Creationist abuse of cuttlefish chitin


A few weeks ago, PLoS One published a paper on the observation of preserved chitin in 34 million year old cuttlebones. Now the Institute for Creation Research has twisted the science to support their belief that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. It was all so predictable. It’s a game they play, the same game they played with the soft tissue preserved in T. rex bones. Here’s how it works.

Compare the two approaches, science vs. creationism. The creationists basically insert one falsehood, generate a ludicrous conflict, and choose the dumbest of the two alternatives.

The Scientific Approach

find traces of organic material in ancient fossils

Cool! We have evidence of ancient biochemistry!

Science!

The Creationist Approach

declare it impossible for organic material to be ancient

steal other people’s discovery of organic material in ancient fossils

Cool! Declare that organic material must not be ancient, because of step 1, which we invented

Throw out geology, chemistry, and physics because they say the material is old

Profit! Souls for my Lord Arioch!

You see, the scientists are aware of the fact that organic materials degrade over time, but recognize that we don’t always know the rate of decay under all possible conditions. When we find stuff that hasn’t rotted away or been fully replaced by minerals, we’re happy because we’ve got new information about ancient organisms, and we may also be able to figure out what mechanisms promoted the preservation of the material.

The creationists start with dogma — in this case, a false statement. They declare

Chitin is a biological material found in the cuttlebones, or internal shells, of cuttlefish. It has a maximum shelf life of thousands of years…

and

Because of observed bacterial and biochemical degradation rates, researchers shouldn’t expect to find any original chitin (or any other biomolecule) in a sample that is dozens of millions of years old—and it therefore should be utterly absent from samples deposited hundreds of millions of years ago. Thus, the chitin found in these fossils refutes their millions-of-years evolutionary interpretation, just as other fossil biomolecules already have done.

But wait. How do they know that? The paper they are citing says nothing of the kind; to the contrary, it argues that while rare, other examples of preserved chitin have been described.

Detection of chitin in fossils is not frequent. There are reports of fossil chitin in pogonophora, and in insect wings from amber. Chitin has also been reported from beetles preserved in an Oligocene lacustrine deposit of Enspel, Germany and chitin-protein signatures have been found in cuticles of Pennsylvanian scorpions and Silurian eurypterids.

So the paper is actually saying that the “maximum shelf life” of chitin is several tens of millions of years. And then they go on to describe…chitin found in Oligocene cuttlefish, several tens of millions of years old. The creationists are busily setting up an imaginary conflict in the evidence, a conflict that does not exist and is fully addressed in the paper.

The creationists do try to back up their claims, inappropriately. They cite a couple of papers on crustacean taphonomy where dead lobsters were sealed up in anoxic, water- and mud-filled jars; they decayed. Then they announce that there’s only one way for these cuttlebones to be preserved, and that was by complete mineralization, and the cuttlebones in the PLoS One paper were not mineralized.

…mineralization—where tissues are replaced by minerals—is required for tissue impressions to last millions of years. And the PLoS ONE researchers verified that their cuttlebone chitin was not mineralized.

Funny, that. You can read the paper yourself. I counted 14 uses of the words “mineralized” and “demineralized”. They state over and over that they had to specifically demineralize the specimens in hydrochloric acid to expose the imbedded chitin. And of course the chitin itself hadn’t been mineralized, or it wouldn’t be chitin anymore! Did the creationists lie, or did they just not understand the paper?

The scientists also do not claim that the chitin has not been degraded over time. They actually document some specific, general properties of decay in the specimens.

β-chitin is characterized by parallel chains of chitin molecules held together with inter-chain hydrogen bonding. The OH stretching absorbance, at about 3445 cm−1 in extant chitin, is diminished in the fossil and shifted to lower wavenumbers, showing that the specimen is losing OH by an as yet undetermined mechanism. The N-H asymmetric stretching vibration is shifted to slightly lower wavenumbers, showing that it is no longer hydrogen bonding exactly as in extant specimens. Changes in the region 2800–3600 cm−1 indicate that biomolecules have been degraded via disruption of interchain hydrogen bonds.

