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Two Short Poems on the Nature of Scientific Explanations and God and Science

by Clarence R. Wylie Jr.

Not truth, nor certainty. These I forswore
In my novitiate, as young men called
To holy orders must abjure the world.
'If...,then...,' this only I assert;
And my successes are but pretty chains
Linking twin doubts, for it is vain to ask
If what I postulate be justified,
Or what I prove possess the stamp of fact.

Yet bridges stand, and men no longer crawl
In two dimension. And such triumphs stem
In no small measure from the power this game,
Played with the thrice-attentuated shades
Of things, has over their originals.
How frail the wand, but how profound the spell!

by Ronnie J. Hastings, Ph.D. (1983)

Galileo was chided by the God-fearing for observing that the solar system is Copernican, not Ptolemaic.
And yet... the wanderers did and do move about the sun.

Newton was chided by the God-fearing for describing all motions with mathematics, not with divine will.
And yet...measurements in mechanics could and can be predicted with precision through calculation.

Lavoisier was chided by the God-fearing for explaining chemistry as quantative reactions, not as miracles or magic.
And yet...substances did and do appear and disappear with predictable regularity in labs everywhere.

Darwin was chided by the God-fearing for showing the diversity of life resulting from ecological factors and adaption to them, not from theistic interventions.
And had and has a single structure and has changed and does change forms in time.

Einstein was chided by the God-fearing for demonstrating the democracy of observers, not the absolute God's-eye view.
And and time have changed and do change from frame of reference to frame of reference, and the laws of nature have been and are the same for all frames.

Perhaps the God-fearing are right to fear God. If God is the source of reality, they have been fighting or ignoring God's facts for four hundred years!

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Michael Denton, is now an Evolutionist

Source: Nature's Destiny. From the impossibility of evolution to the inevitability of evolution: Anti-Evolutionst Michael Denton turns into an 'Evolutionist'. A review by Gert Korthof version 3.1b 23 May 2000

Quote from the book :
"It is important to emphasize at the outset that the argument presented here is entirely consistent with the basic naturalistic assumption of modern science - that the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes. This is an assumption which is entirely opposed to that of the so-called "special creationist school". According to special creationism, living organisms are not natural forms, whose origin and design were built into the laws of nature from the beginning, but rather contingent forms analogous in essence to human artifacts, the result of a series of supernatural acts, involving the suspension of natural law. Contrary to the creationist position, the whole argument presented here is critically dependent on the presumption of the unbroken continuity of the organic world - that is, on the reality of organic evolution and on the presumption that all living organisms on earth are natural forms in the profoundest sense of the word, no less natural than salt crystals, atoms, waterfalls, or galaxies." (page xvii-xviii).

In Nature's Destiny Denton refers to Kaufmann(1) and deDuve(2), to show that, given the right initial conditions, the origin of life and evolution is inevitable.

Can we find crucial evidence in his book which converted him to evolution ? The key passage, I think, occurs in the paragraph "The Closeness of All Life in DNA Sequence Space" of CH 12 (p276). It must have been the key insight for Denton.
It reads:

"One of the most surprising discoveries which has arisen from DNA sequencing has been the remarkable finding that the genomes of all organisms are clustered very close together in a tiny region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be interconverted via a series of tiny incremental natural steps."

"So the sharp discontinuities, referred to above, between different organs and adaptations and different types of organisms, which have been the bedrock of antievolutionary arguments for the past century (3), have now greatly diminished at the DNA level. Organisms which seem very different at a morphological level can be very close together at the DNA level." [emphasis & note are mine]


1. Stuart Kaufmann: At Home in the Universe (1995). It is instructive to compare what Phillip Johnson wrote about Stuart Kaufmann : "....and some plausible rescuers will invite the officers to take refuge in electronic lifeboats equipped with high-tech gear like autocatalytic sets and computer models of self-organizing systems." (p170, Darwin on Trial, 1993). It is clear that there is now a gap between Johnson and Denton(1998). The most important reason however is that Denton accepts the naturalistic assumption of science, which Johnson rejects. Michael Behe wrote a few 'words of praise' at the back cover of Nature's Destiny, Johnson is absent.

2. de Duve: Vital Dust(1995).

