googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: A Lot of Fluff About Dinosaur Feathers

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Lot of Fluff About Dinosaur Feathers

A few years back, there was a little buzz about feathers found preserved in amber. The amber was dated according to evolutionary dating methods to be about 78 million years old putting it squarely in the “age of the dinosaurs.” The supposed age of the feathers earned them the moniker of “dinosaur feathers.”

Dinosaur-to-bird evolution is a much loved fantasy in the theory's narrative. You may have noticed over the last few years how dinosaurs are now being drawn to look more bird-like. Scales have been replaced with a bright plumage and the stubby arms of bipedal dinosaurs are being revamped to look like wings. A find like this seems to reaffirm evolutionists' suspicions about dinos becoming birds.

In a report about the find, The Atlantic made the following comments:

Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds.... This discovery is a pretty significant find. It supports a model for the evolution of feathers that has previously relied on compression fossils that are difficult to interpret and have been hotly debated.

As usual, I have some of my own opinions about the find.

First, it's more than a little presumptuous to say, “these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution.” Isn't that a conclusion? If all these feathers existed contemporaneously, then can't it just as truthfully be said they simply represent various levels of complexity among feathers? They don't support evolution unless I interpret them according to evolution. I could do something similar with dogs. For example, I could arrange dog skulls in order from smallest to largest and say, “These skulls represent the stages of dog evolution from the chihuahua to the great dane.” If evolution were true, I would expect the least complex feathers to be much older than the most complex feathers. I certainly wouldn't expect all the “stages” of feather evolution to exist at the same time. It could happen, I suppose, but it's not predicted by the theory.

Next, what evidence do they have that these feathers even belonged to dinosaurs? The Atlantic headline clearly says, “Dinosaur Feathers Found in Amber Reinforce Evolutionary Theories” but in the text of the article they admit, “[The researchers] can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet. Here's a thought – maybe none of them belonged to dinosaurs! Maybe they're all bird feathers. Some of these feathers are described as “nearly identical to those of modern birds.” So instead of being evidence that reinforces evolutionary theories, I could say it's evidence that modern birds existed simultaneously with their supposed ancestors. In other words, it's evidence against evolutionary theories.

Finally, there is nothing about creationism that predicts dinosaurs cannot have feathers. God created a variety of creatures. Many of them have certain features in common. When you talk about something like flight, birds have wings more similar to bat wings than insect wings. Even though God created birds with more features in common with bats than insects, it doesn't mean they're “more closely related” to bats. Likewise, there's no reason God could not have given dinosaurs a covering of some sort the same way He put feathers on birds and hair on mammals. Maybe they had a type of crude feather. Maybe they had complex feathers. Maybe they had some other fibrous structure that scientists are mistakenly calling, “proto-feathers.” Maybe they had none of these features and all the speculation of feathers on dinos is dead wrong. Whatever the case, it's not evidence against creation nor evidence for evolution.

I'll tell you exactly what scientists found – feathers in amber. That's the only “fact” in the story and, in some of the specimens, even that is suspect. The sensational headlines, the “evidence” for evolution, and the chest thumping by the researchers are all fluff.


Steven J. said...

First, yes, the statement, that different degrees of complexity in feathers represent various stages of feather evolution, is a conclusion. So would the statement that they are made of atoms -- or indeed that they were once attached to living animals. Conclusions do not become unreasonable or unsupported by evidence merely because they are uncongenial.

Second, evolution is a branching process. Different populations of an ancestral species evolve in different directions and to different degrees, so one would indeed expect more primitive and more advanced forms to exist alongside one another, as long as they were not competing for the same ecological niche (which, as Darwin noted, was why we still have monkeys, and even chimpanzees, but don't still have ape-men).

