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This Week: Ichnology and a correction

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ichnology and Faith

I read with interest Mark Roessler's article on the Hitchcock ichnology collection in the Amherst Museum of Natural History ["Dinoscripture: The Older Testament," Dec. 3, 2009], looking for evidence that challenges "at least some of Darwin's theories," as promised in the second title. To my surprise, I found it: apparently Darwin felt that the tracks in Hitchcock's collection were more likely left by amphibians than birds. Hitchcock's insistence that the tracks were made by birds turns out to be closer to the current scientific consensus, which says that birds and dinosaurs are closely related.

Of course, as Darwin's "theories" go, his hypothesis that Hitchcock's fossil tracks were left by amphibians has to rank pretty low in importance. I found absolutely nothing in the article to challenge Darwin's somewhat better-known theory of evolution by natural selection. I did, however, find this very curious statement: "Hitchcock was living proof that scientific fact and religious faith could be contained comfortably in one brilliant mind, and despite [Richard] Dawkins' protestations, Hitchcock's hunches were both interesting and invaluable."

Actually, I think you would be hard pressed to find atheists who would argue that scientific fact and religious faith are entirely incompatible in a single mind. Dawkins himself writes in his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, "It is frequently, and rightly, said that senior clergy and theologians have no problem with evolution and, in many cases, actively support scientists in this respect."

That said, it is hard to imagine a stance more contrary to the scientific method than that taken by Hitchcock when he insisted that his collection not fall into the hands of "those who did not share his faith." If Hitchcock's ideas have contributed to our modern understanding of his fossils, it is to the extent that he started with data and observation (for example, the presence of uric acid in fossilized animal dung) and drew scientific conclusions (this is more like modern bird dung than modern lizard or amphibian dung).

There is much in the article to suggest that Hitchcock's scientific observations influenced his faith (for example, his reinterpretation of the book of Genesis to allow for thousands of years in each biblical "day"), but where he allowed his faith to interfere with his science, it can only have been a hindrance. If he were alive today and still refused to accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution, he would have a very difficult time indeed advancing science in the field of ichnology.

David McIntyre
Haydenville

Correction: Last week, in our article "The Eagles Have Landed," we incorrectly stated that the Otis Air National Guard base had been closed. It is now the home of the 102nd Intelligence Wing. We regret the error.

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