Evolutionist questions CMI report— Have red blood cells really been found in T. rex fossils?
25 March 2002
In a recent exchange with a CMI supporter, an evolutionist attacked the credibility of our article Sensational dinosaur blood report, first published in Creation magazine in 1997.1 In an effort to discredit the story, evolutionist Jack DeBaun actually contacted the scientist who first reported ‘red blood cells’ in T. rex fossils. They raise some serious questions that require a detailed answer.
Dr Carl Wieland, Managing Director of CMI-Australia and author of the article in question, answers each charge in turn. And yes, it’s still safe to say that the evidence is highly consistent with red blood cells having been found in T. rex fossils. (DeBaun’s original remarks appear below, indented and in red.)
JB: One of the [Creation Ministries International] articles to which you referred your readers was entitled, ‘Sensational dinosaur blood report’. According to this article, Dr Mary Schweitzer working in Dr John Horner’s research group at Montana State University uncovered ‘actual red blood cells in fossil bones from T. rex. With traces of the blood protein hemoglobin’. This evidence led the authors to conclude that the discovery ‘casts immense doubt upon the “millions of years” idea’.
Having developed a healthy skepticism towards the ‘sensational’ discoveries that are periodically trumpeted by the [CMI] apologists, I contacted Dr Horner directly to ask him about these claims. He informed me that actual red blood cells had most certainly not been detected in his specimens. He wrote, ‘What we found was heme, a form of iron that has a biological origin, but of course, not any soft tissue or any other component of a cell. It’s preserved because it’s iron.’
CW: This seems rather disingenuous, since they saw what appeared to be red blood cells under the microscope. Obviously, this was stunning, and it was Dr Horner who, as we cited, suggested to Mary Schweitzer that she try to disprove that they were red blood cells that were being seen by these people under the microscope. The immunological reaction was the factor that, coupled with the histological appearance, made it more than reasonable to claim that these were actual red blood cells (i.e. their remains). As you will see from the rest of this, they have most definitely not succeeded in disproving that these are red cells.
JB: I also received a reply from Dr Schweitzer regarding the positive immunological response observed in studies in which extracts of dinosaur fossil were injected into rats. According to the [CMI] site, this response represents compelling evidence that the dinosaur specimens could not be millions of years old. However, as elaborated on by Dr Schweitzer, ‘Now, heme is different than protein, and is a very tiny and very durable molecule.’ (It is not unexpected, therefore, that it would remain intact in million-year-old dinosaur fossils.) ‘But the heme itself is too small to be immunogenic. We believe that there were possibly 3–4 amino acids from the original protein [which consisted of many hundreds of amino acids] attached to the heme, and that was what may have spiked the immune response.’
CW: When you read this, remember that to these people, the truth is that the millions of years are fact. Therefore—and this is not said in any disparaging way—they must have some sort of explanation. Let me put it this way, before looking at the explanation in more detail—when DNA was first reported in a fossil millions of years old, a well-known scientist in Nature said that it was just as well that those looking for it were not aware of laboratory-measured rates of decay which indicated that DNA should not last more than about 10,000 years (he later said 100,000)—or else they would not have looked for it. His implication: by definition, once you find the DNA, the previous belief, i.e. that it would not last, is proved wrong. Thus, if one finds heme, hemoglobin, and/or red blood cells in a millions-of-years-old bone (as they see it), this proves that under certain, remarkable, rare conditions, such things can happen. Note—I would not claim that the preservation proves the millions of years is wrong, but it strongly suggests it, and it is certainly more consistent with the belief that the fossil is only thousands of years old.
Now, let’s look at what has been said here. Hemoglobin is what was being looked for, and hemoglobin consists of heme (the small molecule we are looking for) and globin (protein which consists of long chains of amino acids strung together in a specific sequence). Heme certainly is tougher than the globin, but to suggest that therefore it is no problem to explain how it lasted millions of years is again disingenuous, as it was certainly a surprise to the researchers, when you read the paper, and no wonder. But note that the immune response is specific to the sequence of amino acids, which forms the protein, not to the heme. To suggest that 3–4 amino acids may have given a response specific to that protein is mindblowing. There would have to be far more specificity (i.e. a specific sequence) than that. I asked a Ph.D. molecular biologist who works with us and who did work for his thesis on identifying proteins using monoclonal antibodies. He is most sceptical about the notion that 3–4 amino acids, even with the heme, will be recognised by the antibody.
