From Dinosaurs to Bird: Another Evolutionary Leap of Faith
You would think from the January 6, 2010 headline of the Science Daily (Science Daily 2010) website that this gliding microraptor, and heretofore missing link to full-fledged wing-flapping bird, was just discovered. You would be wrong. As is the custom in the evolutionary community, discoveries find new life. Resurrection in Darwin’s world is nothing like the actual world changing resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Not even close. It is more like rehashing or reissuing, not because some more substantial fossil evidence has been uncovered, but in this case a clever Kansas University (KU) assistant professor of biology and expert on modern animal flight, David Alexander, made a model glider of the fossil. Alexander was joined by KU colleagues Larry Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk, along with Enpu Gong from Northeastern University in China, who were all engaged in a comprehensive study of the functional morphology and ecology of early birds from China.
Why does this constitute a repeat performance? The answer to this can be traced back to a 2003 debate. The debate was not about whether or not these alleged feathered dinosaurs could fly, but rather whether or not they could articulate the bones in their hip sockets enabling them to glide. Another question being debated was this microraptor’s ability to run with such pronounced, elongated hind feathers, a seeming impossibility. This lent such strong support for the trees-down model for the origin of avian flight that the alternative terrestrial (ground up) origin now may be abandoned (University of Kansas 2008). As we shall see, the abandonment of previously cherished evolutionary facts is a very commonplace occurrence in the world of Darwinian evolution.
Good science must stop jumping to conclusions
At this point I must digress. There is an important factor concerning science in general and in Darwinian Theory in particular. That is the need for humility and flexibility in the study of God’s universe. A proper attitude can be seen in the life and work of one of the giants of science, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). This same attitude is common among most of the creationist forefathers of modern science. This German mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution described the pursuit of science as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Even the agnostic with atheistic leanings, Albert Einstein said, “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe- a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must feel humble.”
So why am I digressing? I have gone off topic because of the seeming unbelievable arrogance with which evolutionary scientists make their claims. They talk in terms of abandoning previously held beliefs with only a brief mention of the now, disowned and supposedly discredited, previously held dogma. Can anyone remember how the theories of the solar system changed with time, e.g. geocentric to heliocentric? Does anyone recall how the Miasma Theory or ‘bad air’ gave way to the Germ Theory? While these self-appointed science know-it-alls are telling creationists that we are like ‘flat-earthers’ they, themselves fail to admit that it was the scientific community that warned Christopher Columbus that his venture would end in his ships falling off the edge of the known world! That’s right. The scientific establishment promoted the flat earth theory and these same establishment scientists fought against the Copernican Theory of our solar system. The prevailing scientific consensus in times past was that living organisms could spontaneously generate from non-living materials. That is until the work of Alexander Redi and later, Louis Pasteur, proved them wrong.
The list of alleged facts concerning science that have been discarded as either flawed or completely erroneous is considerable. From Aristotle (384-322 BCE) to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) the entire scientific establishment believed that a falling object’s speed increased the further it fell when, in fact, it increased the longer it fell. The entire scientific community agreed with them until Galileo (1564-1643), who for 30 years also believed that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. That is until he finally got it right in his famous 1632 publication Dialogues concerning Two New Sciences.
Evolution tends to be intransient and dogmatic
What about these errors of science, some of which are forever on display in the science textbooks written in support of Darwinian Theory. They remain in these textbooks, year after year, to the exclusion of any evidence to the contrary. The classic example of the evolutionary establishment’s inability to honestly police itself has to do with the constantly promoted, although thoroughly debunked, theory of the origin of life on planet earth. I am referring to the famous Miller and Urey futile attempt to create the building blocks of DNA, amino acids, through natural processes circa the early 1950’s. Never mind that the original experiment was far from a success. Disregard the fact that numerous attempts to recreate this famous experiment have all failed to produce viable results. Ignore the fact that even if Miller, Urey or any other ‘human being’ could experimentally create a truly living organism in vitro, it would only be evidence of Intelligent Design and not Darwinian evolution.
