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Volume 1, Number 6, November/December, 1996
A bimonthly newsletter of the Creation Research Society.

Ancient DNA?
Creationist Unity
Creation Wins One!
Swedish Museum Opens
Speaking of Science -- Dating Methods
Creation Calendar
A Service to Local Creationist Groups

Ancient DNA?

Todd Wood

The book and subsequent movie Jurassic Park has had an amazing effect on our American society. Jurassic Park was truly a unique film. It propelled its author, Michael Crichton, into center stage of the entertainment industry. It introduced the public to a revolution in computer-generated imagery. It fueled the already rampant dinosaur fever in the United States. It was even reviewed in the prestigious journal Nature. Besides all of this, Jurassic Park introduced us all to the fascinating and controversial field of ancient DNA recovery. When the film made its debut in 1993, there were only a handful of articles in the professional literature on the topic of ancient DNA recovery. Today, a new journal, Ancient Bio-molecules, has been introduced to cope with the growing interest in the field.

The specialty of ancient DNA recovery began in the early eighties in two different places. In Uppsala, Sweden, Svante P__bo had begun to suspect that the molecular biological techniques he was using to manipulate DNA from living organisms could be applied to DNA that may have survived after a natural death. He obtained tissue samples from 23 mummies at the State Museums in Berlin. From these samples he was able to clone fragments of DNA only from a single mummy. Cloning is a process of copying DNA fragments by tricking bacteria into copying it for you.

Across the world, in California, the laboratory of the late Allan Wilson was busily working on extracting DNA from a variety of tissues. They, too, were successful in cloning and sequencing fragments of DNA from an organism that had died, this time from a museum-preserved skin of a quagga. The quagga was a zebra-like animal that became extinct in the late nineteenth century. This particular animal had been dead for 140 years. Wilson's lab also reported the recovery and purification of DNA from a frozen mammoth carcass in Siberia, and the possible recovery of DNA from an insect entombed in amber.

The advent of more easily-implemented techniques has revolutionized the field of ancient DNA study. Today, researchers can use special enzymes to not only copy the DNA, but also to amplify it. Such techniques also allow us to amplify DNA directly in the test tube rather than inside bacteria. These techniques have led to some startling claims, serious doubts, and embarrassing mistakes.

Computer-generated Image of a Portion
of a DNA Molecule
(by Todd Wood)

The Controversies

The same month that Jurassic Park opened, a group of scientists in California published a report claiming that DNA from a weevil preserved in Lebanese amber had been amplified and sequenced. What made this claim so remarkable was the fact that scientists consider Lebanese amber to be at least 120 million years old. There are many scientists who believe that DNA simply cannot last that long. There were accusations from some scientists of contamination. Since the technique used to amplify DNA is so sensitive, contamination is a serious problem. Furthermore, the very fundamental question of amber's ability to preserve organisms was raised. It is well-known that amber is fossilized tree sap, but the actual chemical reactions that produced this hardened resin are not understood. Without knowing the chemistry involved, it is difficult to judge whether amber could truly protect DNA from degradation and contamination.

In 1994, the scientific community reacted with heavy skepticism to a paper that appeared in the journal Science. In it, the authors claimed that they had recovered DNA from the bones of a "large land animal" from a Cretaceous coal mine. Since scientists believe that the only "large land animals" alive at that time were dinosaurs, the popular press reported that actual dinosaur DNA had been discovered. Unfortunately, the analysis of the sequence was severely deficient. Later studies demonstrated that the sequence was most likely a human contaminant.

Last year saw the publication of what I consider to be the most unlikely study that has been associated with the ancient DNA field. The laboratory of Raul Cano reported in Science that they had successfully revived "25 million-year-old" bacterial spores from the abdomen of a bee in amber. Despite all the concerns about contamination, I might be persuaded that ancient DNA is really ancient, but I find it hard to believe that bacteria could allegedly survive for "25 million years" in a state of suspended animation.

The Objections

The most objections have been raised by Thomas Lindahl, a researcher at Clare Hall Laboratories in England. He has consistently advocated skepticism regarding the attempts to recover ancient DNA. His objections are primarily theoretical. He has collected a large body of data regarding the degradation of DNA, focusing specifically on the chemical reactions that occur as DNA breaks down. He has also pointed out the extreme sensitivity of the techniques used, and has warned against the possibility of modern contamination.

