The Case for a Creator: Ancient Wings

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Up until now, Jonathan Wells’ critiques of evolution, although misguided, have been fairly sophisticated, touching on topics such as abiogenesis, the Cambrian explosion, and embryology. That’s about to change. In this section, Wells and Strobel haul out the most breathtaking, shameless lie bandied about by creationists: that there are no such things as transitional fossils. This opening quote foreshadows the direction they’re going:

I was under the impression that [Archaeopteryx] was featured in my books on evolution because it is just one example of many transitional links that have been found. But I was wrong. [p.56]

Strobel then quotes this jaw-dropping passage from Michael Denton:

[T]he universal experience of paleontology… [is that] while the rocks have continually yielded new and exciting and even bizarre forms of life… what they have never yielded is any of Darwin’s myriads of transitional forms… The intermediates have remained as elusive as ever and their absence remains, a century later, one of the most striking characteristics of the fossil record. [p.56]

Even by creationist standards, this is a bald-faced and brazen lie. Not only do transitional fossil series exist, we have a strikingly large number of them, bridging most of the major evolutionary changes in life’s history. But don’t take my word for it, see the evidence for yourself.

There’s the tetrapod transitional series – fossils documenting the evolutionary change from fish to four-legged land animals – whose crown jewel is Tiktaalik roseae. There’s the therapsids, the fossils documenting the evolution of mammals from reptiles, which preserve in exquisite detail the evolution of the jaw. There’s the well-known horse transitional series. We know much detail about the evolution of whales, including Ambulocetus, the so-called walking whale. And of course, there’s the evidence creationists hate the most – fossil human ancestors – which we’ll get to in due time.

But this section focuses on Archaeopteryx, a particularly striking example of evolutionary transition. This feathered dinosaur is far too well-known even for creationists to deny it exists, but Wells tries to fog the evidence by implying that it’s not really transitional:

“Besides, we see strange animals around today, like the duck-billed platypus, which nobody considers transitional but which has characteristics of different classes.” [p.57]

This is another example of the things Wells should already know. In fact, the platypus is transitional – albeit a kind of living transition.

The platypus belongs to a very rare group of mammals called monotremes. Although these animals have fur, give milk and show other mammalian traits, they have others that are more primitive, most notably the fact that they lay eggs. They also lack the well-developed nipples of mammals that their young can suck on; their milk oozes from glands on their chest, and the babies lick it up. But they also have advanced adaptations not shared by other mammals, like venomous spurs or the platypus’ famous “bill” – which has nothing in common with the bills of ducks, but is actually an electrosensitive organ of exquisite sensitivity.

Living monotremes are found only in Australia and New Guinea, and this separation is a clue to their evolutionary history. The most likely explanation is that, during the Mesozoic era, the animals that would ultimately become mammals split into several branches. One branch became the placental mammals, which includes us. Another branch became the monotremes. Both groups inherited proto-mammalian features such as fur and milk from their common ancestor, while others, such as the bearing of live young, evolved in placentals after the branch point, while monotremes retained the ancestral egg-laying state. In this sense, and discounting its own unique adaptations, the platypus is a sort of living example of what our common ancestor might have looked like.

But, back to Archaeopteryx. As I said, even Wells can’t deny it exists, but he does resort to lying about the nature of the species:

“But the archaeopteryx is a half-bird, half-reptile, right?”
“No, not even close,” he insisted. “It’s a bird with modern feathers… not part bird and part reptile.” [p.57]

Image via.

Wells makes no attempt to justify this assertion, because it is patently false. Other than its feathers and a few other subtle characteristics, Archaeopteryx is actually much more like a dinosaur than it is like a bird. The Talk.Origins Archive’s All About Archaeopteryx FAQ lists its reptilian features, which far outnumber the avian characteristics. (See also.)

And even besides this, what about the many other feathered dinosaurs, such as Sinornithosaurus and Microraptor? Over twenty genera of feathered theropods are known, most from China. Wells steers well clear of these, other than to mutter an accusation that they’re probably all fakes [p.59]. We do, however, get a sermon on Archaeoraptor, which serves the same purpose as Haeckel’s embryos – a convenient whipping boy for creationists which they use to distract attention from the real facts that support evolution.

Archaeoraptor was a chimera – a composite of bones from several different animals – most likely created by unscrupulous amateur fossil hunters. The fraud was detected almost immediately, within a matter of weeks, and was never published in peer-reviewed papers (source). In fact, the Archaeoraptor saga is an excellent example of how science is supposed to work. The only reason we’re hearing anything about it is because one popular, non-peer-reviewed publication, National Geographic, exercised insufficient caution and ran with the story before scientists had authenticated it.