Forgive me, but I must continue to digress. What about all those phony baloney missing links in evolution’s ape-to-man ‘just-so’ story. Consider Piltdown man. This alleged missing link was originally given the very scientific sounding name of Eoanthropus dawsoni. It would have been an extremely early example of a creature showing both human and apelike qualities. That would be true if it were not the jawbone of a 10-year-old orangutan, its teeth ground down to simulate age, and a crude chemical wash applied to the bone to make it appear ancient. Still, it fooled the experts who were only too happy to welcome the evidence in support of Darwin’s, even by then, wildly popular theory among the scientific elite. Never mind that this hoax made it into the top 25 Crimes of the 20th century. A list compiled by the far from creationist friendly editors of Time magazine (Chua-Eoan 2007).
I assume that the other hoaxes in the ape-to-man phylogenetic tree were mere errors and not deliberate hoaxes, e.g. Neanderthal species is now considered fully human (Krings et al.1997) (Watson et al. 1996) (Maca-Meyer et al. 2001). Contributing to this seemingly irrefutable support from genetics, as well as the anthropological evidence e.g. elaborate burial rituals and advanced tool use, everything indicates the Neanderthals were fully human. The jury is no longer out on the subject of Neanderthal man, yet this species of homo sapien remains in the science textbook illustrations as a seemingly sub-human in appearance with ape-like features and abundant facial and body hair (Schraer and Stoltze 1999). As any honest paleontologist will acknowledge, the artist’s renditions of fossils is more a matter of imagination and highly susceptible to previous evolutionary dogma that anyone is willing to admit.
Lucy and Ardi: Cautionary tales of ape-to-human evolution
What of the other so-called ape-to-man ancestors? Ida, the once proclaimed 8th wonder of the ape-to-human evolutionary world, is discovered to be…..what for it….what for it…. That’s right, an extinct lemur. Forget all about the hoopla that accompanied the discovery of this now debunked missing link. And please do not bring up the actual evidence, e.g. that monkeys have always hunted lemurs for food, a fact that makes them a not-so-good candidate to be the precursors to primate evolution, possible references to cannibalism notwithstanding. And let’s not forget Nebraska man, the infamous pig-toothed debacle of primate evolution. There are many other examples of dubious missing links in the ape-to-man phylogenetic tree such as Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, and Ardi, Ardipithecus ramidus.
While the discovers of Lucy boast of a 40% recovery for this alleged ancestor of man, the details of where these bones were uncovered poses some disturbing questions that have not been answered. When the co-discoverer of Lucy, Dr. Donald Johanson, was asked at a University of Missouri lecture on Nov. 20, 1986, “How far away from Lucy did you find the knee” (the knee bones were discovered a year earlier than the rest of Lucy)? Dr. Johanson answered (reluctantly) “60-70 meters (about 200 feet) lower and two to three kilometers away (about 1.5 miles!).” When the questioner, Roy Holt, continued, “Then why are you sure it belonged to Lucy?” Dr. Johanson’s answer was, “Anatomical similarity.” Couple these revelations with Lucy’s relatively small cranial capacity, 380–430 cm3, and the fact that in almost every way Lucy resembles a chimpanzee, then the real question concerning Lucy is, was Lucy a monkey or a true missing link?
Ardi is a horse, or should I say a chimp, of a different color. Ardi is supposed to predate the earliest alleged ancestors to modern man, the Australopithecines. The unique morphology of these fossils is much touted by their discoverers. The account of the discovery of this alleged missing link is a stunning, if not miraculous, story of Darwinian evolution. The following is an excerpt from a National Geographic article concerning Ardi.
The first, fragmentary specimens of Ardipithecus were found at Aramis in 1992 and published in 1994. The skeleton announced today was discovered that same year and excavated with the bones of the other individuals over the next three field seasons. But it took 15 years before the research team could fully analyze and publish the skeleton, because the fossils were in such bad shape.
After Ardi died, her remains apparently were trampled down into mud by hippos and other passing herbivores. Millions of years later, erosion brought the badly crushed and distorted bones back to the surface.
They were so fragile they would turn to dust at a touch. To save the precious fragments, White and colleagues removed the fossils along with their surrounding rock. Then, in a lab in Addis, the researchers carefully tweaked out the bones from the rocky matrix using a needle under a microscope, proceeding “millimeter by submillimeter,” as the team puts it as recorded in the magazine, Science. This process alone took several years.
