Why I Care for the Creation

The creation of God was designed to exist in goodness and harmony. To keep this harmony, God entrusts human beings with the duty to take care of the earth. The message of Scripture encourages us to foster ethical behavior towards the creation, centered on caring and stewarding, for at least seven main reasons:

  1. Creation: An Organic Unit

The original creation testifies in its beauty, complexity and biodiversity of the supreme intelligence and creativity of God. On the one hand, nature was created as a self-sufficient entity able to exist substantially well without humans. On the other, human individuals are entirely dependent on nature for their own survival.

This order presupposes that human beings are not the only ones who possess inherent value on earth. Humans are part of a very complex ecosystem in which every part contributes to the equilibrium of the whole. The entire system is envisaged to favor the full realization of life. Every kind of plant or animal, every cell, every atom, is a phenomenon of creativity, wisdom and genius (Psalm 104: 18-24) displayed by God, the Divine Engineer and supreme Artist of this cosmos. Thus, nature is not only our environment but also our partner. The beings that co-exist with humanity are not simple resources. As living creatures made by God, they are worth to be preserved and loved for what they are and for the sake of higher good (Psalm 104:18-24).

  1. The Ministry of Stewardship Entrusted to Humanity

The text of Genesis does not give free hand to humanity for the management of nature; instead, it orders the conservation of its resources (Genesis 2:15). Human beings received the responsibility, since the beginning, to keep the equilibrium of nature and to cultivate the delicate relation of solidarity between God’s created beings and their environment.

The fact that the care of the earth was promptly entrusted to the first human couple (Genesis 1:28, 2:25) suggests that the environment must never be entirely left to itself, but that human beings have a responsibility in the management of nature.

  1. The Earth Belongs to God.

Although nature was designed to sustain life, and therefore intended for the benefit of human beings as well, the environment does not belong to humans. The Bible affirms that God has ownership over the earth. Consequently, human beings have the moral duty of living responsible lifestyles that do not degrade the environment and promote the perpetuation of life (Genesis 1: 29-30). This entails respect for any kind of life, vegetal or animal (Hosea 2:18, Proverbs 12:10) and responsible management of natural resources (Deuteronomy 20: 11), with the permanent duty of protecting the environment (Revelation 11:18, 7:3).

  1. Biblical Laws on Environment

The Pentateuch establishes a whole series of laws of environmental value with the intention of helping to honor and preserve the received inheritance.

To avoid the exhaustion of cultivated lands, the Mosaic law prescribes one year of rest every seven working years, and tells that the earth deprived of its rest of fallow, “takes revenge” (Leviticus 26.14-35).

Numerous laws are apparently orientated to the maintenance of public hygiene and intended to prevent the most immediate forms of contamination, such as the health norms of “recycling” excrements and garbage, that is to say of “waste at risk” (Deuteronomy 23:13-15).

Among the precepts on the conservation of life we are surprised by the one which concerns the protection of fauna, notably the preservation of adult birds to ensure the perpetuation of their species (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

Other laws favoring the respect for environment include dispositions restraining the cutting down of trees even in times of war (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). We could also mention the prescriptions against sexual unions between different species, laws against hybridization (Deuteronomy 22:9; Leviticus 19:19), and also laws promoting precaution in lighting fires (Exodus 22.6).

  1. Sabbath: Memorial of Creation

Among all biblical prescriptions with an environmental impact, the most interesting is probably the one that concerns the Sabbath rest.

The original concept of “work” (melakhah), used in the fourth commandment, refers principally to the relationship between humans and the earth. Therefore, the biblical request of suspension of labor during the Sabbath encompasses the systematic re-establishment of harmony between humans and the earth.

This command, without counting its spiritual beneficial effects, has the important secondary effect of leaving nature at rest every seven days by reducing the consumption of energy and its related pollution. The Sabbath day message affirms not only that human beings need a weekly day of rest, but that the earth also needs a respite and an opportunity to recover from the strain imposed by human labor.

  1. The Hope in the Promise of the New Earth and Heavens.

When the prophets announce the final restoration of humankind and its environment (Isaiah 40:4; 42:16, 41:18-19; 43:19; 48:21; 49:10; 54:13-17; 55:13), salvation is extended to all categories of living beings in the renewed world (Isaiah 11:6-11).

This salvation, at the moment, is only a hope. The earth suffers and is waiting eagerly for its adoption and redemption (Romans 8:18-23). However, if God’s plan is to bring a new creation to fruition and make everything new (Revelation 21:1 – 22:5) why should humans care to act responsibly in managing the present world?

On this issue, the Bible is clear: to have access to the new promised world, it is necessary to respect here and now the present creation and its Creator (Revelation 14:6-7). In the last book of the Bible, one of the most serious condemnation is pronounced against “those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). If the best manner of honoring an artist is to safeguard its work, the best manner of honoring the Creator is to protect His creatures and creation. The respect for the Creator includes respect towards His work. It is a logical conclusion to think that God reserves life to those who love life.