3. Including Denton(1986) himself ! He forgets to mention himself !

Even at the ARN website you can read about Denton and Paul Nelson (of the Discovery Institute) going at it on their way to a "Mere Creation" conference: First stop, who gets in but Paul Nelson. Paul and I have known each other. Then Thane Ury (Bethel College) gets in. We start talking and then son-of-a-gun Paul says, "There is Michael Denton"--I couldn't believe it. Lean 50-ish guy with a shock of white, close-cropped hair wearing a shirt that looks like the top for a pair of long underwear. I spent two weeks one summer vacation in Montana outlining various chapters from Evolution: A Theory in Crisis just to drive out the Darwinian poisons I imbibed from my mother's milk. The biggest shock was finding he is so engaging and approachable! He and Nelson started dukeing it out right away. It was fantastic. Here I was with a bad cold, barely holding on to my name tag, fortunate to have taken all the right turns thus far--and bango, the conference starts en route. Paul says "common ancestry is an assumption." Denton says, "the such-and-such goes down and around the something else and why doesn't it just go straight across?" And Paul says, "But how do you know that the down and around isn't optimal?" I remember that point. Then Denton says, "Yeah but when you have delivered as many babies as I have you notice things." He gestures downward with both hands cupped as though he is about to deliver one. He says "Right after they are born they go like this"--he then does a grasping motion with both hands raised. In my semi-fevered state I saw a new born hominid grasping its mothers' fur--right there in the van. He gave a name for the reflex [primate grasp] but even without it I could see that he knew a thing or two about how our kind and kin are born. The conversation in the van was not really a conversation. Denton started talking and gesturing in a very distinctive fashion. He makes his points by jabbing the air with his middle finger--quite unselfconsciously. Possibly this too is a primordial rhetorical reflex with an interesting aeteology. Denton proceeded to develop an evolutionary cosmology, the point of which is that there is abundant evidence for common descent and it is equally clear that evolution is directed and programmed. Indeed Denton affirmed two things--and this is apparently the thesis of his book now under contract at Simon & Schuster--that humankind literally is the point of creation and he is the end product of a divine design. Paul seemed to just let him go, but I sensed Paul was saving up for another time.

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Response to 'Darwinism and the Nazi Race Holocaust'

Someone sent me the web address of an article at the Answers In Genesis site by Jerry Bergman, titled, "Darwinism and the Nazi race Holocaust," and I composed a reply:

BERGMAN (author of "Darwinism and the Nazi race Holocaust" and the Answers in Genesis website): Hitler's government relied heavily upon Darwinism, especially the elaborations by Spencer and Haeckel.

ED: Note the admission, "...especially the elaborations of Spencer and Haeckel." It's the "elaborations" of others, rightly or wrongly that most influenced Hitler, this becomes even clearer below, concerning various "Nazi scientists" listed below and their prejudicial modes of thinking that preceded their eugenics theories concerning "the Jews."

BERGMAN: The Nazis relied heavily upon the work of Hans F.K. Günther, professor of 'racial science' at the University of Jena

ED: Note the admission, "relied heavily upon the work of Hans F. K. Günther," whose "work" consisted of "proving" the "inferiority of the Jews." Why "the Jews" you ask? Because Günther and many other Germans "knew" that the "Jews" were inferior long before Günther ever did his first "racial science" experiment (sic). In fact, many Germans believed that "Jews" were inferior for CENTURIES, because the Bible and Martin Luther told them so. So really, what DOES the Holocaust come down to? Günther's "racial science," a Jew-hating pseudoscience, based firmly on centuries of Jew-baiting and Jew-hating under the Christian cross.

BERGMAN: Poliakov notes that many intellectuals in the early 1900s accepted telegony, the idea that 'bad blood' would contaminate a race line forever, or that 'bad blood drives out good' , just as bad money displaces good money. Only extermination would permanently eliminate inferior genetic lines, and thereby further evolution. . Darwin even compiled a long list of cases where he concluded bad blood polluted a whole gene line, causing it to bear impure progeny forever.

ED: This idea of "telegony" does not necessarily warrant "extermination" in the sense of killing people, just sterilization. I also wonder whether Darwin ever mentioned the words "bad blood" and spoke about it "polluting" a whole gene line. He probably did collect examples in which a pedigreed dog or pigeon was bred with a wild type and the children of that offspring no longer bore pedigreed offspring. But so what? Does that mean build ovens and kill Jews, homosexuals, Poles, and Gypsies? Darwin did invent a theory of inheritance that involved gemmules carried in the blood that carried physically inherited information, but it was disproven long ago. Nobody believes Darwin's theory of inheritance any more.

BERGMAN: Hitler believed that Blacks were "monstrosities halfway between man and ape"

ED: More of Günther's "racial science" at work? Bergman does not say. But the prejudiced idea of Black's being mere savages goes back BEFORE Darwin's day. The Europeans at that time looked down upon the Blacks in Africa and Indians in the Americas for not advancing technologically as fast as they had. The Europeans had guns and steel. The Blacks still had only spears. It proves nothing of course, except that races that develop technology tend to regard the less technologically advanced races with derision, and probably underestimate their capabilities. (Imagine how advanced beings in passing UFOs feel about everyone on our planet?) As for Blacks having a "mundane genetic character" that made them prone to being enslaved, see the "Biblical views" of the president of the Institute of Creation Research in America, found at the very end of this e-mail.