So, yes, the creationists seem to have rather misrepresented what the paper said. Here’s another blatant example of lying about the contents of the paper.

The question they did not answer, however, is why the original organic chitin had not completely fallen apart, which it would have if the fossils with it were 34 million years old…

Actually, they did. A substantial chunk of the discussion was specifically about that question, a consideration of the factors that contributed to the preservation. It was a combination of an anoxic environment, the presence of molecules that interfered with the enzymes that break down chitin, and the structure of cuttlebone, which interleaves layers containing chitin with layers containing pre-mineralized aragonite.

In vivo inorganic-organic structure of the cuttlebone, in combination with physical and geochemical conditions within the depositional environment and favorable taphonomic factors likely contributed to preservation of organics in M. mississippiensis. Available clays within the Yazoo Clay in conjunction with suboxic depositional environment may have facilitated preservation of original organics by forming a physical and geochemical barrier to degradation. One key to the preservation of organic tissues, in particular chitin and chitosan, is cessation of bacterial degradation within environments of deposition. Bacterial breakdown of polymeric molecules is accomplished through activities of both free extracellular enzymes (those in the water column) and ektoenzymes (those on the surface of the microbial cell) such as chitinases. Chitinases function either by cleaving glycosidic bonds that bind repeating N-acetyl-D-glucosamine units within chitin molecules or by cleaving terminal N-acetyl-D-glucosamine groups. These enzymes adsorb to the surface of clay particles, which inactivates them. Strong ions in solution like iron may act in the same manner. Once bound to functional groups within these polymeric molecules, Fe2+ ions prevent specific bond configuration on the active-site cleft of specific bacterial chitinases and prevents hydrolysis, thus contributing to preservation.

Organic layers within cuttlebones are protected by mineralized layers, similar to collagen in bones, and this mineral-organic interaction may also have played a role in their preservation. Specimens of M. mississipiensis show preserved original aragonite as well as apparent original organics. These organics appear to be endogenous and not a function of exogenous fungal or microbial activity. Fungi contain the γ form of chitin not the β allomorph found in our samples. Also, SEM analyses shows there is no evidence of tunneling, microbes, or wide-spread recrystallization of the aragonite. Therefore the chitin-like molecules detected in fossil sample are most likely endogenous. Similar to collagen in bone, perhaps, organics could not be attacked by enzymes or other molecules until some inorganic matrix had been removed.

Like I always say, never ever trust a creationists’ interpretation of a science paper: they don’t understand it, and they are always filtering it through a distorting lens of biblical nonsense. They make such egregious errors of understanding that you’re always left wondering whether they are actually that stupid, or that sleazily dishonest. Or both.

But imagine if the creationists hadn’t screwed up royally in reading the paper, if they had actually found an instance of scientists being genuinely baffled by a discovery that should not be. What if there was actually good reason to believe that chitin could not last more than ten thousand years?

Then the only sensible interpretation of this observation of 34 million year old chitin would be that the prior estimation of the shelf-life of chitin was wrong, and that it could actually last tens of millions of years. What the creationists want to do is claim that that minor hypothetical is actually correct, and that instead the entirety of nuclear physics, geology, radiochemistry, and modern cosmology is wrong. On the one hand, uncertain details about the decay of one organic molecule; in the other, entire vast fields of science, already verified, and with complex modern technologies built on their operation…and which hand would the creationists reject? The trivial one, of course.

I’m leaning towards “stupid” as the explanation for their bad arguments.


Oh, after I started this dissection, I discovered someone had already beaten me to it: here’s another analysis of the creationist misinterpretations.

