1.2 Getting a Grip: Dinosaurs and Mass Extinction
Studying the Big Five mass extinctions reveals some recurring geological causes.
Although mass extinctions took place a long while ago, if you think such investigations are merely academic speculation—of no more relevance than “who let the dogs out” (as the obnoxiously popular song put it back in the 1990s)—you’d be quite wrong, for whatever answer might eventually carry the day could have profound implications for how we think about our living ecosystem today. Why? Because if mass extinctions have natural causation, whether one or several, identifying those factors have relevance in determining whether or not we might be artificially engineering comparably unstable conditions today. No one wants to be on the wrong end of the extinction curve, or trying to get by when the larger biological systems start crashing around you.
By the standard of loss of biodiversity covered by Åžengör et al. (2008) our present human driven losses threaten to exceed even the K-T event levels. Which is part of the reason why modern scientists study the PETM as they do for the lessons it may hold as an analog for our own greenhouse warming activities, Bowen et al. (2006). Likewise for the Triassic mass extinction over a hundred million years earlier still, as it occurred during a period of global warming directly involving a significant rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. As this wasn’t due to industrializing dinosaurs, but rather from things like the magma plume and the Pangea supercontinent breaking up, it gives us a measure of how potentially momentous (and dangerous for particular critters, like us, all too dependent on our monoculture food crops) entirely natural fluctuations can be. While plant life didn’t crash in the way animals did then, McElwain et al. (1999; 2009) tracked how the abruptly warming climate nonetheless caused significant turnover in the ecology and diversity of the survivors, and the correlation between high global temperature and both the origination and extinction rates of animals is remarkably consistent over the last 520 million years, Mayhew et al. (2008).
The current debate over human-inspired climate change is entangled with a lot of very familiar cultural and methodological baggage, where many of the same people who express intractable skepticism over global warming happen to be equally certain that natural evolution flies against “scientific” reason and evidence. This track includes more traditionally religious YEC apologists like Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) and today’s Hank Hanegraaff but intersects with the ID orbit via the many interview opportunities provided by members of the Discovery Institute, who are just as happy to appear on Hanegraaff’s Bible Answer Man to criticize global warming or evolution as they are to provide background antievolution briefings for the popular conservative harpy Ann Coulter.
The problem science inevitably poses for the ideologically driven tortucan mind is that the scientific process can’t help generating such chains of implication. That is, it will do so provided it sticks close to the truth, for there has always been a fecundity about notions that are actually so. They lead to fresh discoveries and insights, which do not become less true or relevant just because some people find the conclusions unpalatable.
A dandy example jumps at us from way back in the Cretaceous: did the dinosaurs become extinct in the K-T event? Had birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs (the bipedal predators and their kin), as opposed to some earlier thecodont reptile (regarded as earlier cousins of those archosaurs ancestral to the dinosaurs)? This is no taxonomical hairsplitting, for if birds are indeed the living descendants of dinosaurs, their present behavior and fundamental genetic structure provide invaluable clues in deciphering the nature of their extinct brethren, animals thought permanently beyond the reach of direct investigation.
Understanding the true nature of dinosaurs is thus inextricably linked to working out their correct evolutionary history. Presuming, of course, they had an evolutionary history to begin with, for at just the time that I was diving into dinosaur paleontology again, creationists were also swinging into high gear in their effort to persuade the secular community that everything about evolutionary theory was an egregious crock, entirely unsupported by the “true facts” of science.
Here, then, was quite a test for me. If the creationists’ view of natural history was the correct one, should they not be able to account for such matters as the dinosaurs with greater clarity and explanatory power than their evolutionary opponents? Their version should have about it what physicist Philip Morrison (1915-2005) has dubbed “the ring of truth.” Such is the resonance of all genuine knowledge.
From the evolutionary side, paleontologists like David Norman were explaining the specific development of dinosaurian musculature over time, and exploring the coevolutionary relationship between the jaw structure of herbivorous dinosaurs and the changing nature of the plants they were eating. You see how easy it is to get deep into the technical issues when you’re dealing with real live scientific investigation.