BERGMAN: Relatively few scientific studies exist which directly deal with Darwinism and Nazism

ED: Those wouldn't be "scientific" studies, those would be historical studies.

BERGMAN: . and many evolutionists avoid the subject because evolution is inescapably selectionist.

ED: The word "selectionist" by itself means nothing. Bergman is just straining like the devil to connect everything the involves "Hitlerian, Güntherian, genocidal" selection with Darwin's theory of "natural selection" - a theory that in the biological realm, even some creationists accede to, especially the ones who admit that microevolution occurs.

BERGMAN: One of the best reviews of Darwinism and Nazism documents clearly that Nazism felt confident that their programs of extermination was firmly based on evolution science.

ED: Just because someone is "confident" their beliefs are "based" on something does not mean it is. It merely tells us how "confident" that person was in their belief that it was. So believing one's views are "based on science" doesn't make it so. What was Nazi "racial science" really based on? Perhaps centuries of prejudiced racism? It was also based on "science" prior to the human genome project discovery that all human beings are, genomically-speaking, almost "identical twins" and that the notion of "races" is obsolete. But scientists knew that even BEFORE the human genome project which merely reinforced what they had already discovered via other types of experiments. Speaking of being "based on science," there are still Christian groups who espouse racism and who believe their views are "based on science, or at least on what they claimed was common sense," as did the Christian whites in South Africa, as did Christian slaveholders in the South of the U.S. (As I've pointed out, South Africa was a heavily Protestant Christian nation, that gave more money for missions per capita than even America, and that was during the time of their practice of apartheid, when it was also illegal to teach evolution in schools, nor did they allow the broadcast of any of Sagan's COSMOS programs that dealt with evolution. So, creationism and Christianity in South Africa went hand in hand with apartheid.) And speaking of the idea of "things being firmly based upon" other things, what about all the crazy ideas that one Christian group or another affirms are "firmly based" on the 'Bible," and which another Christian group rejects, though both claim "the Bible" is the "basis" for all their beliefs? And the fact that such disputes have ended in excommunications, riots, murders and wars? Based on the Bible, Early American Puritans were convinced that if the native Americans would not convert, then they should be destroyed like the Canaanites, without mercy, man, woman and child. Need some quotations on that? I've got references. Might make a nice article at the Answers in Genesis site, "Christianity, the Bible, and the Native American Holocaust."

BERGMAN: An assessment by Youngson concluded that the application of Darwinism to society, called eugenics, produced one of the most tragic scientific blunders of all time: "The culmination of this darker side of eugenics was, of course, Adolf Hitler's attempt to produce a 'master race' by encouraging mating between pure 'Aryans' and by the murder of six million people whom he claimed to have inferior genes. It is hardly fair to Galton to blame him for the Holocaust or even for his failure to anticipate the consequences of his advocacy of the matter. But he was certainly the principal architect of eugenics, and Hitler was certainly obsessed with the idea. So, in terms of its consequences, this must qualify as one of the greatest scientific blunders of all time."

ED: Taken from a book titled Scientific Blunders; A Brief History of How Wrong Scientists Can Sometimes Be. No doubt the authors of a book about "science's" greatest blunders are going to play up the "science" aspect behind such blunders and ignore the centuries of religious intolerance and cultural egotism that preceded such blunders. Not to mention the charismatic ideologue, Hitler, and his ideological mass movement that carried out the exterminations proposed by their "leader." I'd say; the Holocaust was a typical case of an alpha male leading his pack of gorillas. And that perhaps a lot of Christians today are being "primed" by their ideology which teaches them to bow down to a holy book or leader, to bow down to the next charismatic leader who comes along and is able to feign both "Christianity" and "science" in the name of some obviously prejudicially based plan which he assures us will "save the world," and thereby wreck it.