So paleontologists are not surprised to find, e.g. primitive, hairlike feathers on a dinosaur like Sinosauropteryx (these have occasionally been dismissed as collagen fibers that, in life, were inside the body, but this is impossible in light of fossil melanosomes -- pigment-bearing bodies -- inside these shafts), at around the same age as much more advanced, plumaceous feathers on Caudipteryx (note that Caudipteryx has a perfectly typical oviraptorid skeleton, and would without hesitation be called a "dinosaur" had it been preserved without its birdlike plumage). Note for what it's worth that one fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx was labeled for years as a specimen of Compsognathus -- which in turn is very like Sinosauropteryx, but its skin covering is unknown -- until faint feather impressions were noticed on the slab).

Now, on the other hand, it is a more dubious assumption to hold that simpler feathers indicate a more primitive theropod. Presumably, as in the modern kiwi or ostrich, feather complexity could be lost over time in flightless species. Caudipteryx (and by extension other oviraptorids) always looked to me like something that had flying ancestors; they may have lost the sort of asymmetrical feathers that Archaeopteryx and modern flying birds have rather than have never evolved them. Even the "dinofuzz" on some theropods may represent a reversion from more complex feathers possessed by flying or gliding ancestors. Even some ornithischian ("bird-hipped," except their hips are not really birdlike) dinosaurs had some sort of "dinofuzz" covering their bodies (e.g. Sciurumimus), as did pterosaurs. Either primitive, hairlike feathers appeared very early in dinosaur evolution or several different archosaur groups had a propensity to evolve hairlike structures from scales, and evolved these hairlike structures independently.

Steven J. said...

I don't think that there is any significant sense in which chihuahuas are more "primitive" than Great Danes, or vice-versa (while Cope's Law states that lineages tend to increase in size over time, the opposite has also happened frequently). Especially if other canid species are known, both breeds are likely to be regarded as derived in different directions from some more wolflike ancestor and neither directly ancestral to the other.

I grant that there is nothing in creationism that says that dinosaurs can't have feathers. Nonetheless, creationists in general seemed not to expect this result, given their enthusiasm for denigrating all evidence for feathered dinosaurs. For that matter, there's nothing in creationism that says that bats can't have feathers. Conversely, an evolutionist would not have expected such structures to have evolved identically twice, in mammals and in archosaurs, but would have expected feathers to appear in birds' non-flying archosaur ancestors. Creationism makes very few testable predictions, which is why "God created it this way" is not a very useful or well-regarded scientific hypothesis.

As I've mentioned before, though, it does seem to me that creationism ought to predict that radiometric dating would yield a young age for the Earth. After all, nature is supposed to be a revelation from God in its own right, and God is supposed to be truthful (and omnipotent, so that He could easily create flawlessly reliable radiometric dating). So radiometric dates of millions or billions of years refute young-earth creationism, even if we don't assume that the dates are actually accurate!

Side note: I'm not sure how amber is dated, but I'm virtually certain that the methods do not assume common descent with modification. There are, after all, old-earth creationists who accept the dating methods while rejecting evolution.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I believe you missed my point about dog “evolution.” Of course I don't believe that chihuahuas evolved into great danes. I don't think anyone thinks that. Instead, I was merely pointing out that different size dog skulls could be arranged in a way to make it seem like dogs evolved from small to large. In that same way, feathers of various complexity could be arranged to support the idea that feather “evolved” from primitive to complex even though no such evolution happened.

It's my opinion that the age of the amber was determined by the strata in which it was found. One caption said there were “16 feather barbs trapped within a single piece of Canadian amber.” If you believe primitive species can exist simultaneously with more evolved species as long as they don't occupy the same ecological niche, then I would say that all specimens being found in the same piece of amber pretty much confirms they lived in the same niche. So we have various degrees of complexity living at the same time and in the same environment. It's the opposite of what we would expect if they evolved.

By the way, I noticed your frequent use of the word “primitive.” I specifically avoided using that word since the term by itself suggests the less complex feathers are less “evolved.”

