24 February 2006

Uh... yeah, well, maybe... but _how_?

National Geographic reports that “Soft-tissue dinosaur remains [...] may not be all that rare”, stating that “about half” of the fossil samples tested had some:

To make sense of the surprising discovery, scientists are beginning to rethink a long-standing model of how the fossilization process works. [no scat, Sherlock!]

[...]

Traditional ideas of how fossils form do not allow for the preservation of soft, perishable organic tissues.

“We propose now that soft-tissue components of bone might persist in a lot more different animals, in a lot more ages and environments, than we once thought,” Schweitzer said.

“All we have to do is look.”

Er, actually, no. We also have to explain how it happens.

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m happy-joyed that things have progressed far enough for NatGeo to announce that the fossil emperor has no clothes. Now, perhaps, we can start doing some more useful science WRT fossils instead of cowering in fear of the fatal brand of scientific heresy!

But still... admitting that there is a problem, while it’s a big step and a vital one, doesn’t magic the problem away.

To demonstrate, Schweitzer showed two microscope-generated photographs side by side.

“One of these cells is 65 million years old, and one is about 9 months old. Can anyone tell me which is which?”

The mystery of these structures won’t be solved completely until scientists understand how the tissues were preserved.

Sixty-five million years! Diffusion and stuff should have long since seen these things off, polymerisation or not.

Ostrom believes that prehistoric proteins — not DNA — offer the greatest potential for recapturing pieces of the biological past.

Protein chains are shorter and far more stable than DNA, and their study is less fraught with risk of bad data due to contamination.

Sure, yes, agree. But we’re talking about at least 65 million years for some of these samples. Do y’all have any idea just of big and fragile a protein is?

Will we see the rise of the Intelligent Preservation movement? (-:

Also randomly picked off the list of this morning’s news, we have this little item from Canada, which could have been a boring little report on how yet another bunch of religious people want more of a rational foundation for their beliefs, but right in the middle is another ray of hope:

Marvin Fritzler, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Calgary medical school, said he does not believe intelligent design is the answer to such questions. But he is convinced science must look beyond evolutionary theory.

“I would rather we think a little bit outside the Darwinian rut,” he said.

“Significant paradigm shifts and new ways of looking at things take place in pretty controversial circumstances, where someone is willing to look beyond the theory of the day. And that goes for Darwin back in the mid-1800s. I am concerned we get ourselves a little tunnel-visioned and can’t make those paradigm shifts.”

Perhaps the most hopeful thing is that the few who stand up and object (this word always flashes me back to Shrek’s little announcement in Duluc’s church, and the whole congregation turning in shock to regard the intruder) so publicly are the tip of a social iceberg. In amongst the religious nutcases (yes, and the areligious nutcases too), sensible people are thinking outside the box. This bodes well for scientific progress.

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