Remember that the evolutionists cited may be experts in their field, but their field is not immunology or molecular biology. Above all, remember that this is their way to ‘explain away’ the evidence. There is no evidence that this reaction was spiked by only ‘3–4’ amino acids, they are surmising this, but there is evidence that there was a reaction to hemoglobin, not ‘heme’ as such. Their chain of reasoning probably goes something like this: ‘Well, we have to explain the specificity of the immune response. What is the smallest no. of amino acids that could give that response?’ (As indicated, I believe their assumption is way out, that it almost certainly would have to be many more, as antibodies lock onto shapes rather than short amino acid sequences. Thus, the onus of proof is on them to show you evidence that 3–4 could do it. Then (continuing my suggestion on their chain of thought), ‘how could even that number have survived in that sequence? Well, we’ll have to assume that they were glued into position by being stuck to heme, and heme is more durable as a molecule.’ (It is still a surprise to find any organic structure in any millions of years old fossil by normal chemical laws.) And so on.
NB: they argue that ‘well, we do sometimes find heme in millions of years old fossils’ but once again this begs the question of how they know that the fossils are millions of years old, and would they have predicted this finding from chemical knowledge? The answer to the second is most certainly no, but as indicated, once they find it, then by definition it is possible to get heme in bones millions of years old. But note that osteocalcin has also been found, a protein which is much more fragile than heme, and note how below they squirm around the issue:
JB: While the preservation of protein residue is unusual in most fossils, it does sometime occur under special circumstances. As Dr Schweitzer explains, ‘It depends on the protein examined, and more importantly, on the diagenetic [mineralizing] conditions of the entombing environment. In this case, we are just beginning to understand why regions of the T. rex exhibited such exceptional preservation. And not all of the bones did, only regions of some of them.’
CW: Analyze the above very carefully in light of what has already been said, and you will see that there is no reason for a scrap of retreat from my statements above that a) the evidence is consistent with morphologically intact red blood cells having been discovered, as strongly suggested by the histological appearance, and as reinforced by the hemoglobin immune response. b) The evidence is overwhelmingly more consistent with the belief that the fossils are not millions of years old than with the converse.
JB: So there you have it from the horses’ mouths, so to speak. Contrary to the ‘sensational’ claims of the [CMI] article, no ‘actual red blood cells’ were found. Only fragmentary remnants of heme iron to which were attached a few residual amino acids were all that were detected.
CW: Note how an assumption to prop up a belief has suddenly become fact.
JB: In the case of the immunological response, the indications are that it resulted from the sporadic existence of pockets of extensively degraded protein, not intact hemoglobin as the [CMI] article implies.
CW: No, this is not ‘indicated’ by the results at all, as pointed out above—it is post hoc story telling to avoid the clear implications of the results.
JB: While somewhat unexpected, this response in no way calls into question the ancient vintage of these specimens.
CW: This was not just ‘somewhat unexpected’! See:
‘The lab filled with murmurs of amazement, for I had focused on something inside the vessels that none of us had ever noticed before: tiny round objects, translucent red with a dark center. Then a colleague took one look at them and shouted, ‘You’ve got red blood cells. You’ve got red blood cells!’2
JB: As Dr Schweitzer noted, the special conditions under which partial preservation can sometimes occur are the subject of current research. What evidence do the creationists have that some limited form of preservation of protein fragments cannot occur under all environmental conditions? If they can offer no such evidence, then their self-serving pronouncements about the age of these fossils is only so much wishful thinking.
CW: Au contraire, it should surely qualify as ‘wishful thinking’ to try to believe that red blood cells and at least part of some hemoglobin molecules could last 65 million years. This would be a tall order, even if they were kept frozen in liquid nitrogen in a lab. Such is the stifling effect of the evolutionary dogma that scientists can be blinded to the clear implications of their own data.
