Not So Dry Bones: An interview with Mary Schweitzer

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Image credit: J.M. Luijt [CC-BY-SA-2.5-nl]

In 2005 paleontologist Mary Schweitzer made a discovery that rumbled with implications for the way scientists think about fossils, about cells, and about what humans can know concerning the history of life on our planet. While studying the thigh bone of a T. rex unearthed in 2000, Mary found the first evidence for soft tissues in a 68-million-year-old bone. Challenging long-held assumptions about how fossils form and are preserved, Mary’s research may open the door to new ways of studying and understanding the many creatures that have come before us.

Mary was kind enough to take a few moments to talk to us about her life, her faith, and her path into the intersection of biology and paleontology.

How did you get your start as a scientist?

I guess you could say it started before my older brother left home for college, because he taught me to read, and when he was gone, he sent me books to encourage me to keep reading. One of the books he sent is a book I still love, called The Enormous Egg. When he came home for a visit I told him I would grow up to be a paleontologist. I was five.

Fast forwarding, after I had my kids I went back to school to pursue a career in medicine, and was taking premed courses when I realized that path wasn’t going to be feasible with three small children. So, I got a degree in secondary education instead, with the goal of teaching science—my rationale was that I wanted to be teaching high school by the time my kids got there… And around that time I also audited a class on dinosaurs taught by renowned Jack Horner—it was my first course in a very long time in the sciences. Horner walked in the first day and set down a box of bones and said to the class, “Tell me about these.” It was the hardest course I ever took for no credit; I worked very hard and still only got a mediocre grade. But, I was hooked.

I think the thing that surprised me most about that class was that I had no idea, coming from a conservative Christian background, that scientists are not all trying to disprove God in whatever way they can. What we were not told growing up is that there’s a lot of very rigorous, hard science that allows us to interpret the lives of organisms we’ve never seen—and knowing this made me rethink a few things, because I know God and God is not a deceiver. If you step back a little bit and let God be God I don’t think there’s any contradiction at all between the Bible and what we see in nature. He is under no obligation to meet our expectations. He is bigger than that.

When I got started doing this I was very fortunate that I lived in Bozeman and could study under Jack, who happens to be one of the foremost leaders in paleohistology. He would rather learn about the biology of dinosaurs than get another fancy skeleton on display, so he’s a proponent of destructive sampling when necessary.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to spend three months in the field like other paleontologists, so a histology project where you slice up bone and look at it under a microscope was a great fit. The first T. rex slice I looked at was a sample from a very well preserved skeleton from Eastern Montana, still with bones aligned as in life. Under the microscope, I noticed these round red structures only present in the vessel channels—they had a solid core, and a translucent outer part that together looked very much like a nucleus. Jack challenged me to prove they were NOT red blood cells, and from that, I learned the role of science is to disprove, not prove. That project got me started looking at bones in a different way.

Why do you think you were the first to make this observation?

Part of it was I had a really strong background in biology, especially cellular biology—the majority of paleontologists at that time came from a geology background. So a mixture of that background and the fact that this was a special dinosaur to start with both played a role in our discoveries. It was definitely not planned, not something I could have arranged if I tried, and I think God gets a lot of credit for that. There’s definitely a reason God wants me to do this work, and it’s not easy, because science is conservative. If you’re going against traditional wisdom you’re not very popular, and the burden of proof is on you, if you make claims that are new.

For three hundred years we thought we knew how fossils formed—that an animal died, was buried, and all the organics rotted away, leaving small spaces that later filled with mineral. But that explanation never accounted for some things we see in fossils, like skin for example. Yet what this meant—the implications of it, were not considered by most paleontologists. Finding soft tissues that responded to our tests like modern materials in many ways, suggested that after three hundred years of looking at this stuff, we don’t know as much as we thought. It’s also hard because, being a Christian evolutionary biologist, I receive a lot of mail that is not fun—fellow Christians suspect my faith, and scientific colleagues suspect my science. But I have no agenda, except to produce data.

Were you nervous before publishing about soft tissue in dinosaur bones?

Yes, very. After we had the data, I didn’t publish for over a year. I was terrified. First of all, I don’t like attention or the spotlight and I knew this was going to get a lot of attention. I’m not surprised that the response of the community has been skeptical, and I guess I’m grateful for that because the scrutiny has made me much more cautious and therefore, made me a much better scientist. I go above what is usually required to validate my data before I publish—my colleagues are just doing their jobs to be skeptical, a scientist’s job is not to prove things but to question them.

One thing that does bother me, though, is that young earth creationists take my research and use it for their own message, and I think they are misleading people about it. Pastors and evangelists, who are in a position of leadership, are doubly responsible for checking facts and getting things right, but they have misquoted me and misrepresented the data. They’re looking at this research in terms of a false dichotomy [science versus faith] and that doesn’t do anybody any favors. Still, it’s not surprising they’ve reacted this way—the bone that I first studied I got from Jack, and when I gave him our initial results he was rather angry—I called him a few times and by my third call he said, “Dammit Mary the creationists are just going to love you.” But I said, “This is just what the data say— I’m not making it up.”

