Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ancient biomolecules are boring

Yeah, that's right. I said it: BORING! They're so boring, I almost didn't bother writing this post. That's how bored I am with the subject.

It seems that my little off-hand paragraph on Schweitzer's hadrosaur collagen stirred up a few responses. I got emails and read a few online posts about it. Some agreed with me and some did not. I'm always amused about what people actually react to on my blog. Stuff I care deeply about goes virtually unnoticed, and stuff I just throw out as an aside gets all sorts of response. Go figure. I guess I should be grateful that somebody's actually reading this stuff. God bless you for that!

So why are ancient biomolecules boring? Well, I guess there's some intrinsic coolness to them. Recovering DNA from dead things like mammoths, extinct horses, and Neandertals is pretty nifty. (Especially the ancient horse results which partly corroborate my contention that all equids are a single baramin.) The Neandertal genome should be lots of fun for those interested in molecular anthropology. Ancient biomolecules are not entirely boring.

As chronometers, though, they're a minor and probably negligible addition to our understanding of creationist chronology. I see two big problems: (1) uncertainties in the decay rates and (2) it's unsystematic. A good chronometer should have a reliable decay rate. The decay rate of any biomolecule is highly dependent on factors that can significantly vary, including the presence and activity of degradative enzymes (such as found in bacteria), hydration, and temperature. Is it possible that among the thousands of dinosaur fossils known that a handful might have been preserved in just the right combination of conditions to preserve a few tiny scraps of extremely tough proteins like collagen? Sure, that's possible. Maybe even likely. Now if we found collagen in all dinosaur bones (or a significant majority), that would make me change my tune - but only a little. Why?

Because ancient biomolecules still don't help us to resolve the big problems in creationist chronology like radiometric dating. And before you say that RATE solved it all and I'm just ignorant, the RATE guys themselves emphasized that they did not solve the whole problem. They've given us important insight into part of the problem (physical mechanism), but we still don't have a complete understanding of radiometric dating. For example, we don't really understand how the hypothesized accelerated decay relates to the actual geologic column or the fossils contained in it. We also don't have any kind of conversion scheme that would relate conventional dating (of many different types) to biblical chronology. For example, if we find two trilobite fossils of different species in different layers that are separated by 10 million radiometric years, what does that translate to in "real" time? Would it be the same time span as two horse fossils separated by 10 million radiometric years? And what does that time differential mean for the deposition of those fossils? We just don't know that yet. Again, let me be clear: I am not denigrating RATE. Andrew Snelling's work on radiohalos alone was invaluable. I'm just saying that RATE didn't solve the whole problem.

Now what does dino collagen do for our general understanding of the chronology of the fossil record? Not much. At best (and I'm dubious of this) it could give us a maximum age of one fossil. That's it. Ancient biomolecules contribute basically nothing to the construction of a creationist chronology. They're just sort of ... boring.

But maybe I'm wrong. After all, what do I know about protein biochemistry?