I’m sorry Mr. Conrad, it’s just a rock

When I was more active in vertebrate paleontology, I used to meet with fossil collectors on a regular basis. Sometimes they found interesting fossils, sometimes they found interesting rocks that look like something. My next-door neighbour had a rock she was convinced contained a fossilized frog and crab, preserved forever in their death throes. In fact it was a conglomerate of small, flat, pale pebbles in a dark matrix. One woman used to call me up on weekends (some helpful soul at the museum gave out my home number!) and bring me all kinds of things – usually just funny shaped rocks, but occasionally they would contain small fossils (but usually on the opposite side of the rock). One person brought in a rock that bore a remarkable resemblance to a be-stockinged human foot and calf, and was convinced that it was a fossil human foot. The point is, lots of rocks look like things, but aren’t. Like this satellite image of the Canadian badlands.  It’s called pareidolia, and it is a well documented phenomenon.

One of the main giveaways that a rock contains a fossil is that the fossilized material is distinctly different from the surrounding rock. While sedimentary rocks tend to be rough, amorphous and granular, the embedded fossils are often smooth or shiny, sometimes crystalline, and show the same morphology as in the living animal, complete with tubercles, muscle scars, foramina etc. When bone or shell fossilizes it does not become vague or fuzzy, like an out of focus picture.  So if a rock is shaped or textured sort of like something, it probably isn’t a fossil. If it has contrasting colour and texture, and looks exactly like something, it could well be.

 For verification, a potential fossil can be shown to an expert – preferably a geologist or palaeontologist, but an experienced amateur collector may suffice in a pinch, at least to tell you if you have something.

There are some people, however, who do not accept a professional response that disagrees with their firmly held beliefs that their particular rock contains an important fossil. Mr. Ed Conrad is one of these people.

Mr. Conrad’s tale began much like the rockhounds mentioned at the start of this post. He found some interesting rocks in a coal seam, and brought them to the Smithsonian for examination.  He was told he had an interesting rock. Disappointed, he brought in another, and was told the same. Disappointed again, he insisted that the Smithsonian prepare a sample of his rock for microscopic examination. They politely refused, on the grounds that, frankly, they can’t prepare microscope sections for everyone who comes in with a rock, unless there is good reason to pursue that line of investigation (ie, it is a real fossil, and one of interest).  This seems to be where Mr. Conrad begins his delusional idea that Scientists are conspiring against him. He writes:

Since 1981, I have been battling what I insist is the deceit, deception, collusion and conspiracy of members of the Scientific Establishment as well as a myriad of scientific institutions, including the “prestigious” Smithsonian and the nation’s leading universities, for protecting the absurd theory in order to protect their vested interests.

Over the next decade or more Mr. Conrad contacted a variety of geologists, biologists, and anthropologists to examine his rocks, including PZ Myers. In every case, the answer was the same: it’s just a rock, Mr. Conrad. That is, every answer but one. On Conrad’s website he proudly touts that an anthropologist named Wilton Krogman confirmed his findings. In fact, from his description, it sounds like Krogman merely agreed that a photograph of a piece of the rock did indeed resemble a tooth. Conrad does not say that Krogman ever actually examined the specimen.  Which still leaves us with absolutely no confirmation from any professional that Conrad even has fossils, let alone human ones.

Of course, this does not suggest to Mr. Conrad that perhaps he was mistaken in his identification – an honest mistake, given his lack of training in the field. Instead, he chose to heap on the slander and venom towards those who he feels are trying to suppress his “discovery”. He claims they fear the implications of his findings, and that they are mounting a campaign to hide the truth. In other words, a conspiracy.

Now, a lone crackpot should not be a concern, and wouldn’t warrant a post from me. Butt more and more I have been stumbling on sites linking to Conrad’s, all espousing the same view that Big Science is conspiring to hush Conrad up because they fear the “truth” of his findings, because if word gets out about this “coal age man” it would blow evolution wide open. And since evolution is a conspiracy, obviously Big Science doesn’t want its cover blown.

People, please use some common sense. There is no conspiracy, and there are no Carboniferous hominid fossils.

I’m sorry Mr. Conrad, it’s just a rock.


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