Stegosaurus in Cambodian temple?

Does this carving at the Ta Prohm temple complex in Cambodia prove that dinosaurs of the genus Stegosaurus were still alive in Southeast Asian jungles only 1000 years ago?

Carving at Ta Prohm temple, near the more famous Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Image from Neurologica Blog.

Some young-Earth creationists think so. An example of a web page dedicated to this is found at Dinosaurs in ancient Cambodian temple — Amazing evidence that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Other carvings in this temple are of local animals such as deer, monkeys, and birds, and so this carving must prove that Stegosaurus was wandering around the jungles of Southeast Asia as well.

My response is: No.

I’ve been wanting to write about this one for some time, and was prompted into action when I saw this discussed on a paleontology blog this morning (Dinosaur Tracking: Stegosaurus, Rhinoceros, or Hoax?).

Superficially, this carving looks like a Stegosaurus. It has the arched shape that Stegosaurus toys sometimes have, and a row of things that look like plates running down the back. Here are my reasons why I don’t think this carving is of a Stegosaurus:

  • The head is completely wrong for Stegosaurus. Stegosaurus had a tiny head; the carvings in Cambodia show a creature with a proportionately larger head.
Stegosaurus, ddd Museum, from Wikipedia. Note the tiny head.
Stegosaurus, Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. From Wikipedia: Stegosaurus. Note the tiny head. Credit: Evak
  • The tail is wrong for Stegosaurus. Where are the spikes?
  • The legs are wrong for Stegosaurus. In the carving, the front and hind legs are of equal length; in a real Stegosaurus the hind legs are considerably longer than the front legs.
  • The body is wrong for Stegosaurus. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Stegosaurus, and many other dinosaurs, were depicted with arched backs. Based on further study, we now know that most dinosaurs had less curvature in their backs. Look at the picture  above for a modern interpretation, and at the picture below for the 100-year old interpretation.
From Wikipedia: Stegosaurus. Drawing from O.C. Marsh, 1896.
  • The back plates in the carving are only superficially similar to the plates found on fossil Stegosaurus, which actually had two parallel rows of plates.
  • Similar features are found on the perimeter of some other carvings (though not on the backs of the animals). For example, here is a carving interpreted by as a water buffalo, with, um… Stegosaurus plates for a decorative border:
  • If Stegosaurus lived in Cambodia only 1000 years ago when the Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm temples were built, why are there no Stegosaurus bones found in Asia, whether in archeological sites or in the fossil record?
  • There are plausible alternatives. Some have suggested a rhinoceros or boar in front of a vegetated background. I think a much better alternative is a chameleon. The head and eyes are right, the overall body shape isn’t bad, and chameleons have a serrated ridge along their back (though not as pronounced as on the carving). The tail isn’t quite right, but it isn’t right for being a Stegosaurus either. Given two possibilities—Stegosaurus or chameleon—I think we should go for the chameleon in this case.
Chameleon. From Wikipedia: Chameleon
Chameleon. From Wikipedia: Chameleon. Credit: Adrian Pingstone
  • Another alternative is that this represents a mythical Hindu creature, such as a makara.
Hindu god Varuna riding a makara. From Wikipedia: Varuna

I would hope that the above reasoning would be sufficient to convince even young-Earth creationists to not use this sort of argument. In some cases this has been true: I see this kind of stuff on the fringe YEC sites, but haven’t seen it used by Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research, both of which have people capable of sifting out the more extreme claims. [Update 3/23/09: AiG does use this as evidence. Sigh]

As a Christian who accepts an old age for the Earth, I would add one more argument against the validity of the Ta Prohm Stegosaurus carving:

  • Stegosaurus fossils are only found in rocks of the Late Jurassic period, with no examples from the Cretaceous or Cenozoic. Did they hide for 145 million years, only to show up in the jungles of Cambodia?

Another possibility is that this carving is a fraud, having been carved in the past century. This could be, but I have assumed in this post that the carving is genuine.