  1. Jesus and His Teachings on Nature

In the gospels, Jesus often leads his interlocutors to observe nature as a sign of his message of life: the fig which burgeons (Mark 13:28); the growing seed (Mark 4:3-9; 26-29; Matthew 13:24-30); the sparrows which are sold in the market (Matthew 10:29); the flash of lightning which shines in the night (Matthew 24:27); the splendor of dusk (Luke 12:55).

The very fact that Jesus uses nature to bring insights for our everyday life affirms that God’s creation is a witness of God’s will. In this environment, human beings can find divinely intended messages and applications. Therefore, to destroy God’s creation means not to be able to listen to His teachings, and therefore be cut off from an important source of communication.

In conclusion, the teachings from Scripture inspire me to adopt an ethical behavior towards creation. The care for the environment in which I live is not just a duty I should fulfill; it becomes the expression of my personal faith towards my Creator.


by Davide Sciarabba
Assistant Professor of Religion
Andrews University

Posted in Biblical and Theological Perspectives, Environment | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Bible, The Creation and The Reformation

This reflection is posted in occasion of Creation Sabbath, recurring on 28 October 2017. For more information about this event, visit creationsabbath.net
If you like this blog post and would like to use it as a sermon, you can download a sermon version here and the accompanying Powerpoint here


On October 31, 2017, Protestant Christendom will celebrate one of the greatest events in Christian history. October 31 will mark 500 years since Martin Luther strode through the crisp autumn air of Wittenberg’s streets, making his way toward the Castle Church. Clutched in his hand were nails, a hammer and a revolutionary document. Arriving at the Church’s large wooden doors, Luther nailed up the document we now call, “The Ninety-Five Theses.”

Without the ideas expressed in Luther’s 95-Theses, we would not be celebrating Creation Sabbath this week. I want to draw your attention to just two of the 95-Theses. In the 27th thesis, Luther quotes a catch phrase used by those selling papal indulgences:

“[A]s soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”
“daß die Seele (aus dem Fegefeuer) emporfliege, sobald das Geld im Kasten klingt.”

The 95-Theses were a response to the sale of Papal indulgences that were being sold to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Customers were assured that these indulgences had the power to liberate souls from purgatory, sending them straight to Heaven.

To counter this evil scam, Luther appealed to something that had become far removed from the life of the average Christian—God’s Word. There is nothing at all in the Bible about paying for indulgences, salvation is by God’s grace, a free gift!

Returning the source of authority in Christianity from the Pope to the Bible led to a restoration of the doctrines central to biblical Christianity. The Bible in the hands of believers lead by the Holy Spirit powered the Protestant Reformation and it is the power of God’s Word that sustains the Church today. Protestant Christians embrace Luther’s famous Latin dictum “Sola Scriptura.” It is God’s Word alone that has authority, not tradition, not what we think, not what some “expert” thinks. The Bible and the Bible alone forms the foundation of Protestant Christian beliefs, understanding of the world and hope for the future.

The second thesis we will look at is Luther’s 62nd:

“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
“Der wahre Schatz der Kirche ist das allerheiligste Evangelium von der Herrlichkeit und Gnade Gottes.”

What is this “true treasure of the Church” that Luther talked about? It is something that is explicitly denied by many in the world in which we live. The claim is made that humans are exclusively the product of our environment and genetics. If we do evil things, it is not our fault, it is just the way we are. Our lusts, our inclinations, our desires and ultimately our actions are beyond our control, so we cannot be judged in any way for them because we cannot change ourselves.

But Jesus Christ, our Creator, rejected this way of thinking:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.  And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:34-36 NKJV

We may not be able to change ourselves, but our Creator, if we let Him, can change us! It is worth considering the context of this text. Those who were confronting Jesus claimed to be heirs of Abraham and never slaves to anyone. This was after Jesus had told them that “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32 NKJV).

The Jews of that time were filled with pride and blinded to their pitiful sinful state. Jesus, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 NKJV) stood before them offering them true liberation, something totally transforming. He could do that because “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3 NKJV). Human beings are not products of a cold uncaring universe, subject to whatever chance way we happened to turn out. Humans, and all of nature, are creations of the God who “is love” (1 John 4:8 NKJV).

God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth came down and was with us, and He is with us now, in every heart that is open to Him. Our Father, Our Creator has not abandoned us, He has adopted us! Just as Adam was His son, through Jesus Christ and unspeakable grace, we are a new creation, born again as His children. No wonder the Apostle John exclaimed:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” John 3:1 KJV

How can we explain this? Isn’t the Gospel incomprehensibly good? Because God is our Creator, of course He can and will make us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). This logic of salvation cannot be improved upon and is fundamental to the Christian understanding of human nature, the world and all of reality. No wonder Martin Luther was so firm and clear as he championed of the biblical creation as it is recorded in Scripture. To abandon the reality of creation is to abandon reality itself, including the reality of salvation. Luther would tolerate none of that. Because he understood the infinite value and Truth of Scripture, he wrote:

“When Moses writes that God created heaven and earth and whatever is in them in six days, then let this period continue to have been six days, and do not venture to devise any comment according to which six days were one day. But, if you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His word in the direction you wish to go.”
(What Luther Says. A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian. Compiled by Ewald M. Plass. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia 1959. p 1523.)

