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Prehistoric Musings

We went on a delightfully nerdy double date to the local Museum of Natural Science to check out their dinosaur exhibit. We were pleasantly surprised to find more than just a bunch of dinosaur fossils: the paleontology exhibit covered the beginning of life through the evolution of Homo Sapiens.

It was an awesome display of fossils! There were three T-Rex’s, two gigantic Diplodocus’s, Raptors, a Triceratops, a turtle the size of a car, etc. It was the most complete exhibit I’ve ever seen. And the written descriptions of everything were entertaining and educational.

I learned a bunch:

  • The depiction of T Rex’s and raptors in Jurassic Park were inaccurate (go figure). T rex’s vision wasn’t solely based on movement, and it had a good sense of smell. Raptors were also smaller than the ones depicted in the movie.
  • Turtles, crocodiles, fish, frogs, birds, and mammals survived the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction). There are many theories as to why they survived, but there is still some speculation.
  • There were several other extinctions. The Permian extinction was even more significant because 96% of marine life and 80% of terrestrial life on Earth was wiped out. It was the closest life has come to being entirely extinct on Earth, and scientists still don’t know what exactly caused it.
  • I saw some beautiful samples of petrified wood. They were sections of fossilized tree trunks that lived millions of years ago. After they died, they became petrified instead of rotting away. They didn’t rot because they were buried and consequently not exposed to oxygen, the driving force behind decay. The buried wood then soaked up soluble silica from volcanic sediments covering the trees.  As the silica solidified, the colors change or quartz crystals formed. The result could be put in an art museum:

As I was walking through the exhibit, I was thinking about it never gets old to witness a huge animal, even if it’s just a lifeless fossil or drawing.  Natural selection has chosen intelligence over size and physical power, however. It wouldn’t surprise me if size was a factor for what survived the Cretatious-Tertiary extinction: the bigger a species is, the more resources it requires. The irony is that by virtue of our intelligence, we are the top predator on the planet. Yet our fascination with ruthless predators continues.

This hit home for me when Shark Week premiered on television. I saw so many Great White breaches, and it was awesome every time. I remember exclaiming some obscenity when I saw the fossilized jaw of a Megalodon:

Another thing that struck me was learning about the Permian extinction. It doesn’t get as much publicity as the Cretacious-Tertiary extinction, but it should.  It reminds me of how precarious the existence of life really is. As far as we know, Earth is a very unique planet, and life is an aberration.

We’re lucky enough to have abundant water, amenable temperatures, a stable orbit around the sun, etc. Astronomers are finding that this is not the norm. It’s easy to forget how amazingly fortuitous it is to live on a relatively safe little spot in the universe that has remained stable enough to support such a massive diversity of life.

The exhibit also compelled me to look up Trilobite eyes. I found that some creationists consider their complex eyes as support for their argument against evolution: it appears Trilobites developed compound eyes suddenly and early on. Since evolution is a gradual process, it doesn’t explain how their eyes were so adaptive.

I find it odd that there are people who see evolution as anti-religious. To me, the forces of evolution are a form of having your prayers answered. Ask and ye shall receive. All you need is patience. You see, these moths are struggling to camouflage themselves because pollution is changing the colors of the trees. If you could send more dark moths, they would be able to survive.

The desire to collectively attribute our origins to one higher power is understandable. But we already live on a planet where the best interests of the adaptive are being cultivated. Natural selection is far from blind or unintelligent. All you have to do is study the marvelous complexity of your own body to experience this first hand.

It reminds me of this fable of a man who refused to accept help to escape a storm because he was convinced God would personally save him. He didn’t use a canoe, motorboat, and helicopter when they were offered to him. When he inevitably died, God told him that he sent these vehicles to help him.

The man was so attached to the idea that God Himself would come; choosing to ignore reality cost him his life. Considering the fact that an estimated 46% of Americans believe in Creationism, it’s a relevant lesson illustrating how powerful an idea can be. It seems to me  they’re ignoring the possibility that God sent us evolution.

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