Meanwhile, what were the gems of insight being offered apropos the dinosaurs by the renascent creationists? Well, they must have been on Noah’s Ark, you see, for according to the Bible all land animals had been thus included. Some theorists ventured even further, insisting on scriptural authority alone that only subsequent to the Flood had carnivory entered the animal kingdom at all, which meant those carnosaurs conventional paleontology erroneously viewed as ferocious predators had in fact been initially docile herbivores, living amiably beside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Let’s not put too fine a point on this. What I was hearing from the creationist community in the early 1980s about dinosaurs was arrant drivel. There was no physical evidence that dinosaurs and people coexisted in any sense whatsoever, while claims about the presumed plant eating characteristics of tyrannosaurs flew in the face of everything that had been learned about comparative anatomy over the last few centuries. And in furtherance of this Flintstones version of paleontology, creationists were actively bullying legislatures and school boards to adopt this nonsense as though it were credible science. Clearly my high school physics teacher’s benign “ice canopy” theory had in the meantime grown sharp teeth indeed.
And that is how my childhood interest in dinosaurs led first to my following the creation/evolution debate, and ultimately escalated into my writing this present volume. The more I studied what creationists were asserting, the more discordant their worldview appeared in contrast to the real science I could observe regarding not only the dinosaurs, but everything else in the natural world. Instead of that “ring of truth,” what I was getting from creationism was a very dull thud.
But all this resounds very differently to creationists, and therein lays the crux of the problem. While evolutionists are talking “science,” creationists are really addressing serious social concerns. For them, evolutionary theory is not about discovering to what extent the herbivorous iguanodontid dinosaurs differentiated from the earlier camptosaurids during the Cretaceous; it is a battle to expunge what they perceive as the pervasive corruption of a modern secular age that has fallen away from the Revealed Word of God. Creationists are concerned not about the morphology of Permian reptiles, but about teenage pregnancy, abortion, and homosexual rights. Their struggle against evolution is part of a much larger culture war (a Kulturkampf, to borrow a handy term left over from Bismarck’s tussle with parochial education during the formation of the old German Empire) and cannot be understood apart from that context.
The problem for science is that in the pursuit of this social agenda creationists jettison the common practices of scholarly method. Sources are read for ammunition, not understanding. Relevant information is misrepresented or ignored altogether. It is this aspect of the creationist enterprise that is potentially so destructive, for no legitimate discipline (let alone science) can be sustained for long on methodological foundations so sloppy as that lying at the heart of creationist thinking.
But there is some utility to come from all this: creationists (and their latest Intelligent Design iteration) have been so mind-bogglingly verbose, speaking and writing so much for so long that they have generated a trail that illustrates with amazing clarity what is (and just as importantly, what is not) going on in their heads. It is that diagnostic aspect that is the target of Troubles in Paradise.
Now you might well ask, if creationists are truly such transparent blockheads heaven-bent to lead the millions straight off the cliff of pseudoscience, what does this bode for the American Republic, given that their views are accepted by roughly half the population (reflected in varying degree among their elected officials) and even about a quarter of public school science teachers?
That is the fact, after all: the polling data are quite consistent here, showing that my old high school physics teacher is by no means anomalous. With only minor fluctuations, year on year, the American public sustains a belief that natural evolution is not true at a level comparable to the public acceptance of astrology or UFOs—roughly 45% of Americans are friendly to the idea that the Earth is only around 6000 years old and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. This is not as high as some creationists imagine, though, such as the optimistic George Grebens (2005) claiming (without supporting citation) that “over 65% of the American population adheres to the creation interpretation of origins, worldwide Flood and geological evidence for catastrophism.”
