Peer Review Fails in Soft Tissue Study

The biggest problem currently faced by evolutionary paleontologists is how to explain the fact that original soft tissue—which should decay in only thousands of years—still persists in fossils that are supposedly millions of years old. A recent scientific paper was titled "Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival," which implies some sort of solution to this colossal conundrum. But not only did the authors fail to address the titled topic, the "peer review" process also failed to detect this critical omission and block the study's publication.

Appearing in the online journal PLoS ONE, the paper was authored by six investigators from various institutions. It did a good job of firmly establishing that the soft tissues the researchers extracted from a T. rex and a hadrosaur were original to the dinosaurs and not contaminants. This part of the study demonstrated good scientific observation and detailed analysis of the partly decayed collagen proteins that were woven into larger molecular ropes called "fibrils."

However, the paper's title mentioned "survival" of the fibrils in dinosaur fossils, not just their existence. The proteins are known to decay spontaneously "in well under a million years," according to the paper.1

The closest that the study authors came to sorting out the problem of long-term protein survival was to note the hypothetical possibility—one that was not experimentally tested—that tiny areas on the fibrils could have adhered to a mineral surface. This might extend the proteins' survival a little bit on the side of the fibril in contact with the mineral. But it is too far a stretch to claim that the protein on one side could have lasted millions of years while the other side decayed at the regular pace. After all, the distance between the sides is a miniscule 67 nanometers. Such guesswork does not explain how fibrous collagen protein could survive for millions of years—whether adhered to minerals or not adhered.

Ultimately, the study authors resorted to asserting that since the dinosaur was in fact millions of years old and since the collagen came from the dinosaur, then the dinosaur collagen was automatically millions of years old. Aside from simply ignoring the well-known and lab-tested chemical decay evidence, their "conclusion" of millions of years relied entirely on their presumption of millions of years.

Why did the peer review process not catch this blatant logical error? The entire purpose of the process is to allow qualified individuals in the same field to examine a paper for clarity and accuracy before giving it a green light for publication. This internal policing is an important factor in safeguarding the scientific integrity of the journal in which the study is to be published.

This is a vital concern, because scientists can now point to this published paper as a "peer reviewed" answer to the soft tissue problem, when in fact it answered almost nothing. The paper will probably now be presented as an example of how the scientific community has "already dealt" with the issue of tissue persistence. But in reality, instead of offering a realistic mechanism for an eons-long survival of collagen, these authors simply dismissed the chemical decay evidence out of hand.

This report looks like it will become another in a long series of articles that, no matter how mediocre their level of peer review, are assumed to settle a matter merely because they are in print. This happened with a recent sophomoric (but nonetheless published) attempt to discredit a sauropod dinosaur-looking rock carving in Utah.2 Similarly, unrealistic and nonsensical attempts to dismiss irreducible biological mechanisms as powerful evidence for creation have achieved published status as they were passed along by low standards of peer review.3,4

One only has to read a few science blogs to discover that personal ideology is routinely ensconced behind paper-thin "peer review" façades. A New York Times article pointed out that science blogs, especially those attached to the very popular ScienceBlogs website, are not typified by talk of new data or scientific analysis, but are instead filled with "jeers at smokers, fat people, and churchgoers." Author Virginia Heffernan wrote:

Science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word "science" and from occasional invocations of "peer-reviewed" thises and thats.5

The PLoS ONE paper and others demonstrate a perverse use of scientific literature to justify a particular position—like eugenicists did in the early twentieth century, or like those who claimed, based on inaccurate published literature, that asbestos did not cause mesothelioma or that smoking did not cause lung cancer.6

Just as smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, soft tissue fossils are exceptionally strong evidence for an earth history that cannot be older than thousands of years—despite contrary but illogical assertions that should never have passed peer review.


  1. San Antonio, J. D. et al. 2011. Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival. PloS ONE. 6 (6): e20381.
  2. Thomas, B. Utah Dinosaur Petroglyph Disputed. ICR News. Posted on April 7, 2011, accessed June 29, 2011.
  3. Thomas, B. Pseudo-science Attacks Irreducible Complexity. ICR News. Posted on September 10, 2009, accessed June 29, 2011.
  4. Thomas, B. ID Smear 'Presents No New Arguments.' ICR News. Posted on January 13, 2011, accessed June 29, 2011.
  5. Heffernan, V. Unnatural Science. The New York Times. Posted on July 30, 2010, accessed July 29, 2011.
  6. Guliuzza, R. J. 2009. Darwinian Medicine: A Prescription for Failure. Acts & Facts. 38 (2): 32.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer and Dr. Guliuzza is National Representative at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on July 18, 2011.

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