More than any other, Svante P__bo has tried to answer these criticisms. He has studied the behavior of DNA in actual decomposing tissue of various ages, including a 4-year-old pork chop. What he found was a somewhat different picture than the strictly analytical one Lindahl painted. He found that DNA rapidly falls apart into very short segments, only about 200 nucleotides long. A nucleotide is the basic molecular unit comprising DNA. In comparison, if the average distance from the earth to the moon were proportional to the length of all the DNA in a human cell, then the length of the typical fragment recovered from ancient remains would be only about 16 feet. This is the most basic reason why organisms cannot be cloned from these kinds of DNA fragments; e.g., it would be like trying to get to the moon in 16-foot jumps. Furthermore, P__bo has implemented a rigorous method of double-checking results from the techniques used to purify, amplify, and sequence the DNA.

Another objection commonly heard is a very pragmatic one. The chemicals and equipment necessary to recover DNA are quite expensive. Completely outfitting a modern laboratory to do this type of research can easily cost $250,000. In addition to this cost, every time DNA is purified from ancient tissue or fossils, that tissue or fossil must be irretrievably destroyed. In the case of mummies, only a few grams of tissue must be removed, but in the case of insects in amber, the entire fossil must be destroyed. Compared to the cost of recovering this DNA, the positive benefits are minimal. Even today, the majority of papers published in the field deal with techniques, or simply report the recovery of some novel DNA sequence. Little attempt has yet been made to link this information to solving the problems encountered in paleontology and archaeology. There are a few labs, however, that are attempting to recover DNA from archaeological remains of a large sampling of a people group to attempt to trace their cultural origins. DNA recovery techniques can also be applied to the identification of pathogens in archaeological remains.

The Creationists

Many creationists have jumped on the ancient DNA bandwagon, claiming this as proof that the earth is not billions of years old. After all, if DNA cannot survive for more than 10,000 years (as Lindahl would propose), how can it be recovered from a 120 million-year-old weevil? Let us suppose for a moment that DNA really has been recovered from the weevil, that it was not a contaminant. Let us also suppose that the DNA decay rates proposed by Lindahl and others are correct, and that DNA indeed will decay into unrecognizable compounds in only 10,000 years. Other creationists have taken a different approach, suggesting that since the sequences recovered are so similar to modern sequences, ancient DNA demonstrates that evolution has not occurred. Are these arguments good apologetic tools?

I have to admit that I personally have my doubts about the relevance of ancient DNA to creationism. First of all, let me deal with the age issue. This is acknowledged to be a problem among molecular biologists. Even though one could never say with certainty that DNA decays at a given rate, it does seem incongruous to many that DNA could possibly last even a fraction of a million years. Are we thus warranted to formalize this into an argument for the young age of these fossils? I think not, for the very simple reason that too many unknowns are involved. We do not know the behavior of DNA decomposition in a corpse. We do not know the preservative powers of amber. We do not know if the recovered DNA is even genuinely ancient. The potential for embarrassment is great, as in the case of the aforementioned erroneous dinosaur sequences.

Another question that arises is that of consistency. As a community, young-earth creationists have long been critical of the concept of uniformitarianism and rightly so, I believe. To discount the occasional catastrophic change in the history of life is not at all scientific. On the other hand, I believe that God administers His creation in a regular and predictable manner. Whether one labels this regularity "Laws of Nature" or simply the act of Christ sustaining His creation, the concept is the same; viz., events in nature are predictable, given that certain antecedent conditions are met. This is a critical point. Unless we have good reason to believe that something unusual has happened, then the regularity of creation should be trusted to give us an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. In the case of geology, we have the testimony of Scripture that leads us to believe that much of the geological sculpting of the world is the result of a world-wide Deluge.

In the case of ancient DNA, this is exactly the line of research being pursued; i.e., there is an attempt to show that something "unusual" has occurred. This is why much ancient DNA research includes a justification of how the DNA could have lasted so long. One virtually never reads of attempts to isolate DNA from just any piece of scrap fossil. The remains are chosen carefully: mummified tissue, amber-encased insects, fossils recovered from demonstrably anoxic sediments, and even teeth are considered good candidates for preserving DNA over vast periods. If we truly wish to have our extraordinary circumstances (i.e., creation and the flood) accepted as a viable alternative to the old-earth, then we should be willing to allow evolutionists to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances in the preservation of DNA. I will admit that ancient DNA is a paradox for evolutionists, but it does not make a strong apologetic for the young earth.

As for the evolution of the sequences, all estimates seem to agree that the sequences have followed acceptable mutation rates. Evolutionists will also freely admit that point mutations in a particular non-coding sequence or even in a particular gene are not responsible for the morphological changes seen in modern organisms. For this reason, this argument is far more obviously invalid than the age argument.

