Values and Ichthyosaurs

A nation’s schools are returning to traditional values. Whether that’s good or bad news depends partly on how you see what we’ve learned since about 1859.

I think we’ve learned more about how the universe works, and that this is good news. We haven’t consistently made good use of the knowledge, but that’s our problem.

We’ve made good and bad use of everything we’ve learned, from using fire to writing blogs. Whether it’s good or bad depends on us, not fire or the Internet. And that’s another topic.

Two scientists studied an ichthyosaur that had been used as a wall decoration. What they learned adds to what we’re learning about those critters. I think that’s worthwhile.

NLMH 106234 — or — Giving This Ichthyosaur a Name

Folks who want absolute certainty probably wouldn’t like what scientists said about the fossilized ichthyosaur.

“Estimate,” “estimated,” “estimation,” and “estimates” show up a lot in their Acta Palaeontologica Polonica paper.

It doesn’t have a name, as far as I know. Its official label is NLMH 106234, which isn’t particularly catchy.

My guess is that it’s the specimen’s accession number. That’s a code libraries, art galleries, museums and archives use to keep track of individual items. It’s often assigned when the thing first gets into the collection’s cataloging system.

The fossil was found near Williton, Somerset. Doniford village and St Decumans hamlet are near there.

Williton sounds a little like Willie, so I’ll call NLMH 106234 “Willie.”

Willie’s not all there, which is why the scientists estimated some details.

Informed Faith

If I was a dedicated creationist, I might ignore some of what we’ve learned over the last few centuries; and denounce the parts I like the least.

Throw in famous hoaxes like Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant, quote bits from the King James Bible, and I’d have the start of a colorful rant against Godless scientists and their Satanic cult, evolution.

That style of avoiding post-Georgian knowledge may be showing signs of wear.

I’m not sure how many ‘Bible-believing’ Christians adopted ‘creation science’ as their method of choice. (July 23, 2017)

I think they make about as much sense as their counterparts in the ‘science or faith’ wrangle. I don’t see a point in claiming that critters mustn’t change because God exists: or that God can’t exist because critters have been changing.

Pretending that neither viewpoint matters might be tempting, but a remarkable number of folks lean one way or another.

I think God exists, and matters. I also think informed faith and truth get along fine. The ‘science threatens Christianity’ notion didn’t quite start in the Victorian era, and I’ve talked about that before. (April 28, 2017; March 10, 2017; November 6, 2016; October 28, 2016)

1. Turkey Returning to Traditional Values

(From AFP, Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Folks in Turkey protesting the new ‘traditional’ curriculum, and a banner with President Erdogan’s portrait.)

Turkey’s new school year: Jihad in, evolution out
Öykü Altuntaş, BBC News (September 18, 2017)

Turkey’s schools have begun the new academic year with a controversial curriculum that leaves out the theory of evolution and brings in the concept of jihad.

“For Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government, the idea is for a new ‘education of values’.

“Critics have denounced new textbooks as ‘sexist’ and ‘anti-scientific’, and complain of a major blow to secular education….

“…Opponents have accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of replacing the secular foundations of the Turkish republic with Islamic and conservative values….”

Passions flare as Turkey excludes evolution from textbooks
Selin Girit, BBC News (June 24, 2017)

‘This is bigotry, this is all about being a fanatic. How are they going to teach biology now? How are they going to talk about science?’

“On an online forum about the government’s decision to exclude the theory of evolution from the national curriculum, a passionate discussion is under way….

“…’Turkey will be the second country after Saudi Arabia that excludes theory of evolution from its curriculum,’ says Feray Aytekin Aydogan, the head of Egitim-Sen – a teachers’ union representing over 100,000 members across the country.

“‘Even in Iran, there are 60 hours of lessons on evolution and 11 hours on Darwin himself,’ she adds….”

I don’t know enough about what’s happening in Turkey, or the new curriculum, to have an informed opinion about their situation.

The current dispute reminds me of America’s creation-evolution hubbub. Today’s details are different, but I see the same conflict between new and old assumptions.

This week’s BBC News article’s attention-grabbing headline and scary words like “jihad” are to be expected. It’s news, and the BBC follows some journalistic conventions.

Öykü Altuntaş also gave a little information about what was in the new curriculum. Sharing information is a journalistic convention I’d like to see more of.

