Friday, October 7, 2011

Dinosaur Adventure, Part 1

I had three choices of how to spend the weekend of September 23. I could have gone to the field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences; I could have gone to the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute; or I could go look at dinosaur footprints in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas. I chose the third option. This was the weekend when I had a chance to meet with some of the people who know more about these footprints than anyone else in the world. As an evolution educator, author, and blogger, this was an opportunity I did not want to miss.

I visited Dinosaur Valley State Park last March, as described earlier in this blog (see here and here), but on the previous visit I was by myself and the river was still flowing. Some of the photos I posted from that visit show dinosaur footprints underwater. This time, in addition to my chance to meet the experts, the river was nearly dry. Texas has had a long drought, costing the state economy over $5 billion, and to which the April 21, 2011 day of prayer proclaimed by Governor Rick Perry has not brought an end. Such a drought is a disaster in all ways except one: it exposed the bed of the Paluxy River, which has dinosaur footprints.

They say that you can throw a rock anywhere in Texas and it will hit a barbecue place that is better than anyplace else in the world. I entered a barbecue place, where a sign on the wall said, “Cowboys: No shirt, no service; Cowgirls: No shirt, free beer.” Yep, I’m in Texas all right. In reality, this place had no beer and everyone was clothed. I was with Glen Kuban, who has an expert knowledge of the Paluxy River dinosaur footprints.

As we ate our brisket, Glen told me his story. Our lives were strangely parallel: we are the same age, we graduated the same year, and we made the same migration from creationist fundamentalism to Christian theistic evolution at about the same time. We were both elected as Fellows of the American Scientific Affiliation, a Christian scientific organization, the same year. The difference is that, while my abandonment of creationism involved learning about research done by other people, Glen’s abandonment of creationism resulted directly from his research into one of creationism’s most notorious claims. Also, I am a professor, while Glen sells molds and casts of fossils and fossilized footprints, primarily to museum gift shops. Glen is sort of a latter-day Alfred Russel Wallace or Henry Walter Bates, the nineteenth-century naturalists who funded their travels and work by selling specimens they collected in the tropics. He also maintains a website with lots of Paluxy information.

Here is the notorious creationist claim. In 1982, a creationist named Carl Baugh was looking around at the fossilized dinosaur footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River. He found some impressions that, to him, looked like they might be human footprints. He also obtained some footprints that looked like very flat carved human footprints (see earlier blog entries above). Whether he carved them himself or credulously obtained them from someone else I am not prepared to say. If humans and dinosaurs left footprints in the same mud at the same time, then the entire evolutionary time scale is off. This does not necessarily prove the creationist version of Earth history; after all, why would dinosaurs and humans have been walking leisurely along in the mud in the middle of the Flood of Noah? But, thought a young Glen Kuban, the Paluxy footprints would be a really important thing to study.

So in 1980 Glen began to study the footprints. He quickly discovered that the so-called human footprints that were still in the riverbed were actually dinosaur footprints partially obscured by mud when they were originally made and afterwards. And another discovery surprised him. He found that the creationists, even those who used the “Paluxy man prints” as evidence of creationism, did not seem to be interested in studying the Paluxy prints. They seemed to be satisfied with hearsay and content to accept Baugh’s carved prints as evidence sufficient to overturn all of evolutionary science. Glen may be the only person in the world whose view of creationism was changed by actually studying the Paluxy dinosaur footprints. It appears that some prominent creationist writers and speakers continued to tout the “man-prints” even after they knew, and admitted, that the man-prints were fake. We’re not saying who the creationists are.

I looked forward to the next day, September 24, on which I would work in the dry riverbed with Glen and with another expert, Mike O’Brien. To be continued. This month's blog entries will be about the dinosaur footprints.

I have also posted a YouTube video in which Charles Darwin visits the dinosaur footprints.

I also maintain a religion blog which I have not heavily advertised because I want to keep this evolution blog and my website focused on science.

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