What, then, should we do? I think the best approach is skepticism and patience. (I said that about life on Mars in the last issue ... I must be in a rut!) Ancient DNA recovery is such a new field, and there are still so many skeptics in the scientific community, that it is simply too easy for us to start using "evidence" that later turns out to be invalid (as in the case of the alleged dinosaur DNA). Above all, we must be committed to the truth because Jesus Himself is the Truth. We cannot use arguments that have not yet been validated. We must not use arguments that are logically inconsistent. We are the ambassadors of Christ to a dying world, and our God is a God of light; in Him is no darkness at all.

For Further Reading

Cano, R.J. and M.K. Borucki. 1995. Revival and identification of bacterial spores in 25- to 40-million-year-old Dominican amber. Science 268:1060-1064.

Cano, R.J., H.N. Poinar, N.J. Pieniazek, A. Acra, and G.O. Poinar, Jr. 1993. Amplification and sequencing of DNA from a 120-135-million-year-old weevil. Nature 363:536-538.

Hedges, S.B. and M.H. Schweitzer. 1995. Detecting dinosaur DNA. Science 268:1191-1192.

Henikoff, S. 1995. Detecting dinosaur DNA. Science 268:1192.

Higuchi, R., B. Bowman, M. Freiberger, O.A. Ryder, and A.C. Wilson. 1984. DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family. Nature 312:282-284.

Lindahl, T. 1993. Instability and decay of the primary structure of DNA. Nature 362:709-715.

P__bo, S. 1985. Molecular cloning of ancient Egyptian mummy DNA. Nature 314:644-645.

P__bo, S. 1989. Ancient DNA: Extraction, characterization, molecular cloning, and enzymatic amplification. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 86:1939-1943.

P__bo, S. November, 1993. Ancient DNA. Scientific American 269:60-66.

Stoneking, M. 1995. Ancient DNA: How do you know when you have it and what can you do with it? Am. J. Hum. Genet. 57:1259-1262.

Woodward, S.R. 1995. Detecting dinosaur DNA. Science 268:1194.

Zischler, H., M. Hoss, O. Handt, A. von Haeseler, A.C. van der Kuyl, J. Goudsmit, and S. P__bo. 1995. Detecting dinosaur DNA. Science 268:1192-1193.

Creationist Unity

Pete Williams, M. Phil.

There are a lot of things which divide Christians, but Christ prayed that his followers would be 'one' just as He and the Father are one (John 17.21). This must include unity of desire and purpose, in fact a unity of everything except for unity of person and role which the Father and Son do not share. Although God cannot be said to have 'belief' -- what he says is -- we must surely seek unity of belief, too. Even creationists have divisions amongst themselves. Very often these differences are about creation models; e.g., whether a particular geological formation is from the Flood, or precisely how much biological change has occurred within the created 'kinds.' But what is even more noteworthy is that often creationists do not agree about things which are outside the bounds of creationism. This is hardly surprising, given the variety of denominational backgrounds from which creationists come. How, then, can we resolve our differences? First, we need to recognize that doctrinal distinctives do matter. There may be some things that matter more than others, but all truth matters. Second, we must not assume that just because a particular doctrine matters, it must therefore be discussed in a creationist forum.

Creationists are united in purpose, not because they see any doctrine as insignificant, but because they see that cooperating in creation research is more important than being divided by lesser doctrinal issues. The amount of space in creationist literature which is given to a subject should be proportional to the centrality of that issue for creationism. Of course, many doctrinal issues can come into creationist thought. If, as creationists claim, creation is a central theme in the Bible, then it follows that many things in the Bible are connected to it. Not only does it affect many doctrinal issues, but many doctrinal issues affect it. We cannot therefore isolate creationism from all other doctrines. For example, an issue such as which Bible translation is best may come up in relation to a study of Biblical chronology. However, since, as far as I know, there is only one passage (Acts 13.19 and 20) which is so different in different English translations as to affect a chronological scheme, even this debate will take relatively little space in proportion to other issues in a thorough treatment of Biblical chronology. If we keep our eyes on what we are aiming to do, we will much more easily be able to spot a sidetracking issue.

The book of James has much practical advice for creationists on how to settle our differences:

    • Ask for God's wisdom (1.5).
    • Do not seek to be exalted (1.9-11).
    • Do not be impressed by worldly greatness (2.2-3).
    • Love those with whom we disagree (2.8).
    • Remember that we will be held accountable for our words (both spoken and published!) (2.12).
    • Do not seek to 'lecture' others (3.1).
    • Recognize that everyone makes mistakes (3.2).
    • Recognize that affirming that people are made in the image of God affects how we must talk to them (3.9).
    • Realize that even in affirming the truth we'd be denying it if we acted out of envy (3.14).
    • Recognize that bitter wranglings among creationists are fueled by our own selfish desires (4.1).
    • Avoid slandering those with whom we dispute (4.11).
    • Recognize the limitations of our knowledge (4.14).
    • If we are patient for the coming of the Lord, we should be patient with our interlocutors (5.7-8).
    • Do not pretend to be faultless; pray for each other (5.16).
    • Recognize that as far as our activities rescue backsliders and the lost, we have a great cause for rejoicing (5.19-20).