Still, the actual value of around 45% have shown very little adjustment based on the efforts of the secular educational process. The lack of significant shifts in views may be traced via Ecker (1990,10), Eve & Harrold (1991, 4, 32, 163-166), McKown (1993, 65n), Zimmerman (1991) surveying legislators in Ohio and Congress, Brown (2002, 280), Branch (2004), Duncan & Geist (2004), Plutzer & Berkman (2008), Angus Reid (2010), Virginia Commonwealth (2010), Bishop et al. (2010) analyzing a recent Harris Poll (2009), and Newport (2010) digesting the modestly undulating Gallup Poll surveys taken since 1982. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) keeps up with the polling data, by the way, providing useful updated links at ncse.com.
Rosenau (2013d) has thrown up a caveat, though: that if you tease out the contentious issue of human evolution from the polling data there may be fewer doctrinal Young Earth believers in the mix than appears to be the case depending on his the questions are framed, and given the prominence of human origins as a hot button concern of antievolutionists, explored in Chapter 5 of Downard (2004), this may indeed be true—a similar factor was spotted in the subpopulation review of creationist beliefs by Duncan & Geist (2004), where 82% had problems with human evolution. But as a practical matter it may not be workable to keep the human side of things sealed off long enough in the educational process to satisfy the sensibilities of some potential evolution believers, in the cheery hope that, if only they can be sold on trilobites evolving or continents slogging along, they can be weaned onto the big evolutionary picture—not given the fact that modern scientific thinking includes us in the evolutionary mix as a matter of course and that particular shoe will have to drop eventually.
Compound that with the occurrence of creationist school teachers and you have yet another hurdle to jump. Teachers reflected the popular creationist sympathy of the general population when it came to supporting “equal time” public school instruction: Ellis (1986), Schick & Vaughn (1999, 6-7) or Weld & McNew (1999), with Aguillard (1999, 185) specifically on Louisiana. It is hardly surprising then that creationist-friendly primary and secondary school instruction can ripple down up educational food chain to one degree or another, reflected in the polling of college students at secular and religious institutions undertaken by Cole (1987), Moore & Kraemer (2005) and Moore et al. (2009) regarding Minnesota (this in spite of the state having a fairly strong pro-evolution science teaching standard), and various broader surveys by Bowman (2008), Moore & Cotner (2009) and Paz-y-Miño C. & Espinosa (2009a-b)—in turn rebounding again to the extent that college students retaining mistaken notions about the evolutionary process later take up teaching as a vocation.
The situation has remained strikingly impervious to progress via education, as Matt Young (2011a) noted in a review of Berkman & Plutzer (2010), or Lauri Lebo (2011g) concerning further polling. Recent repackaging of the religious approach under the Intelligent Design rubric (whereby genetic change and some degree of common descent can be accommodated somehow or other within an otherwise God-directed scenario) has only reinforced the dynamic: while 16% of the high school biology teachers surveyed by Berkman et al. (2008) identified themselves as explicit YEC creationists—dropping a bit to 13% in Berkman & Plutzer (2011)—a much larger 47% characterized themselves in 2007 as believing in Intelligent Design, so that the combined “teach the controversy” evolution skepticism camp of 63% far outweighed the 28% core of teachers declaring themselves to be full-blown evolutionists. The survey by Randy Moore (2007) is consistent with this shift, as was Bowman (2008) finding “intelligent design” almost twice as likely (34%) to be treated as a viable scientific concept in public school science classes than “creationism” (18%).
This shouldn’t really come as a complete shock, though. Part of the acceptance of creationism simply reflects the fact that cultures get what they value, and lots of Americans (including those who end up as high school science teachers) believe the Bible is true and that is that. But there is more to it than simply demographic reality. Cultures get exactly what they value. Not what they profess to value, but what they actually value, and beyond the parochial articulation of a broadly held religious culture lies a more general human reluctance to do the hard work required to temper their convictions with firm reasoning.
In a blunt nutshell: there is a natural laziness that reinforces many of our deeply held misbeliefs. It is much easier to believe something that is congenial than it is to seriously work out whether the evidence warranted your believing it in the first place. We’ll see this aspect popping up in some interesting places, from the vituperative oeuvre of political pundit Ann Coulter to the avalanche of derivative claptrap spewed (and there is no more accurate word for it) in the dozens of incredibly repetitive books and websites generated by the indefatigable Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar (who writes under the pseudonym “Harun Yahya”).