Speaking of pseudoscience that is not based on Darwinism, but on a prominent creationist's reading of the Bible check out the following:


From Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, Creation-Life Publishes, San Diego, 1976, I quote this passage: "Sometimes the Hamites, especially the Negroes, have even become actual slaves to the others. Possessed of a genetic character concerned mainly with mundane, practical matters, they have often eventually been displaced by the intellectual and philosophical acumen of the Japhethites and the religious zeal of the Semites." There is no scientific evidence for any "genetic character" basis for a disposition to "the mundane" (nor for a "genetic character" for a disposition to "philosophy or religion") in certain peoples, and no biblical basis for assuming that a general distinction of this kind is genetic either. The notion of a genetic disposition to the mundane in certain populations is an utter fabrication. But it suits Morris' view of the Biblically prophetic curse of one of Noah's three sons, which he sees as thereby being fulfilled because he has interpreted it as being fulfilled, via his fallacy of a "genetic character toward the mundane" for an entire group of people.

ENDNOTE: Morris is careful to avoid the word "race," but instead speaks of "genetic character": "Note that these three streams of nations are not three 'races.' Though some have thought of the Semites, Japhethites, and Hamites as three races (say, the dusky, the white, and the black races or the Mongoloid, Caucasian, and Negroid), this is not what the Bible teaches, nor is it what modern anthropology and human genetics teach. There are dusky and black people found among all three groups of nations. The Bible does not use the word 'race' nor does it acknowledge such a concept. The modern concept of 'race' is based on evolutionary thinking. To the evolutionist, a race is a subspecies in the process of evolving into a new species, and this idea is the basis of modern racism . "

This passage by Morris again demonstrates no knowledge of modern anthropology and genetics which are integral to modern evolution, and which teach that the notion of "race" has indeed become vacuous. But not because the Bible told them so.

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Are miracles more falsifiable than neo-darwinism?

"Darwinian evolution is not falsifiable", because "if the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection of random mutations fails to make any adaptive change after millions of years, Darwinists like Mayr protect their theory from falsification by claiming that the "proper" mutations never occurred in order that natural selection could make use of them (Moorhead & Kaplan 1967, pp.63-64)".

ED: Are miracles more falsifiable than neo-darwinism? So what exactly have you gained with your argument above? Indeed, I don't see the point of arguing against neo-darwinistic investigations in favor of miracles -- as if one could find the points at which God stuck his finger into the genome and fiddled with this or that mutation, and distinguish such divine finger pushing from mutations that simply came about naturally. You DO believe that we have evidence of mutations that occur naturally, don't you? Do you also agree that the genomic distance between the human genome and that of the COMMON ANCESTOR of chimp and man, was perhaps half the genomic distance as that between man and chimp currently? And do you further agree that the known NATURAL MUTATION RATES as measured via differences in the non-functional homologous regions of the human and chimp genomes (and as cataloged during meiosis) are HIGHER than the rate of MUTATIONS that are NECESSARY to change the COMMON ANCESTOR into both chimps and humans? Ipso facto, the burden of proof lies on the side of the folks who think it was a miracle. They have to SHOW GOD'S FINGER MOVING THE EXACTLY MUTATIONS INTO PLACE, because scientists already know that THE MUTATION RATE IS HIGH ENOUGH AND THE TIME IS LONG ENOUGH TO CHANGE A COMMON ANCESTOR OF MAN AND CHIMPS INTO BOTH MAN AND CHIMPS.

It's like Newton and the question of the movement of the planets: People wanted to believe God's finger/God's angels moved the planets, but their movements were found to be mappable based on mathematical equations. That didn't disprove that angels moved the planets, and indeed, Newton himself allowed that minor perturbations in their orbits could be "fixed" by the direct hand of God from time to time. But in the end nothing came of that "direct hand of God" theory as physics advanced further in understanding even minor perturbations.

I also showed in my post that minor ADAPTATIONS DO continue to occur even in species allegedly "identical" to their distant ancestors, as evidenced by comparing ancient fossilized species and modern versions of them. The minor differences are there to be found. I also showed that instead of stasis, evidence of large scale adaptations can also be found, including species growing INCREASINGLY more adapted, via STEPS, from say the land mammals to primitive whales to modern day whales. Or from feathered reptiles to less well adapted flying reptiles to modern day birds. Some forms apparently don't remain primitive for long, there seems to be some instability while in the primitve stages and they either adapt further or grow extinct, like primitive feathered reptiles, primitve whales, and hominids, which all went extinct on the way, respectively, to modern birds, modern whales and man. While most other forms remain stable for long periods, like bacteria, jellyfish, flowering plants, coelocanths, monkeys, apes. But even the most stable forms arose as part of an ORDERLY evolution-like trajectory over time, from single cells to multicellular organisms from monkeys to primitive apes to hominids to man, etc.

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Videos of Primitive Eye Spot

#1 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#2 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#3 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#4 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#5 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#6 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#7 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#8 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#9 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#10 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

#11 Sample of Red Primitive Eye Spot on Euglena

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Geology at Torrey Pines, San Onofre and Del Mar Formation

Photos and footnotes on fossil shells in the West Coast Monterey Shale, San Onofre, Torrey Pines State Beach.