In conclusion, to use the Ta Prohm carving as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together only a short time ago is bad apologetics. This is one more thing to make us look silly in the eyes of nonbelievers. Don’t feed this to your kids, and don’t use it to try to convince anyone of the truthfulness of Scriptures. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is true and that it says exactly what God wants it to say. We don’t have to resort to pseudoarcheology to defend it.

Grace and Peace

Evolution in Texas

From Christianity Today: Darwin Divides — Christian college professors split on Texas science standards.

The state of Texas is working on revising its science education standards, and one of the proposals is to remove a requirement that teachers include weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

Christian biology/science professors in the state are divided on this one. Some Christian professors support the teaching of evolution without restrictions:

“I hope to reach others on the weightier matters of the Resurrection, hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven while I work out how evolution does not have to conflict with Christianity,” said Daniel Brannan, a biology professor at Abilene Christian University.

Brannan joined hundreds of scientists in signing a 21st Century Science Coalition petition that supports new curriculum standards for the state’s 4.7 million public-school students. The petition states that “evolution is an easily observable phenomenon that has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Others—proponents of ID—are in favor of retaining standards that require teaching weaknesses of evolution:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged,” declared the hundreds of dissenters, including biology professors from Baylor, Lubbock Christian, LeTourneau, and other Christian universities.

Still others haven’t taken a side:

Nichols [professor of biology at Abilene Christian] said[,] “I suspect [the curriculum debate] is really more of a political/religious showcase than something that will really affect public education. “I and many others live relatively comfortably in both camps and tire from attacks from both sides,” he added. “With all the real problems in the world, this is a serious waste of energy to keep beating on this topic.”

I suspect that whatever the state standards say, high school biology teachers will continue to teach what they want to teach. Teachers who completely embrace evolution won’t teach that there is evidence against evolution. They may bring in some state-mandated evidences against evolution, only to tear them apart. Biology teachers who accept some of the ID arguments (this would actually be a substantial number of teachers, though certainly not a majority) will bring anti-evolutionary concepts into the classroom even if the statement regarding problems with evolution is removed from the standards.

Grace and Peace

Darwin’s birthday #2

What drives more scientists away from Christianity, evolution, or young-Earth creationism? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that both have significant roles.

Some forms of evolutionary philosophy drive scientists (and others) away from Christianity. The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, claim that evolution makes it intellectually feasible to be an atheist. To them, science can explain everything and there is no need for a God.

Young-Earth creationism (YEC), as taught by the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, drives scientists away from Christianity. To most scientists, YEC fails in a number of ways. It fails biologically, astronomically, and geologically. The YEC-ers have convinced themselves, much of the Christian public, and much of society, that there is only one way to read Genesis, and that the truthfulness of Christianity stands or falls on this one interpretation. Scientists reject YEC, so they reject Christianity. This could happen to our youth raised on YEC as well.

I see both extremes as needless and unfortunate. I am convinced of the truth of Christianity, and don’t think the Bible has all that much to say one way or the other about evolution (except perhaps of humans).

To scientists who are reading this:

  • Don’t reject Christianity because of young-Earth creationism. There are plenty of alternatives out there to YEC within the Christian community, even within the Evangelical Christian community. At one time there was even quite a bit of diversity on these issues within the “fundamentalist” Christian community, but most of the dissent has been squashed.
  • One alternative within the Evangelical community is presented by Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe. Ross accepts an old Earth and old universe (he is an astronomer), but isn’t too keen on some aspects of evolution. He is a proponent of the day-age understanding of Genesis, and makes a good case for drawing parallels between the days of Genesis 1 and the history of Earth.
  • Another alternative within the Evangelical Christian community is theistic evolution. A good presentation of this is in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, edited by Keith Miller, who is in the Geology department at Kansas State University.
  • You can be a Christian and a scientist. You don’t have to abandon thinking; in fact, you may find your intellectual life fulfilled in ways you never imagined possible.