After lying about the existence of well-known scientific evidence and accusing paleontologists of mass fraud, Wells has one final card to play:

“…reptiles that are more bird-like in their skeletal structure… they find them millions of years after archaeopteryx! So here we have archaeopteryx, which is undeniably a bird, and yet the fossils that look most like the reptilian ancestors of birds occur tens of millions of years later in the fossil record.” [p.57]

As I said earlier, Wells has an education in biology and should know better than to make these obviously deceptive claims. A real scientist would have known the explanation for this immediately and would not have tried to mislead readers by implying that this is unexpected or a problem for evolution.

Evolution rarely, if ever, works in a single, smooth trajectory of change – species A changes into species B, which changes into species C, and so on. Instead, what we usually see is a path of descent more like a densely branching bush: species A radiates into species B1, B2, B3… and so on. Most of these go extinct, but B2, say, speciates into C1, C2, and C3, and again, some of the daughter species go extinct and others diverge in their own ways. But species don’t have fixed lifespans, and there’s nothing to dictate how long a particular species will survive before it goes extinct. There may still be living species from the A or B generation existing side-by-side with far more advanced descendants. (Readers are referred, again, to the platypus for an example of how this can turn out.)

In the case of Archaeopteryx, that’s just what happened. In the bird family tree, feathers were an early innovation, one that arose before most of the other features typical of modern birds, and Archaeopteryx was one of the earlier species to have them. (Remember, again, that it has far more reptilian than birdlike characteristics.) But other feathered reptiles, other lines of descent in the same family tree, spun off descendants of their own, and some of these had more of the features that, in retrospect, we classify as diagnostic of birds. In short, Archaeopteryx wasn’t a direct ancestor of modern birds: it was an aunt or an uncle. But even if it’s not on the direct line of descent, it’s still a powerful and compelling example of transition in progress, one twig on the branching tree of life’s history.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Just to confuse though. some evidence points to dinosaurs and birds having an earlier common ancestor rather than birds being a later development of carnivorous dinosaurs. Again this is the kind of possible reevaluation that creationists love as it could be construed to mean t”those pesky evolutionists got it wrong again”

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • Ritchie

    I love it when I hear ‘there are no transitional species in the fossil record’. Surely ALL species are transitional species – transitional between their ancestors and their descendants (apart from those who go extinct, or modern species, who do not have descendants)?

    But having listened to this (blatantly false) assertion many times, something occured to me. I think what many of these Creationists mean is that there are no transitional species between MODERN species. There is, for example, no transitional species between a pig and a tortoise, or a fly and a mouse.

    Of course, this assertion is still wrong – go back far enough through the tree of life and all species are connected sooner or later. But there are no hybrid species which share the modern characteristics of both, for example, a fly and a mouse (and of course there is no reason to expect there should be).

    I may be wrong, but it’s as close as I can get to following a train of logic that concludes there are no transitional species, other than these people are simply lying or insane.

  • NoAstronomer

    Ritchie beat me to it. We’re all transitional. I’m part of the transition between my kids and their grandparents. Though not all of us will be fossils.

    Mike.

  • Andrew

    Steve: that paper is discussed in some detail in this post at Tetrapod Zoology.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But having listened to this (blatantly false) assertion many times, something occured to me. I think what many of these Creationists mean is that there are no transitional species between MODERN species. There is, for example, no transitional species between a pig and a tortoise, or a fly and a mouse.

    Hmmm. “mike” talks about a glaring lack of millions of dead transitional fossils between species. I wonder if that’s what he meant. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense, because any fossil which is identified and described is going to be assigned a genus and species.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Sigh… nothing in the concepts of evolution or LUCA excludes theism, but as usual, Ebonmuse conveniently excludes information that conflicts with his arguments. Then again, it’s always rhetorically successful to call creationists names like liar and assume that whoever dissents is dishonest when in fact, we don’t know if they are or not.

    Hat tip Steve Bowen, for providing a link that tells more than one side of the story.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Sigh… nothing in the concepts of evolution or LUCA excludes theism…

    But they do exclude certain versions of theism. Direct creation of all the different “kinds” – out the window. Whales and birds created before land animals – gone. Garden of Eden – obsolete. Worldwide flood with an ark full of animals – ridiculous. And so on.

    I also cannot agree with you about the dishonesty label. Some statements are so flagrantly wrong that there can only be two possible explanations: astonishing ignorance, or dishonesty. When someone’s past history indicates that they know better, or should know better, then dishonesty is indeed the most probable explanation.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    cl,

    For someone with Wells’ education in biology, making statements like this can be considered deception.

    Also, I have yet to see where Ebonmouse argues in this article that theism is excluded with respect to evolution?

    Lastly, what does Steve Bowen’s link have to do with theism or creationism? And are you under the impression that this somehow refutes evolution?

    Perhaps you didn’t catch this sentence in Steve Bowen’s link?:

    “This discovery probably means that birds evolved on a parallel path alongside dinosaurs, starting that process before most dinosaur species even existed.”

