Farmers, Fossils, and Frauds

Farmers, Fossils, and Frauds

Are Scientific Miscues Valid Challenges to Biological Evolution?

The recent discovery of a four-winged dinosaur has received a lot of media attention. Evolutionary biologists claim that this specimen resolves the temporal paradox and provides compelling evidence that birds evolved from theropods.

(I’m not convinced that this is the case. Go here to listen to a Science News Flash podcast that addresses this fossil discovery and the claims associated with it.)

One interesting aspect about this find: it wasn’t unearthed by paleontologists. Rather a farmer from the Liaoning province of China discovered the specimen and turned it over to the scientists for characterization. The farmer also pointed out to them where thought he found the fossil.

This situation represents a potential problem. The age of the fossil is critical if it is to provide data relevant to the temporal paradox, but determining the age depends on knowing from where in the geological layer the fossil was recovered. Scientists need to document the specimen’s province carefully. But if accurate information about the recovery site isn’t known with a high degree of certainty, then it’s impossible to date the specimen with a high measure of confidence.

The discovery of a key feathered dinosaur fossil by a Chinese farmer reminds me of a similar discovery made about eight years ago. This fossil, named Archeoraptor, was also discovered by a farmer and interpreted by scientists as a key transitional intermediate documenting the change from dinosaurs to birds. Unfortunately, it turns out that this fossil was fabricated for monetary gain by the farmer who “recovered” it. When recognized by the scientific community, this fraudulent behavior resulted in a retraction by the National Geographic Society. In response, Christian apologists asserted that evolutionary biologists and the evidence for biological evolution are not trustworthy because these scientists make things up to support the naturalistic paradigm.

I am uncomfortable with this approach to Christian apologetics. My discomfort led to an editorial piece published in our now discontinued magazine, Facts for Faith. This week I’d like to reprise that article.

When Winning Isn’t Everything
Fazale ‘Fuz’ Rana

Last November (1999), the National Geographic Society announced the discovery of Archaeoraptor liaoningensis. This fossil specimen, with an upper torso resembling a bird and lower torso resembling a theropod (a bipedal dinosaur), was touted as a key transitional intermediate in the putative dinosaur-bird evolutionary lineage.

What seemed almost too good to be true for proponents of the dinosaur-bird model for avian origins turned out to be just that— too good to be true. Shortly after describing the Archaeoraptor fossil in National Geographic, the National Geographic Society retracted the discovery. National Geographic reported that Archaeoraptor liaoningensis was not an authentic fossil, but rather a composite pieced together from separate bird and theropod fossils.

Along with the retraction, came the colorful account of how the Archaeoraptor debacle unfurled. Stephen Czerkas, the owner of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, purchased Archaeoraptor liaoningensis at a Fossil and Gem Show in Tucson, Arizona for $80,000. Archaeoraptor was imported into the United States from China. Recognizing its potential value, Czerkas made a deal with the National Geographic Society to publicize and help characterize the fossil. After this, the Archaeoraptor specimen was to be returned to China.

The team of paleontologists that examined the fossil, initially, had some concern that it may not be authentic, but these notes of caution were ignored and the team characterized the fossil and submitted papers to both Science and Nature.

Both Science and Nature rejected the submitted manuscript. It is not fully clear all the reasons why the manuscript was rejected, but, in part, it was due to concerns by reviewers that the fossil was possibly contraband and non-authentic. Without peer review, National Geographic went ahead and published the Archaeoraptor liaoningensis find. Still, at the time the November issue went to press, the National Geographic Society had assurances from the author team that a scientific paper on Archaeoraptor would be published.

What motivated the National Geographic Society to do this? No doubt it was the allure of the acclaim that would come to the National Geographic Society being the first to describe an important fossil that would have played a central role in supporting the dinosaur-bird evolutionary model. In retrospect, the National Geographic Society acknowledged that their marketing efforts got ahead of scientific process.

Shortly after publication, Xu Xing, a paleontologist at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleonanthropology and a member of the team that characterized Archaeoraptor returned to China. After examining several fossils that came from the same site as Archaeoraptor first hand, Xu Xing became concerned that Archaeoraptor was a composite of a bird and a theropod. Upon learning this, the National Geographic Society and the team that characterized Archaeoraptor retracted their claims about the fossil. In retrospect, it is believed that a peasant in the Liaoning province of China, pieced together the fossils and sold them to a dealer who imported it into the United States. The dealer never intended for the fossil to be made available for scientific research, but rather was interested in selling it to a private collector.