To Christians who are reading this:

  • I believe in a real creation by a real God, and a real Adam, a real fall into sin, real consequences for that sin, and in Jesus Christ as the only solution for that sin. Belief in an old Earth hasn’t changed any of that.
  • I’m not making a commitment to any one understanding of Genesis. Prominent old-Earth  interpretations include the day-age, analogical day, and framework interpretations. I see the literal six-day interpretation as also valid Biblically. Being that there are competing interpretations of Genesis within the conservative Evangelical community, I will go for ones that are not ruled out by the external evidence for an old Earth.
  • The truthfulness of the Bible does not stand or fall on the age of the Earth or biological evolution. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example, intentionally leaves out any statement on the age of the Earth.
  • Be willing to allow for some tension. We don’t fully understand the Bible. We don’t fully understand nature.
  • Be careful what you teach your children and the youth at your church. Don’t give them bad apologetics, and most of what is produced by ICR and AiG I place in this category. It is not all bad, but much of it is. And there are other creationist groups that are far worse. The risk is that our youth will some day have a crisis of faith, not because of what the Bible says, or because of evolution, but because much of what comes out of the YEC movement simply doesn’t conform to reality.

Grace and Peace

Darwin’s Birthday

Charles Darwin age 51, from Wikipedia: Darwin

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809; two hundred years ago today.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, obviously, has been an extremely divisive topic. Has Darwinism made the world safe for atheism, as the “New Atheists” would claim? Is Darwinian evolution really EVILution; a doctrine of the devil? Or are evolution and Christianity perfectly compatible?

There has been an interesting discussion this week at The Internet Monk (Michael Spencer’s excellent blog) about the Roman Catholic approach to evolution as contrasted with the typical Evangelical approach. More specifically, he wanted to hear from people who have converted from Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism because they found the RC way of thinking about evolution to be more palatable.

In a discussion on this blog earlier this week, a geologist made a comment along the same lines:

I think the Catholic Church makes it easier for its followers— accept human evolution, but consider Adam to represent the moment in which H. sapiens was infused with a soul.

Is he right?

I would take the Roman Catholic approach over young-Earth creationism, but are there better alternatives, such as Hugh Ross’s progressive day-age creationism?

It isn’t, of course, just a question of pragmatism. It is a question of truth. Which approach is most true to both Scripture and science?

Grace and Peace

Darwin, evolution, and God

charles_darwin_aged_51This may be new to some of you, but Charles Darwin did not reject God because of evolution, but because of other factors, such as anger over the death of his 10-year old daughter. Darwin was more of an agnostic than an atheist, and he certainly was no anti-God crusader like Richard Dawkins is today.

Dinesh D’Souza writes about this at The Evolution of Darwin.

The story is told in Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s authoritative biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. When Darwin’s daughter Annie died at age 10, Darwin came to hate the God he blamed for this. This was in 1851, eight years before Darwin released Origin of Species.

Around the time of Annie’s death, Darwin also wrote that if Christianity were true, then it would follow that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and many of his closest family friends would be in hell. Darwin found this utterly unacceptable, given that these men were wise and kind and generous. Darwin’s rejection of God was less an act of unbelief than a rebellion against the kind of God posited by Christianity. A God who would allow a young girl to die and good people to go to hell was not anyone whom Darwin wanted to worship.

When Darwin published his work on evolution, the American biologist Asa Gray wrote Darwin to say that his book had shown God’s ingenious way of ensuring the unity and diversity of life. From Gray’s point of view, Darwin had deepened man’s understanding of divine teleology. Darwin praised Gray for seeing a point that no one else had noticed. In later editions of his books, Darwin went out of his way to cite the English writer Charles Kingsley, who described evolution as compatible with religious belief. To the end of his life, Darwin insisted that one could be “an ardent theist and an evolutionist.”

D’Souza (author of What’s So Great About Christianity) concludes with:

This history is important because we can embrace Darwin’s account of evolution without embracing his metaphysical naturalism and unbelief. Dawkins and others like him are in a way confusing the two faces of Charles Darwin. They are under the illusion that to be an evolutionist is essentially to be an atheist. Darwin, to his credit, rejected the equation of these two stances as illogical, even if he didn’t always maintain, within his own life, a clear distinction between his science and his animus toward God.

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809. The 200-year anniversary of their births is coming up next month.

Grace and Peace