I don’t think my being a Christian has anything to do with the fact that the data I’m proposing is challenging. I’ve only had one or two people say they don’t trust my science because of my faith. So if I’m doing science according to the rules, which I’m doing to honor God, and I’m aware that anything and everything I do could be proven wrong tomorrow, then my job is to be as careful and cautious as I can and not overstate my data. All I can do is the best that I can do.

So, that leaves us with two alternatives for interpretation: either the dinosaurs aren’t as old as we think they are, or maybe we don’t know exactly how these things get preserved. We’ve known for a while that skin gets preserved. It’s the same with anything controversial—for example, it was decades ago now that somebody first proposed that continents move, and everybody laughed and said that shouldn’t be possible. Nowadays if you say that isn’t true you’d be a laughingstock. DNA, too—nobody wanted to believe that DNA was the carrier of biological information because it’s too simple a molecule.

Any time you turn over a theory that has taken a lot of work to establish, of course challenging that theory should be hard. That’s why when we were preparing to publish, we did these things again and again and again. Even so, people criticized me saying we should have had more data, but there was no way to get more data without more funding and no way to get more funding without publishing our initial results. The scientific response was exactly what it should be: a “wait and see” response. I have a lot of respect for the people who wouldn’t just immediately accept our results.

Even now, I wouldn’t say it’s widely accepted that what we’re seeing is soft tissue from dinosaurs. What I wish would happen is more people would follow up on this. These results are not trivial to attain, and it requires a lot of repetition on specialized instruments. Because we cross so many disciplines in the effort to get molecular information from fossil bone, I think it’s easier to publish in other areas. Also, we’ve found that the longer a bone sits on the shelf, the less likely you are to find anything, so museum specimens, no matter how ‘pretty’, are not the best for our work. Bones that become fossils have been in stasis with the environment for millions of years, and then when we dig them up they are exposed to light and oxygen—which makes the degradation that had been arrested start again. I don’t think what we’re doing here will really be accepted widely, until lots of different groups are doing it regularly. But it’s hard, it’s controversial, it’s expensive, and it’s done inside in a lab—and most paleontologists like to be outside, in the field.

How has your research influenced your faith, and your relationships with other Christians?

I think probably you better ask other Christians! I really don’t know. But, I do go to pretty conservative churches. One time I was visiting a church and the pastor got up and started preaching a sermon about people not being related to apes, and he started talking about this scientist in Montana who discovered red blood cells in dinosaur bones—he didn’t know I was in the audience—and it was my research he was talking about! Unfortunately, he got everything wrong. I just got up and left. I don’t feel that I’m discrediting God with the work I’m doing, I think I am honoring him with the abilities he’s given me.

One of the churches I go to is very conservative—But the pastor and I have discussed what I do, and we have agreed to disagree on some things. I think that’s the appropriate attitude to have—after all, God is the only one who knows for sure—he is the only one who was there.

I go to church because I want to learn and be held accountable. I want to learn more and more about what the Bible teaches, and in a lot of progressive churches you don’t get that as much—you get politics, building projects, etc. Everyone has to figure out what they need and why they go to church. The hunger in me which is fed in the churches I go to has to do with the fact that they preach right out of the Bible, and I need that. I guess I don’t go to church to hear political views and hear about how they need money—I go to hear about God.

What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about you?

Well I guess I’m just a pretty ordinary person. I make a lot of mistakes and I try to live my life as best as I can. I take my work very seriously because I believe that honors God. But —I don’t how to put it exactly—my work is what Ido, not who I am. I know I could be wrong; as a scientist I can only say what the data say. And I think the one thing I think I would like everyone to know is I how proud I am of my kids and how blessed I am to have them in my lives, and they are the greatest gift other than Jesus that I could have.

One other thing I might say is that I’ve gotten a lot of pretty cruel, harsh, judgmental emails over the years—and if you’re a Christian saying things like that, it’s no wonder my colleagues don’t want anything to do with faith. Christianity is about love, and these are not really loving responses to anything.

If you believe 24/7 creation is really the only interpretation possible and ignore tons of evidence that the earth is billions of years old and that life was a simple construct that got way more complex over time, that’s fine—we may be wrong about the science (I don’t think we are, but as a scientist I have to leave that minute possibility open). I think that parents need to tell their kids that there are a lot of REASONS scientists say what they do, and virtually NONE of those reasons are to disprove God’s existence. That doesn’t enter in. I’ve had lots of students come into my office in tears over the years, saying, “I don’t understand…” The thing is, if you go with the scientific evidence and it turns out to be wrong, I don’t think God is going to punish you for that; God made us curious people. I believe we should step back a little bit and consider other views equally—anything less is doing God and your child a disservice.

We don’t have all the answers and never will. And I think that when God says that he is revealed in his creation, I think that means we need to take care of what we have and understand where we came from. The more I understand how things work, the bigger God gets. When he was just a magician pulling things out of a hat, that doesn’t even compare to how I see him now!


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