Science has an overview of Schweitzer’s work. You may recall that she published descriptions of cells and soft tissue imbedded deep in fossilized dinosaur bone. That work is much beloved by creationists (it means those bones must be young, they say), but despite starting out as a creationist, she does not support that claim of a young age. She’s a theistic evolutionist.
She went back to school at Montana State University in Bozeman for an education degree, planning to become a high school science teacher. But then she sat in on a dinosaur lecture given by Jack Horner, now retired from the university, who was the model for the paleontologist in the original Jurassic Park movie. After the talk, Schweitzer went up to Horner to ask whether she could audit his class.
“Hi Jack, I’m Mary,” Schweitzer recalls telling him. “I’m a young Earth creationist. I’m going to show you that you are wrong about evolution.”
“Hi Mary, I’m Jack. I’m an atheist,” he told her. Then he agreed to let her sit in on the course.
Over the next 6 months, Horner opened Schweitzer’s eyes to the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution and Earth’s antiquity. “He didn’t try to convince me,” Schweitzer says. “He just laid out the evidence.”
She rejected many fundamentalist views, a painful conversion. “It cost me a lot: my friends, my church, my husband.” But it didn’t destroy her faith. She felt that she saw God’s handiwork in setting evolution in motion. “It made God bigger,” she says.
I’ve read her papers, and they’re real head-scratchers. She seems to do good work; she documents everything carefully; she interprets the results cautiously. They don’t jibe well with expectations — chemistry ought to show more decay — but heck, data is data, if there are sound observations we’ve got to conform the theory to the evidence, not the other way around. She is reporting stuff that seems colossally unlikely, though.
Schweitzer’s most explosive claim came 2 years later in two papers in Science. In samples from their 68-million-year-old T. rex, Schweitzer and colleagues spotted microstructures commonly seen in modern collagen, such as periodic bands every 65 nanometers, which reflect how the fibers assemble. In another line of evidence, the team found that anticollagen antibodies bound to those purported fibers. Finally, they analyzed those same regions with Harvard University mass spectrometry specialist John Asara, who got the weights of six collagen fragments, and so worked out their amino acid sequences. The sequences resembled those of today’s birds, supporting the wealth of fossil evidence that birds descend from extinct dinosaurs.
It’s difficult to believe, but then there’s another dilemma: we expect extraordinarily strong evidence before it should be accepted, but how strong does it have to be? Is this too nitpicky?
She needs more fossils to quiet a continuing drumbeat of criticism. In addition to raising the specter of contamination, Buckley and others have argued that antibodies often bind nonspecifically and yield false-positive results. Critics also noted that one of the six amino acid sequences reported in the 2007 paper was misassigned and is likely incorrect. Asara later agreed and retracted that particular sequence.
“That’s worrying,” says Maria McNamara, a paleontologist at University College Cork in Ireland. “If you are going to make claims for preservation, you really need to have tight arguments. At this point I don’t think we are quite there.”
The biggest problem, though, is this one: all these results come from one and only one lab.
But no one except Schweitzer and her collaborators has been able to replicate their work. Although the study of ancient proteins, or paleoproteomics, is taking off, with provocative new results announced every few weeks, most findings come from samples thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old—orders of magnitude younger than Schweitzer’s dinosaurs.
“I want them to be right,” says Matthew Collins, a leading paleoproteomics researcher at the University of York in the United Kingdom. “It’s great work. I just can’t replicate it.”
That’s something I wish the creationists who bring up her work could understand: we want her to be right. I want to be able to go to a databank and download protein sequences from T. rex. I want to see a molecular phylogenetics comparison of Stegosaurus and Hadrosaurus osteocyte proteins. I think it would be awesome to compare sequences from different ceratopsians and assemble a family tree.
What I want and what we’ve got are two different things, though, and if only Schweitzer has the magic hands to extract this information, I’m not going to trust it. I don’t reject it out of hand, but damn,
it really needs more replication. At this point I don’t want to see another paper from her — I want to see it coming from another, unaffiliated lab. That would be better confirmation.