What are the implications of finding dinosaur flesh and blood cells? Could this material really last millions of years?
Everyone loves dinosaurs. As you walk into The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, you meet Sue. Sue is the Tyrannosaurus rex now infamous for how complete this fossil is. The way that Sue is positioned is reminiscent of the T. rex in the original Jurassic Park. The main dinosaur scientist in the movie is based on a real-life dinosaur scientist. Paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner was the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant in the movies. Dr. Jack Horner and his star pupil Dr. Mary Schweitzer are known for their ground-breaking discoveries from the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. This particular site is where many fossils have been identified and continues to yield amazing specimens. One of the more recent finds from that formation was isolated from a T. rex thigh bone discovered by Jack Horner and given to Mary Schweitzer. Mary Schweitzer made perhaps the most significant discovery in paleontology for at least a decade. She discovered dinosaur soft tissue inside the thigh bone from a fossilized T. rex.
Finding soft tissue in fossils is significant because the fossil-bearing rocks in the Hell Creek formation date back to what’s referred to as the Cretaceous Period, which evolutionists say happened 65.5 million years ago.[i] The reason dinosaur[ii] soft tissues are so significant is because soft tissues should not be able to exist that length of time. Allow me to explain a little background information.
One of the common views about fossilization is that it takes many years to form a fossil. What most people don’t realize is that secular paleontologists disagree with that view because they recognize how rapidly fossils must form.[iii] The commonly accepted view of fossilization involves replacement of original tissues with other inorganic chemicals that turn the creature something more like rock (though this is not always how it happens or what exactly they turn into).[iv] The original tissues from the creatures are called soft tissue because they’re obviously soft and also because they do not fossilize well.[v] What Schweitzer actually found inside the T. rex bone was actual bone cells and blood cells: soft tissues. If dinosaurs are millions of years old, then their fossils should be almost entirely rock-like without anything like a cell.
“If dinosaurs are millions of years old, then their fossils should be almost entirely rock-like without anything like a cell.”
When an animal dies, enzymes from environmental microbes along with our own cells begin to slowly decompose dead tissues. We observe this empirically and call it decay. When something decays, every cell that once was alive begins falling apart at the cellular level to leave behind nothing. Decay of soft tissues is a fantastic design feature within ecosystems to prevent more dominant created kinds from overgrowing and decay allows nutrients to be recycled. In case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t a bunch of dead, rotting, decaying things lying around, piled 10 miles high, when you go on a nature hike. The process of decay works so well that it makes life possible and beautiful. In fact, the finding of soft tissue from dinosaurs should grab everyone’s attention (because dinosaurs are cool) and make everyone recognize exactly how young dinosaurs are (because secular scientists and compromising creationists want you to believe that they’re really old).
In a recent series of articles, compromising creationists[vi] and some evolutionists have speculated how dinosaur soft tissue could possibly exist. There was extreme skepticism initially, from evolutionists, toward Mary Schweitzer because “everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t have soft tissue today” (meant to read with intense sarcasm). Let me be abundantly clear: Mary Schweitzer is an evolutionist, committed to millions of years, and was the first scientist to discover dinosaur soft tissue.[vii] Evolutionists were attacking evolutionists because belief in millions of years is more important than finding truth and evaluating it for what it is.
Evolutionists desperately want an explanation for the existence of soft tissue over millions of years or they might actually become creationists. The most straightforward interpretation of dinosaur soft tissue is that it actually is very young. Evolutionists and compromising creationists maintain an older earth because man can be the authority on dinosaurs rather than God’s Word being authoritative. As a result, different explanations to conjure old soft tissue from dinosaurs are like a flash in a pan. Some of the popular opinions (not science) to explain dinosaur soft tissue include bacterial biofilms, the protein collagen, and the presence of iron.
The biofilm within?
Some of the explanations for the dinosaur soft tissue called them bacterial biofilms.[viii] This explanation was based on close examination inside the bone where there was something looking like a proteinaceous matrix (i.e., something gooey). So protein somehow appeared inside a fossilized dinosaur bone and remained there for millions of years (without being degraded themselves). The irony is that this first explanation doesn’t even question whether there is something gooey on the inside of the bone. Furthermore, they say it happened sometime in the past—completely ignoring that it could’ve happened just days before they looked. They don’t even argue that it could actually be something gooey inside the fossilized dinosaur bone. In a feeble attempt to explain what the goo is, they claim some bacteria put it there in the form of a biofilm.
What is “biofilm”?