Luther was probably more concerned about people who wished to claim that the creation occurred in a single instant rather than over six days, as the Bible records. Today there are those who wish to deny the creation all together, or stretch it out of eons of suffering death and struggle for survival.

What is wrong with the Biblical account? Nothing, it is true, it makes sense and ultimately is central to the Gospel. Our Creator has already demonstrated that He can create us, and the creation of our Earthly father, Adam, was not the result of any works of his own. Adam’s creation was and our creation is an act of pure grace on God’s part. How evil it would be to twist the creation into a Darwinian struggle for survival in which, through the works of our dead ancestors, we have come to the glorious state we enjoy today! What kind of gospel would it be that offers us a perfect body, mind and soul through a million future deaths as we evolve to perfection? Where is the grace in that?

Ultimately, the creation was a fundamental pillar of the Reformation because it is a fundamental theme of Scripture and fundamental to the Gospel. No wonder the first article of Martin Luther’s short and long catechisms is:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
(Martin Luther. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. pp. 565-773)

All Bible-believing Christians believe in and worship our Creator. Because the creation is true and necessary, the creation makes sense of reality and is at the center of the Gospel. The Gospel is that, just like the creation of our father Adam, our new creation, our adoption as sons of our Heavenly Father, is an act of pure and astonishing grace. In short: no creation, no grace and no Gospel. Thank God the creation is what actually happened and the Gospel is a beautiful reality!


by Timothy G. Standish, PhD
Senior Scientist
Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Biblical and Theological Perspectives, Philosophical and Historical Perspectives, Reviews and Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Creation Exhibit to Open at World Headquarters: Just in Time for Creation Sabbath

In preparation for Creation Sabbath on October 28, 2017, the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) is creating a series of scientifically accurate and faith building displays. The exhibit will be opened during this year’s Autumn Council of the General Conference Executive Committee, held from October 5-11 at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“The displays will feature physical evidence pointing to design in nature and catastrophe in the rock record,” says Dr. Jim Gibson, GRI Director. “The Scriptures provide a cogent explanation for this evidence. These displays are a testimony to both the Church’s allegiance to the biblical creation and to the scientific study of origins.”

Trilobites, extinct arthropods, illustrate both mass burial and rapid fossilization when found in groups like those on this slab of rock.

The exhibit will show examples of biological beauty and other evidence of design, such as irreducible complexity. Other examples of design will include the way fish are engineered for swimming, birds for flying, eyes for seeing, and fossil ammonite shells for movement in water.

Several displays will feature some of the abundant evidence of the worldwide flood recorded in the Bible. Most scientists agree on the occurrence of past global catastrophes, such as extraterrestrial impacts and gigantic lava flows, but many deny that these could be associated with the flood recorded in Genesis and elsewhere, according to Dr. Tim Standish, senior scientist at GRI. “This evidence of global catastrophe will be included in the displays.”

Trilobites are not the only example of rapid mass burial. This is a pattern repeated for many other organisms including these Knightia fish fossils from the Green River Formation in Wyoming, USA.

“The question of time is one in which the most widely accepted scientific explanations espousing millions of years disagree with the clear record given in Scripture of thousands of years since creation,” says Standish. “Adventists don’t ignore this tension and this will be reflected in the displays.” However, the record of Scripture is robust. For example, one display will examine several patterns in the fossil record that show God’s activity in nature, irrespective of the time assigned to the fossils involved.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long history of interest in the relationship between history recorded in the Bible and the study of nature using the methods of science. Church pioneer, Ellen G. White explained the Adventist approach over a century ago:

Since the book of nature and the book of revelation bear the impress of the same master mind, they cannot but speak in harmony. By different methods, and in different languages, they witness to the same great truths. Science is ever discovering new wonders; but she brings from her research nothing that, rightly understood, conflicts with divine revelation. The book of nature and the written word shed light upon each other. They make us acquainted with God by teaching us something of the laws through which He works” (Education, p. 130).

Creation Sabbath, designated for October 28, is an opportunity to celebrate this Bible-inspired approach to the study of nature, according to Dr. Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “The creation story and global flood explain so much, and yet we still have questions that need to be answered. Nevertheless, God’s word is sure!” Wilson affirms.

Faith in the biblical record leading to discoveries using the methods of science has been a hallmark of Adventists’ contribution to understanding nature. Appreciating that many questions remain to be answered has proven a productive incentive to do science, according to Standish. In the sphere of medical science, this motivation has led to the pioneering work of Dr. Harry Miller in nutrition, innovations in neurosurgery by Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Melvin P. Judkins’ groundbreaking heart catheterization technique using catheters of his design.

In the sciences of paleontology and geology, the Adventist approach, inspired by confidence in the Bible, motivated Dr. Harold Coffin’s study of fossil forests in Yellowstone National Park, says Standish. This led to a new and more comprehensive model explaining their formation.