    Or this?:

    “The newest findings, the researchers said, are more consistent with birds having evolved separately from dinosaurs and developing their own unique characteristics, including feathers, wings and a unique lung and locomotion system.

    There are some similarities between birds and dinosaurs, and it is possible, they said, that birds and dinosaurs may have shared a common ancestor, such as the small, reptilian “thecodonts,” which may then have evolved on separate evolutionary paths into birds, crocodiles and dinosaurs. The lung structure and physiology of crocodiles, in fact, is much more similar to dinosaurs than it is to birds.

    “We aren’t suggesting that dinosaurs and birds may not have had a common ancestor somewhere in the distant past,” Quick said. “That’s quite possible and is routinely found in evolution. It just seems pretty clear now that birds were evolving all along on their own and did not descend directly from the theropod dinosaurs, which lived many millions of years later.”

    Also, I would note this excerpt from Ebonmouse’s article:

    Evolution rarely, if ever, works in a single, smooth trajectory of change – species A changes into species B, which changes into species C, and so on. Instead, what we usually see is a path of descent more like a densely branching bush: species A radiates into species B1, B2, B3… and so on. Most of these go extinct, but B2, say, speciates into C1, C2, and C3, and again, some of the daughter species go extinct and others diverge in their own ways.

    Even if birds are not direct ancestors of dinosaurs, it would still be expected that there should be species which share some of the characteristics of dinosaurs and birds if each had a common ancestor.

    Wells should know better, but he still makes statements which are deceptive. This is called lying – and can we not agree that omission of the relevant facts when one should be in solid possession of them is very much a lie?

    And as far as your “more than one side of the story” remark: what is the story here? The self-correcting mechanisms of scientific research. We do agree on that, right?

  • Alex Weaver

    “The newest findings, the researchers said, are more consistent with birds having evolved separately from dinosaurs and developing their own unique characteristics, including feathers, wings and a unique lung and locomotion system.

    How do feathered therapods fit into this model?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Sigh… nothing in the concepts of evolution or LUCA excludes theism, but as usual, Ebonmuse conveniently excludes information that conflicts with his arguments. Then again, it’s always rhetorically successful to call creationists names like liar and assume that whoever dissents is dishonest when in fact, we don’t know if they are or not.
    Hat tip Steve Bowen, for providing a link that tells more than one side of the story.

    Hi cl
    I’m sure you realise that I was not attempting to vindicate Strobel and Wells, I was merely pointing out that the story has moved on a little from the dinosaur > birds story. My real point was that just because some evidence contradicts the currently accepted theory does not mean that there is’nt an equally valid naturalistic hypothesis available. If “real” bird fossils pre-date e.g. Tyrannosaurus it does not mean evolution is false, it just means birds evolved earlier than tyrannosaurs. Creationists like to say “look at this anomaly in the data God must have done it”. Science says, “look at this anomaly … what does it mean?”. Actually I take your point in that Ebon may be guilty of assuming Archaeopteryx et al are transitional fossils by buying in to the current consensus (which may still be correct by the way) but if they are not as Teleprompter says

    Even if birds are not direct ancestors of dinosaurs, it would still be expected that there should be species which share some of the characteristics of dinosaurs and birds if each had a common ancestor.

    At the risk of confusing threads this it at the heart of the evolution vs creationism debate. Challenges to the prevailing interpretation of the modern synthesis are pounced on by creationists as evidence against evolution per se, and are sometimes stifled by established science for this very reason.

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh.

    OF COURSE the fossil record has never yielded the creationists’ concept of transitional forms. Even if it was true that it meant a “dog in the process of becoming a cat,” they’re DEAD. The only thing fossils are likely to become is metamorphic rock.

    Yeesh.

  • Leum

    Alex, there’s no evidence for metamorphic rock. All we have are rocks; you never see one rock changing into another rock. Petrological metamorphosis is another evilutionist lie.

    Oddly, I’ve never actually read any creationist works attacking metamorphism; maybe they think it all happened in the Deluge.

  • Ritchie

    cl

    Sigh… nothing in the concepts of evolution or LUCA excludes theism, but as usual, Ebonmuse conveniently excludes information that conflicts with his arguments.

    You have totally missed the point of the article. Ebonmuse is not making a case for atheism here. He is critically reviewing a book which claims to be able to make a case FOR God.

    Whilst it is true that the theory of evolution does not exclude theism per say, it is Strobel and Wells who need to be reminded of this, not Ebonmuse. They are attacking the theory of evolution in an attempt to make creationism (whether young or old) seem plausible. Ebonmuse is clearly demonstrating that their arguments are totally inaccurate and rather dishonest, besides being completely irrelevant to the issue of whether God exists.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    nothing in the concepts of evolution or LUCA excludes theism, “

    Ebon might not be making this argument, but I will.