Because of the narrow focus of creationist organisations, we must be especially on our guard. It is certainly possible for someone to be a 'successful' creationist researcher in worldly terms, and yet not to be growing in Christ. Likewise, it is surely possible for someone to write an article for a creationist publication, and yet not be saved. Matthew 7.21-23 is a sober warning that doing great things in Christ's name does not save us. What safeguards do we have to protect against such things in the creationist community? We should first seek to guard our own hearts, making sure that our work is done for Christ and not for men. Since we are convinced that God is our Creator, then that should result in praise. Surely the ICR is right to link creationism with devotion in their Days of Praise. We also need to care for each other spiritually, praying that each one continues to grow in every part of his or her Christian life. In this way creationism's ultimate goal, that of glorifying Christ, will be better realized.

Creation Wins One!

Good news! In a front-page article, the Albuquerque Journal (8/23/96) reported that the New Mexico state Board of Education has voted 13-to-1 to eliminate all references to evolution in the state's standards for science education in the public schools.

The standards originally required kindergartners through 4th- graders to be able to "describe the theory of evolution as an explanation of a series of gradual changes ..." Now the standards call for students in 9th through 12th grades to know "theories of biological origin based on direct observations, investigations, or historical data."

The State Superintendant of schools, Alan Morgan, said, "Students will be expected to critically analyze a number of theories. There is essentially no reference to creationism, the big bang theory, or evolution. What we wanted was to avoid the requirement of any specific dogma. The standard says that we want students to have access to a variety of knowledge, and then students can make up their own minds."

Marvelous! What is especially amazing to me about this action is that (as far as I know) it didn't come about through any special lobbying effort by creationists. The article quoted one plea by a parent, Roddy Leeder, at the hearing: "I ask that you not allow my children to be brainwashed with the theory of evolution. It shouldn't even be taught unless creation can be in there, too." But also at the hearing were the usual anti-creationist academics with their usual rantings. For some reason, the board decided to listen to the parents.

My guess is that they have been listening to grassroots rumbling for some time. Over the past decade, New Mexico has had quite a bit of creationist teaching, including two large seminars by Ken Ham, a visit by Phillip Johnson to Los Alamos, many newspaper articles and letters by creationist scientists, etc. This result may be a sign that Christians at the grassroots level are convinced to the point of making themselves felt by the politicians.

Regardless of the final outcome, I find this thought very heartening.

submitted by Russ Humphreys

Swedish Museum Opens

Mats Molen, of the Swedish Biblical Creation Society reports that their creation museum is now open to the public. The museum is named The Prehistoric World and is located in Umea. There has been much interest in the city, and the local council has funded an advertisement to mark the opening. All the local newspapers have reported the event, and it made the front page in the largest of them.

Whilst much of the museum has been the result of voluntary work and giving, some help has been available. For example, a student from the Institution of Museology worked in the museum for one month, as part of his training at the University of Umea. Mats writes: "The student was not Christian, but he liked very much to work with us 'fundamentalists' (as he called us!)."


Pictured here are 15-year-old students helping at the museum
as part of their secular school assignment. Hamed holds an egg from
a Protoceratops in his right hand and an Oisters egg in his left. Annie
holds a brain in her right hand and a tooth from a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Linda holds a leg from a Moa bird.
(Photo by Mats Molen: caption by Erik Osterlund)

The postal address is:

Den Forhistoriska Varlden
Box 3100
903 03 UMEA

submitted by David J. Tyler

Speaking of Science
Dating Methods

From time to time there has been discussion about devising blind studies to validate radiometric dating methods. An article in Science(1) provides some insight into dating methods and attempts to calibrate them.

Estimates of the age of fossil-containing amber from the Dominican Republic have been as old as the Early Eocene (65 mya). The author's position is that other fossils in which the amber is found are of a much "younger" age, viz., Early to Middle Miocene (15-20 mya).