Dr. Leonard Brand has been inspired to examine the evidence of widespread rock layers that appear to have been rapidly laid down by water across North America. Also featured in the displays at the Adventist world headquarters will be research by Dr. Arthur Chadwick showing worldwide movement of water in distinct patterns.

The creation displays are free and open to the public. They will be on display at the world headquarters through March, 2018, and are designed to illustrate how faith in the biblical record of history has productively inspired science.

Ammonites were named after the Egyptian god Amun. They are beautiful examples of design for living in water. Even though they are now extinct, we can learn much about how wonderfully designed they were from their abundant fossils.

“By showing some of the abundant evidence that points toward a Creator God and a global flood, these displays will encourage confidence in the biblical record of history,” says Gibson. “In addition, the fossils and other evidence presented are intrinsically fascinating, revealing that ‘The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them’” (Psalm 111:2 NKJV).

For more information and resources for Creation Sabbath, visit http://www.creationsabbath.net/


News Release by Timothy G. Standish, PhD
Senior Scientist
Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Reviews and Events | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

North Pacific Union Conference Opens Creation Study Center

Christians believe in the biblical creation described throughout the Bible, yet a great need exists to be better educated about the creation. In response to this need, and also to share the creation with those not yet Christian, the North Pacific Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NPUC) has initiated a Creation Study Center outreach service. This center is led by Dr. Stan Hudson, a pastor with training in geology, a life-long interest in nature and extensive experience successfully educating others about the creation.

 

Dr. Stan Hudson standing next to a large fossilized femur of the dinosaur genus Camarasaurus, on display at the Creation Study Center.

Jim Gibson, director of the General Conference Geoscience Research Institute (GRI), was on hand for the opening ceremonies. He commented that, “It’s really impressive to see what has been done with this resource center, and it reminds me of the significance of the creation in the life of a Christian… it’s the creation story that gives us confidence in His [Christ’s] salvation; it tells us that He is able to create in us a clean heart.”

Max Torkelsen II, recently retired President of the NPUC, whose vision lies behind the Creation Study Center, said: “When you look at the biblical record, there’s nothing more foundational than the creation story and it effects everything that we believe. … [T]he reason for the establishment of this Creation Study Center is to provide a place where people can come and get reliable, academic, scientific information that supports the biblical view.”

The NPUC Creation Study Center is headquartered in the NPUC offices in Ridgefield Washington. The study center contains exhibits with some amazing fossil specimens, including a dinosaur leg bone almost as tall as Stan Hudson. There is also beautiful artwork illustrating how the fossil record was formed and other resources to teach about the sciences of geology and paleontology from a biblical worldview. But the Creation Study Center will be more than a physical location with fascinating things for visitors to examine. There are plans for printed resources and a dynamic website where there will be more resources and videos. In addition to this, Dr. Hudson is also available to go out on visits to schools and churches. He will be a busy man this coming Creation Sabbath, October 28, 2017, when the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church celebrates the biblical doctrine of Creation.

Speaking for the Geoscience Research Institute, Dr. Gibson saluted the North Pacific Union Conference “for their vision of creating a creation resource center.” Adding, “I certainly would invite everyone to come and take a look at it.” Creation resource centers are something that the Geoscience Research Institute has worked to develop with Church entities around the world. Currently, there are GRI affiliated resource centers in South America, Europe, and Asia, with plans developing them on the African continent. Information about some of these can be found at:

http://grisda.org/about-gri/resource-centers/

The NPUC Creation Study Center, along with other creation resource centers, serves as a positive affirmation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s firm commitment to biblical creation. More information about the NPUC Creation Resource Center can be seen in the short videos below:

Virtual tour of the center

Dedication of the center

Mission of the center


News Release by Timothy G. Standish, PhD
Senior Scientist
Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Reviews and Events | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Preservation of Dinosaur Soft Tissue: An Update

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This verse from Genesis 3 captures very well the fate of beautifully designed organisms after the entrance of sin into the world. But how long does it take for the organic molecules we are made of to break down after death? In general, the longer the time from death, the larger the amount of decay that should be observed. This is particularly true for soft tissue, the parts of an organism that are not mineralized (such as skin, muscles, or blood vessels). In 1993, Mary Schweitzer, then affiliated with the Museum of the Rockies, shared data suggesting the possibility of soft tissue and biomolecules preservation in a bone of Tyrannosaurus rex supposedly 68 Ma old [1]. Her findings were met with great resistance and skepticism. Similar observations of blood vessels, collagen, and osteocytes from dinosaur bone had been published by Roman Pawlicki and his colleagues since 1966 [2], but had not stirred much debate, probably because Jurassic Park, which popularized the subject, had not been written and filmed yet.

In the last two decades, Mary Schweitzer and her group found additional examples and used a widening array of analytical techniques to document their findings [3-9]. Consequently, the possibility of preservation of original dinosaur soft tissue and biomolecules is becoming more accepted, and this blog post reviews some of what has been published on the subject in the last year and a half.