    Evolution, as an explanation for why humans have self-consciousness, is diametrically opposed to all theisms, which themselves are fundamentally explanations of the human condition. Either God created us for his purpose, or evolution created us for its; it can’t be both.

    The theists understand this, which is why they fight Darwin so much. Evolution really is the death of theology, because it explains now only how we came to be but why we came to be what we are.

    (Note: it is possible to construct theisms that do not include teleology or purpose, but nobody actually believes in those theisms – not even the people constructing them.)

  • Alex Weaver

    Either God created us for his purpose, or evolution created us for its; it can’t be both.

    It’s been argued that evolution could have been the mechanism a god used to create us…though even that implies things about evolution (directionality, etc.) that we do not observe and it’s at best an ad-hoc just-so story…

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    or evolution created us for its

    Ouchee!! I know what you mean but …

  • Virginia

    Friends, I and my friend is also at a battle with hidden Creationism/ID proponents here in Hong Kong — somebody put a loophole in our biology curriculum
    Adrian is the creator of this site, and I also helped in some of the content and promotion.
    This site is Chinese and English, and you all can read about the story (every page has an English translation, except the Article and File Archives)

    http://sites.google.com/site/hkscienceeducation/

    Our Facebook group mentioned in this site was formed back in Feb 2009, with me as the spokesperson. We already submitted a series of papers to our local legislature (LegCo, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, Panel on Education)

    The Creationism/ID proponents remained hidden from the radar screen until they responded with this must read: http://sites.google.com/site/hkscienceeducation/file-archive/edcb2-1499-1-e.pdf?attredirects=0

    Good news is that the Education Bureau here in Hong Kong announced that Creationism/ID are rejected as part of the curriculum (see our Timeline in the site and the news)

  • vel

    I’m always amused at how easily theists lie. For people who supposedly believe that their “immortal soul” is in constant danger of being tortured for eternity, they certainly sin as much as they can. Just what kind of a being would accept apologies for sin when it knows, being omniscient, that the creature will intentionally sin again?

  • AC

    Is it just me, or have cl’s arguments in the comments thread of this series consistently been straw men or otherwise fallacious?

    The argument here seems to particularly miss the mark. Not just a straw man in regards to this particular post, but in regards to the entire purpose of this series.

    In fact, his “two sides of the story” remark actually seems to resemble the same kind of “deception” that Wells is engaging in. Steve Bowen’s link does tell two sides of a story, just not one that’s particularly relevant to Ebonmuse’ argument. Perhaps he’s wrong on Archaeopteryx, etc. but Wells isn’t arguing that birds evolved earlier.

    As Ritchie points out, in this series, Ebon is making a rebuttal to Strobel’s book. Obviously this means he can only deal with the arguments put forward in the book, this seems lost on cl.

    Will cl soon be claiming that typographical errors by Ebonmuse refute the arguments he puts forward?

  • Matt

    The Creationist difficulty with Darwin is that if you take him literally, there should be nothing but transitional fossils. Under his system of slow evolutionary pressure making tiny changes over long periods of time, it should be impossible to identify particular species at all: Such identification can only happen because a species’ shape stays constant for a long time. Instead of identifying particular species and then finding transitional forms as an exception, we should be finding ‘branches’ or ‘progressions’ of forms down through the fossil record, like in the diagram Darwin includes in the Origin of Species. (Although I don’t know if that diagram is in the original, or if it’s in all editions. It’s in my copy of the book.)

  • Scotlyn

    AC –

    Is it just me, or have cl’s arguments in the comments thread of this series consistently been straw men or otherwise fallacious?

    Not just you. You are describing a commenter who IMO never adds anything useful to any debate here. Personally I usually skip over them completely.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The Creationist difficulty with Darwin is that if you take him literally….

    Actually, their difficulty is that they insist on taking most things literally without understanding the deeper subtleties inherent to any complex subject.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Steve Bowen wrote

    Challenges to the prevailing interpretation of the modern synthesis are pounced on by creationists as evidence against evolution per se, and are sometimes stifled by established science for this very reason. (italics added)

    I’d be real interested to see some evidence for that last claim. I’m not aware of any such occurrences in the professional literature. Citations? Links?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    RBH

    Challenges to the prevailing interpretation of the modern synthesis are pounced on by creationists as evidence against evolution per se, and are sometimes stifled by established science for this very reason. (italics added)
    I’d be real interested to see some evidence for that last claim

    I should have been more precise perhaps. I don’t think these debates are stifled within the scientific community, but there is a reluctance to present them in the popular liturature and the science press. Quite a good case for this is made in The Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-Baker. Which as the title suggests is a (very respectful) swipe at Richard Dawkins who she believes to be over defensive of his particular brand of Darwinism.


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