Posts Tagged ‘evolutionism’

In a way, it doesn’t much matter to me whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. I guess the question interests me intellectually, but I don’t think I have an ideological investment in it.

Museum display of human with dinosaur

An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows a human happily coexisting with a hungry-looking theropod. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how it does interest me: I’m writing fiction that is set in the remote past, during a period when the written history is sketchy. The first novel for my Edhai series is called The Cursed Ground, and the first episode is due for release on Jan. 20, 2015. The concept calls for a lot of world-building, and it could be interesting to portray some interaction between the human characters and some large reptile-like or large bird-like animals.

(Just a note that this blog entry highlights the value and relevance of the field of anomalistics to modern research. For a discussion of anomalistics, that is, the study of stuff that doesn’t fit the predominant paradigm in one way or another, see my previous article, “Anomalistics, Pseudo-Skepticism, and the Discovery of a 300-Million-Year-Old Aluminum Machinery Part.”)

But does it make any sense to build a fictional world in which humans are contemporary with dinosaurs, especially for a fiction series that is purportedly “historical”?

How you respond to that question could depend on your ideological stance.

A creationist (by which I essentially mean a young-earth creationist) would say, ‘Of course humans and dinosaurs lived together.’ That view holds that the earth and all life on it are only about 6,000 (or sometimes 10,000) years old. Artwork and even museum exhibits from that camp sometimes show humans and dinosaurs in the same scene.

A materialist would say it’s nonsense to place humans and dinosaurs into the same time frame (materialists love the word “nonsense”). Dinosaurs, at least what most people think of as dinosaurs, lived in the Mesozoic geologic period, according to the timeline most-commonly accepted in mainstream academia. That period is said to have ended 66 million years before the present (b.p.), whereas anatomically-modern humans are only supposed to have appeared within the last half-million years — too late to have ridden a triceratops or to have had to run away screaming to avoid getting stomped-on by a T-Rex.

That said, some intriguing scientific findings in recent years have called into question some long-held assumptions about when the non-avian dinosaurs actually lived. Could the consensus time frame be off — even way off? And could that triceratops horsey-ride have been feasible after all?

geologic time scale

Conventional geologic time scale. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

Organic material found in a T-Rex fossil: Paleontologist Mary H. Schweitzer Of North Carolina State University stunned the fossil-hunting profession with her 2005 article in Science, “Soft tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex.” In her article, Schweitzer reported finding organic tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. The problem is that, according to the current model of how fossils form, there’s no way any organic material should have remained in a fossil 68 million years old. Any such material should have long ago decomposed and been replaced by minerals, or have been destroyed by radiation.

Many critics claim that her sample must have been contaminated somehow. Schweitzer seems to think that the material really is 68 million years old and that this suggests that current theory about how fossils form might be wrong. That’s a useful idea, but another possibility is that the conventional means of dating fossils is way off, and that the T-Rex in question lived much more recently than is called for in the prevailing view of the geologic past.

Radiocarbon dating finds dinosaur fossils only 22,000-39,000 years old. Traditional paleontologists would never think of applying radiocarbon (RC or C-14) dating to Mesozoic fossils. After all, C-14 dating is only useful going back 50,000-80,000 years b.p., three orders of magnitude too soon. Yet an open-minded group of researchers (calling themselves the Paleochronology Group) decided, Why not? The tests have yielded ages between 22,000 and 39,000 years b.p. for fossils of Allosaurus, Triceratops, Hadrosaur, and Apatosaur.

Critics argue that these RC dates can’t be correct, because the non-avian dinosaurs studied all died out 66 million years ago. In other words, these findings are not in line with the consensus view, so they must be wrong. The Paleochronology Group argues that the conventional potassium-argon method used to obtain the very-old dating of Mesozoic fossils tests the supposed age of the surrounding deposits, not the fossils themselves.

