Schweitzer's first forays into paleontology were "a total hook," she says. Not only was she fascinated by the science, but to her, digging into ancient strata seemed like reading the history of God's handiwork.

Schweitzer worships at two churches -- an evangelical church in Montana and a nondenominational one when she is back home in North Carolina -- and when she talks about her faith, her bristly demeanor falls away.

"God is so multidimensional," she says. "I see a sense of humor. I see His compassion in the world around me. It makes me curious, because the creator is revealed in the creation."

Unlike many creationists, she finds the notion of a world evolving over billions of years theologically exhilarating: "That makes God a lot bigger than thinking of Him as a magician that pulled everything out in one fell swoop."

Schweitzer's career began just as paleontologists started framing their own questions in more multidimensional ways. Until the 1980s, researchers were more likely to be trained in earth science than in biology.

They often treated fossils as geologic specimens -- mineral structures whose main value lay in showing the skeletal shapes of prehistoric animals. A younger generation of paleontologists, in contrast, has focused on reconstructing intimate details like growth rates and behaviors using modern techniques normally associated with the study of living organisms....

This shifting perspective clicked with Schweitzer's intuitions that dinosaur remains were more than chunks of stone. Once, when she was working with a T. Rex skeleton harvested from Hell Creek, she noticed that the fossil exuded a distinctly organic odor.

"It smelled just like one of the cadavers we had in the lab who had been treated with chemotherapy before he died," she says.

Given the conventional wisdom that such fossils were made up entirely of minerals, Schweitzer was anxious when mentioning this to Horner. "But he said, 'Oh, yeah, all Hell Creek bones smell,'" she says.

To most old-line paleontologists, the smell of death didn't even register. To Schweitzer, it meant that traces of life might still cling to those bones. 

Wow, right under their noses! Dinosaur finds at that site were well known to smell like cadavers. Dozens of soft tissue treasures had probably been destroyed over the years, with a treasure of information right under the offended noses of scientists.

It took someone with a different perspective to dig into what was really there and reveal something tantalizing. Thank you, Mary Higby Schweitzer!

I also love her approach to science as something that teaches us more about the handiwork and, yes, humor of God. It is exhilarating. 

Mary was lucky to have a supportive and open-minded mentor. Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian was allegedly fired from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) for publishing a peer-reviewed article in Acta Histochemia about his discovery of soft tissue on another dinosaur find, also at Hell Creek. Here is part of the story, as told by CBS Los Angeles:

While at the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, researcher Mark Armitage discovered what he believed to be the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site, according to attorney Brad Dacus of Pacific Justice Institute.

Upon examination of the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Dacus says Armitage was "fascinated" to find soft tissue on the sample -- a discovery Bacus said stunned members of the school's biology department and even some students "because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago."

"Since some creationists, like [Armitage], believe that the triceratops bones are only 4,000 years old at most, [Armitage's] work vindicated his view that these dinosaurs roamed the planet relatively recently,"according to the complaint (PDF) filed July 22 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The lawsuit against the CSUN board of trustees cites discrimination for perceived religious views.

Armitage's findings were eventually published in July 2013 in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a CSUN official told Armitage, "We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!"

Armitage, a published scientist of over 30 years, was subsequently let go after CSUN abruptly claimed his appointment at the university of 38 months had been temporary, and claimed a lack of funding for his position, according to attorneys.

Perhaps the problem may have been that he wasn't quiet about how this discovery supposedly supported his personal young-earth views. If his claims are correct, it was unfortunate and not a very scientific thing for the university to do.

Not surprisingly, scientists and university leaders are humans like everyone else and bring plenty of biases with them in their quest for truth and funding. Sadly, some university systems have become remarkably intolerant of diverging views and enforce uniformity of thought much more than they let on in their P.R. Some pretty extreme abuses happen from time to time.

I'm glad Mary Schweitzer's work was able to move forward and shake things up for the good of all of us.

By the way, other scientists think they have an answer for how soft tissue could be preserved so long. Turns out iron nanoparticles might be doing the trick. They seem to have done well in preserving soft tissue during a two-year period already. Just another 50 million years or so before we'll be sure.



Related info:

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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