[A biofilm is any group of microorganisms in which cells stick to each other on a surface. These adherent cells are frequently embedded within a self-produced matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). Biofilm extracellular polymeric substance, which is also referred to as slime (although not everything described as slime is a biofilm), is a polymeric conglomeration generally composed of extracellular DNA, proteins, and polysaccharides. Biofilms may form on living or non-living surfaces and can be prevalent in natural, industrial and hospital settings. ]
I’m hard-pressed to come up with an explanation of how only very few bacteria even got inside the fossil in the first place. Furthermore, they say with complete certainty that it is a biofilm. Trust me, I’m a molecular microbiologist, I know what a bacterial biofilm looks like and that soft tissue looks nothing like a biofilm. What’s amazing is all the news reports that supposedly claimed that this (only now, but not before they reported it) is a damaging blow to the creationist interpretation of the dinosaur soft tissue. It seems that the popular news media is more impressed with the ability to pull an explanation from thin air than to actually realize that no one really believes in the biofilm story anymore. No respectable secular evolutionist uses the biofilm story to explain the soft tissue (at least if they’ve followed actual evidence). At the end of this explanation is nothing but a gooey mess. They desperately tried to find something, concocted an entire story, never proved what it was, nor even mentioned a mechanism, or a modern example, and still managed to get through the secular peer-review process. While there are merits to peer-review, the problem is peer pressure and maintaining the status quo.
Even more amazing is that old earth creationists initially bought this explanation because they desperately want an old earth over a young earth. The difference compromising creationist tried to make was that their interpretation of the biofilms was the only true interpretation and proved that the Bible teaches an old earth. It’s funny how secular scientists use the make-believe biofilm as factually proving evolution while the compromising creationists similarly cite it as factually proving Scripture. Scientific proof is a hard term to use for a scientists and I think each group is claiming proof for their side because it’s not actually a struggle for the evidence. The strong irony to this situation is that a follow-up scientific paper demonstrated that it isn’t a biofilm story inside the bones.
It all depends on what you mean by the word similar
Others have tried to say that bone proteins are capable of withstanding millions of years of decay.[ix] The particular protein cited as proof is the protein collagen. Once you get past the so-called science of the biofilm inside the bone, the scientific community was beginning to believe it was actual protein—but unsure how it could’ve existed for millions of years. The discoverer of the soft tissue sent the protein away for protein sequence analysis, identified it as the protein collagen, and said that the collagen sequence is similar to that of modern-day birds. Creationists must be wrong now (and not before) because the protein similarity is very strong with birds.
Since I’m a molecular biologist, I know that even “tough” proteins degrade easily over short periods of time. Furthermore, I don’t know how determining the sequence of a protein does anything besides determine the sequence of a protein. A sequence is a sequence. The sequence analysis also cannot be used to support millions of years. With this protein sequence information available, they abandoned the biofilm idea in favor of genuinely calling it soft tissue; however, they now claim that because they can sequence it that it must be millions of years old. There is a gap in their logic so big that you could drive a Mack truck through it (almost literally).
Previously, scientists conveniently argued that the leftover stuff looking like a protein inside the dinosaur bone actually wasn’t a protein so they could ignore the presence of that protein. Now that the protein has been sequenced, only now is it acceptable to acknowledge the protein exists and that it proves evolution.[x] You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can’t claim the protein doesn’t exist initially and then show us it’s a protein in the next breath. It sounds a bit like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but in the name of science. Just because collagen is found inside dinosaur bones and just because someone gets some protein sequence data cannot mean that these proteins are millions of years old or that the young earth view is incorrect (it’s a straw-man argument). Having the ability to sequence a protein from a dinosaur is astounding. Protein sequencing typically requires a little extra protein to begin with because some of the protein is lost along the way simply because of the methodology. What makes these protein sequence results unique is that the protein is not just intact, these proteins are abundant.[xi] Therefore, we can trust the data itself because they weren’t working with a small sample size. According to an old earth view, there should be no chance of sequencing any dinosaur protein; but that’s precisely what was done.
What’s particularly striking about the protein sequence itself is the strong disconnect in the logic used by those claiming the soft tissue is old. I’m disheartened when hearing the compromising creationists siding with the evolutionists on this one because the similarities between dinosaur and bird are not surprising at all if we adhere to a Common Designer. Evolutionists get extremely happy that the dinosaur collagen resembles modern bird collagen. The gap in the evolutionist argument is that protein similarities with other species does nothing to prove when or how they evolved. The human cytochrome c protein is 100% identical to chimpanzee’s. Using an evolutionist’s logic, they would have to conclude that humans are chimpanzees and vice versa. Cytochrome c is just one of myriad proteins that could be used as examples to highlight the problem with making the protein sequence comparison. Furthermore, compromising creationists citing the protein sequence similarity between dinosaurs and birds are going against their own interpretation of science and Scripture. Oftentimes, progressive creationists ardently argue that there was no common ancestry over millions of years. So how could a progressive creationist cite the protein sequence similarities as proof for millions of years because the millions of years’ argument aligns with the evolutionary argument for millions of years and demands common ancestry. In an effort to cite the protein sequence as proof of millions of years found in the Bible, they actually make a stronger argument supporting common ancestry than the millions of years they love so much.