Anyway, these are intriguing findings, and the controversy over them reveals a tendency to deny anomalistic evidence, findings that don’t fit the prevailing paradigm. Such denialism can particularly manifest if critics have an ideological bias that requires a very, very long time frame for life on earth, a long enough time frame for chance and necessity to supposedly produce a vast diversity of life. As atheist champion Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986) Intellectual fulfillment does not die easily.

Anyway, those two sets of findings by paleontologists are suggestive of the possibilities for a novelist writing historical fiction based on Biblical settings. With some speculative elements thrown into the scenario, it might be possible to let some of the human characters encounter some strange and dangerous beasts. In fiction, the anomalous can make for good storytelling.

By the way, if you enjoy reading articles like this — and if you want to keep up with news about my historical-fiction series, The Edhai — please sign up today to receive my free email newsletter.

ARK — 15 January 2015





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In the popular mind, geological processes are extremely slow — the past was very much like the present, and the layers of soil, rock, and sediments that can be observed on cliffsides and in gorges were laid down very slowly, over thousands or millions of years. This concept of uniformitarianism is tied up in the popular imagination with evolution, which is also supposed to require eons of time to do its work.

Because geological uniformitarianism and evolutionism so conveniently prop one another up in so many people’s superficial beliefs about science, it’s not surprising that popular media don’t say much about catastrophism — the idea that geological processes can happen very quickly. Better not to complicate matters by revealing too many nuances and complexities.

Debris from Mt. St. Helens landslide

Unfortunately, then, it often falls to creationist groups to present evidence that geological processes can happen very slowly or very quickly and that it can be hard to tell the difference. As an example, I thought this article from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) was interesting: “Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism,” by Steven A. Austin, Ph.D., chair of the geology department at ICR. ICR teams have studied the geological changes that occurred as a result of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. (The photo shown here is linked from the U.S. Forest Service web site about the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Austin’s article:

Up to 400 feet thickness of strata have formed since 1980 at Mount St. Helens. These deposits accumulated from primary air blast, landslide, waves on the lake, pyroclastic flows, mudflows, air fall, and stream water. Perhaps the most surprising accumulations are the pyroclastic flow deposits amassed from ground-hugging, fluidized, turbulent slurries of fine volcanic debris, which moved at high velocities off the flank of the volcano as the eruption plume of debris over the volcano collapsed.

Austin adds that:

Conventionally, sedimentary laminae and beds are assumed to represent longer seasonal variations, or annual changes, as the layers accumulated very slowly. Mount St. Helens teaches us that the stratified layers commonly characterizing geological formations can form very rapidly by flow processes. Such features have been formed quickly underwater in laboratory sedimentation tanks, and it should not surprise us to see that they have formed in a natural catastrophe.

Austin’s article discusses rapid erosion that has occurred as a result of mudflows, including a 140-foot-deep canyon system. He also describes a mat of upright logs that has formed in spirit lake, which offer an alternative interpretation of petrified forests that have been found at other locations. Geological processes have also laid down a rapidly-form peat layer that resembles coal beds found in other locations.

AB — 16 February 2011

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A recent story from BBC News emphasizes how difficult it can be to pick out the science from the hype when reading science news reporting.

The article, “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’,” explains some recent research by a Durham University professor based on a computer simulation of climate change over the last 42,000 years, and how this would have affected vegetation.

This sounds pretty interesting, but what struck me more than anything was the way the results were reported, certainly by the BBC reporter, possibly by the researchers as well.

Reading the headline, you would think the case is closed — our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not guilty — vindication at last! “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’.”

One clue that the truth is more nuanced can be seen in the BBC headline writer’s weaselly use of single quotes. The headline writer can make the article sound more sensational, while using the quotation marks to shift the burden of proof on others. (See a colleague’s comments on this practice: “John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks.”)

The article says that the reason for the mammoth’s extinction has been controversial. Some scientists claim it was climate change, others that it was encroachment by humans. Others have rolled in the beloved deus ex machina of a meteor strike.

Now, according to the BBC writer, “that debate has been settled.” Case closed! Congratulations on your latest sensational science story!