Geology at Torrey Pines and San Onofre
Contributed by Dave E. Matson, Oak Hill Free Press

Featured below are a few of the fossil shells that I came across earlier this year.

About 45 to 50 million years ago the West Coast resembled the East Coast in that there were barrier islands with quiet, mud-filled lagoons. The climate was such that large beds of oysters flourished along with other creatures, such as small, coiled sea snails. Eons later, that mud later got converted into somewhat greenish-gray shale--the Del Mar Formation.

The first shell photo shows a nice, whole oyster fossil resting on the Del Mar Formation. The second shell photo shows the underside of an oyster fossil along with some embedded, coiled snail shells. The 4th shell photo is a closer view of another coiled snail shell. These three fossil photos were taken at the Torrey Pines State Beach, just north of San Diego.

San Onofre
Enlarge Image, 96 k - san_onofre_large.jpg
Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

The 3rd photo is from San Onofre Beach, a short walk south of the nuclear reactors. These fossils are "only" about 20 million year old and are found in the Monterey shale.

Torrey Pines
Enlarge Image, 112 k - torrey_pines_large.jpg
Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

Geology Photo #1: Torrey Pines. At the very top, not much in evidence here, is the Bay Point Formation (~120,000 years) which consists of loosely consolidated, brown sediments washed down from the hills. The thick, sculpted strata is the Torrey Pines sandstone (~45 million years). It is probably the remains of sand from off shore, barrier islands. The Del Mar Formation (45-50 million years) which consists of layers of mudstone, shale and white/gray sandstone lying on a greenish shale, came from lagoonal muds occasionally flooded with sand from the barrier islands. The scene is similar to the coast of Texas today, which is flat and has barrier islands and lagoons.

Geology Photo #2: San Onofre. A secondary fault may be seen as a thin diagonal in the San Mateo sandstone (4-5 million years) truncated by a later layer of marine boulders of about 125,000 years of age. The brown strata on top is less than 120,000 years old, being washed down from the hills. The white, San Mateo sandstone is underlain by Monterey shale (15-20 million years). To the right, (out of sight) of the secondary fault is the main fault, the Christianitos Fault, which has been inactive for at least 125,000 years as indicated by the undisturbed layer of marine boulders above it.

Fossil Shells
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Shell Photos #1 - Whole oyster fossil resting on the Del Mar Formation.
Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

Fossil Shells
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Shell Photo #2 - Underside of an oyster fossil along with some embedded, coiled snail shells
Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

Fossil Shells
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Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

Fossil Shells
Enlarge Image, 88 k - fossil_shells_04.jpg
Photo Courtesy Dave E. Matson

Del Mar Formation

Del Mar Formation
Contributed by Dave E. Matson

August 8, 2006

I'm including 7 new photos from my March 25, 2006 stop at Torrey Pines. Torrey Pines State Beach is just north of La Jolla, which is the northern coastal extreme of San Diego. The famous cove there is where I went snorkeling for years.

The following photo shows a minor unconformity, where angled strata meet level strata. The angled strata is the slow fill-in of our scour channel. Some of the layers lasted long enough to have developed their own community of shelled creatures. Later, the top of the angled strata was leveled by erosion, probably during a temporary retreat of the sea. The more strata was deposited.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 89 k - del_mar_formation_01.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

These fossils in a pebble from the Del Mar Formation at Torrey Pines, California, are 45-50 million years old. I thought the pebble was kind of artsy.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 188 k - del_mar_formation_02.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Bean clams on the beach make up the lower-right photo on this page. In San Diego, years ago, I saw a dense patch of them, each clamping on to a bit of seaweed. It looked like that patch of beach was growing something!

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 193 k - del_mar_formation_03.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Here, we see the green shale portion of the Del Mar Formation (45-50 million years), which was once the mud of a lagoon between a low shoreline and offshore barrier islands of sand.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 167 k - del_mar_formation_04.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Artsy pebble on sand.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
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Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 142 k - del_mar_formation_07.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Just south of the scour-channel strata are these spectacularly-colored strata. A dense layer of fossil shells is found in the strata at about the ankle level of the two visitors.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 123 k - del_mar_formation_06.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

At the Torrey Pines Nature Center overlooking Soledad Valley, which is the northern boundary of the Torrey Pines area.