You were a little presumptuous when you talked about ornithischian hipped dinos and “dinofuzz.” You're making the same assumptions as the researchers in the article. What evidence do you have that any of these feathers were associated with dinosaurs AT ALL? I again assert that the find is evidence that modern birds were contemporary with their supposed ancestors. Therefore, it's evidence against your theory.

Finally, as a creationist, I would predict that since all kinds of animals lived at the same time, their appearance in the fossil record is more indicative of where they lived rather than when they lived. It's no surprise to a creationist to find modern birds living along side dinosaurs. Such a find is not predicted by your theory. As for homologous structures, we group animals according to the traits they share. Humans have traits in common with other mammals. Structures such as hair on humans are not evidence that we're “related” to other mammals. Feathers are an identifying characteristic of birds. If dinosaurs had feathers (which is far from being settled), maybe we might amend our definition of “birds” or “dinosaurs” but the structures still wouldn't prove they're related.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

An ecological niche is obtaining particular resources in a particular way. Crows, robins, and hawks all live in the area where I do, but they don't occupy the same niche. Likewise, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and cats fill different niches, even when they live in the same area.

Strictly speaking, species shouldn't be living side-by-side with their actual ancestors. But there's nothing very remarkable about one species living alongside another that more closely resembles their last common ancestor ("is more primitive"). From polar bears living alongside brown bears to, well, polar bears living at the same time as lungfish, it is a commonplace thing.

Sciurumimus was found with "dinofuzz" attached to the skeleton; we might as well ask what evidence we have that the modern-type feathers associated with Archaeopteryx were really attached to it. And if we don't know that some dinosaurs had feathers we might as well go and call Compsognathus a "bird," although traditionally, no one has thought it was.

Note that we find birds with modern, asymmetrical plumaceous feathers alongside non-avian dinosaurs; we don't actually find modern species (although extinct species belonging to extant orders are common enough). Likewise, we find mammals alongside non-bird dinosaurs, and based on their teeth some paleontologists even put some of these mammals in modern orders. But none belong to any modern family, genus, or species. We find crocodilians, and again, no modern species or genera among them; these things don't show up until later formations that include no non-bird dinosaurs. We find no human artifacts or fossils in Cretaceous (or even Paleogene) assemblages.

Nor do we find bones or teeth of cattle, dogs, or other domestic animals. On young-earth creationist expectations, we ought to expect human tools to be as common where Iguanodon or Megalosaurus fossils are found (Jurassic sites) as they are where fossils belonging to modern genera are found.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

First, I made an error in my description of the amber. It dawned on me while I was in the shower this morning but this is the first chance I've had to comment. I thought for sure you'd correct me before I had the chance to point it out but maybe you didn't double check me. Any way, under the gallery of pictures there's a caption that says, “A partial view of 16 feather barbs trapped within a single piece of Canadian amber....” I thought the caption referred to the entire gallery but I'm sure now it only referred to the first pic in the gallery. I'm not sure how closely associated the amber was where all the different feathers were found but the impression I have is that they were still in close proximity.

It's always a problem for evolutionists when modern-looking species are found in fossils believed to be millions of years old. It's a rather ordinary phenomenon and the modern species are usually labeled, “living fossils.” To preempt the common sense conclusion that living fossils demonstrate millions of years have supposedly passed with no sign of evolution in these species, scientists usually describe the ancient species with guarded terms like “nearly identical” - just as the feathers were described in the Atlantic article. I believe the “differences” are usually exaggerated and might be no more significant than the differences between any two members of the same species. Are all wolves exactly the same size, for example? A fossilized wolf skull, then, might be said to be “nearly identical” to a modern wolf's except that it is smaller (or bigger or whatever).

I'm sure you're aware that most creationists believe most of the fossils were formed during the Flood epoch. Creationists also believe that rapid speciation has occurred as the various kinds represented on the Ark spread out into the world. Therefore, I wouldn't expect the modern species, which are adapted to the present environments, to be identical to species that perished in the Flood. So your points about modern species not being found among fossils of extinct species are still explained by the creation model.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!