Dinosaur specimens with soft tissue preservation reported in 2016-2017

Three different dinosaur skeletons, with bones in articulation or association, were described in the literature with special mention of or an emphasis on the presence of soft tissue.

The first, a ceratopsian ornithischian (Psittacosaurus sp.) from the Lower Cretaceous of China (Fig. 1), has skin preserved as a compressed film with characteristic pigmentation patterns [10]. The pigments are thought to represent original organic matter, more specifically melanin residues. This interpretation was based on SEM microscopy, showing ovoid impressions similar to melanosomes (melanin-bearing organelles).

Fig. 1: The specimen of Psittacosaurus sp. (A) and interpretative drawing showing different skeletal elements and skin with pigment patterns (B). Image from Vinther et al. (2016), (CC BY).

The second, an ankylosaurine dinosaur (Zuul crurivastator) from the Upper Cretaceous of Montana, preserves integumentary structures such as osteoderms, with dark sheaths probably consisting of original keratin [11]. The paper describing the fossil does not present a chemical or microscopic analysis of the soft tissue, but mentions it as the subject for further future investigation.

The third dinosaur skeleton is also of an ankylosaur (Borealopelta markmitchelli), from the Lower Cretaceous of Alberta [12]. This articulated skeleton was found in marine deposits, in a formation where ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs had been recovered but never a dinosaur. The encasing sediments show evidence of rapid burial of the carcass, with absence of scavenging in spite of some burrows in the surrounding deposits. The exceptional preservation of the fossil encompasses the molecular level, with remnants of organic matter in scales and horn sheaths of the body armor. Chemical analysis through mass spectroscopy indicated the presence of melanin in the organic residue, especially pheomelanin (a reddish-brown pigment). Melanosomes do not appear to have been preserved in this specimen.

Perhaps less impressive than soft tissue preservation, but equally interesting, is the evidence for preservation in dinosaur bone tissue of original molecular components that have a distinct chemical composition. This chemical signature was used to substantiate the presence of medullary bone (a type of bone produced by mature female birds during ovulation) in T. rex remains from the Upper Cretaceous of Montana [13].

Mark Armitage provided new documentation [14] of the exquisite preservation of blood vessels, osteocytes, and collagen at the submicron level in the Triceratops horridus horn and rib bones he discovered in Upper Cretaceous deposits of Montana [15]. The observations are based on microscopy and mostly from dissolved bone material. The next step in this project should be chemical analysis of the material. This example of soft tissue preservation is particularly stunning, given the relatively strong weathering of the horn (roots, fungal hyphae, and insect remains were found traversing the horn).

Mary Schweitzer and colleagues published a new study [16] on the remains of the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus canadensis (Upper Cretaceous of Montana) that had previously yielded evidence for preservation of endogenous biomolecules [6]. Using a more rigorous protocol for sample preparation and higher resolution mass spectrometry techniques, they recovered 8 peptide sequences of collagen from the hadrosaur bone. Two of the sequences identified replicated some found in the previous study, whereas the other six were new.

Fig. 2: Vascular canal from rib bone of Lufengosaurus showing protein infilling material (transparent), partly outside of the cut canal (red arrow), and microcrystals of hematite (dark) within the canal. Image from Lee et al. (2017), (CC BY 4.0).

An important study presented results obtained on a sauropodomorph dinosaur (Lufengosaurus) from the Lower Jurassic of China [17]. Flat, transparent fragments of soft tissue located along and inside vascular canals in a rib bone (Fig. 2) were analyzed with infrared spectroscopy directly applied in situ and not on processed samples of bone. This non-destructive technique prevents the possibility of sample contamination during dissolution. The absorption spectrum observed was distinctive and typical of collagen. Moreover, particles of hematite (an iron oxide) were found in the vascular canals (Fig. 2) and lacunae left by osteocytes. The particles were interpreted as forming from iron ions attached to blood cells and iron-binding proteins. In the words of the authors, this study provided “undeniable, clear evidence that collagen and protein remains were preserved inside the osteonal central vascular canals of this early dinosaur.”

Finally, an intriguing abstract was presented at the 2017 meeting of the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology [18]. Fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta showed an unexpectedly high rate of soft tissue preservation. A collection of bone samples from 25 specimens (16 of which dinosaurs), representing different degree of articulation and preserved either in sandstone or in mudstone, were dissolved and searched for soft tissue preservation. Of the 22 samples that successfully dissolved, 20 (including the dinosaur specimens) tested positive for soft tissues. It appears that soft tissue preservation in the Dinosaur Park Formation might be more common than expected, irrespective of the type of embedding sediment or degree of articulation of a specimen.

Recent papers discussing the preservation process

Understanding the pathway through which organic molecules can be preserved for tens to hundreds of millions of years is a significant challenge for those who subscribe to a “deep time” chronology. Proteins, for example, are thought to significantly degrade in shorter time frames of a few tens of thousands of years [19]. Therefore, several studies are attempting to explore potential mechanisms that could result in exceptional preservation of soft tissue in dinosaur remains.