JB: The other [CMI] article to which you refer your readers is entitled, ‘Interview with Buddy Davis’. Mr Davis, who appears to have no formal training as a paleontologist, claims that ‘The Liscomb Bone Bed has probably thousands of frozen unfossilized dinosaur bones—some of them have the ligaments still attached.’ Mr Davis says that he collected some of these specimens and that this discovery ‘places dinosaurs well within the time of man.’ Does it really? I don’t know of any reputable paleontologist who would think so.
First, one might ask if Mr Davis is actually messing with dinosaur bones. There is the possibility that what he is dealing with are mastodon and/or mammoth bones which would be expected to be rather widely distributed in the upper strata in that area. Has any qualified paleontologist with expertise in dinosaur classification been allowed to examine Davis’ specimens? If not, how can he be certain that they are dinosaur bones?
CW: This is, respectfully, ridiculous. The literature [see Davies, below] has long ago recognized that these are hadrosaur bones. But this will likely be seen as one more example of ‘well, we didn’t know before and we did not expect it on the basis of the age of these things, but it appears that under certain conditions … ’.
JB: Second, even if the bones are of dinosaurian origin, the fact that they may appear to be ‘unfossilized’ does not mean that they are of recent age. According to Dr Horner in personal communication to me, ‘As for unfossilized remains, it depends on your definition of fossilized. Most dinosaur bone is not petrified. Petrification is the complete replacement of the original bone, and this is actually very rare. Permineralization is the filling of open spaces in bone, which means that the original bone is still there … bone is composed of calcium phosphate which, being a mineral, is generally pretty stable.
CW: Since when has ‘being a mineral’ made something stable? It depends what sort of mineral. Many minerals are very unstable (iron sulfite for example).
JB: If a bone was buried rapidly, and didn’t have an opportunity to have water deposit minerals within its spaces, then it would appear to be ‘unfossilized’ but actually all the bones examined like this have undergone some kind of replacement … many of my studies include microscopic examination of bone that has been only partially replaced.’
CW: That is a fair enough comment. Just about all bones, including fossil bones even a few hundred years old, will have some degree of infiltration by surrounding minerals. So we should be careful and assess the bones more fully in due course. Buddy is a singer and sculptor and adventurer, and not a scientist. One problem for us is that the bones collected officially belong to the US government under special permits, and [CMI] does not have official access to them as yet.
Nevertheless, the existence of ligaments etc. has been reported on ‘dinosaur age’ marine fossils coming out of a mud spring in England on a regular basis, and is a well accepted fact. It was written about by a Ph.D. geologist in our Creation magazine some time ago [Dr Andrew Snelling, ‘165 million year’ surprise, Creation 19(2):14–17, March–May 1997].
JB: Therefore, unless Davis’ purported dinosaur bones are examined by an expert, his claims that they are ‘unfossilized’ are nothing but wild speculation.
Davies, Duck-bill dinosaurs (Hadrosauridae, Ornithischia) from the North Slope of Alaska. Journal of Paleontology 61(1):198–200, 1987. He says on page 198:
‘The quality of preservation is remarkable. The bones are stained a dark red brown but otherwise display little permineralization, crushing, or distortion.’
JB: Not unexpectedly, the [CMI] has again been caught misrepresenting the results of scientific studies and exaggerating their impact to bolster its anti-evolution agenda. But that is actually of little concern to them since they are primarily focused on preaching to the choir. They know they can count on you [the CMI supporter who contacted us] and your fellow creationists to reflexively swallow whatever they dish out without ever giving it a second thought. Nonetheless, instead of casting immense doubt on the ‘millions of years’ idea, what this deceptive reporting does is to cast serious doubt on the credibility and honesty of the propagandists working for the[CMI].
CW: Naturally, I categorically reject this unfortunate ad hominem attack. No falsehood on the part of CMI has been demonstrated.
JB: If humans and dinosaurs actually coexisted, some of the crucial questions that creationists must answer are: Why are human bones and human artifacts NEVER found buried together with dinosaur remains anywhere on earth?
