2012 in Review: Soft Tissues

Unexpectedly, a new article has appeared in the DpSU section: The Best Creation Science Updates of 2012: Earth Sciences, by Brian Thomas. From the title we can reasonably assume that this is the beginning of a series revisiting the year’s triumphs, something that didn’t happen last year. Conveniently this is also the first year when I already have stuff on the vast majority of all potential “best creation science updates,” so I can tell you already that “triumph” isn’t exactly the most accurate description.

Even though Thomas describes this article as being on the Earth sciences, all of his examples are of the preserved soft tissues variety. This argument points at examples of ‘soft tissues’ – a broad and rather vague category which includes proteins as well as the things that you would normally – that have been preserved in fossils and the like. According to the creationists, the dates calculated via radiometric dating and other means for the fossils that contain the tissue are much too old for the tissue to have been preserved all this time. Therefore, the radiometric dating must be wrong etc etc etc.

The argument falls down once you realise that we don’t actually know how long the soft tissues should last for. We do have laboratory studies, but these seem to be woefully inaccurate. For example, one article that did not make it into this round-up was about a study that investigated the “half-life” of DNA – how long it takes to decay. Rather than determining this by experiment, they looked at real degradation in samples from buried Moa bones. The rate they calculated was “almost 400 times slower than predicted” from laboratory testing. You can’t just look at something and guess how long it should have lasted.

Thomas’ first example involves a Mammoth protein story from January:

How do evolutionists explain the existence of original, albeit partly decayed, proteins and other biochemicals found in animal and plant fossils? Lab studies show that some once-living tissue can last for thousands of years, if kept dry and sterile. Therefore, most of the over 100 different proteins discovered as original wooly mammoth material should surprise secular scientists. The mammoth had been recovered from permafrost in Yakutia, Russia, in 1993. Its evolutionary age assignment of 43,000 years is difficult to reconcile with so many protein fragments, including serum albumin.

How Brian goes from “studies show that some once-living tissue can last for thousands of years, if kept dry and sterile,” to saying that the discovery “should surprise secular scientists,” is beyond me. Given the amount we (don’t) know about how protein lasts in the wild, it doesn’t seem hard to believe that 43,000 years in the deep-freeze could have done the trick. After all, Thomas thinks that the Mammoth is still a good 4000 years old – why is that plausible, but ten times that out of the question?

Second was about salamanders, from March:

Some might imagine that an unidentified phenomenon held the mammoth tissues together for thousands of scores years, but similar speculations applied to finds that are much deeper below earth’s surface appear foolish. Scientists continue to marvel at what they often call “remarkable preservation” of certain Chinese fossils from caches discovered in the 1990s. One of them is in the Daohugou beds, which have divulged fascinating finds like dark-colored tissues from skin fibers and stomach contents. On-going research should continue to confirm original tissue residues in Chines fossils.

What was discovered in the salamander case included some soft-tissue impressions (no more vulnerable to degradation than a footprint preserved in rock) and some kind of residue, which was not tested to determine whether or not it had been mineralised. Similar things seem to be true of the other finds mentioned. The Daohugou beds don’t provide the evidence Thomas claims.

Third is the squid ink saga, last seen in June:

Other locations also show promise of holding even more of these fossil time capsules. For example, in 2009, scientists began investigating a squid ink sac fossil still bearing its dark-colored, but dried-out, ink. They published their results in 2012, showing that its biochemistry was an almost exact match to the modern-day cuttlefish ink. Although the decay rate of ink is not yet characterized in detail, there is no scientific reason to believe that it could have persisted for 160 million years, which is how old evolutionists say it is. The researchers even drew a picture showing how the squid would have looked in life using the fossil squid ink! No wonder the study authors called this discovery “striking.”

At the time, I quoted from the accompanying press release:

Generally animal tissue, made up mostly of protein, degrades quickly. Over the course of millions of years all that is likely to be found from an animal is skeletal remains or an impression of the shape of the animal in surrounding rock. Scientists can learn much about an animal by its bones and impressions, but without organic matter they are left with many unanswered questions.

But melanin is an exception. Though organic, it is highly resilient to degradation over the course of vast amounts of time.