What has been the response of the Christian community, to the Archaeoraptor debacle? By and large, it has been to use Archaeoraptor as an apologetic argument against Darwinism.

I find this to be unnecessary. The case for the dinosaur-bird evolutionary link does not rise or fall on the status of Archaeoraptor. In fact, apart from Archaeoraptor, a potent case can be made against the dinosaur-bird link using well-established scientific facts.

What has been most disturbing to me, is the way that many Christian apologists have used the Archaeoraptor debacle to intimate that evolutionists are either grossly incompetent or are involved in a vast conspiracy designed to perpetuate evolutionism on the unsuspecting public. Evolutionists are portrayed as idiots or as individuals who will go to any lengths, including fraudulent and contraband activity, to promote the Darwinian paradigm. To these apologists and many Christians, Archaeoraptor is just one of many examples of the evolutionary conspiracy. Also included in the list are the Nebraska Man, the Piltdown Man, the Peppered Moths—the list goes on and on.

Christians often times seem so very willing to view evolutionists as dishonest, immoral, and even evil individuals. This is simply not the case. Just because someone is committed to naturalism and evolutionism doesn’t make them “bad”. In fact, many of the scientists I have had the pleasure of knowing, learning from, and working with throughout my career have been committed to the evolutionary paradigm, yet at the same time have displayed the highest degree of professional and personal integrity. Most scientists I know regardless of their religious views possess sound moral character and a commitment to their family and the community that they live in and serve.

Personal and professional integrity are at the heart of science. While numerous high profile cases of fraud in science can be pointed to, scholarly integrity is the matter of course in the scientific enterprise. For most scientists, their professional integrity is the one thing they value above all else. If a scientist is not viewed by his or her peers as someone of integrity, then he or she cannot function as a scientist. No one will have confidence in anything he or she reports. Scientists can be wrong, as long as they are wrong in the right sort of way.

As for the Archaeoraptor debacle, there is much we can point to in the way of honorable behavior:

  • Science and Nature refused to publish the manuscript from the National Geographic team, in part, because of their concern that Archaeoraptor may have been contraband and should be returned to China as part of the country’s national treasure.
  • The team of paleontologists that first reported on Archaeoraptor was the first to disclose the possibility that this fossil was not authentic.
  • The National Geographic Society funded the CAT scan study that unequivocally demonstrated Archaeoraptor liaoningensis as a composite.
  • The National Geographic Society retracted their report and acknowledged their mistake.

The National Geographic Society was guilty of misplaced trust, poor scientific judgment, and failure to adhere to the peer review process. The National Geographic Society took its “lumps” for this and deservedly so. However, there was never any intent on their part to deceive anyone. They should not be condemned for attempting to do so.

How then should we have responded as Christians to the Archaeoraptor fiasco?

We should have reacted in such a way that would have built bridges with evolutionary biologists and those they influence, while at the same time conveying the overwhelming scientific support for the creation paradigm.

We should have readily acknowledged and even complimented the scientists involved in the Archaeoraptor debacle for their honorable behavior in admitting their mistake, poor judgment and rash actions. We should have even extended compassion to these scientists. It is difficult to admit an error, particularly one that involves poor judgment. To put it in Christian terms, the National Geographic Society and those involved in the Archaeoraptor “mess” confessed their “sin” and “repented.” As Christians, we should have been the first in line to offer “forgiveness.” Having done this, we are now in a much better position to be heard when we point out the absence of compelling evidence for the dinosaur-bird link and the evidence for the supernatural creation of birds as described in Genesis 1.

Our goal in apologetics is not to win the creation/evolution debate, but to remove barriers that keep scientists and others from being open to the Christian faith. It is impossible to do this if, in the process of winning the argument, we alienate those who hold an opposing view.

There is a final lesson for us to learn from the Archaeoraptor escapade. The action of the National Geographic Society paleontologists challenges us to display humility in our apologetic efforts. The willingness of the National Geographic Society to acknowledge and correct their mistake challenges us as Christians to display the same humility in our apologetics efforts. There will be times when we overstate our case (and times when we understate our case). When this happens we need to acknowledge this as being the case and correct our mistakes. We can be confident that though individual pieces of evidence may rise and fall, if as Christians we are correct, then the trend line should demonstrate ever-increasing support for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture.

Our willingness to display scholarly integrity will also serve to build bridges with not only the scientists we desire to reach with the truth of the Christian faith, but also those watching the debate from the sidelines.