CW: There are a number of anomalous finds, such as the Tampa figurine, and the ‘Malachite Man’ remains in dinosaur rock in Utah. But of course evolutionists can easily resort to secondary explanations such as ‘intrusive burial’. The bones are such that one cannot determine either way whether they were primary or secondary in the strata. So we are careful about the use of such evidence.
JB: Why are dinosaur bones NEVER found buried anywhere on earth in upper strata, but only in much deeper strata …
CW: Deeper is a relative term. Sometimes dinosaur rock is indeed found at the surface, as this person would (or should) know.
JB:… that is more than about 65 million years old?
CW: Perhaps that’s because rocks that have dinosaurs in them are by definition at least 65 million years old, so how would anyone find any that are younger? Take for example the statement by Dr Schweitzer:
‘It was exactly like looking at a slice of modern bone. But, of course, I couldn’t believe it. I said to the lab technician: “The bones, after all, are 65 million years old. How could blood cells survive that long?”’3
Note also (again) Dr Schweitzer’s extreme surprise at the blood cells, contrary to the attempts to downplay the surprise at finding such in bones supposedly millions of years old.
JB: Why are dinosaur bones NEVER found buried anywhere on earth together with large mammals that have lived contemporaneously with man such as elephants, whales, bears, tigers, oxen, hippopotami, rhinoceroses, moose, etc.?
CW: The whole question of Flood–post-Flood animal distribution, which is highly relevant to the issue of which animals are buried with which, is the subject of discussion in our technical literature. It is true that many animals contemporaneous with man have not been found with dino bones, but then many which are contemporaneous with man HAVE been found with dino bones, or at least in the same layer. Crocodiles, turtles, sharks, and more. The ‘order of first appearance’ of creatures in the fossil record is, some 90% of the time, not that which one would expect if evolution were true, so both sides have some things in the fossil record which require explanation.
JB: And why, even if for the sake of argument one assumes that Job’s Behemoth was a large dinosaur, would the Bible be virtually silent regarding the enormous variety of beasts that would have had such a profound impact on people’s daily lives?
CW: For one thing, an argument from silence is a poor one. The Bible was written for a specific purpose, inspired by God. It leaves out a whole host of extraneous issues not relevant to its purpose. But in any case, presumably by the time of Job, there were only a very few such creatures left. They may never have established themselves again in large numbers following the Flood.
JB: It is difficult to imagine how people could have lived in the presence of the type of vicious flesh-eating dinosaurs that are known to have hunted in what is now the Middle East …
CW: That is an interpretation based on the finding of dino fossils in that region, but since they were buried there in the Flood, there is no reason to believe that they hunted in today’s Middle East. Furthermore, there is much evidence that T. rex, e.g. would have been easy prey for man, frightened of falling lest he kill himself, unable to run fast (despite Jurassic Park) etc. This has been documented by evolutionists of recent days. Our June Creation magazine will have an item on this [T. rex: The bigger they are, the slower they go, Creation 24(3):56, June–August 2002].
JB: … without the scribes documenting dinosaur encounters on a frequent basis.
CW: There are extra-Biblical records of ‘dragons’ that match what we would today call dinosaurs. See Q&A: Dinosaurs.
JB: Until creationists proffer reasonable answers to these questions, their man/dinosaur connection can justifiably be shrugged off as just another one of the faith-based myths that they must buy into in order to cling to their literal interpretation of the Bible.
Obviously, the reader must decide who is clinging to what, and whether or not these were ‘reasonable answers’ (1 Peter 3:15).
Carl Wieland (editor, Creation magazine)
Notes and References
- Wieland, C., Sensational dinosaur blood report, Creation 19(4):42–43.
- Schweitzer confronted her boss, famous paleontologist ‘Dinosaur’ Jack Horner, with her doubts about how these could really be blood cells. Horner suggested she try to prove they were not red blood cells, and she says, ‘So far, we haven’t been able to’. Schweitzer, M. and Staedter, I., The real Jurassic Park, Earth, pp. 55–57, June 1997.
- Morell, V., Dino DNA: The hunt and the hype, Science 261(5118):160–162, 9 July 1993.