Talking Faith and Fossils
Creation Weekend 2021’s on-line conference with paleontologist Dr. Marcus Ross was so dynamic and interesting that it seemed as if we had heard him in person. I found myself thinking about his return trip to Virginia. But, of course, he never left Virginia. Nevertheless, with the wonders of technology, Dr. Ross was able to present two excellent and very different topics. Since his field of expertise is fossils, his whole first presentation dealt with fossils, specifically some scary marine reptiles called mosasaurs. The second talk dealt with the objectives of creationists in their pursuit of science.
In the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s spooky Bearpaw Sea exhibit, if you look up, you will see the skeletons of massive marine reptiles including mosasaurs. Dr. Ross actually came as a student to study Alberta mosasaurs at the Tyrrell Museum. He informed us however in his presentation that such fossils are found worldwide, especially in North America and Europe where fossil hunters have been particularly energetic.
Apparently, mosasaurs are true “lizards” in body design and classification (unlike dinosaurs which are not lizards but part of a different group called “archosaurs”). Marcus began his talk by showing us some of the range of diversity of these creatures. Scientists distinguish about 40 genera ranging in size from 3 to 17 m (10-54 ft). Some of them were opportunistic generalist predators while others were fast ambush predators or slow-moving shell crushers. Scientists can plug data sets of their features into computer programs that look for lines of descent (evolutionary tree). However, there are other computer programs that can group these genera into clusters of creatures with gaps (discontinuities) between them. Dr. Ross’ data analysis identified three clusters of mosasaurs which could perhaps be equated with three created kinds. The animals in each group share certain features not found in the other groups.
Since mosasaurs are all extinct and known only from fossils, it seems fair to ask what might have happened to them. Apparently, the mosasaurs are all found in high rock levels which coincide with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. In the opinion of some creation scientists, this level also coincides with the peak of the worldwide flood waters or the beginning of their retreat. These rocks are given the name Maastrichtian because a particularly good example of these rocks is found at the city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Not only are there mosasaurs found in Maastrichtian rocks at Maastricht (and elsewhere in the world), but a unique geologic marker bed just above these rocks is found at this city (and some other places such as Alberta).
As a graduate student, Marcus attended the First Mosasaur Meeting in Maastricht in May 2004. He even delivered a paper “Refining global mosasaur stratigraphy.” On this occasion, the experts toured caves carved in the chalk that had contained mosasaurs. They viewed first-hand the marker bed at the top of the Maastrichtian rocks, which was at the level of the roof in some caves. This marker bed is thought to have been deposited as a result of a catastrophic asteroid hit in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Marcus carried out analysis that demonstrated that the mosasaurs were not dying out until their final disappearance just below the marker bed. At any rate something caused the massive deposits of shelly plankton that entombed the last of the mosasaurs, some of them in postures of life such as digesting food in their gut. It is possible that the aftereffects of the Yucatan blast may have caused any remaining mosasaur populations to starve as a result of dust in the atmosphere and little sunlight to support food production. Further research on this topic is the kind of study that Christian paleontologists might want to pursue in the future.
Marcus was flooded with questions after this presentation and he answered them with enthusiasm, displaying the depth of his knowledge. He also referred to a recent poster presentation on dinosaur trackways in Washinton State, that he and a colleague had made to the Geological Society of America in 2019. See https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2019AM/webprogram/Paper338925.html
Marcus’ second presentation, on infinite games and creation, turned out to be just as exciting as the morning session, but totally different. His objective was to answer the question how a young earth creationist can keep on doing science when most people (even many Christians) consider that this work lacks credibility. Our speaker however declared that the above question misses the reason that creationists study nature. Thus, he remarked: “Put simply, my goal as a young earth creationist and scientist is to discover the works of God’s created world, guided by his inspired Word.”
Dr. Ross couches his discussion of the objectives and methods of science (and life) on the metaphor of playing a game. There are two types of games, one kind involves competing with others with a view to defeating one’s opponents and winning the game. Such finite games are of limited duration. On the other hand, infinite games involve a player who pursues chosen objectives without reference to other players. The objective is not to defeat others but to play the game well. This process potentially continues indefinitely.
Scientists, including Christians, can play a finite game in their science, seeking to prove others wrong and themselves right. On the other hand, one could adopt an infinite game: “This journey is to discover God’s works via the materials, processes and history of nature while guided by his inspired Word.” In this context “Done properly, science exists to glorify God through excellence in the execution of one’s work. To play the game well means to continually improve and become a better player over time.”
Some might ask how the above process distinguishes the creationist scientist from others. The operative words are “discovery of God’s works through his creation and Word.” Dr. Ross points out that young earth creation’s specific claims of history are derived from a reading of Scripture that is natural, profound and theologically resonant. The account of the flood, for example, is an important organizing concept in the study of geology. In this context he provides examples from coal geology, bioturbation and particulate composition of sediments in the Grand Canyon, the results of which are overwhelmingly consistent with Scripture and the flood of Noah.
Thus, creation scientists are not unduly concerned with winning prestige and research funds (nice as these would be). Rather they seek to study nature in their various disciplines with diligence, integrity and faith. That is why they will continue to play in this infinite game of discovery. As Marcus posted at the end: Soli deo gloria! (Glory to God alone!)
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