“…Jihad is defined as ‘religious war’ by the dictionary of the Institute of Turkish Language. But education ministry officials say the concept of jihad has been exploited by jihadist groups such as so-called Islamic State (IS).

“The education minister says the concept should be introduced as part of Islam in the context of ‘loving a nation’….
(Öykü Altuntaş, BBC News (September 18, 2017))

What I have read doesn’t fill me with dread and foreboding.

But I am concerned about exactly what terms like “loving a nation” mean in Turkey’s cultural and intellectual context.

That’s concerned, not in a blind panic.

Knowing that some folks in Turkey are upset by the new curriculum is interesting, but hardly surprising. I wouldn’t expect everyone in Turkey, or anywhere else, to be comfortable with changes in their status quo.

Turkey’s government deciding to teach kids conservative values reminded me of late 20th century America’s “family values” slogan.

I think quite a few Americans still feel that we should start living as if the 1960s never happened. I’m not one of them.

America’s customs and institutions were overdue for an overhaul in my ‘good old days.’ What we have today isn’t ideal, either.

But if we’re going to move, the direction is forward: not back.

“Loving a Nation”

About “loving a nation,” I think that can be a good idea. (July 4, 2017; July 24, 2016)

I even think “conservative values” may be okay. “Liberal values” may be okay.

What matters is how closely they match natural law: ethical standards written into reality. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 19521960)

Then there’s The Good Citizen magazine, The Pillar of Fire church monthly. That’s their July 1926 cover.

Under Bishop Alma White’s leadership, it declared the importance of being white, praised the Ku Klux Klan, and warned against what she saw as the looming menace of Catholicism.

I gather that the Pillar of Fire Church was a bit wacky even by 1920s conservative standards.

Many Americans kept moving toward greater tolerance. I see that as a good thing.

That’s just as well, since recognizing humanity’s transcendent dignity, and our solidarity, is an obligation. (Catechism, 19281942)

Traditions, Tradition, and Truth

I don’t know how many Catholics believe that our faith depends on denouncing evolution.1

That attitude makes sense, sort of, for some American churches.

For Catholics, not so much.

If you haven’t read my stuff before, my views of culture, tradition, and science may seem strange. Particularly if Catholics you know apparently feel that being Catholic requires upholding conservative values: or dedication to liberal causes.

Feel free to skip down to Sea Dragons if you know what I’ll be saying.

I keep running into American Catholics who act as if they’ve embraced America’s Calvinist traditions, and added Catholic trimmings. That’s not what our Tradition is about.

I must respect and follow Tradition, with a capital T. It’s the living transmission of faith, carried out by the Holy Spirit. (Catechism, 7778)

Following my culture’s traditions is not “Tradition.” Cultural traditions change. Sometimes being Catholic means not following a culture’s tradition.

America’s spiritual traditions include a respect for the Bible.

This is, basically, a good idea. But it’s not just ‘the Bible and God and me.’ (Catechism, 8387, 101133)

And I’m sure not supposed to follow the lead of folks like Alma White. Those are “traditional values,” but they were bad ideas at the time. That’s still true.

Unthinking devotion to old habits may be easier than learning new ideas. That doesn’t make it a good idea. “New” isn’t always bad, “old” isn’t always good.

New knowledge isn’t a problem.

Making daft assumptions about knowledge, old or new? That’s a problem.

I’m not obliged to find science interesting.

But valuing truth is required. That includes truth we find in the natural world. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 2500)

Faith is willingly embracing all truth. (Catechism, 142150)

Insisting that scientists have been lying since the mid-19th century and that America’s far-from-Catholic conservative churches have been upholding the banner of truth doesn’t make sense. Not to me. (March 31, 2017; March 26, 2017; December 9, 2016)

Who’s In Charge?

I’m pretty sure that most Christians, Catholic and otherwise, do not think Earth is flat.

Discrepancies between what we’ve learned about our world’s size and shape over the last two dozen centuries don’t seem to be a major part of the ‘faith versus science’ issue.

On the other hand, I won’t insist that God had to create a universe where planets are round. Or that we live in the only creation God’s running.

For all I know, folks in another cosmos may live a flat plate supported by pillars.

If we somehow learn that the Almighty maintains other universes with different physical laws than ours, I won’t say ‘you can’t do that.’

Aside from being pointless, that attitude strikes me as a bit less than respectful. God’s God, I’m not.