Some have suggested that perhaps the blood vessels and osteocyte-like structures in dinosaur bones do not represent original organic material but are mimics created by bacterial biofilms colonizing the cavities of the bone [20]. However, Schweitzer et al. [21] presented data from actualistic experiments with bacterial biofilms to discard this hypothesis as inadequate. Interestingly, in the preparation of bone samples for their experiments they observed that removal of organics from bone is not easy, even with harsh treatment including repeated cycles of extreme heat, bleach, and enzyme treatment. Their suggestion is that when encased in dense cortical bone, labile organics can persist longer.

In their paper on preserved collagen from a Lufengosaurus bone, Lee et al. found that collagen was preserved only in the vascular canals, not in the bone matrix [17]. Given that the interior of the vascular canals often contained hematite particles, the authors suggested the collagen was preserved because it remained trapped between hematite concretions inside the vessels and the surrounding carbonated apatite minerals in the bone matrix.

Finally, some are still questioning the reliability of the results published by Mary Schweitzer and her group. For example, Buckley et al. [22] demonstrated that all the published putative dinosaur peptide sequences from T. rex and B. canadensis are matched by sequences of collagen from ostrich bone. Their suggested implication is that cross-contamination of the dinosaur samples with ostrich material in the lab cannot be ruled out.

Conclusive considerations

The discussion surrounding the preservation of dinosaur soft tissue is a fascinating example of a paradigm shift in science. Although still met with certain resistance, the evidence for endogenous biomolecular material in fossils has led to a proliferation of new observations and an openness to search for data that were previously overlooked, just because they were considered beyond the realm of possibility. It is clear that this field has a great potential for growth, including a better systematization of the type of molecules that are more commonly preserved in the fossil record and of possible differential levels of degradation and decay observed in these biomolecules at different stratigraphic levels.

This area of research is very relevant for origins model, because it has implications for the discussion on a long vs short chronology of life on the earth. Is it realistic to think that these original tissues were indeed preserved for tens of millions of years? Are they rather evidence for a much shorter time elapsed since the death of a fossilized organism, in the order of thousands of years? My impression is that the answer to these questions will not depend much on the evidence itself. When it comes to origins and historical sciences, “silver bullets” or unassailable proof of a model tend to be elusive. Those committed to a long chronology will probably attempt to normalize something that was formerly considered exceptional, presenting numerous scenarios of how preservation through “deep time” could be possible. Perhaps, a positive outcome of these efforts will be a better understanding of biomolecular structure, thermodynamics, decay pathways, and interaction with the surrounding chemical environment. However, those who subscribe to a biblical chronology will also have the opportunity to point out possible inadequacies of postulated mechanisms of preservation through “deep time.” Moreover, if soft tissue preservation turns out to be more common than previously thought, instead of “exceptional,” this line of evidence would also fit well with a short chronology and flood model of origins, not necessarily “proving” but being certainly compatible with a biblical worldview. Indeed, the most exquisite and pristine examples of original soft tissue preservation will likely remain a challenging puzzle for those who assign them ages covering periods of time so immense to be even hard to conceptualize.

 

