Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How Do Creationists Know What Dinosaurs Looked Like?

While watching a video of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, with its impressively-detailed animatronic full-scale dinosaur models, I was struck by the thought: how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like? I mean: there are these moving, snarling model dinosaurs in an institution which has elevated pseudoscience to the dubious level of a theme park attraction, and whose staff (at least, in the various interviews which I have seen them give) appear to have a near-pathological disdain for the scientific method. So how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like?

Using a line grid to map a fossil site at the Bay of Fundy, Canada
Time on a museum field trip is a precious commodity. It has to be exploited to the maximum, and working hours need to be methodical and calculated. I recall on one field trip getting up at five in the morning, every morning. And weekends simply passed unnoticed. A field trip can by turns be fun, exciting, and tedious – but it is still hard work. How many excursions into the field did it take, over succeeding decades of time, and spanning many, many individual careers, for palaeontologists to reconstruct the dinosaurs’ world? And where did those scientists go to? From the Montana Badlands to arid Outer Mongolia, from Patagonia to Alaska’s North Slope, the destinations of such field trips usually demand  lobbying for the necessary funding, and in the cases involving some far-flung destination, as often as not some deft bureaucratic navigation through the acquiring of visas, permits, and other assorted red tape.

Freeing a fossil from its rock matrix
Safely back on base, the conservation work begins: the painstaking release from its matrix, with small hand-held power drill and sable brush, of some fragile fossil, perhaps over a series of weeks or even months, and the publishing of any findings, as well as the report to the board of the museum in question to justify the funds which have been sunk into both the field work and the subsequent in-museum research and restoration time. More often than not, a fossil will not be found in any great degree of articulation: it usually will be both disjointed and incomplete, or even scattered over a wide area. Maybe the skull is missing – or conversely, maybe the skull is the only part found. So what would the missing parts have looked like? And what does the surrounding fossil environment tell us about the fossil itself? Was it buried in a flash flood, or by a collapsed sand dune? Was it a victim of predation, or was it a predator fallen victim to another of its species? What might the fossil bones tell us about that individual dinosaur’s pathologies – its injuries and diseases – which it suffered in life?

Give this grid-defined fossil site map to a creationist, and tell them to restore the dinosaur(s) visible here, using only this map for reference. Click on the image to see the scale of the task!
These are just several of the many questions facing a palaeontologist when confronting a jumbled scattering of disarticulated fossil bones in a field location. And that scattering of bones might be from one individual or from several – and even then they might not be of the same species. Only later will someone like myself be brought in to flesh out the painstakingly restored bones as a life reconstruction, always recognising that there are lines between applied knowledge, reasonable assumption, and artistic licence. Applied knowledge would include such factors as the attachment points of muscles, which usually can be seen on bone as areas of rough pitted striations. Reasonable assumption could be the stance in which the animal is shown, which can be enhanced by the applied knowledge of the way in which the skeleton would have been articulated in life. And artistic licence would typically involve skin colour and patterns, which generally are speculative. But always when creating such a life reconstruction, I am aware of the untold research time of career scientists, both in the field and in the museum, behind what I am doing.

My life reconstruction of the head of a dryosaur: a mix of applied knowledge, reasonable assumption and artistic licence, and drawn with an awareness of the differences between these three factors.

So how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like? They do not commit their time and *resources to the rigours of museum field work. They do not spend their working lives painstakingly piecing together the herculean puzzles of fossil bones tackled by professional palaeontologists. There is only one answer possible: they have acquired this knowledge by climbing over the backs of the very scientists whom they so openly despise. And the reason why creationists are able to include in their institution those crowd-pulling animatronic dinosaurs is because career scientists of all persuasions, philosophies and beliefs, but all of whom endorse evolutionary theory and geological time, have committed their working lives both to finding and restoring those jumbled scatterings of fossil bones.

Top image: Earthquake Dinosaurs. Second image: Australian Geographic, photo: Kara Murphy. Third image: Barnum-Brown Howe Quarry dinosaur bones map from Wikimedia Commons. Fourth image: original artwork © Hawkwood.

* Please don't mention the name 'Buddy Davis' to me. A scientist might play country music, but a country music singer does not a scientist make. Mr. Davis also considers himself to be a reconstructional artist of matters dinosaurean. Looking at his work is a chilling reminder of what can happen when reconstructional art is unsupervised by qualified professionals. So.. the Creation Museum organizes a 'field trip' to dinosaur country in Montana led by... Mr. Davis? Oh, spare me...


Nima said...

This is a very interesting point. Basically they are freeloading off the hard work of REAL scientists.

A few years ago every creationist book, it seemed, showed dinosaurs with sprawling feet and dragging tails. Not anymore! They have looked at the changing face of the increasingly birdlike dinosaurs of popular science, the legacy of Bakker and Paul and so forth, and adjusted tack so as no to be out of tune with the times.

But whether they copy Bakker and Paul, or Knight and Burian as they used to, either way creationists are still copying someone else's anatomical research, not doing any of their own. In fact I suspect more than half of them wouldn't even know how to put a dinosaur skeleton together correctly when dealing with those jumbled bone beds.

Hawkwood said...

Thank you for commenting, Nima. You actually make a very valid point, because the further consequence of my post, as you make clear, is that creationists themselves evolve! The mechanisms of evolution in an intellectual sense are at work and present in the very arguments which the creationists themselves deploy. They themselves change and adapt their arguments and available information to move with new developments in the sciences. Thus: creationists adapt to a changing environment!