Barnacles and Bay Mussels on Flat Rock at Flat Rock Point. Torrey Pines State Beach, California. The beach is part of the Torrey Pines State Reserve, a Pines State Beach, California. The beach is part of the Torrey Pines State Reserve, a wildlife preserve. There, the rare, stately Torrey pines grow naturally. Their needles are gray-green and in bundles of five.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 416 k - del_mar_formation_08.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

Lemonade Berry, a hearty bush, is usually found near the coastal areas. (Rhus integrifolia of the family Anacardiaceae). The fruit exudes a sticky, sour substance that can make a lemonade-like drink!

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 88 k - del_mar_formation_09.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

On the side of Flat Rock at Flat Rock Point, Torrey Pines State Beach, sea anemones (or some other soft creatures on the side of this rock) collect shells for protection.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 163 k - del_mar_formation_10.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

At the Torrey Pines Nature Center, overlooking Soledad Valley, which is the northern boundary of the Torrey Pines area.

Del Mar Formation
Del Mar Formation
Enlarge Image, 83 k - del_mar_formation_11.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave E. Matson

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A general introduction to the history of fossil studies, religious apprehentions, how the fossil record and the field of paleontology were established.

17th century ammonoid fossils
Figure 1.1 Seventeenth century illustration of ammonoid fossils (Cornua ammonis, or "snake stones") drawn by Robert Hooke, father of microscopy and paleontology in Britain, 1703).

"In the mountains of Parma and Piacenza multitudes of rotten shells and corals are to be seen, still attached to the rocks... And if you were to say that such shells were created, and continued to be created in similar places by the nature of the site and of the heavens, which had some influence there --such an opinion is impossible for the brain capable of thinking, because the years of their growth can be counted on the shells, and both smaller and larger shells may be seen, which could not have grown without food, and could not have fed without motion, but there they could not move.
And if you wish to say that it was the Deluge which carried these shells hundreds of miles from the sea, that cannot have happened, since the Deluge was caused by rain, and rain naturally urges rivers on towards the sea, together with everything carried by them, and does not bear dead objects from sea shores toward the mountains. And if you would say that the waters of the Deluge afterwards rose above the mountains, the movement of the sea against the course of the rivers must have been so slow that it could not have floated up anything heavier than itself."
- Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500

What is a Fossil?

We have been conditioned to connect fossils to extinct organisms, and difficult to imagine any other explanation. One definition that seems satisfactory, is "any evidence of prehistoric life". We are not only limited to direct evidence, but all indirect evidence. The state of preservation has little to do with determining whether an object is a true fossil. Dinosaur bones are direct evidence, however, many times indirect evidence are considered, such as preserved footprints in mud, fecal material (coprolites) and gastrolliths (pebbles which presumably aided in digestion), worm borings and chemical substances from prehistoric algae and bacteria, such chemicals fossils are products of metabolism and evidence of such nature, are all defined as fossils.

For understanding methods of natural fossilization, visit "How A Living Organism Becomes a Fossil".

The ancient Greeks believed giant mammoth remains to be remains of mythological giants while mystified by seashells found hundreds of feet above sea level. They wondered if the ocean once covered the land, or did these fossils form within rock like crystal. In the sixth century B.C. Xenophanes of Colophon discovered shells in a high cliff on the island of Malta, concluding perhaps the sea once covered land. The oldest known record of such belief, was by Xanthos of Sardis around 500 B.C. who believed fossils were remains from extinct animals entombed in rock. For 2000 years, the belief expressed by Aristotle (384 B.C.) remained influential, suggesting fish fossils were remains of sea animals that had swam into cracks of rocks and stranded.

From latter days of the Roman Empire, people believed in the literal six day creation and the worldwide flood of Genesis, casting confusion on the proper interpretation of fossils and rocks. Most individuals who lived during those times had limited knowledge about what lie at the bottom of the ocean. Many fossils share no resemblance to species familiar to Europeans. The living chambered nautilus was discovered in 1829, - Europeans could scarcely imagine coiled objects known as Cornua ammonis ("Horns of Ammon") (Figure 1.1), "serpent stones" -- and bullet shaped belemnites (Fig. 1.2.), were relatives of squid and octupus.

Figure 1.2 Illustration by Conrad Gesner from 1565 of bullet-shaped belemnites and crinoid columnals. These organisms resembled no known species to Renaissance Europe, Gesner included. They were presumed to be a product of falling stars due to the starlike pattern in some of the crinoids.

Even today, people who chance to pick up one, often fail to recognize these cylindrical crinoid columnals as relatives to of the sea urchin. Few people have seen the rare crinoids which still dwell on the ocean floor. Scholars once referred to them as "star stones" (Lapis stellaris or Astroites stellis) believing the star-shaped pattern in the columnal and the radial pattern in fossilized coral to be a product of thunderbolts or falling stars.

