Friday, April 28, 2006

A Christian Paleontologist -- Is Such a Thing Possible?

Remember the announcement that soft tissue had been discovered from a Tyrannosaurus rex bone? And how young-earth creationists claimed that this was proof that dinosaur fossils were not ancient?

We just got our issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, and it is fascinating to discover here that the scientist who made the discovery of the soft tissue is herself a Christian:

Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent [Paleontologist Mary] Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

and here:

Further discoveries in the past year have shown that the discovery of soft tissue in B. rex wasn’t just a fluke. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have now found probable blood vessels, bone-building cells and connective tissue in another T. rex, in a theropod from Argentina and in a 300,000-year-old woolly mammoth fossil. Schweitzer’s work is “showing us we really don’t understand decay,” Holtz says. “There’s a lot of really basic stuff in nature that people just make assumptions about.”

Young-earth creationists also see Schweitzer’s work as revolutionary, but in an entirely different way. They first seized upon Schweitzer’s work after she wrote an article for the popular science magazine Earth in 1997 about possible red blood cells in her dinosaur specimens. Creation magazine claimed that Schweitzer’s research was “powerful testimony against the whole idea of dinosaurs living millions of years ago. It speaks volumes for the Bible’s account of a recent creation.”

This drives Schweitzer crazy. Geologists have established that the Hell Creek Formation, where B. rex was found, is 68 million years old, and so are the bones buried in it. She’s horrified that some Christians accuse her of hiding the true meaning of her data. “They treat you really bad,” she says. “They twist your words and they manipulate your data.” For her, science and religion represent two different ways of looking at the world; invoking the hand of God to explain natural phenomena breaks the rules of science. After all, she says, what God asks is faith, not evidence. “If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.”

By definition, there is a lot that scientists don’t know, because the whole point of science is to explore the unknown. By being clear that scientists haven’t explained everything, Schweitzer leaves room for other explanations. “I think that we’re always wise to leave certain doors open,” she says.

I feel tolerably certain that the fact that the reporter carefully used the term "young earth creationist" is due to the fact that Mary Schweitzer herself used it in the interview, since as a rule popular science journalists are not particularly careful in their taxonomy of creationism. *

The article goes on to talk about Mary Schweitzer's "unorthodox approach to paleontology," including her interest in astrobiology.

Maybe her different perspective from other scientists comes from her being a Christian paleontologist. You can't really get a sense of it from the quotations in the article, but really, if there was anything that would teach you independence of mind, it would be being a Christian paleontologist.

Cross-posted at Here We Stand.

UPDATE: Helen Fields, the author of the article wrote this: Hi there - nope, it was me who picked 'young earth creationist' - I didn't want my readers to mix them up with the intelligent design folks. Actually, in an earlier version of the story, I also explained intelligent design and how this is different, but, well, it got cut for space. Too bad, but that's how it goes. I'm flattered she stopped by and made the comment!