(Also on Sb)

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Creationists recognize most people accept science as being a legitimate means of interpreting evidence. So the creationists try to manipulate science into supporting their religious myths. This is done by obfuscation, flat-out lying, and ignoring inconvenient evidence.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Very interesting paper. Sounds like due diligence on the part of the authors. Chemistry, yum…

    If anyone is skeptical of the possibility of these materials preserving for a few million years, think trilobites. Their exoskeleton was probably similar material, and trilobites are ubiquitous fossils in certain environments.

  3. says

    Proteins can’t last for thousands of years. There, I said it.

    Therefore, the earth is hundreds of years old at most.

    I just did creationist science, and disproved their old Bible, merely using a made-up premise no worse than their own stupid made-up premise.

    And fuck geology, what has it ever done for us? I mean religiously, of course.[/coarser creationism]

    Hey dumbasses, how did evolution occur in thousands of years? Because we have the evidence, and you have nothing.

    Glen Davidson

  4. Great White Whale from Outerspace says

    i mean, what for these people do that. if basic knowledge from biology or geology didn’t shake their faith, why more complicated and full of details study should do it? Just to react against? I really don’t know. Also i observed interesting detail. On PLoS ONE site there is no sign of any persuasive message to visitor. Contrary to ICR site. BIBLICAL – ACCURATE – CERTAIN. Sounds like oxyMORON to me :).

  5. imrryr says

    Souls for my Lord Arioch!

    Creationists had better be careful! It’s not wise to offer a Lord of Chaos such third-rate souls. He might take offense.

  6. Great White Whale from Outerspace says

    Creationist “scientists” are in another cult also. Their attempts to “do science” are similar to cargo cults. They’re using “long and hard-to-understand” words, they add references, and yet plane with cargo didn’t land. Most of their landings are horrible disasters with many innocent victims.

  7. mutantdragon says

    This is actually a very interesting paper/find. It’s a little bit of a shame the Creationists would try to appropriate it in their usual disingenuous fashion.

  8. David Marjanović says

    and chitin-protein signatures have been found in cuticles of Pennsylvanian scorpions and Silurian eurypterids.

    So the paper is actually saying that the “maximum shelf life” of chitin is several tens of millions of years.

    Well, technically, yes… when “several” means “40 to 43″. It’s saying that the maximum shelf-life is 400 to 430 million years. That’s roughly when the Silurian was. The Pennsylvanian ( = Late Carboniferous) ended 300 million years ago.

    And of course the chitin itself hadn’t been mineralized, or it wouldn’t be chitin anymore! Did the creationists lie, or did they just not understand the paper?

    Of course they didn’t understand the paper! How are creationists supposed to figure out what mineralized means?

    While I am at it, why do you write “pre-mineralized aragonite”? Aragonite is a mineral.

    the PLoS ONE researchers

    *headdesk* In case anyone besides the cretinists hasn’t noticed, PLoS ONE isn’t an institution. It’s the journal the paper was published in.

    If anyone is skeptical of the possibility of these materials preserving for a few million years, think trilobites. Their exoskeleton was probably similar material, and trilobites are ubiquitous fossils in certain environments.

    *sigh* Their exoskeleton contained, and still contains, calcite. Calcite is a mineral that keeps very well indeed even when the chitin and all the proteins between the individual microcrystals are long gone.

  9. Randomfactor says

    “The thousand injuries of creationists I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult to cuttlefish, I vowed revenge.”

  10. peterh says

    It’s not so much a game as a desperate grasping at whatever might keep them from falling into reality. “[D]id they just not understand the paper?” When did creationists understand anything?

  11. stwriley says

    A fantastic paper and a really fascinating discovery.

    Also, serious kudos to PZ for working a Moorcock reference into the creationist’s thought process. Their ideas are a kind of intellectual Stormbringer; they end all possibility of rational thought in favor of feeding their rapacious god.

  12. raven says

    The usual.

    Science comes up with new and wonderful facts every day.

    Once a week or so, fundie xian creationists come up with another lie.

    Without the fundies, nothing bad would happen. It would be a net gain. Without science, our civilization would slow down and eventually stop progressing.