God is large and in charge. I figure part of my job is admiring God’s work. (Catechism, 268, 283, 341)

Other universes might be perfect from the start, and changeless.

The reality we’re in isn’t like that. This universe is “in a state of journeying,” “in statu viae,” toward an ultimate perfection. But it’s not there yet. (Catechism, 302305)

I think God is creating a universe which follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 279, 299, 301)

Again, I’m okay with that.

Scopes and Anti-Evolution Leagues

I certainly don’t see a problem with learning more about this universe.

Since I think God creates this universe, anything we learn will be true.

That may not be immediately obvious, particularly if someone assumes that what we thought was true a few thousand years back must be spot-on accurate.

But I’m pretty sure that ancient Mesopotamian astrologers didn’t know all the answers. Neither do we.

Some of us have been paying attention, and wondering how this universe works.

That’s given a few folks conniptions. But not me. I don’t see a problem with knowledge: including what we’re currently learning.

If we keep learning, we’ll discover that scientific truths we’re uncovering and truths of faith harmonize. We’ll learn more about God in the process. Faith and science get along. (Catechism, 3132, 3536, 159, 319, 1704)

I strongly suspect that learning takes more work than steadfastly ignoring knowledge.

I think it makes more sense.

Not everyone sees faith, science, and reality the same way — obviously.

I think a few folks can be relied on to be jittery about anything they didn’t learn as children.

Creationists and atheists often seem to agree that we have a choice of either learning more about God’s creation or following God. The assumption is “traditional” in the sense that it’s a few centuries old.

There’s a sad history behind that.

Quite a few educated Europeans got fed up with religious propaganda during and after the Thirty Years’ War. I don’t blame them.

Their decision to re-evaluate assumptions about authority and business-as-usual made sense. Seeing faith as a destructive influence, not so much. (November 6, 2016)

Uneasiness about studying nature is much older. (July 15, 2016)

Centuries before the Thirty Years’ War, some grass roots folks thought Albert of Lauingen was too curious about nature.

The Church didn’t think so. Albertus Magnus is now patron Saint of scientists. (June 23, 2017)

Today’s craziness got help from Victorian politics.

England’s religious establishment had a tight grip on the nation’s schools. Thomas Huxley didn’t like that. He might have defended Darwin’s theory anyway. But his politics probably encouraged greater enthusiasm. (October 28, 2016)

That wouldn’t have endeared science to Englishmen who liked their nation’s official church and school just the way they were.

Preferring the status quo isn’t limited to Brits. To this day, some Americans have trouble dealing with an increasingly non-English America. Back in the 19th century, the ‘Americans are English’ attitude probably had wider appeal.

Time passed. Scientists kept studying reality, some folks kept trying to ignore newfangled ideas.

Someone founded the Anti-Evolution League of Minnesota. That grew into the Anti-Evolution League of America, with headquarters in Kentucky. Tennessee’s legislature defended traditional values — their version — with the 1925 Butler Act.

That promptly led to the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The trial, particularly William Jennings Bryan’s testimony, encouraged folks at both ends.

Some saw it as proof that Christianity demands ignorance. Some continued their impassioned defense of a long-dead Calvinist’s timetable.

Those are extremes. Some folks aren’t born-again atheists or Bible thumpers, but maintain allegiance to similar beliefs.

I don’t see that ending soon. But I don’t have to take either side. I’d much rather praise God and admire this wonder-filled universe.

2. Sea Dragons

(From Joschua Knüppe, Dean Lomax; via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Joschua Knüppe’s illustration of NLMH 106234 and the ichthyosaur’s skeleton.)

‘Sea dragon’ fossil is ‘largest on record’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (Augsut 28, 2017)

The fossil of a marine reptile ‘re-discovered’ in a museum is the largest of its kind on record, say scientists.

“The ‘sea dragon’ belongs to a group that swam the world’s oceans 200 million years ago, while dinosaurs walked the land.

“The specimen is the largest Ichthyosaurus to be described, at more than three metres long….”

This is the ichthyosaur I talked about earlier. Like I said, I’ll call it “Willie.”

Willie isn’t an it, it’s a she. This is the third ichthyosaur we’ve found so far that was fossilized along with its unborn offspring. All three had only one little ichthyosaur inside. Probably.