References

[1] Schweitzer, M.H., Biomolecule preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 1993. 13(Supplement to n. 3): p. 56A.
[2] Pawlicki, R., A. Korbel, and H. Kubiak, Cells, Collagen Fibrils and Vessels in Dinosaur Bone. Nature, 1966. 211(5049): p. 655-657.
[3] Schweitzer, M.H., et al., Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science, 2005. 307(5717): p. 1952-1955.
[4] Asara, J.M., et al., Protein sequences from Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex revealed by mass spectrometry. Science, 2007. 316(5822): p. 280-285.
[5] Organ, C.L., et al., Molecular phylogenetics of Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex. Science, 2008. 320(5875): p. 499.
[6] Schweitzer, M.H., et al., Biomolecular characterization and protein sequences of the Campanian Hadrosaur B. canadensis. Science, 2009. 324(5927): p. 626-631.
[7] San Antonio, J.D., et al., Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival. PLoS One, 2011. 6(6): p. e20381.
[8] Schweitzer, M.H., et al., Molecular analyses of dinosaur osteocytes support the presence of endogenous molecules. Bone, 2013. 52(1): p. 414-423.
[9] Schweitzer, M.H., et al., A role for iron and oxygen chemistry in preserving soft tissues, cells and molecules from deep time. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014. 281(1775).
[10] Vinther, J., et al., 3D Camouflage in an Ornithischian Dinosaur. Current Biology, 2016. 26(18): p. 2456-2462.
[11] Arbour, V.M. and D.C. Evans, A new ankylosaurine dinosaur from the Judith River Formation of Montana, USA, based on an exceptional skeleton with soft tissue preservation. Royal Society Open Science, 2017. 4(5): p. 161086.
[12] Brown, C.M., et al., An Exceptionally Preserved Three-Dimensional Armored Dinosaur Reveals Insights into Coloration and Cretaceous Predator-Prey Dynamics. Current Biology, 2017.
[13] Schweitzer, M.H., et al., Chemistry supports the identification of gender-specific reproductive tissue in Tyrannosaurus rex. 2016. 6: p. 23099.
[14] Armitage, M.H., Preservation of Triceratops horridus tissue cells from the Hell Creek Formation, MT. Microscopy Today, 2016. 24: p. 18-23.
[15] Armitage, M.H. and K.L. Anderson, Soft sheets of fibrillar bone from a fossil of the supraorbital horn of the dinosaur Triceratops horridus. Acta Histochemica, 2013. 115(6): p. 603-608.
[16] Schroeter, E.R., et al., Expansion for the Brachylophosaurus canadensis Collagen I Sequence and Additional Evidence of the Preservation of Cretaceous Protein. Journal of Proteome Research, 2017. 16(2): p. 920-932.
[17] Lee, Y.-C., et al., Evidence of preserved collagen in an Early Jurassic sauropodomorph dinosaur revealed by synchrotron FTIR microspectroscopy. 2017. 8: p. 14220.
[18] van der Reest, A.J. and P.J. Currie, Preliminary results of an investigation into the preservation of soft tissue structures in bone from the Dinosaur Park Formation. Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology, 2017. 4: p. 49.
[19] Wadsworth, C. and M. Buckley, Proteome degradation in fossils: investigating the longevity of protein survival in ancient bone. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 2014. 28: p. 605-615.
[20] Kaye, T.G., G. Gaugler, and Z. Sawlowicz, Dinosaurian soft tissues interpreted as bacterial biofilms. PLoS One, 2008. 3(7): p. e2808.
[21] Schweitzer, M.H., A.E. Moyer, and W. Zheng, Testing the Hypothesis of Biofilm as a Source for Soft Tissue and Cell-Like Structures Preserved in Dinosaur Bone. PLoS One, 2016. 11(2): p. e0150238.
[22] Buckley, M., et al., A fossil protein chimera; difficulties in discriminating dinosaur peptide sequences from modern cross-contamination. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017. 284(1855).


Ronny Nalin, PhD, Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Chemistry, Dating and the Age of the Earth, Dinosaurs, Fossils, Molecular | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Homo naledi: An update

This blog post complements a piece written for the GRI blog on October 2015, linked here.

Two important papers were published in May 2017, warranting an update on the subject of Homo naledi.

Fig. 1: “Neo,” the partial skeleton recovered from the Lesedi chamber. Image from Hawks et al. (2017) (CC BY 4.0)

The first publication [1] reports the discovery of hominin remains from a different location in the Rising Star cave system. These include a partial skeleton (with a near complete cranium) (Fig. 1) and remains from at least two other individuals. The morphologic characteristics are “indistinguishable” from the H. naledi sample from the Dinaledi chamber published in 2015. The upper range of cranial capacity, when the latest specimen of H. naledi is included, increases to 610 ml.

The second publication [2] expands upon the initial description of the stratigraphy of the Dinaledi chamber deposits, and presents an estimated age for the H. naledi remains found there. The estimate is based on a variety of methods, with different degrees of reliability, but the authors converge on a period between 236 ka and 335 ka as their best age estimate.

Significance:

The intentional disposal hypothesis

The discovering team has strongly advocated this hypothesis for the accumulation of the H. naledi remains in the Dinaledi chamber, especially in non-academic media outreach. The idea conveyed is some sort of funerary practice, with caching of carcasses in the same specific chamber in different occasions, possibly using torches to light the way to this remote location. However, the new discoveries show that remains of H naledi are not confined to the Dinaledi chamber. Also, the most recent results indicate that fossils found in the Dinaledi chamber are not from multiple levels, but they are all from the same level. This is a significant correction, because in the original paper [3] the H. naledi remains were described as coming from two separate layers. This evidence had been used to imply repeated events of “disposal” of carcasses and to exclude the mass mortality/death trap scenario.

Furthermore, in the original description of the Dinaledi chamber deposits, it was reported that the only macroscopic remains found in the sediments were from H. naledi. The new paper [2] specifies that two long bones (unidentified, but not hominin) are present in the cave deposits and also a baboon tooth has been found. These remains are interpreted as older than the H. naledi fossils. This is also an important correction because it was suggested that only very fine grained sediment could get into the chamber through sedimentary transport, but apparently other macroscopic remains (different from H. naledi fossils) found their way to deposition in the chamber.

The “young” age estimate

The mixture of “archaic” and “modern” characters in H. naledi had sparked some hopes that this form could fill the gap in the poorly documented early stages of the evolution of the genus Homo. This expectation was well exemplified by the PBS-NOVA documentary “Dawn of Humanity,” which ended with the assertion: “the tantalizing gap in the fossil record at the beginning of our genus is being slowly filled in. Finally, there is light at the dawn of humanity.” However, the age estimate places H. naledi more towards the dusk than dawn of humanity. In the words of Schroeder et al. (2017) [4], it represents another example “where species with small brains and H. erectus-like morphology persisted into more recent times, creating a profound disjunction between geological and morphological age.” Therefore, H. naledi complicates the attempts of creating an evolutionary sequence in the hominin fossil record and reinforces the conclusion of a mosaic distribution of characters in fossil forms. Interestingly, hybridization between different types is presented more and more as a possible explanation for this mosaic combinations of characters. Berger et al. (2017) [5], for example, explicitly mention the possibility that “H. naledi resulted from the hybridization of a more human-like population and a late-surviving australopith,” even if they see this as a currently untestable hypothesis.