  13. raven says

    Back in the Dark Ages, on a vacation to the midwest, we found some fossil ammonites. These were very old, so old that their shells were straight rather than coiled up. Maybe Devonian, maybe older.

    What was odd was that the original shells were still intact. Or at least that was how I interpreted the shiny color with mother of pearl diffraction patterns.

  14. Brother Ogvorbis, OM . . . Really? says

    Or at least that was how I interpreted the shiny color with mother of pearl diffraction patterns.

    I have no source for this (and my googlefu sucketh), but I seem to remember reading that some fossils are remineralized with opal, or rather opalescent minerals. Someone who majored in something useful may be able to expound on this?

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Just a thought. The Burgess shale is special in that the burial process was enough to allow the chitinous material to be mineralized before it disappeared. By the time of the trilobites, good old calcium salts were forming composite polymers with chitin for structural integrity, and easier mineralization. My two cents.

  16. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I have no source for this (and my googlefu sucketh), but I seem to remember reading that some fossils are remineralized with opal, or rather opalescent minerals.

    Opal is hydrated silica, which is why it must be stored wet. Silica per se is not as mobile as calcium carbonate. But certain other minerals can have opalescent properties.

  17. Brother Ogvorbis, OM . . . Really? says

    But certain other minerals can have opalescent properties.

    By opalescent, I did mean sniny. My technical vocabulary is limited.

  18. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    By opalescent, I did mean sniny. My technical vocabulary is limited.

    The inner side of the abalone shell is opalescent. As you say, sniny, and calcium carbonate/organic composite material.

  19. says

    I have no source for this (and my googlefu sucketh), but I seem to remember reading that some fossils are remineralized with opal, or rather opalescent minerals.

    Look up “Coober Pedy” or “Coober Pedy belemnites.” There’s a host of those that have mineralized with opal, some very pretty (mine is not very fiery, but it’s pretty enough for a cheapie, and has a wormhole in the limestone in which it sets).

    Actually, opal often comes from replacing biologic materials, with Virgin Valley opals in Nevada generally being wood replaced by opal. Other opals come from voids in volcanic rocks, so by no means are all opal replacement of biologic material.

    Glen Davidson

  20. Charlie Foxtrot says

    Ahhh – its clear to me now.. these guys think they’ve figured out the free pass back into heaven!

    Eating from the tree of knowledge = Knowledge = ‘The Fall’ = Original sin = kicked out of super-happy-happy-funtimes cloudland!
    -therefore-
    Display complete rejection of, and incapacity to understand, actual knowledge = no knowledge = free season pass back to happy-clappy whispy-white-world plus free hotdog and popcorn!

    No wonder their ‘science’ is more like the Monty Python ‘Argument Sketch’!

  21. raven says

    I have no source for this (and my googlefu sucketh), but I seem to remember reading that some fossils are remineralized with opal, or rather opalescent minerals.

    That is true. I also have a piece of opalized wood on the deck. But this is common opal, pretty but not irridescent, in two colors white and a light green.

    These very old ammonite shells just look like shell, sort of like the inside of an abalone. They are also a bit flakey, as though the layers of CaCO3 are delaminating.

    I’d be surprised if these shells were replaced with opal because they were found weathering out of limestone.

  22. raven says

    Display complete rejection of, and incapacity to understand, actual knowledge = no knowledge = free season pass back to happy-clappy whispy-white-world plus free hotdog and popcorn!

    If that worked, they could just decorticate themselves. Not that anyone would be able to tell.

    This could explain Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.

  23. says

    I’d be surprised if these shells were replaced with opal because they were found weathering out of limestone.

    Probably not, although that’s because they’re ammonite shells, which tend to be opalescent, and you can also get “ammolite” from those (I don’t know how much modification has been involved in ammolite).

    Coober Pedy opals are found in limestone, and in my own little specimen there’s a layer of colorless non-iridescent opal within the limestone. At first I thought it was glue, a repair of the limestone, and then I realized that the silica had to be coming through some sort of channel to fill in the belemnite shells, and that would no doubt be one such conduit.