Too hard to swallow
The latest explanation involves iron at the center of the blood protein called hemoglobin (which carries oxygen to our cells and gives our blood its red color). [xii] Scientists went into the lab to try and increase the time required to degrade protein.[xiii] While they were able to increase the time, it was no where significant enough to solve the problems they’re facing. I have four basic issues with their explanation involving iron.
- The primary claim involving iron is that it acts as a metal chelator. Chelators prevent enzymes involved in tissue degradation from working properly. Chelators remove metals from solution and so they would take away important metals for proper enzymatic activity. They hypothesized that the iron was a chelator that prevented soft tissue degradation. While the argument can be made that iron chelates, no scientist working at the lab bench primarily uses iron as a chelator. If iron actually chelating other metals, then you would expect the entire vasculature from all dinosaurs (and even older fossils) must be intact because they all carry hemoglobin and iron. This is a losing problem in a major way.
- Maybe I’m too practical, but how could microbes break down everything soft from the dinosaur except what’s inside the bone? I find it far-fetched that microbes would break down an entire dinosaur everywhere iron is present… except inside the bone. The main principle in microbial ecology is that bacteria are everywhere. I’ve got a better chance of pulling a rabbit out of an electric socket than to suggest no bacteria were around to break down soft tissue inside dinosaur bones.
- My biggest problem citing iron to explain soft tissue preservation is that bacteria breaking down soft tissue using iron. Using up iron available iron doesn’t leave behind much iron to prevent soft tissue degradation. This is an example of trying to have their iron and eat it, too.
- What exacerbates the problem is there needs to be an iron abundance in all dinosaur soft tissues found to date. That would include skin, ink, horns, and many more.[xiv] Finding soft tissue proteins in supposedly ancient rock begs the question: why isn’t more soft tissue preserved since iron is an abundant mineral in the earth?
Evolutionists and compromising creationists are committed to an old earth over common sense and simple logic. You don’t need a biochemist to tell you about the basic minerals in our diet. [xv] The same is true for other creatures. Picking one mineral out of every single known mineral is performing mental gymnastics beyond what’s reasonable.
Not that hard, folks: still raw and fresh
There is a simpler reason for the dinosaur soft tissue: it’s not old; it’s young. It’s so young that it fits within the biblical timeframe of when God created. Just because humans aren’t found in the fossil record with dinosaurs isn’t proof we never co-existed.
One example that highlights how to interpret the fossil record is lion fossils and human fossils. Did you know that lions aren’t found in the fossil record with humans? Ever notice no one suggests that humans and lions were separated by millions of years? There is an enormous number of living animals found in the fossil record that are not found in the same rock layers with humans. Does that mean that these living animals evolved just today or that humans evolved just today? You have to pick one of those scenarios if you reject the plain reading of Scripture. According to Scripture, dinosaurs were created on day 6, with humans, but lived in separate ecosystems.[xvi] I dare you right now to open up a secular biology textbook to the fossil record, cover up the time listed on the geologic columns, and notice how each geological layer within the fossil record uses words to describe different ecosystems (filter feeders/ bottom dwellers, marine fish, amphibians, etc.). Ecosystems are tied to geologic layers and geologic layers are tied to ecosystems. The presence of dinosaur soft tissue in supposedly old geologic layers is not a problem scientifically: it’s a heart issue.
All soft tissue isolated from the fossil record is a big problem because we don’t have soft tissue only from dinosaurs. We cannot ignore that dinosaurs aren’t the only soft tissue in the fossil record to accommodate our presuppositions for an old earth. The simplest explanation[xvii] is that the biblical Flood provides for a snapshot of the ecosystems existing before they were trapped into the rock layers and deposited all over the earth. Suggesting that dinosaurs are young is not abandoning reason—it’s using reason. With that reason, we open Scripture and see it provides real testable hypotheses that an evolutionist or compromising creationist would never consider with regard to dinosaur soft tissue.