Scientists found traces of one little ichthyosaur in each, but might have missed something. The ‘single embryo’ specimens might have had other, currently-unknown, embryos.

Whether that means that ichthyosaur births were always single is a good question. With only three examples, it’s possible, even likely: but not certain.

Willie spent the last 195,000,000 to 200,000,000 years in England’s Blue Lias formation. England wasn’t there most of the time, of course.

Land that would become Somerset’s Blue Lias formation was a mix of shallow sea and islands in Willie’s day.

Joschua Knüppe’s illustration shows Willie swimming with ammonites. That’s accurate, or not, depending on what you call the ammonites living then.

Some scientists call ammonite species living after the Triassic neoammonites. It’s a significant distinction, but I’ll keep calling them all ammonites for now.

Change and Willie’s Travels

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, used w/o permission)

Earth wasn’t like it is today when Willie was alive. The air had about seven times as much carbon dioxide as it did before the Industrial Age, and 130% the oxygen. It was warmer, too, by about three degrees centigrade.

Like I said earlier, Willie isn’t all there. The fossil isn’t quite complete. A forefin is mostly a plaster reconstruction. There’s a break in the specimen’s middle. The original display’s tail wasn’t Willie’s.

This isn’t a hoax, though. Scientists and technicians kept records of what they were doing. We know which bits are original and which are there to make it a good museum display.

That’s pretty much standard practice for museums. Part of their job is education. That’s easier if you show folks what would have been there, if we had complete specimens.

We’ve been getting a lot better at clearly labeling displays, so that visitors can tell which bits are reconstructions.

Peter Langham found Willie at Doniford Bay, Watchet, Somerset, in the mid-1990s. He prepped the fossil for display. Like I said, part of a museum’s job is education. He added the tail of a smaller ichthyosaur and some ammonites to make a good display.

He’s also professional fossil collector, so he kept records of what he did.

Willie didn’t stay put. Siber + Siber bought the fossil. The Swiss company deals in minerals, rocks and fossils. They sold it to Ernst Schwitters, a Hanover-based art collector. He used it as a wall decoration in his living room.

Ernst Schwitters died a bit later. Making up a ‘curse of the ichthyosaur’ tale might be fun, but someone might believe it. Besides, it isn’t Halloween yet: and that’s yet another topic.

The Kurt & Ernst Schwitters Foundation was the next owner. Willie went on loan to the Lower Saxony State Museum in 2005. They put the fossil on display in December of 2007, after removing a wood frame and preparing it for public viewing.

That’s where Willie was when two scientists noticed the fossil and decided to take a closer look.2

Mary Anning

(From Dean Lomax, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Willie and ammonites.)

Aside from size, Willie stands out as being the only ichthyosaur whose embryo has been identified to the ‘species’ level. The third row of Willie’s hindfin is unusual, too; which probably interests scientists more than most folks.

This year’s research was, I think, useful. We know a bit more about ichthyosaurs than we did before. But it’s newsworthy mainly because Willie is so big, and so complete.

Who gets credit for finding the first ichthyosaur fossil has changed since the early 19th century. I figure somebody found an ichthyosaur fossil first.

Who that was and when it happened is a good question. Right now, we don’t know who; and can’t.

Folks have been living where Somerset is now for a half-million years or so. My guess is that quite a few folks have noticed fossils in the area, including ichthyosaur remains.

But the ‘first’ credit has gone to various British subjects. I’m pretty sure it was someone in the Anning family.

A few folks say Mary Anning’s brother Joseph spotted the first complete ichthyosaur skull in 1811. They’re probably right. But he doesn’t get credit as the ichthyosaur discoverer these days.

Mary Anning found the 1811 specimen’s torso in 1812. That makes her the discoverer by current standards.

Mary Anning’s father was a cabinetmaker who collected and sold fossils on the side. I gather that the Annings were not of the aristocracy. That, and her culture’s values, often gave “gentlemen geologists” credit for her work.

The good news is that some men realized that she was smart and capable. My experience has been that a fair number of men and women have their wits about them. They’re not always the ones in charge, and that’s yet again another topic.

That was then, this is now. Joseph Anning may have done more than be Mary Anning’s brother who just happened to find a skull. Maybe he’ll be more famous when the year 2223 rolls around. Then again, maybe not.