But then I notice a quote from the actual scientist:

What our results have suggested is that the changing climate, through the effect it had on vegetation, was the key thing that caused the reduction in the population and ultimate extinction of mammoths and many other large herbivores,” he said.

“Our results have suggested…“? Humans have been exonerated and debates have been settled based on … ‘suggestions’?

Certainly a computer simulation of climate change and its affect on vegetation is interesting and useful, but it’s really just one piece of scientific evidence. And, like any computer program, a simulation is subject to one of the basic limitations on any computer program: Garbage in, garbage out. Not that the simulation is wrong, but it could be, especially if it is programmed based on erroneous assumptions.

When reading science news reporting, or original scientific research for that matter, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to prove definitively what happened in the past. And the further in the past the events in question, the harder it is to prove anything, without written records by reliable observers.

Digging up bones, fossilized pollen, or pottery shards from the ground is valuable work, as are analyzing DNA and running computer simulations. But the interested reader needs to keep in mind that scientists (and the journalists who write about their work) have skin in the game in one way or another — whether that be professional ambitions, funding to attain, reputations to uphold, or just plain personal ideologies to justify.

ARK — 21 August 2010

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[Updated 18 June 2010]

This post is always going to be a work in progress, as there is a lot to say about it and there seems to be no end to the lunacy of those who adhere to Evolutionist ideology.

Normally I steer away from the design-evolution debate, but I think it will be useful for public discourse — and also for the Edhai project — to articulate some thoughts about what I call “knee-jerk evolutionism.”

I use the term “evolutionism” because for many writers, researchers, and commentators, a belief in evolution rises to the level of ideology — 10 percent science and 90 percent disingenuous credulity.

I use the descriptor “knee-jerk” because for many people evolution has become an unquestionable underlying assumption and is often trotted out for the skimpiest of reasons as an explanation for human behavior or phenomena in nature.

When I use the word “evolution,” I use it in its fullest sense, as in this definition:

Organic evolution is the theory that the first living organism developed from lifeless matter. Then, as it reproduced, it is said, it changed into different kinds of living things, ultimately producing all forms of plant and animal life that have ever existed on this earth. All of this is said to have been accomplished without the supernatural intervention of a Creator. Some persons endeavor to blend belief in God with evolution, saying that God created by means of evolution, that he brought into existence the first primitive life forms and that then higher life forms, including man, were produced by means of evolution.

(Source: Reasoning From the Scriptures. Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1985).

Recent examples of the Evolutionist ideology can be seen in the otherwise-excellent books The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan and Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Both authors fall back on evolutionary psychology and sociobiology and the requisite just-so stories as explanatory tools for phenomena in nature and human psychology.

A post on BoingBoing from Andrea James on 11 January 2010 makes some great points about knee-jerk Evolutionism — see “What’s wrong with evolutionary psychology?” James provides this excellent list of “often-believed tenets of evolutionary psychology”:

  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
  • The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.

James also quotes a hilarious (but not untypical) example from one paper that maintains that “women’s brains developed to prefer pink because their brains specialized with trichromacy for gathering fruits”:

… these underpin the female preference for objects ‘redder’ than the background. As a gatherer, the female would also need to be more aware of color information than the hunter. This requirement would emerge as greater certainty and more stability in female color preference, which we find. An alternative explanation for the evolution of trichromacy is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and ’empathizers.’

Another particular silly example of sociobiology attempts to explain why middle-aged men embarrass their kids by dancing awkwardly at weddings (see “‘Dad dancing’ may be the result of evolution, scientists claim,” Matthew Moore, Telegraph):

The cringeworthy “dad dancing” witnessed at wedding receptions every weekend may be an unconscious way in which ageing males repel the attention of young women, leaving the field clear for men at their sexual peak.

“The message their dancing sends out is ‘stay away, I’m not fertile’,” said Dr Peter Lovatt, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire who has compared the dancing styles and confidence levels of nearly 14,000 people.

I expect to update and expand this entry from time to time, as the silliness in this area of fringe science is never-ending.

ARK — 10 December 2009

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