As a follow-up to a class discussion of the nature and validity of historical and experimental science, I came into class yesterday and posed three questions to my students: Why were T. rex’s arms so short? Does repeated head trauma on the football field cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)?, and Why do our fingers wrinkle when soaked in water? We discussed possible hypotheses and ways to test them as an exercise in getting a grasp on how do we establish what we can know and how we know when we know it. In case you are curious about the consensus answers from my class here they are in a nutshell: we concluded that scientists have little beyond guesses why T-Rex had such short arms, that CTE appears to be strongly correlated with head trauma and, although not much is understood about the causative connection of trauma, build-up of protein in the brain and the expression of psychological effects, it would be unwise to dismiss the connection even if only based on a correlation, and third, just because it can be shown that wrinkled fingers can more easily grip smooth objects does not mean scientists have demonstrated there an adaptive reason why fingers get wrinkled in water.
Right now I just only want to explore the first question a bit further because it speaks to some issues I have talked about on this blog. So why were the arms of T-Rex so short? There have been many hypotheses including: 1) they had not use and were like a vestigial organ, 2) they were used to hold on to potential mates, 3) they were used to hold onto small prey while they ate, or 4) they were used to help them get up when they fell down. Can these hypotheses be tested? Well, yes and no. Behavior traits are notoriously difficult to assess with the fossil record but not impossible. See my post on extinct elephant behaviors deduced from fossil footprints (Preservation of Behavior: Fossilized Elephant Tracks from the Arabian Peninsula) for an example. What about hypothesis one that the arms were useless? The assumption here is that over time the arms became useless and so atrophied to the point of being these tiny little nubs in comparison with the entire animal. This hypothesis can be tested and shown to be unlikely to be true. The bones of the arms show evidence of large muscle/tendon attachment points. Analyses of these arms then suggest that they were very very strong even if they were very small. There is also the presence of two sharp claws at the end that suggests they had purpose. These observations can be used to support the hypotheses that the arms had a use. The other hypotheses are much more difficult to test.
Rather than go on and on debating these speculative hypotheses I posed my real question for the class which was: How do you know that T-Rex’s had short arms? While it is probably obvious to everyone, including my students, that T-Rex had short arms how you know this to be true may not be so obvious. Have you ever seen a Tyrannosaurus rex in person? If you were not there to witness a living dinosaur can how can you be sure they had short arms?
So what is this evidence that we all find so convincing. It is nothing more than from bones turned to rock. As philosopher Carol Cleland would say, there is your “smoking gun” evidence (see Origins Science and Misconceptions of Historical Science for a further discussion and references). The bones have left evidence or a “trace” of history that we can use to test our hypotheses about the lengths of the arms of T. rex and carnosaurs in general. How much total evidence is there to support this conclusion? Surprisingly little with respect to actual data points! I haven’t been able to find firm numbers but it seems that there are fewer than 15 near complete skeletons of T. rex that have ever been found. Of those I am not sure how many of these even had the arms actually attached to the shoulder blades but I would be surprised if it were more than a couple (the first was not found until 1989!). Of course there have been man more pieces of skeletons found and I am sure many arm bones have been found in the vicinity of other T. rex bones. The smoking gun evidence is found in those few that are actually attached but the observance of other small arm bones near other T. rex bones also adds to our conviction (or you could call it theory) that T. rex had short arms. So just a few bones that are found next to a shoulder bone of a T. rex are the foundation of every image you have ever seen of a T. rex with short arms. The lesson here is not that we should doubt that T. rex actually had short arms but rather that that some forms of historical evidence are very very good and we can have great confidence that we can “know” that diminutive arms were found on these massive animals. I can’t test this theory by going back in time but the evidence that we can gather in the present can yield a high degree of confidence in our conclusions about the past.
But, let us continue to follow the path of what we think we know from historical science and see if our study of dinosaurs yields another more provocative conclusions than just the length of this beasts arms.
How do we know that many dinosaurs ate only plants and what plants did they eat? Teeth are one clue because we can compare their teeth to teeth from various animals alive today but while strong evidence it is not the smoking gun. Dinosaur coprolites (yeah, that’s dino-poop) in and around skeletons of tooth-implied plant eaters provide further evidence of the herb-loving nature of these dinosaurs. The teeth along with the lack of any evidence of bones in their coprolites and an abundance of plant tissues and spores and pollen combine to form the smoking gun evidence that has convinced everyone that these dinosaurs where plant eaters. Another way of putting this is that there evidence brings us to have no reasonable doubt that this is what these dinosaurs actually ate.