Good Sense and Talent

(From Henry Thomas de la Beche, via Wellcome Library/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche’s 1830 cartoon.)

Sir Henry De la Beche was one of the men who recognized Mary Anning’s abilities. He drew that cartoon and sold lithographs of it in 1830, helping her make ends meet.

I see it as an example of a scientist having good sense: and a fair degree of artistic talent. Also a sense of humor.

We’ve learned quite a bit about ichthyosaurs since 1811.

Scientists thought they laid eggs and did so on land, like today’s sea turtles. That made sense, since they’re a lot like reptiles.

Joseph Chaning Pearce found the first pregnant ichthyosaur in 1845. Scientists realized that the critters probably couldn’t go ashore even if they tried.

Data, research, and discussion led to the conclusion that ichthyosaurs lived, died, and gave birth in the water. That was around 1880.

The Ichthyosaur Story

There’s quite a bit we still don’t know about ichthyosaurs. A big question is how they became ichthyosaurs.3

They’re shaped a bit like today’s whales and dolphins. It’s very likely that ichthyosaurs descended from land-living animals with four legs.

That illustration doesn’t show a ‘proto-ichtyosaur.’ The critter is Ambulocetus, “walking whale.” We figure it’s an early version of today’s whales. (June 23, 2017)

Despite the name, scientists have decided that “walking whale” didn’t actually walk. The critter was probably completely aquatic.

We don’t have that sort of transitional form for ichthyosaurs. That doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t exist.

Scientists have been filling in the ichthyosaur story’s early chapters, though.

Cartorhynchus may have played a part. It lived before ichthyosaurs looked the way they did in Willie’s day. It was a bit like ichthyosaurs in some ways, not much like them in others. It was aquatic, but its paddles would have let it move on land.

Hupehsuchia was probably related to Cartorhynchus. Or ichthyosaurs. Or both, or neither. That critter was fully aquatic, and we have a great deal left to learn about it.

Faith and Science

My salvation does not depend on knowing how ichthyosaurs developed.

It isn’t threatened by thinking they exist, or wondering about how they fit into Earth’s long story.

I’m a Christian. My salvation depends on our Lord, Jesus.

Some Christians seem convinced that evolution threatens faith, although details have shifted a little. ‘Bible science’ started inspiring folks in the 1960s, and gives cartoonists opportunities for humor. (March 31, 2017)

I take my faith, the Bible, and God seriously.

But I don’t think that requires assuming that a Calvinist’s study of the Bible, published in 1650, proves that God created the universe in 4004 BC.

Or that Ussher’s chronology is more scientifically accurate than what scientists have been publishing since then.

Christians with similar views have made their own assumptions over the centuries, apparently with a conviction that their version of the Bible upholds their preferences.

I’m a Catholic. I’m encouraged to see scientific discoveries as opportunities for greater admiration for God’s creation. Curiosity and science are part of being human. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341, 2293)

I certainly don’t see a problem with learning about science by reading what scientists say about their research.

When a scientist says something about my faith that makes sense, I figure the scientist is sincere. When a scientist says something about my faith that’s nonsense, I also think the scientist is sincere. But I won’t agree.

I certainly wouldn’t assume that what a scientist says about theology should be taken any more seriously than the opinion of a plumber or electrician.

Being smart doesn’t guarantee accuracy. Particularly when someone who is smart deals with a subject outside that person’s field.

I’m even less likely to take what a movie star says about theology, or science, seriously. And that’s still another topic.

Wonderful Things

Scientific knowledge won’t force someone to become a Catholic.

Not being up to speed with what we knew in the 1st, 11th, or 21st centuries didn’t and doesn’t interfere with our faith.

As I said before, knowledge and faith work together; or should.

I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for humanity’s increasing knowledge. But I’ll keep learning and sharing what I find, as long as I can.

We live in a universe filled with “wonderful things.” I see this as a reason for appreciation and admiration.

From Dr. Robert J. Kurland’s Reflections of a Catholic Scientist:

My views of our growing knowledge:

1 Dealing with new knowledge:

2 Ammonites, ichthyosaurs, and England:

3 Yet more ichtyhyosaurs:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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2 Responses to Values and Ichthyosaurs

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing word: “knowledge may showing signs of wear.”

    Another missing word: “cosmos live a flat plate supported by pillars.”

    What? “But not the conviction that their version of the Bible upholds their preferences.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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