References

[1] Hawks, J., et al., New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, 2017. 6: p. e24232.
[2] Dirks, P.H.G.M., et al., The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa. eLife, 2017. 6: p. e24231.
[3] Berger, L.R., et al., Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, 2015. 4.
[4] Schroeder, L., et al., Skull diversity in the Homo lineage and the relative position of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution, 2017. 104: p. 124-135.
[5] Berger, L.R., et al., Homo naledi and Pleistocene hominin evolution in subequatorial Africa. eLife, 2017. 6: p. e24234.


Ronny Nalin, PhD, Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Anatomy and Physiology, Evolutionary Theory, Fossils, Hominids, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Would You Move to an Exoplanet?

If given the choice where in our Milky Way galaxy you would prefer to live, where would you go? To one of those newly-discovered extra-solar planets the media get enthusiastic about when water has been detected there?

Before you answer these questions remember that, beyond the presence of water, many other conditions must be fulfilled before any planet can support the continued existence of life as-we-know-it, human life.

Over the last 40 years or so, astronomical studies have taught us that our life on Earth is dependent on a number of physical and other conditions far beyond just the presence of water. The majority of almost two hundred conditions refer to the necessary characteristics of our planet itself (temperature, chemical composition, stability, etc.) as well as to the properties of, and our location in, our Milky Way galaxy (are there nearby planets, sources of harmful radiation, etc.?).

These conditions include the following: Life on Earth requires a “just right” distance from our reliable source of energy, the sun. Earth’s chemical composition must contain those chemicals that are the main building blocks of human life: oxygen to breath, calcium to build skeletons, carbon to build carbohydrates and, together with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus, to make DNA. Earth needs a reasonably stable climate to allow food production to proceed along largely predictable lines; our Moon provides that stability for Earth’s rotation axis and its seasons. Our planet must not be too close to the centre of the Milky Way where deadly high-energy radiation would destroy life.

In fact, even the universe as a whole plays an important role in the habitability of our planet. This includes the almost perfect electrical balance between positively and negatively charged particles to ensure that the universe does not expand too fast for stars and planets to form. The word “perfect” in this sentence means an accuracy of 1 in 1037 [this is a 1 followed by 37 zeroes!]. A similar balance governs the mass density of the universe which should not vary by more than 1 in 1060; too high and the universe would have collapsed long ago, too low and the universe would expand too fast for galaxies, stars and planets to form. No wonder we talk about these specific conditions as ‘fine-tuning’!

The large number of requirements and their often narrow limits outside of which life could not exist already tell us that it may be difficult to find all of them fulfilled at a large number of different locations in the Milky Way. Add to this the fact that what we know about any extrasolar planets is still very rudimentary, and our search becomes like the one for a needle in a haystack.

Since Earth offers a successful habitat for many life forms, in a first approach we should focus on Earth-size planets in extrasolar planetary systems: the distance from their star, the presence of water, the nature of its atmosphere, etc. For each host star these conditions are only fulfilled in a fairly narrow zone around it inside of which the planet must be revolving. This zone is called the Circumstellar Habitable Zone (CHZ) of that star. It will be farther from a hotter star and closer to a cooler star (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: CHZ (green) around three different stars; red zones are too hot, blue zones are too cold for life (courtesy NASA).

Thus, our search for suitable planets must first focus on finding suitable host stars, preferable a little less massive than the sun. Such stars are known as red dwarf stars, which constitute the overwhelming majority of stars in the Milky Way. The next step is to find small, i.e., Earth-size planets that are most likely to be rocky and have a suitable atmosphere. However, small planets are much harder to detect than their giant gaseous neighbours.

The temperature of the star and its planet’s distance from it tell us whether we can expect to find liquid water. In a few cases the planet’s atmospheric composition can be derived. Surely, before moving to any exoplanet, we want to know many more details that are not easily obtained. Therefore, even the simple question about the number of possible exoplanets fit for human life will probably not be answered today or tomorrow.

Because of the number of conditions to occur simultaneously, we do not expect to find many habitable exoplanets. The universe may turn out to be a rather inhospitable place for human life. Earth, if not unique, could well be one of a very small number of favourable planets. Considering the huge amount of fine-tuning required for a liveable planet, we should contemplate the possibility that the Creator of the universe has had a special purpose for creating Earth and its inhabitants, and that Earth’s uniqueness is a result of design rather than of accident.


Mart de Groot, PhD,  has been both an astronomer with 40 years of research experience and a pastoral minister for 16 years thereafter

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