Pieces of the crushed skull were then CT-scanned and digitally fit back together by Gen Suwa, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tokyo. In the end, the research team recovered more than 125 pieces of the skeleton, including much of the feet and virtually all of the hands—an extreme rarity among hominid fossils of any age, let alone one so very ancient.
“Finding this skeleton was more than luck,” said White. “It was against all odds” (Shreeve 2009).
If this incredible account of miraculous preservation and reconstruction does not give us pause, perhaps this additional information should. We are being told that 90 fragments were discovered. How many of these (90 to 125 by different accounts) “fragmentary specimens” that were “badly crushed and distorted” were used in the reconstruction? We assume all that could be recovered however; everyone knows that the reconstruction of ancient fossils is not exactly a precise science. Evidence of this can be seen in the changes in the artistic renditions of dinosaurs over the years.
Another member [of the team] Yohannes Haile-Selassie found the first of more than 100 fragments that make up about half of a single skeleton of this species, including a pelvis, leg, ankle and foot bones, wrist and hand bones, a lower jaw with teeth—and a skull. But in the past 8 years no details have been published on this skeleton. Why the delay? In part because the bones are so soft and crushed that preparing them requires a Herculean effort, says White. The skull is “squished,” he says, “and the bone is so chalky that when I clean an edge it erodes, so I have to mold every one of the broken pieces to reconstruct it.” The team hopes to publish in a year or so, and White claims that the skeleton is worth the wait, calling it a “phenomenal individual” that will be the “Rosetta stone for understanding bipedalism.”
Aside from the incredible hyperbole of referring to the discovery of Ardi as the Rosetta stone for understanding bipedalism, the admission by Dr. White that the skull was “squished” and in a continuing state of erosion can only serve to raise even more concerns about the reconstruction of Ardi. Here is yet another characterization of the condition of this specimen excerpted from Time magazine.
One problem is that some portions of Ardi's skeleton were found crushed nearly to smithereens and needed extensive digital reconstruction. “Tim [White] showed me pictures of the pelvis in the ground, and it looked like an Irish stew,” says Walker. Indeed, looking at the evidence, different paleoanthropologists may have different interpretations of how Ardi moved or what she reveals about the last common ancestor of humans and chimps (Lemonick and Dorfman 2009).
Just like the fanciful artist renditions of the honored ancestors of modern man, the reconstruction of damaged and fragmented fossils can be an extremely tenuous and dubious endeavor. Reconstructions of specimens in fair condition are difficult and can be somewhat arbitrary. You often have differences of opinion among scientists concerning the placement, range of motion and/or function of certain skeletal configurations. This becomes a factor of huge importance in the reconstruction of the main subject of this essay, our gliding and possibly flying, microraptor, e.g. the ability to articulate microraptor’s hips. Couple this with the fact that Ardi was being heralded as “the Rosetta stone for bipedalism” regardless of the discoverer’s own admission that, “different paleoanthropologists may have different interpretations of how Ardi moved or what she reveals” and you have yet another example of evidence being molded and shaped to fit into the evolutionary paradigm.
If we have learned anything from recent history, including the lessons learned concerning Ida the extinct lemur, whose discovery was also was compared to Rosetta stone, it is that the hype rarely lives up to the lofty expectations of these highly publicized discoveries. Whether it is an extinct lemur named Ida, or an extinct primate named Ardi, these highly touted discoveries are in reality evidence of stasis in support of Special Creation and not evidence in support of Darwinian Evolution.
Does a paper plane model = evidence of a flying dinosaur?
Now we return to our alleged flying dino-birds, the microraptors of China. The reintroduction of this theory does have some intriguing qualities. The concept of models in science is well established. They help us flesh out our hypotheses by giving us a framework on which to hang and test our ideas. Indeed, models are part and parcel of how we think and learn. But is a glider, whether shaped in the form of a microraptor or that of a child’s paper plane, really evidence that these extinct creatures could fly? After all, the ability to glide or hurl oneself through the air is hardly evidence of true avian ancestry or even convergent evolution. In truth, this evidence can be just as easily explained by the creationist and Intelligent Design premise e.g. that parallels between living organisms are a function of design for a similar use/purpose and not the result of natural selection and beneficial mutation. Flying squirrels and flying fish can both glide quite well, but is anyone proposing these creatures as common ancestors in the phylogenetic tree of avian evolution? I think not.