Attempts have been made to date the amber by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMRS), which apparently is used to measure exomethylene concentration in the amber. However, to use this method, "resonance intensity must first be calibrated against NMRS results for specimens of KNOWN age" (emphasis added). The calibration was based on two amber specimens of supposed "known age," one supposedly Early Miocene, and the other supposedly Late Eocene. But the authors contend that the associated (index?) microfossils for the later sample could also be classed as Miocene. If both samples are approximately the same age, then what does this exomethylene decay curve tell us? The authors and others say results based on this calibration curve are meaningless.

The authors dismiss (with appropriate evidence) any ideas that the amber in these "younger" deposits may have been redeposited. They also say that the organisms entrapped in the amber are too much like extant organisms to have been as old as some have claimed. Curiously, the authors suggest that their conclusion about the "narrowly constrained" age of this amber (a depositional interval of "less than 5 million years") can now be used to "calibrate" rates of molecular evolution on amber taxa.

Another example of "problems" in calibrating dating methods is found in a news report in another recent issue of Science(2).

A new method of dating has given an age for an Australian archaeological site of 116,000 - 176,000. This puts humans in Australia almost three times as far back as previously believed. Current evolutionary thinking (the "out-of-Africa" theory) indicates that modern man did not even leave Africa until 100,000 years ago, and wouldn't have reached Australia until some 40,00-60,000 years ago. The current finding would upset everything evolutionists thought they knew about the "later phases of human evolution."

The new dating method, called thermoluminescence (TL), measures electrons trapped in defects in quartz crystals. The electrons are released by heating the sample; then the researcher measures the resulting "glow" to estimate the number of freed electrons. According to the report, "these electrons accumulate at a regular rate, but are 'bleached' out of the crystal by sunlight." Thus, when a rock is buried, this "clock" starts at zero.

Of course, skeptics are critical of the method because "[t]hese dates are wildly out of line with everything else we know." It is pointed out that no one can be sure when the sample's "clock" started (e.g., a grain from a much older piece of sandstone might have become mixed with the artifact at the time of burial.

Defenders of the method claim that the method agrees with radiocarbon dates in younger strata. However, at these deeper levels, "there are NO CONTROLS such as bones or teeth that can be dated by other methods" (emphasis added). Researchers are also looking at a similar method (OSL - optically stimulated luminescence) whose "clock" may be reset by even a brief exposure to light.

Are these two cases examples of the "house of cards" which evolutionary dating has become: one method with unverifiable assumptions serves as the "calibration" for newer methods with still more unverifiable assumptions?

(1) Iturralde-Vinet, M.A. and R.D.E. MacPhee. "Age and Paleogeographical Origin of Dominican Amber." Science Vol. 273, p. 1850, 27 Sep 1996.

(2) Holden, C. "Art stirs uproar down under." Science Vol. 274, p. 33, 4 Oct 1996.

submitted by Glen Wolfrom

Creation Calendar

The events below are for information only; the listing of an event does not necessarily imply endorsement by the Creation Research Society.

April 5
Creation Seminar, 7:00-9:30 pm.
Dr. Henry Morris and Dr. John Whitcomb
Albert Lea Sr. High School Auditorium, Albert Lea, MN
So. Minn. Assoc. for Creation, (507)256-7211

April 11
Creation Seminar
Cosponsored by the Creation Research Society
and the Creation Science Fellowship of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM
Mark DeSpain, (505)828-1205

A Service to Local Creationist Groups

One of the reasons for establishing Creation Matters was to recognize the importance of local creationist groups to the creationist movement. Thus, each issue includes a Creation Calendar where we list upcoming creationist activities around the world. This not only promotes each group's events, but also provides encouragement and ideas to other groups.

If your local creationist organization would like to have its activities included, you may send them to our feature editor, Todd Wood (see masthead in the left column). Alternatively, you may send your group's newsletter to editor Glen Wolfrom who will attempt to extract the relevant information from that resource. We can't guarantee that all items will be used, since we have only limited space. Unless there is a definite theme or speaker, we will usually not include your regular monthly meeting.

Naturally, the meeting announcements have to be received well in advance of the actual dates. Our publication deadline is (approximately) the 15th of Jan, Mar, May, Jul, Sep, and Nov, and the mailing date is the first week of the following month.

Creation Matters
A publication of the Creation Research Society
Volume 1, Number 6
November/December 1996

Copyright 1997, 1998 Creation Research Society
All rights reserved.

General Editor: Glen Wolfrom

Feature Editor: Todd Wood

Assistant Editor: Lane Lester

For membership / subscription information and advertising rates:
Glen Wolfrom
P.O. Box 8263
St. Joseph, MO 64508-8263

For comments and information for authors:
Todd Wood
P.O. Box 292
Waynesboro, VA 22980


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