    I don’t know from where the silica came at Coober Pedy, but since silicate materials are the most abundant minerals on earth, there are plenty of conceivable sources.

    Glen Davidson

  24. Charlie Foxtrot says

    The museum of South Australia has a opalised plesiosaur: link

    “Decorticate”??? …(google)…ooohhh. New word for the day!

    That’s probably cheating in their world-view. I think they have to abuse their own mental processes in a way that causes as much inconvience to others around them. This is religion we’re discussing here, after all.

  25. says

    Professional science deniers know their customers will never complain about their dishonesty, never check facts, and never read anything written by a real scientist. Professional assholes for the dead Jeebus welcome ridicule because that’s good for their business.

  26. StevoR says

    Did the creationists lie, or did they just not understand the paper?

    I’m guessing both – they didn’t understand the paper at all *and* they lied about it as well.

  27. pedron says

    God-freaks spinning observations of the natural world to further their own cause is almost certainly (and somewhat ironically) older than YECs think the universe has been in existence.

    “Why yes, the moon god does require that the high priest gets first pick of the virgins. And first pick of the Mammoth steaks too!”

    PZ – Don’t you get bored of this? Do you not go glassy-eyed after looking at the XXXth such piece of preposterous sophistry, laced with outright lies, that crosses your desk, and think “fuck it, I’m just going to teach my students, do my research, and enjoy it”?

    Don’t get me wrong. Thank godscience some people have the patience for take-down after take-down, as I suspect the majority of people would have thrown the towel in years ago.

  28. wbenson says

    The ICR headline is Evolution Can’t Explain Organic Fossils. However, amber is fossilized tree resin that continues to be composed of hydrocarbons, phenolics and other organics. It may be up to 320 million years old (Paleozoic). Amber is sufficiently common to be considered a gem stone and sometimes contains entrapped insects that supposedly retain some of the original chitin.

  29. yankonamac says

    I think the simple answer is not that they lied or misunderstood the paper.

    They just didn’t read it.

    C’mon, these kids believe the Bible is true. I can’t fathom why they bothered to learn to read at all, for all they’ve applied the skill to their sacred books. If they’d read them, they wouldn’t believe them. It’s as simple as that. No adult of normal intelligence can read the bible and find it to be anything but two thousand pages of nonsense. Religion depends upon this ignorance. Sorry, I mean “faith”.

    No, what they did here was glance at the paper’s abstract, make a pile of empty assumptions, and write an analysis based on those. Its the same approach they make toward any new information. This intellectual laziness is what got them into religion in the first place. There’s no point in engaging with these kids, explaining the scientific method to them, or attempting to get them to see their errors. They’re not here to learn.

    You show me a fundamentalist and I’ll show you a waste of elementary education.

  30. says

    As a non scientist I appreciate you taking the time to explain these things for us, although I don’t know where you find the patience to keep responding to the idiot claims of idiot “creation scientists.” It’s helpful for people like me, but I imagine sometimes you must feel like your trying to explain fire to a fish.

    Ironicus

  31. says

    More Science Humor:

    What Magnetized the Moon?
    by Brian Thomas, M.S. *

    [italics by davidgentile]

    …For example, the researchers had to first assume that the moon was once very close to earth.[!!!]

    …Each additional constraint reduces the model’s realism. And even after waiving these problems, there remains no scientific reason why molten fluids would generate a magnetic field.
    However, a creation-based explanation published in 1984 for the moon’s magnetic field provides a plausible reason for the magnetism that was present when moon rocks formed. God “could have created many of the Earth’s original atomic nuclei with their spins pointing in a particular direction,”and likewise for the moon and other planets…The added effect of all these aligned atomic magnets would have generated a magnetic field that decayed soon after as the moon’s atoms randomized.

