Mary Schweitzer is a paleontologist who specializes in molecular paleontology, that is in the detection and interpretation of original molecular fragments in well-preserved fossil specimens. She is best known for discovering what appears to be biomolecules, remnants of soft tissue, blood cells, vessels and such, in ancient fossils including a 68 million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex (One nicknamed Big Mike, not Stan the one pictured here which is in the Natural History Museum at Oxford).
Her discovery of soft tissue remnants is controversial as the standard mechanism for fossilization would not permit these biomolecules remnants to persist in a specimen so old. The conditions would have to be rather special – rapid burial to protect the corpse from scavengers, increasingly deep burial in an appropriate formation, followed by careful excavation and prompt analysis when the fossil is found. Even then skepticism remains. This is an example of good science with criticism and response. A series of results with increasing reliability is challenged and tested. Prof. Schweitzer has described her results in the scientific literature, but also in a number of popular venues. Her 2010 article Blood From Stone in Scientific American is fascinating if you can manage to get a hold of it.
Creationists have jumped on this discovery as evidence for the failure of the old earth, deep time model of origins. This strikes me as a predictable, but rather ridiculous response. Schweitzer’s discovery, assuming it holds up as now appears likely, tells us a great deal about these ancient creatures and about the conditions of fossilization. Soft tissue remnants in samples many hundreds of thousands of years old is uncontroversial however. In fact Schweitzer and colleagues used comparisons between such specimens and their dinosaur specimens to validate their methods and results on the T Rex. Contra Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis … There is nothing here that supports a view in any fashion consistent with the young earth interpretation of Genesis.
What many do not know is that Mary Schweitzer is a Christian, and a fairly conservative one at that. She was interviewed recently on the BioLogos blog: Not So Dry Bones: An interview with Mary Schweitzer. The interview is quite interesting, I encourage you to read it. She is doing good work in a fascinating topic and making her fellow scientists and fellow Christians think. Her responses point to some of the problems a Christian scientist can face.
Finding soft tissues that responded to our tests like modern materials in many ways, suggested that after three hundred years of looking at this stuff, we don’t know as much as we thought. It’s also hard because, being a Christian evolutionary biologist, I receive a lot of mail that is not fun—fellow Christians suspect my faith, and scientific colleagues suspect my science. But I have no agenda, except to produce data.
The second half of the title of my post comes from an incident Schweitzer relates a little later in the interview.
How has your research influenced your faith, and your relationships with other Christians?
I think probably you better ask other Christians! I really don’t know. But, I do go to pretty conservative churches. One time I was visiting a church and the pastor got up and started preaching a sermon about people not being related to apes, and he started talking about this scientist in Montana who discovered red blood cells in dinosaur bones—he didn’t know I was in the audience—and it was my research he was talking about! Unfortunately, he got everything wrong. I just got up and left. I don’t feel that I’m discrediting God with the work I’m doing, I think I am honoring him with the abilities he’s given me.
Mary Schweitzer is quite gracious in this interview noting that sometimes we have to simply agree to disagree, and she has found pastors of fairly conservative churches who are willing to do this. More progressive churches where she would be readily accepted don’t seem to focus on preaching God or the Bible. It is hard as a Christian and a scientist to find the right balance in a local church. Here I speak from my personal experience, although it appears to agree with Schweitzer’s.
“Unfortunately, he got everything wrong.” In the remainder of this post I’d like to focus in a bit on this observation Schweitzer made. The particular incident she relates is especially pointed as the pastor was speaking about her work directly, but many of us have found ourselves in places where statements are made from the pulpit, quite authoritatively and persuasively with rhetorical flourish, that distort, misuse, and occasionally demonize scholarship and even the scholars themselves. The scholarship involved can be science, psychology, archaeology or something else. It can even be biblical scholarship involving languages and ancient culture.
What responsibility does a preacher have to verify facts and get things right?
Does it matter, or am I nitpicking?
Verify facts is easier said than done of course. It can be hard to know who to trust or where to go for good information.
How should a member of the congregation respond to such incidents?
In the incident related by Schweitzer leaving was an appropriate response. Wait it out and then forget it could also work. This wasn’t her home church after all. But what if it is in one’s home church? Is there any space for critical conversation about the content of a sermon? Should there be?
In good science there is always space for critical conversation in community. Science is a community activity at its core. Ideas must be tested and defended. Schweitzer’s data, analysis, presentation, and ultimately her conclusions are made far stronger and more reliable by this pushback and critical conversation.
I have become a much (much) better writer and thinker, better able to get my points across and focus on the important issues because of the pushback I have gotten from a vast horde of commenters on my posts (well sometimes it seems like a horde). Many of these commenters I now view as friends – even if we never meet face to face. Honest, critical engagement is crucial to intellectual growth. Perhaps to spiritual growth as well. (I’ve also learned that I must always assume that the author of any material I write about is in the audience. This provides an additional impetus for careful engagement.)
Many of us are teachers – and we become better teachers when our students question, probe and interact. Occasionally they even point out errors or suggest different approaches. Honest, critical engagement is crucial to effective communication.
Yesterday’s excellent post on by Josh Ross on Jesus Creed (Confessions of a Local Pastor) makes an interesting backdrop for the discussion. There is a place for affirmation and response in our churches – but is there a place for engagement, questions, or criticism? If so where and when?
Sometimes I think we’d be better off, as one commenter on Josh’s post suggested, to concentrate on liturgy and prayer in worship, emphasizing scripture and God’s mission. Teaching is best left for a forum where interaction and discussion and real engagement are possible – something that our churches should also cultivate.
What do you think?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If you would like to comment please see Blood From Stone … But Unfortunately, He Got Everything Wrong at Jesus Creed.