What about the details of this microraptor-to-bird model? Can anyone forget that the basis for this model comes from the famous Cretaceous fossil beds of Liaoning Province in northeastern China? Does anybody even remember the scandal that accompanied the National Geographic piece concerning a set of these fossils? To the collector who paid $80,000 for one of them, the Chinese fossil had every appearance of a feathered dinosaur that flew like a modern bird. The purported missing link made headlines when National Geographic trumpeted the find in 1999, then caused red faces when it was revealed as a forgery a year later (Hotz 2002).
Is this a bird or a dinosaur?
What happens when a scientist does not take to the indoctrination of Darwinian Evolution? Consider the evaluation of Dr. David Menton. Dr. Menton has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Brown University. He has a long and illustrious career as medical school professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. David Menton raises an interesting point when he writes,
The most interesting question about M. gui is not if it had wings like a biplane or even if it were a glider or powerful flyer. The real question is, was M. gui really a flying/gliding feathered dinosaur?
There is no question that M. gui had true pennaceous feathers essentially identical to those of modern birds. These feathers are not to be confused with the so-called “protofeathers” reported on early Cretaceous theropods of China such as Sinosauropteryx (Currie and Chen 2001) or the herring bone patterns found in the skin of other theropod dinosaurs such as Sinornithosaurus (Xu X, et al. 2004). These structures bear no real resemblance to feathers and may be better interpreted as interwoven collagen fibers in the dermis of these animals (Feduccia et al. 2005) (Menton 2007).
Dr. Menton is not convinced that these flying microraptors are dinosaurs at all. This is the same type of debate that surrounds archaeopteryx, another alleged ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds. Feduccia, Lingham-Soliar, and Hinchliffe of the University of North Carolina’s biology department allege the origin of birds and avian flight from within the archosaurian radiation has been among the most contentious issues in paleobiology. Although there is general agreement that birds are related to theropod dinosaurs at some level, debate centers on whether birds are derived directly from highly derived theropods, the current dogma, or from an earlier common ancestor lacking suites of derived anatomical characters (Feduccia et al. 2005).
Finally, several unquestioned birds with unquestioned feathers have been found in the early Cretaceous in China including the modern looking aquatic bird Gansus yumenensis (You 2006). The microraptors themselves, including M. gui are more like birds than theropod dinosaurs. If we compare the hands of Microraptor to Archaeopteryx, for example, we find the same bird-like phalangeal formula for their digits (2-3-4) (Zhou 2004). Feduccia et al. have concluded that “the microraptors of China are birds, regardless of their ancestry” (page 162) (Menton 2007).
The story that emerges then is not as charming as that presented in the popular media of feathered dinosaurs “experimenting” with flight using the same biplane “strategy” as the Wright brothers used, in an effort to “figure out” how to fly. A critical assessment of the data by evolutionists themselves reveals that, regardless of how it flew, M. gui was a bird, not a dinosaur. The evidence supports the conclusion that birds give rise to birds, and that they reproduce after their kind. But this is a story unlikely to be embraced by evolutionists or the popular media (Menton 2007).
Like archaeopteryx before it, Microraptor gui will continue to be presented as yet another link in the ‘molecules to men’ chain of evolution. If history gives us any indication of the future of these so-called missing links, we should take each discovery, no matter how highly touted, with an enormous grain of salt. Whether being characterized as “the eight wonder of the world” or the “Rosetta stone” of hominid evolution, M. gui like many of its predecessors will have to stand the test of time. Unlike biblical truth, evolution does not stand up to the intense scrutiny of reality. It remains a collection of fanciful ‘just so’ stories that when examined more carefully fail to live up to the hype that initially accompanied their entrance into that grand paradigm of naturalism, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Steve Rowitt, Th.M., Ph.D. (c)
Chief Technical Advisor
Creation Studies Institute