The word fossil comes from the latin, fossilis meaning "dug up". Educated men during the Middle Ages and Renaissance began to make speculative interpretations of fossils. At first the word fossil was applied to any formation found in a rock, remains of organisms as well as non-organic crystals and concretions. Some believed those formations resembling living creatures were caused by animals who had been stranded in the rock and turned to stone. Others believed they were grown from seeds or washed in during Noah's flood. Other scholars believed they might be pranks of the Devil, for the purpose of destroying faith, while others presumed supernatural origin, (lusus naturae) or "figured stones" produced by mystical "plastic forces". These assumptions may seem strange today, but during the time they were sensible for people who held the widely shared belief in a literal Genesis and a 6,000 year old earth.

Around 1500, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) acknowledged fossil shells in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy, located far away from any coastline, represented ancient aquatic life. Unlike his colleagues, da Vinci knew it was unlikely they were washed there during Noah's flood, many of the shells being too fragile for such a journey, and impossible to have washed there by the Flood in forty days. Many of the shells were intact, and in a position which was not dissimilar to extant species living near the seashore, simply, they did not appear to be the product of transported organisms. Some of the shells beds were divided by layers of unfossiliferous strata, it did not appear to be a formation produced by a single devastating flood. Most of da Vinci's ideas remained unpublished, for they would not have been accepted at the time.

In 1565, the Swiss physician Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) authored "On the nature of fossils", De rerum fossilium. It was the first work that illustrated fossils. This, along with brief descriptions by earlier authors could be made more accurate. (Fig. 1.2). Gesner's publication were based on his own fossil collection, and those of colleagues which began the modern tradition of exchange, analysis and comparison. Correct in his comparisons of most fossils with living relatives, but Gesner concluded some items such as the crinoid columnals and belemnites were formed by mineral precipitation. Just as many of his contemporaries, Gesner interpreted from a supernatural perspective, Neoplatonic "ideal forms" and failed to explore the implications that are obvious to most of us today.
Through his publication, four main questions were raised:

  1. Are fossils organic remains?
  2. How did they get into rock?
  3. When did they get there, -when it was formed, or afterward?
  4. How was it the creature became petrified?

Answers to these questions were first offered by Niels Stensen, also known as Nicholaus Steno (1638-1686), a Dane physician. Living near the Apennine Mountains, Steno had the opportunity for a closeup firsthand look at the shells. In 1666, he dissected a large shark caught near Livorno. Upon inspection of the mouth of the shark, he saw that its teeth closely resembled fossils known as "tongue stones", latin glossopetrae which were previously considered petrified snake or dragon tongues. (Fig. 1.3) Steno now realized tongue stones were actually petrified remains of ancient shark teeth, and that fossils were a product of once-living organisms.

tongue stones
Figure 1.3 Illustration by Nicholaus Steno from 1669, showing "tongue stones" and their similarities with modern shark teeth.

Steno published De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus in 1669, "Forerunner to a dissertation on a solid naturally contained within a solid". Steno's publication focused on how solid objects got inside solid objects. Steno theorized the enclosing sandstone must once have been loose sand, which was later petrified into sandstone, an idea which overturned the idea that rocks had been created during the first days of Creation and remained so, as we see them today. Steno's observations extended into further understanding of relative age of geological features, in other words Fossils encased in rock must be older than the rock which formed around them. However, crystals grow within the fabric of the rock, after the rock formed. Steno generalized the principles of superposition, original horizontality and continuity, fundamental principles in historical geology and stratigraphy. Just as the Prodromus was being published, Steno made a conversion to Catholicism forfeiting his interests in science, so the promised disseration never followed. Later, he returned to Denmark, where he lived until his death.

Around the same time of Steno's publication a British scientist, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was coming to similar conclusions. Hooke was responsible for one of the first microscopes and the first sketches of microscopic organisms, including cellular structure, thus he became known as "the father of Microscopy". In 1665, Hooke made several observations, suggesting fossils might be a useful means to make chronological comparison of age in rocks [similar to coins aiding in accurately dating records in Rome], including the first accurate fossil drawings published posthumously in 1705 (Fig. 1.1). Hooke made the observation that many of the fossils had no living counterparts, therefore he speculated that species may have a fixed "life span". At the time, it was commonly believed the earth and all species had been created a mere 6,000 years before and all species still alive. What Hooke proposed was the first hint at the extinction of species.