Melanin, the chemical that gives the ink its colour, is sturdy stuff. There is therefore a “scientific reason to believe that it could have persisted for 160 million years” – and certainly, we don’t know that it can’t.

Fourth and final is Schweitzer’s dinosaur stuff, most recently discussed in early November:

But the clearest confirmation of young-looking fossils and rock layers came from ongoing investigation into the increasingly famous Montana T. rex soft tissues. Prior studies verified the presence of the proteins collagen, elastin, hemoglobin, and osteocalcin in the T. rex—none of which are manufactured by the bacteria that skeptical scientists allege is responsible for the soft tissue. The new analysis discovered even more vertebrate-specific proteins and establish far beyond reasonable doubt that the tissues are from T. rex.

Of course, the evidence that shows “far beyond reasonable doubt that the tissues are from T. rex” are actually based in the assumption that birds and dinosaurs are closely related, something which Thomas rejects. Given the already mentioned “we don’t know how long the tissues should have lasted” problem, along with the explanation of a number of potential contributing preservation mechanisms in the “new analysis,” Thomas is jumping the gun in saying that the discoveries would be impossible if the fossils were tens of millions of years old.

Having run though his greatest-hits list, Thomas continues:

Of course, secular scientists expect none of these biochemicals to have persisted until today. But according to biblical creation, with the exception of the post-Flood Ice Age deposition of the mammoth, the year-long Flood of Noah formed these fossils not more than 5,000 years ago. Soft tissue fossils make much more sense in the Bible’s context.

Except, why is it that when we search for soft tissues in ten million year old fossils (considered by the ICR to be “not more than 5,000 years old”) we find only the occasional preserved protein, but if we look at material from, say, the last ice age (~10,000 years old, but nearer 4,000 by creationist calculations) we can dig up still-green plants? The data doesn’t seem to fit with the compressed time-line at all.

How do secularists respond to these challenging discoveries? Some ignore the evidence, probably because it does not fit the strong, but unsubstantiated, belief that fossils and rocks are millions of years old. Others continue to insist that original tissue fossils are from recent bacteria, despite the total lack of field evidence supporting this idea and plenty of evidence against it.

It should go without saying that B.T. has consistently mischaracterised the scientific position(s) throughout his article. Aside from the above, I can think of at least two other options. First, it seems entirely possible to argue against many soft tissue finds without holding dogmatically to the biofilm line of reasoning, which is only even relevant for some finds. Then there is the Schweitzer route. This involves arguing, as I have, both that the finds are real and that they could have been preserved for millions of years.

Thomas continues:

Mary Schweitzer, a leading authority on original tissue fossils, tried to punt the mammoth in the room when she wrote, “The idea that endogenous molecules can be preserved over geological time periods is still controversial.” In other words, the top scientists in this field have no real answers.

That’s a terrible translation – a controversy doesn’t mean that we have no answers, but that we have multiple and that they can’t all be right. Also, “punt”?

Anyway, those are Mr Thomas’ choice articles for 2012, at least on this topic. They’re hardly ‘triumphs,’ but you have to admit that they are great representatives of the “best.”

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6 thoughts on “2012 in Review: Soft Tissues

  1. “Lab studies show that some once-living tissue can last for thousands of years, if kept dry and sterile. ”

    How is this possible, seeing as how scientific labs have been in existence for no more than a couple of centuries?

    • That’s an interesting question, and might have something to do with the inaccurate results. I’m sure if the labs didn’t support his point Brian would be all over that.

  2. It was meant to be a rhetorical question, Peter!

    But — the thing that continually confounds creationists is the fact that ALL TISSUES CAN PRESERVE given the right circumstances. Highly mineralized tissues take longer to decay, and so are more likely to preserve. So preserved teeth (made of enamel, 99% mineralized) are more common than bones, and soft tissues are rare. But they are all tissues. Duh.

    The latest nonsense I’ve seen on creationist message boards is the notion that the Cambrian soft fossil preservation means that these fossils contain viable, living soft tissue (you know, like the dinosaur blood — of course blood, made of cells in a suspension of liquid, is also a tissue).

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