The propensity of the likes of Coulter and Yahya to funnel parasitically the misinformation of others only mirrors a larger tendency for people to take their “facts” in manageable doses provided it tastes right. To see a graphic illustration of this just consider out what gets stocked in the checkout line at grocery stores. While you will see National Geographic and Scientific American alongside the decorating, sports and gaming titles in the magazine section, tucked back by produce or gift cards usually, the checkout line is targeted to a more specialized mass appeal impulse buyer, and there you will not see the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS for short).
Instead there is a gauntlet of celebrity and soap opera guides, along perhaps with a scattering of gaudy tabloid papers proclaiming yet another amazing revelation from the Dead Sea Scrolls, next to the latest Elvis and Bigfoot sightings. These papers exist only because the public continues buying them. Quite apart to whether they believe any of it, their existence testifies to how much they are valued.
Or consider the popularity of astrology columns in daily newspapers. Even by the standards of professional astrologers—let alone the scientific critics who disassemble their every presumption, such as Carlson (1985)—the general horoscope based only on the sun sign cannot possibly have any relevance beyond chance, yet they persist because the devouring public finds them entertaining or comforting. They perform a reassuring social function, which is not about to be vitiated merely on account of it not being even slightly true. Indeed, this remains so even among the public who profess a scientific worldview (including belief in evolution) who tend to be more willing to follow astrology columns than do religiously devout creationists. Orenstein (2009) speculates this may be so because the creationist is in a sense inoculated against flirting with a lot of outside activities deemed inappropriate (such as the demonic occult that would include astrology) while the more open-minded popular science aficionado jumps in feet first.
I contend that the behavior that Orenstein was lamenting is just a manifestation of what it means to have a large population of tortucans knocking around, but the phenomenon is hardly a new trend. As the congenitally cynical H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) accused back in the 1920s, no one ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Jay Leno tread the same turf in his running “Jaywalking” segment when he was at the helm of the Tonight Show, quizzing all-too-average people about what ought to be the common knowledge of history and culture. If one wants more scholarly verification, the National Constitution Center (1997; 1998) found a lack of depth in understanding the nuts and bolts of our Constitution. Sure, most could say who the President was and that the first 10 amendments are known as the Bill of Rights, but only 5% could pass all ten items on a “rudimentary” questionnaire about the Constitution. More to our point, a quarter of those surveyed thought our explicitly godless Constitution established Christianity as “the official religion of the US.”
Thus the grocery store checkout line or the newspaper astrology columns of today only serve to measure an underlying stability of the human character that needs accounting for. The creationist is simply a big subset of a population that—no matter what they may profess to pollsters—doesn’t in practice pay any ingrained attention to either the scientific literature or the methodology so essential to generating it.
Nor can we overlook social pressures. I doubt there is an American teenager alive who has not been made aware of the dangers of smoking—information keeps turning up to hone the tale of woe, for instance that second-hand smoke can act as a male reproductive mutagen, Marchetti et al. (2011). Yet the knots of underage puffers around public schools during breaks suggest there is indeed a functional limit to education when it has to compete with social convention—or even the dynamics of individual human neurobiology, as recently characterized by Kober et al. (2010) on the craving process inside our heads. Critics of creationism therefore must not delude themselves into thinking throwing just the facts at their target will serve to counteract the powerful social metaphysic that drives acceptance of (or at least toleration for and enabling of) a deeply pseudoscientific creationism that has the likes of Anne Coulter and Harun Yahya batting for it.
Add to this already potent stew the pedagogical phenomenon that most practicing scientists are not in the habit of having to explain, especially impromptu, the underlying historical and evidential logic of their discipline to outsiders—least of all to people with little or no grasp of the basic terminology involved. The typical geophysicist is too busy using radiometric dating to justify its validity to carping creationists asserting the contrary, and such confident but insufficiently articulated expertise appears to the argumentatively inclined believer as exactly the sort of blind arrogance their apologetic source books were warning them about.