    This model readily explains why the moon’s magnetic field existed when moon rocks were formed and why it has since diminished. The fact that the moon once had a magnetic field follows from this creation model and does not suffer from any of the issues that the secular models must overcome.[Thomas’ Razor: throw out the hard stuff, what remains is True]

  32. peterh says

    I was a liberal arts major, but was required to take enough chemistry and physics that I’m quite sure that explanation is hooey. Or is the whole post aside from the bracketed material from Thomas? I’m still quite sure the hypothesis contained therein is woo.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Yep, amber = biomolecule; anything in amber is preserved as it was, unless it falls apart on its own over time, as DNA unfortunately does.

    I have no source for this (and my googlefu sucketh), but I seem to remember reading that some fossils are remineralized with opal, or rather opalescent minerals. Someone who majored in something useful may be able to expound on this?

    This occurs, but mother-of-pearl is just calcium carbonate of a certain crystal size and arrangement. It is pretty commonly preserved as such.

    BTW, raven, are you sure about the age? Straight ammonites occurred, for example, at the very end of the Cretaceous as well as earlier.

    Just a thought. The Burgess shale is special in that the burial process was enough to allow the chitinous material to be mineralized before it disappeared. By the time of the trilobites, good old calcium salts were forming composite polymers with chitin for structural integrity, and easier mineralization. My two cents.

    Oh. The time of the trilobites began well before Burgess. The special thing about Burgess is that not only trilobites, hyoliths and a few mollusc shells are preserved.

  34. raven says

    BTW, raven, are you sure about the age? Straight ammonites occurred, for example, at the very end of the Cretaceous as well as earlier.

    Not in the least sure of the age.

    This was found in deposits from the ancient inland sea that used to cover central North America.

    It could be any time that straight ammonites existed. These fossils BTW aren’t small. We just got sections of the cones but they would have been 2 or 3 feet long.

  35. alwayscurious says

    Crossposted from scienceblogs:

    I love how the only link in their reference section is to another opinion they wrote. Half the actual science papers they cite are online & free; the other half are also online, but behind a paywall.

  36. blbt5 says

    The evidence for traces ofchitin residue look good. However, there was never any evidence for the T. Rex soft tissue reported by Horner’s group, in fact this was debunked years ago as bacterial slime.

  37. Rich Woods says

    Souls for my Lord Arioch!

    This is the only religion I’ve held to for the last 30-odd years, because I’m absolutely certain of its origin: Mike Moorcock told me he’d made it up.

    I’ve stopped making sacrifices to Arioch nowadays. The pain of sending my mind through twisted dimensions just isn’t worth the 1D6 elan gain.

    Ahem. Anyway, back in the real world…

  38. David Marjanović says

    This was found in deposits from the ancient inland sea that used to cover central North America.

    It could be any time that straight ammonites existed. These fossils BTW aren’t small. We just got sections of the cones but they would have been 2 or 3 feet long.

    That’s probably near the end of the Cretaceous, then. Google for images of Baculites.

  39. TheBlackCat says

    declare it impossible for organic material to be ancient

    steal other people’s discovery of organic material in ancient fossils

    I have to disagree with your assessment here. I think you are being much to kind. I sincerely doubt they had spent one second thinking about how long organic materials can last before they read the paper, I think it was much more likely they came up with this supposed unbreakable natural law only after reading the paper. So I think the proper sequence is:

    steal other people’s discovery of organic material in ancient fossils

    declare it impossible for organic material to be ancient

  40. christopherspicer says

    It is unfortunate that certain groups (in this case creationists) aren’t open to discoveries but rather view everything from their narrow lens. They are convinced that God created the world in 7 days and only several thousand years ago. Thus any evidence they see gets skewed with that view. It is a east thing to do to yourself, but it is intellectually dishonest. The problem is their entire world view crumbles if there is evidence to the contrary.

  41. johnmarley says

    They make such egregious errors of understanding that you’re always left wondering whether they are actually that stupid, or that sleazily dishonest. Or both

    Morons or assholes. Take your pick.