Most of the ideas put forth by Steno and Hooke were rejected, until around a century later. Throughout the early 1700's, beliefs about fossils were still influenced heavily by Biblical tradition. In 1726, Swiss naturalist Johann Scheuchzer (1672-1733) described one particularly large fossil, "the bony skeleton of one of those infamous men whose sins brought upon the world the dire misfortune of the Deluge." Scheuchzer named it Homo diluvii testis, or "Man, a witness of the Flood". This early on, comparative anatomy was not advanced enough to make a clear distinction, and the fossil was later discovered to be a giant fossilized salamander. (Fig. 1.4).

Homo Diluvii Testis
Figure 1.4 Homo diluvii testis "Man, a witness of the flood", as Scheuchzer so named the fossil. Donald R. Prothero, "Bringing Fossils to Life", makes the following humorous observation, "Scheuchzer's anatomical skills were not up to his Biblical knowledge, since it is actually the fossil of a giant salamander."

Another sad event involved Dr. Johann Beringer (1667-1740), dean of the Wurzberg, Germany medical school. Fascinated with the "petrifications" that collectors had given to him, he composed a large monograph of the "figured stones". Some bore resemblance with frogs, shells and other natural objects, some with stars and other curious patterns. Colleagues whom Beringer had offended passed off the carved objects, but confessed the hoax too late to stop publication. He was ruined, and died spending his last pfennig attempting to buy back all the copies of the book.

By the mid eighteenth century, naturalistic fossil concepts prevailed. Linnaeus published the Systema Naturae in 1735, which classified all life including fossils, which were treated and named the same as extant species. At the dawn of the nineteeth century, Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) made progress in the area of comparative anatomy, demonstrating how certain features; claws, sharp teeth, hooves and grinding teeth, were correlated. It is to Cuvier we owe the paleontological tradition to predict unknown anatomical structure, based on a comparison with anatomy of close relatives. Cuvier also showed how bones from mastodonts and mammoths were in actuality, an extinct elephant-like species and explorers had discovered no species like them. Cuvier became the founder of comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology, bringing the study of fossils away from much of the Biblical superstition previously overshadowing it. Prior to this time extinction was an unacceptable fact for it went against everything believed aobut the creation account in Genesis. For instance, as Donald Prothero states, "If God watched after the little sparrow, surely He would not allow any of his creatures to go extinct."

During the late eighteenth century, William Smith (1769-1839) an engineer from Britain, was surveying for canal excavations and made the observation that fossils reveal a pattern -each formation had different assemblage, as he wrote in 1796, "the wonderful order and regularity with which nature has disposed of these singular productions [fossils] and assigned each to its own class and peculiar Stratum." Smith became an expert at recognizing the fossils in each formation and correctly identifying the layers from which the specimens orginated. Smith used his knowledge of faunal succession in the first geological map, which was published in 1815. At the same time, Cuvier and a colleague Alexandre Brongniart were mapping the Paris Basin's strata. Though independently, these men realized there was a regular fossil succession, differing formation to formation. These discoveries eventually led to modern concepts of biostratigraphy, a means to explain earth's history.

By the time Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the understanding of fossil complexity had became so widely accepted among scholars, few took Noah's flood literally.

PaleobiologyBringing Fossils to Life, An Introduction to Paleobiology, McGraw Hill Publishers, Donald R. Prothero

PaleobotanyPaleobotany and the Evolution of Plants, by Cambridge University Press; 2 edition, Wilson N. Stewart, Gar W. Rothwell

DinosaursKingfisher Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia, Kingfisher Publishers, David Burnie


Adrienne Mayor's books

1) The First Fossil Hunters (Princeton 2000) explains how ancient Greek and Roman discoveries of mysterious petrifed bones of extinct dinosaurs and mastodons led to myths about griffins, giants, and monsters. Watch for "Ancient Monster Hunters" on the History Channel.
2) Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton 2005) gathers exciting Native American discoveries and myths about fossils, from tiny shells to enormous dinosaur bones, with stories from more than 45 different tribes, beginning with the Aztecs & Incas.

Stephen Meyer's article, "Are Dinosaurs Mentioned in the Bible?"

Edward T. Babinski wrote: "In 1726 [Prof. J.J. Scheuchzer] mistook the skull and vertebral column of a large salamander from the Miocene of Oeningen for the "betrübten Beingerüst eines alten Sünders" (sad bony remains of an old human sinner) and figured the specimen as "Homo diluvii testis" (the man who witnessed the Deluge).

SOURCE: Dirk Albert Hooijer, "Fact and Fiction in Hippopotamology (Sampling the History of Scientific Error)," Osiris, Vol. 10. (1952), pp. 109-116.

Funny comment about the above sentence: Assertion, emphatic and immune to reason, might not be the best foundation for a new critical practice; but we also can’t tell our salamanders from sinners.

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