Here I am a few weeks ago at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada!
From this beginning point, I worked my way through the “intro” halls, all the while getting pumped for the really good stuff the Royal Tyrrell holds – enormous tyrannosaurs, elaborate (are-these-real??) Disney-like horned and frilled dinosaurs, and herds of T.Rex-sized duck-billed hadrosaurs.
But first, we were routed through a room dedicated to mining because coal and oil are important to this part of Canada. In this room were nods here and there to some good chunks of petrified wood and other unintentional finds discovered during the search for fuels.
And there he was.
Not often do I literally stop in my tracks, but I did. And whoa.
Right in the middle of the room was a dinosaur fossil like you’ve never seen before. Not skeletal remains. Not a two-dimensional imprint. Not even dried up and mummified.
But a 110 million-year-old dinosaur almost exactly as he would have appeared in life.
A NatGeo photographer called it the most impressive fossil he’s seen in his life:
It was like a Game of Thrones dragon. It was so dimensional, like a prop from a movie.
In life, this plant eater was eighteen feet long and weighed 3,000 pounds. He was plated in spikes and also sported two impressive twenty-inch spikes on each shoulder. He was found by an excavator operator six years ago, but did not make his public debut until May 2017.
He is a nodosaur, an armored cousin to the club-wielding ankylosaurs. (Here’s a link to a stunning 3-D virtual tour of the dino by NatGeo).
And – breaking news – it was just announced a few days ago that this nodosaur is a new species, the first of its kind to be discovered. He is the 110 million-year-old new kid on the block.
The Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs
Researchers believe he was swept down river by a flood, then out to sea where he quickly sank, belly-up. He settled into the impact crater with his back supported and was covered in sediment. Minerals infiltrated his skin and armor. Here’s Mark Mitchell (the museum technician who spent more than 7,000 hours chipping rock from the specimen):
It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens–the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs.
Standing just inches from this dinosaur, face to face, I was overwhelmed by these two thoughts:
This animal is REALLY OLD and living things have changed A LOT.
Just call me Captain Obvious.
Armadillos for Supper and Deep Time
About 180 years ago, a young Charles Darwin had those same two thoughts on his famous round-the-world trip aboard the Beagle. In Argentina, Darwin had been eating a local delicacy – armadillo roasted in its shell. In this part of Argentina were also found fossils of a huge animal, now called a glyptodon.
Glyptodons were extinct. And glyptodons looked just like enormous armadillos.
To Darwin, it was no coincidence that the little armadillos he was eating looked very like the giant glyptodon fossils found in the same geographical area.
In Darwin’s day, almost everybody thought that living things were static – what you see is what has always been. In other words, all living things were specially created by God in their present form, about six thousand years ago.
A few scientists in Darwin’s day thought that life on earth may have changed, but Darwin was the first to advance an idea of “how” the change happened.
Although Darwin is most famous for his “tree of life” – all living things are related to each other – he articulated another concept that made the tree make sense: deep time.
In the case of the modern armadillos and the extinct glyptodons, Darwin concluded that one species had replaced another, not geographically, but over an immense amount of time.
In Darwin’s day, this was a radical idea.
Today, even the most ardent young-earth creationist will concede that species have changed – just a bit – in order to meet environmental challenges. Creationists term these adaptive changes “microevolution” (not a term recognized by biologists). But creationists maintain that adaptive changes never result in a new species: finches remain birds, despite changes in beaks.
Creationists (whether young earth or old earth) do not accept “macroevolution” (another unscientific term) in which a species gives rise to other new and different species. Like most of Darwin’s nineteenth century contemporaries, modern literal creationists believe that life on earth is pretty much the same as it has always been.
Evolution Before Your Very Eyes
Here is Henry M. Morris, writing for the popular Institute for Creation Research:
First of all, the lack of a case for evolution is clear from the fact that no one has ever seen it happen.
This argument is a favorite of creationist organizations like ICR and Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. However, the “no one has ever seen it happen” argument fails to account for deep time, and furthermore, it is simply not true:
- The HIV virus evolves so rapidly (minutes to hours) that multiple species may exist in one individual. (Watch this PBS episode starting at 43:40).
- In a weekend, soil bacteria repurposed an existing gene to grow flagella after their flagella-growing genes were destroyed. (HudsonAlpha has a user-friendly summary here on page 10).
- In less than forty years, a mutation arose in pond bacteria which allowed the bacteria to utilize nylon as a food source. (Here is a good summary about nylonase in Miller’s Only a Theory).
This is where Charles Darwin’s game-changing concept of deep time enters the picture.
To tiny, incremental, imperceptible changes, Darwin added time. Lots of time. LOTS of time. Millions and millions of years. Deep, deep time.
And it then it becomes clear. Species do not change suddenly in big flashy events. A modern bird never hatched from a dinosaur egg.
Species give rise to new species because small changes accumulate over deep time.
The Vast Abyss of Time
Awarding-winning podcaster Krista Tippet (On Being, NPR) interviewed Adam Gopnik (New Yorker magazine) about a common thread in his writing – a kind of ongoing dialog with Charles Darwin. Gopnik speaks beautifully, almost lyrically, about intersections of faith and science and culture.
Deep time is a recurrent theme:
One of the things that gives Darwin’s life and his work its enormous, almost tragic, pathos is that he became acutely aware of (time). Biological evolution only operates and only makes sense if you’re able to open your mind up to geological time. The vast abyss of time.
Over the deep-time history of our earth, more than ninety-nine percent of species that have ever lived have gone extinct. Yet, we are surrounded by a dizzying diversity of life.
Things were very different in the past.
And that’s really cool.
And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
(Hillsong United “So Will I“)