FOSSILS — FLIM-FLAM OR FACT?

John H Williams

(Investigator 132, 2010 May)

"I take nothing on faith – I am a skeptic. You want me to take you seriously? Back it up with facts.
That's the difference between science and fantasy." (Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer)




They've been appearing in the media: significant fossil finds!

First, there's Ida (Darwinius massillae), a 47 million year old lemur-like creature of the Eocene period, who, said the British Daily Mail (20/5/09) was, apparently, "our oldest relation".

What excites palaeontologists are her human-like characteristics (forward-looking eyes and opposable thumbs) at a time when the primate family tree was splitting into two groups, one with humans, apes and monkeys, the other with lemurs and bush babies.

She's been hyped by her ‘promoters' as the
"eighth wonder of the world" and "the first link to all humans", and those who now own this immaculately fossilised creature (dug from the Grube Messel Pit near Darmstadt in Germany in 1983, and worth $1 million) have exaggerated her likely link to Homo, while others are more careful, though they concede that D massillae can shed light on human evolution, and it's the kind of key fossil find Darwin predicted about 140 years ago..

Australian scientists have been busy too, telling us more about the significance of the giant kangaroo (Procoptodon goliah) which became extinct about 45,000 years ago (The Advertiser 23/6/09), and which "evolved in response to increased aridity", thus hunting by humans was a more likely cause of its demise than climate change.

Then we were introduced to Clancy, Matilda and Banjo (The Advertiser, 4/7/09), newly discovered dinosaurs (Wintonittan wattsi, Diamantinasaurus matildae and Australovenator wintonensis) who lived in the greenhouse-enhanced world of the northern (tropical) part of the ‘Antarctica/Australia' island 98 million years ago in the Middle Cretaceous, when ‘we' were pulling away from ‘Antarctica', and ‘island India' was en route to its collision with the SE edge of Laurasia.
Banjo was "Australia's answer to the Velociraptor, but many times bigger and more terrifying". These new dinosaur finds mean that Australia can yet again be regarded as prime source region for dinosaur finds: it implies that many more extinct species remain undiscovered, allowing the diminution of our still substantial ignorance of our past.

As an avid fossil-hunter in my late teens, I sometimes fantasised about unearthing finds that would make the front page of the Merthyr Express, and have the fossil gurus of the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff phoning my parents (though we  didn't have a phone) with the news of a new species named ‘Dino williamsis'. I and my (only) fellow-geology student, now Emeritus Prof Randall Baker of New Bulgarian University, had free train travel there on Friday afternoons, so we could study the best specimens from the geo-treasury that is Cymru (Wales).

Since the rocks most accessible to me were of Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous age, and nearly all were in quarries and cuttings worked over by previous palaeo-hunters, I knew that finding rare dinosaur remains required longer journeys to the Jurassic/Cretaceous, and the best that I could hope for was a fish's tooth. The other dream was to find any Pre-Cambrian fossil during fieldwork in the Longmynd of Shropshire: the closest I got was a highly ambiguous 'worm-trail'!

The above is a preamble aimed at Young-Earth Creationists and Intelligent Designists (YECs/IDists). Ida, Banjo, Clancy and Matilda are just four of the thousands of fossil species that severely challenge their version of the Earth's story. I'd like to resolve what, if anything, is wrong with that above: if it is flim-flam, I'd really like to know, and why.
1 Ida's about 47 million years older than ‘Creation' (about 7,700 times older). How does one explain this discrepancy?

2 If Ida and nearly all other life that's existed have become extinct, how does this fit the concept of an intelligent and omniscient designer/creator?

3 How did the ID god (actually, God) construct the first male and female D massillae, and what were ‘his' sources for blood, DNA, intestinal flora?

4 What evidence, if any, is there that the ‘German' volcanic lake into which Ida fell (she was only 6-9 months old, and had a broken wrist) was part of the Great Flood 4,500 years ago?

5 How would one explain the assemblage found in the 40 species fossil trove of Messel Pit (such as partials of D massillae and a highly diversified vertebrate and invertebrate Eocene fauna, all of the same age, including turtles, fish, manatee, as well as a unique anteater, Erotamandua joresi, the primal tapir, Hyrachus minimus and the primitive horse genus, Propalaetherium.

6 There's a creationist lobby-group called Truth In Science which has been trying to persuade the British government to have ID taught in schools. If TIS had its way, would D massillae have been on that smelly and overcrowded ark, along with Ken Ham's "15 kinds of dinosaur"? Could someone please explain the mechanics of how breeding pairs were known about, found, caught and transported to the Ark? 

7 How does a believer in Bible ethics, including the Ten Commandments, view Britain's leading ID/YEC proponent, Professor Andy McIntosh? He has used:

(a) A photograph of a Cretaceous T Rex, called "Stan", sourced from the Oxford University Museum for publication to accompany his article in the Salvation Army's The War Cry (9/5/09), in which the museum caption was omitted, and replaced with, in large font, "Dinosaurs coexisted with humankind". In his article he writes, "God created dinosaurs on the fifth and sixth days…and many died out in the Flood. (I thought that the 15 kinds on the Ark were supposed to evolve extremely rapidly to become thousands of dinosaur species and then become extinct, presumably at the same time as H sapiens was becoming more numerous?)

(b) An un-sourced and unnamed photo of a S. Moroccan ammonite, probably of Lower Jurassic age, with the caption, "Fossil evidence is consistent with a global flood".

(c) The line that "there was no death, predators, prey and suffering before the Fall", and that scary Australovenator was a vegetarian.

There is more of the same literal drivel, and it's shocking because Dr McIntosh is a highly regarded leader in his field of chemical engineering, thermodynamics and combustion theory at the University of Leeds. I've written letters to the Editor of The War Cry, Major Nigel Bovey, pointing out the caption errors, and requesting corrections in a future issue.



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