Monday Minute: A Soft Spot for Dino Bones

Over the past decade, a new generation of paleontologists has been refining its techniques to recover something that should have been lost forever: remnants of soft tissue. The preservation of soft anatomy, such as organs, skin, feathers, and even individual cells, has been demonstrated from the rock record for decades, albeit as an extremely rare occurrence. For example, soft tissues from acritarchs, conodonts, and even dinosaurs have left exceptional imprints in fine-grained rock that allow paleontologists to study far more than just bone anatomy.

In 2005, however, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer published the results of a long-term study that challenged our views on soft-tissue preservation. Up to that point, fossilized soft anatomy was precisely that: fossilized. They were but imprints in the rock, left over from organic matter that had long decayed. But Schweitzer was able to recover what appeared to be blood vessels in a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen by carefully dissolving the mineral material that replaced the bone. Knowing how these results would be twisted and abused by the young-Earth movement, her advisor, the famed Jack Horner, prophetically bemoaned:

Dammit, Mary, the creationists are just going to love you.

Since 2005, the science of recovering organic molecules (including proteins) from multimillion-year specimens has grown exponentially, as researchers began to look for something they thought could not be there. Even by conservative estimates, it was thought, these molecules should have disintegrated after hundreds of thousands of years, right?

Not exactly. Predicting the preservation potential of organic molecules (especially durable ones, like collagen) requires blind extrapolation into the past, using a host of assumptions about the environment in which fossilization proceeds. In other words, there are no established limits on how long organic molecules can survive in rocks, especially when encased in hard minerals, such as silica. Rather than object, “We found soft tissue in dinosaur bones, so the bones cannot be 65+ million years old“, the proper and scientifically honest response is “We found soft tissue in dinosaur bones, so we now know that under special conditions, these organic molecules can survive tens of millions of years.”

Why?

Because the age of the dinosaur-bearing rocks is far better established than potential preservation limits for fossilized soft tissue. The geochronology of strata such as the Hell Creek Formation in Montana is rooted in multiple, independently verifiable methods that can be replicated through data collection and corroboratory analyses. On the other hand, we can not establish experimentally how rapidly bone osteocytes would dissolve under every possible burial scenario in Earth history.

Last year, Mark Armitage, a microscope technician who was working at California State University Northridge, made headlines when he was fired shortly after publishing his discovery of soft tissue forms (no actual tissues were recovered) in a triceratops horn. While his wrongful dismissal suit is pending (and may even be in his favor), this young-Earth creationist’s passionate search for soft tissue is characteristic of the movement today. In their view, soft tissue preservation constitutes irrefutable evidence that the conventional timeline is drastically mistaken, despite that no actual paleontologists have reached the same conclusion. As Greg Neyman has already pointed out, the main reason is that soft-tissue preservation is an absolute rarity in the fossil record, whereas the Flood geology paradigm would predict it to be the rule! If the majority of the fossil record were truly less than 6,000 years old, then we could have sequenced the genomes of nearly every dinosaur by now, and Jurassic Park would be the Ark Encounter’s main competition.

Nonetheless, in a desperate attempt to uphold the young age of the triceratops horn, Armitage and his co-author submitted two samples for radiocarbon dating, from which they obtained dates of 33,570 and 41,010 years. Apparently, they ignored the fact that radiocarbon dating of bone material is notably inaccurate unless significant amounts of unaltered collagen can be recovered, of which the triceratops horn contained none. What these dates actually reflect, therefore, are the varying levels of organic acids and mineral carbon (i.e. contamination) that became locked up in the bone matrix while it lay beneath a soil horizon, along with the traces of atmospheric CO2 that were inevitably introduced to the carbon-poor sample while reducing it to graphite (a preparatory step in radiocarbon analysis).

But how do we know that radiocarbon dating does not confirm, along with soft-tissue remnants, a young age for the bones? Besides the insurmountable conflict these dates produce with the firmly established age of the sediments, the radiocarbon ages obtained by Mark Armitage (along with those reported by Hugh Miller) vary by more than three half lives of 14C. But if the 14C measured by the radiocarbon lab was intrinsic to the bone (not contamination), and if these dinosaurs were all buried in the same worldwide flood, then all of the samples should yield approximately the same age. The fact that they don’t unequivocally disproves the paradigm being touted by Armitage, Miller, and young-Earth ministries like ICR and Answers in Genesis, who disingenuously continue to report such results in their favor.

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