Tag Archives: fossils

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

Heresy Collection

Geology isn’t a great avocation for those of us with an unsettled existence. Having grown up with a fondness for fossils—maybe because they were so transgressive—my initial collection was tossed out because of a family move. Rocks are too heavy to take with you. I made the mistake of thinking, back in my Nashotah House days, that I was settled enough to let my rock-hounding sensibilities loose. Not that fossils were common, but Wisconsin has some great geological formations and I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society and even dragged my family along on some field trips. By the time Nashotah informed me my talents were no longer required, I’d amassed a few boxes that I was embarrassed to admit to the movers that, yes, contained rocks. New Jersey also has some great locations for rock-hounding, but my sense of being subjected to sudden, geologic career shifts has kept me from picking up nearly as many stones as I’d like to bring home.

The Museum of the Earth, here in Ithaca, is a dangerous place for someone like me to visit. I thought I had my fossil-collecting habit under control. The gorges in this region are famous for their fossils. Wandering through the museum, reflecting, as it does, the immense stretch of prehistoric time, it was obvious how arrogant humans are for assuming “control” of the planet. We’re so terribly late as to be classified as invaders on this planet. The world got by just fine billions of years without us. Perhaps that’s why I experienced transgressive fossils so captivating as a child. Ironically I found them in the creek bed right behind the Fundamentalist church we attended and where we were taught that evolution never occurred. I was fascinated by what I’d now call the juxtaposition of evidence and faith. We never questioned the reality of fossils. It was their interpretation that was the problem.

You can hold in your hand the most solid evidence that life evolved and call it heresy. Those delicate impressions of creatures dead for millions of years argue eloquently against Genesis and its mere 600 decades of world history. For me the fossils always won. On trips home from the seminary I would gather more fossils to add to the growing museum of time I’d been amassing in my basement. Then a Fundamentalist administration took the same approach as my exasperated mother trying to pack to move. Jettison the fossils. They’re heavy and they kind of make us uncomfortable anyway. Maybe the idea of too much time is something the biblically constrained simply can’t face. And when I see a fossil right there on the surface in one of Ithaca’s many gorges, perhaps I need to learn simply to let it lie.

News from around the Universe

In the last couple of weeks two large-scale news items caught my attention. One describes how a newly discovered galaxy is made up of mostly dark matter. The other tells how a new fossil find in Greenland may push the origins of life on earth back to 3.7 billion years ago. If you read my blog, you know that I’m a frustrated scientist. I’ve always tried to follow the developments in the field and even considered it as a profession until I ran into the wall of mathematics. Ran into the wall, banged up the car beyond repair, and was barely able to walk away. That’s the breaks in a world where ambition and ability aren’t the same thing. So I have to take my science like baby-food, mashed and strained before it makes its way to my brain. I know I’m not alone in this—the whole field of “humanities” proves that. (Originally science (astronomy) was one of the humanities, but oh how we’ve grown!)

Into the storm

Such frightening things as mathematics aside, these are exciting stories. I’ve been looking around this galaxy quite a bit, and I can believe dark matter outweighs light matter and I’ve never even been off the earth. The story is encouraging because it shows just how much we have yet to learn. Nothing could be more exciting for an erstwhile educator. The opportunity to stretch one’s mind should never be taken lightly. At the same time as dark matter is growing, so is the age of life on earth. I have to admit that I’ve not even been to Greenland, but the idea that life began so soon after the earth formed has cosmic implications. If we were such fast starters, doesn’t that suggest that elsewhere in the universe the same may be true? Ironically, here on earth uniformitarianism is considered a foundation of science. But once you get off earth scientists are reluctant to say the same processes could have happened elsewhere. But what do I know? I’m still trying to figure out trigonometry.

Earthbound I may be. Humble humanities specialist from start to finish. Nevertheless it is an amazing time to be alive. Once we’ve figured out that human brains—products of evolution that they are—aren’t capable of ultimate comprehension, we’ll be able to bask in the light of billions and billions of suns and raise a glass with our cosmic neighbors, made of light matter or dark, and proudly say that we’ve made some real advances at last.

Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

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The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.

Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Brave Old World

WorldFromBeginningsAs we continue to evolve, it is helpful to learn where we’ve been. Besides, the title, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is difficult for an old Genesis reader to pass up. I knew Ian Tattersall’s book was about human evolution—a subject that has made me feel naughty ever since being raised to believe, quite opposite of reality, that evolution was a myth and Genesis fact. I remember the strange disconnect from my earliest years. Standing under the 13th Street Bridge, just before French Creek joins the Allegheny River, the main tributary of the Ohio, and, in turn, the Mississippi, my brothers and I would look for fossils. And find them we did. If you found the right kind of rock, preferably with a recent fracture, you could find the impressions of dozens of sea shells jumbled together in a glorious, fluted profusion. These were the exoskeletons of animals dead for millions of years, and thinking myself a budding scientist, I stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to make of it all. At church I learned the earth was young—not even a teenager in geologic terms—and yet, in my hand, encased in rock, contrary evidence.

Indeed, Tattersall begins his book, as many college-level texts do, apologizing to the culture that still somehow believes that the earth is just 6000 years old, despite the Tyrannosaurus towering over your head at the Carnegie Museum. Humans are latecomers on this scene, however. Tattersall gives a solid introduction to the current human family tree. Instead of being ashamed of our heritage, I’m more inclined to feel a little pride. Our ancestors, prey to large carnivores, took a distinctive evolutionary track that enlarged our brains to help us outwit our natural enemies and learn how to destroy the very planet we inhabit. Well, maybe pride is a little too strong a word. Good and evil, it seems, always stroll hand-in-hand. So we evolved, but not yet to perfection.

Evolution always makes me think of the future. A strange sense of accomplishment makes prominent thinkers, particularly those who declare themselves bright, marvel at our greatness. I can’t help but to think that something better must lie ahead. We’re told that evolution has no direction in mind—traits that help to survive until reproduction are all that really count—and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on. Have we built all this merely to have sex and die? Glorified May-flies? Isn’t the future a wonder of what we might become? Evolution takes so long, even with punctuated equilibrium, that we’ll never live to see it. I have a suspicion, however, that if we give it enough time, we might offer our as yet unimagined offspring a world as full of wonder as it always has been. And they’ll still be standing by the river, staring in amazement at animals made of stone.