But let us look just a bit closer here. What specific kinds of plants did they eat? Cross sections of plant eating dino-poops reveal very clear evidence of the types of plants that where eaten. Pieces of stems and leaves often pass right through the gut and pollen and spores of plants are especially well preserved. The anatomy of these plant parts and structures of these spores can be examined in detail and the types of plants determined very reliably In this case what is found that a large number of plant eating dinosaurs ate ferns, tree-ferns, lycopods, and primitive forms of conifers. What is missing in this list? Yes, flowering plants. Today’s the most dominant plant form on earth are flowering plants which include most trees and the grasses. No large herbivore today could possibly eat plants and not get at least some flowering plant pollen in them much less any other parts. Yet, there are at least hundreds of dinosaur coprolites that have been examined from all over the world and they lack pollen and flowering plant parts. There are anatomical cell types that are unique to flowering plants which could easily be seen in these specimens if they were present. Microscope examination would be predicted to reveal flowering plant parts and pollen in any coprolite were it present.
How do scientists interpret this coprolite evidence?
These fossilized coprolites tell us that some dinosaurs only eat plants and that globally what the vast majority of all plant eating dinosaurs had to eat were non-flowering plants including many plants that are extinct today. How confident are scientists that most dinosaurs had nothing to eat by a fern and conifer diet? I would say that their confidence level approaches that of their confidence level that T. rex had short arms and that some dinosaurs at plants and some ate meat. The preponderance of evidence is great and includes many other independent lines of evidence that I don’t have time to explore here today.
Creationists, Dinosaurs and Historical Data
If you were to visit Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky you would find displayed there dinosaurs of various kinds including plant and meat eaters and a model of T. rex with his short arms for the world to see. Ken Ham is fond of asking people who think the world is old “Where you there?.” He frequently suggests that we can’t know things from the distant past because we were not witnesses and only the Bible is a witness to these events. So I ask you, why does he have such confidence that T. rex had short arms? Was he or anyone else alive and reported that they saw a T. rex with short arms? Does the Bible provide us with a physical description of T. rex? No, so the evidence that T. rex has short arms comes from observations of fossils and the assumptions about those fossils (eg. they actually represent parts of formerly living things and that bones next to other bones represent there order of attachment in the real organism). Ken Ham and AIG have published numerous books with recreations of dinosaurs and even discuss their behaviors all based solely on bones of stone found in the ground. He clearly accepts the evidence and interpretations of this evidence of historical science without qualification. But what happened to that origins science vs operational science distinction that Ham and others of so fond of espousing? (see HERE for more about this distinction). Origins science is the label they like to slap on any conclusion of historical science that they deem contradictory to their interpretation of scripture. But how do they know when something is or isn’t under the purview of what they call origins science? To me re-creating the shape and size of an animal now extinct and never spoken of in the Bible sounds a whole like what they want to call origins science but since the don’t have a problem with the interpretations of historical science they don’t call them into question.
I’m really can’t blame Ham et al for accepting that T. rex had short arms, the evidence, though not abundant, is very very strong. It is not unreasonable at all that accept this but then what are we to make of the diets of the plant eaters? I am sure YECs would readily accept the observation of coprolites full of bones as evidence of what dinosaur like a T. rex ate but then what do they do with the coprolites that contain 100% ferns, lycopods and conifers and 0% flowering plants. Maybe they could dismiss a single coprolite as a dinosaur browsing in a bog full of ferns and confers but when all coprolites from a single geological period all lack flowering plant pollen and plant parts and those coprolites are found associated with multiple species of dinosaurs in multiple locations on earth it become very difficult to deny that the food that dinosaurs had available to eat did not include flowering plants. Someone might claim that dinosaurs found in these geological periods just didn’t like flowering plants, which is hard to imagine since all animals today very much prefer flowering plant leaves like grass over pine needles and ferns, but even if they tried to avoid all leaves and stems of flowering plants they should have still eaten pollen grains, which are everywhere in the environment, at least inadvertently. When you combine the lack of flowering plants in dino poop along with the lack of flowering plant pollen and plant parts in rocks that the same dinosaurs skeletons are found preserved this becomes the smoking gun evidence for the theory that these plants did not exist at the time that most of the dinosaurs were alive.
****A side note here: For YECs, the dinosaurs preserved in the fossil record were preserved during a Global flood and they generally view those dinosaurs as running to escape the flood which is their explanation for why dinosaur fossils are not found in the lower portions of the geological column. There are millions and probably many billions of preserved dino-poops in the same rock layers that the dinosaur bones are found. Since these dinosaurs were presumably running around trying to avoid this chaotic flood the food they ate would have been whatever they could find which should have been a random mixture of the plants alive at the time of the flood. This makes it even more unlikely that they could have avoided eating flowering plants and that we would observe such a distinct pattern in their coprolites.****
What do YECs do with this data. They generally ignore it but when forced to confront it they deny that flowering plants were not present and prefer to say “How do you know, where you there?”. I think it is likely they would suggest that historical scientists don’t have the right worldview and so can’t interpret the data properly. They put models of dinosaurs in their museum surrounded by fruit trees and print books with dinosaurs helping people pluck fruit from trees. At the end of the day, they are sure that T. rex has short arms based on a couple of bones but they wish to ignore hundreds of pieces of data that all point to the lack of flowering plants in most dinosaur diets. The first claim seems to be perfectly acceptable knowledge based on historical science while the latter also based on the same logical principles and types of data is completely ignored.