Not only did God create the dinosaurs, He also created us. Dinosaurs weren’t created as mistakes that needed destruction some 60 million years ago because they were created imperfectly by God somehow. Neither are we cosmic accidents gradually progressing towards something more. We cannot casually allegorize Scripture to accommodate old dinosaurs and old soft tissue without having to allegorize humanity. This difference between using science to interpret Scripture versus Scripture to interpret science maintains that we alone bear His image and that He loved us enough that He died for our literal (not allegorical) sin debt.
If death and suffering are recorded in the fossil record, then there was death before Adam sinned. Death before sin is a major problem because Adam’s sin is directly tied to Christ’s atonement (Romans 5). If Adam sinned first, then death came after sin. That means the entire fossil record of death and suffering must have come after the Fall. It is entirely logical, then, for the fossil record to essentially be one single ecosystem burial that teaches us of our sinfulness. One major deposit to produce the fossil record makes scientific sense of dinosaur soft tissue. But if we hold that Adam’s sin cursed all of creation (instead of the other way around), then there is true Hope for us in the Son of God. He died in our place that we might live.
[ii] One of the things that I always like to bring what is that most people cannot even tell you the definition of what a dinosaur is. Many times people will simply tell you that the dinosaurs were these big animals that lived a long time ago. The problem with a definition like that if you have to use that definition on big animals today and then call them dinosaurs, too. So if you use big animals as your definition then you have to include stuff like whales and giraffes. So we call them a kind of lizard that died a long time ago. That definition gets hit with a dinosaur is a little better, but it’s still misses the mark. The definition of a dinosaur is based on four basic characteristics that are present within the skeletons left behind in the fossil record. http://paleobiology.si.edu/dinosaurs/info/everything/what_2.html
[iii] In saying that fossilization happens rapidly, it still doesn’t mean that everything had to happen catastrophically. Fossilization in and of itself cannot be used as evidence to support Scripture. We must consider additional information that relates to where the fossil was found and how well-kept the specimen has been in the rock layers.
[iv] Carefully note in the following quote from the National Center for Science Education that “Geologists never said that all geological processes were tranquil.” http://ncse.com/book/export/html/2842
[v] Soft tissue is primarily made of cells uniquely arranged and helps distinguish between body parts like our skin and our eyes (as just one example).
[vi] The issue of the age of the Earth is a side issue within Christianity because it is not an issue that determines whether you are saved or not. There is no verse in the Bible that says unless you believe the Earth is thousands of years old that you are condemned to hell. However, the age of the Earth becomes an issue because it relates back to can we trust the words of Scripture or should we trust the words of man.
[vii] In her defense, there are some reports that Mary Schweitzer is an evangelical Christian. Whether she is or not will not be discussed here. Only what she has published in the secular science literature.
[x] The presence or absence of this protein would be used to argue millions of years. It’s not actually because of the protein, but that they’re actually more committed to their belief system than having a hard look at the evidence.
[xi] Protein similarities should not be reason to adhere to millions of years. When scientists analyze the classic example of cytochrome c, they find that there is 0% difference between humans and monkeys. But think about it, wouldn’t 0% difference mean that we’re identical to monkeys? As if, we are monkeys! That’s crazy. It’s crazy because of poor logic as well as a myopic approach to the topic. If you choose a different protein like lysozymes, you’ll find that there is nearly 0% difference between humans and chickens. Monkey lysozymes is significantly different from humans. It all depends on the story you’re trying to sell.
[xii] http://www.livescience.com/41537-t-rex-soft tissue.html
[xiii] Did you notice what was just said? They purposefully tried to slow down the degradation process. They weren’t try to understand degredation. Two completely different questions entirely. No doubt you’ll end up with a different answer.
[xiv] Brian Smith at the Institute for Creation Research used to keep a current list. He gave up on keeping it current because soft tissues coming from old rocks is now the norm and not the exception.
[xv] I’m a microbial physiologist. I study how microbes break down food sources and metabolize them. Growth is the ultimate source of metabolism.
[xvi] Are dinosaurs mentioned in Scripture? Yes, but with different names. The reason for the different names is because the Hebrew words for Behemoth and Leviathon are difficult to translate. If you read the descriptions of these creatures, they are clearly what we call dinosaurs today.
[xvii] Occam’s razor is a famous concept that the simplest explanation is often right. When you have to work harder than is reasonable to explain an observation, then chances are that your explanation is incorrect. The simplest explanation of dinosaur soft tissue is that it is young. That is straightforward and sensible.
Dr. Andrew J. Fabich grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, OH before moving to Columbus, OH to finish high school and attend Ohio State. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he married his high school sweetheart and began graduate school. Dr. Fabich has now joined Truett-McConnell University as an Associate Professor of Biology. He and his wife have 4 children.