September 22, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Was Velociraptor a Dragon?

As if Velociraptor, the terror of Jurassic Park, was not scary enough, some scientists are now saying it was feathered.  (This, of course, does not imply it could fly after its human prey like some movie dragon.)  The latest claim in Science is based on the apparent presence of “quill knobs” on the radius bone of a specimen found in Mongolia.  In their “Brevia” article, the authors claimed this is direct evidence that the dinosaur had quilled feathers.  Other science reporters took up the claim without a flap, among them Science Daily, the BBC News and National Geographic News, which may feel some relief after its Archaeoraptor embarrassment (11/21/2002, 09/27/2000).

1Alan H. Turner, Peter J. Makovicky, Mark A. Norell, “Feather Quill Knobs in the Dinosaur Velociraptor,” Science, 21 September 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5845, p. 1721, DOI: 10.1126/science.1145076.

Since nobody else seems to be asking the hard questions, let’s take a look at this claim.  The paper and its photos do not appear convincing to a skeptical eye.  Consider these points:

  1. The evidence is circumstantial, not definitive.
  2. The claim came from one bone, not from multiple samples of Velociraptor.  The first thing they should have done was examine other specimens.
  3. No feathers or feather imprints were found (see 09/06/2007, footnote 2).
  4. There were only 6 of the structures, and they looked like dimples, not knobs.
  5. The dimples followed a curve, not a straight line as on the vulture bone shown for comparison.
  6. The putative quill knobs were in the middle third of the bone but did not continue to the right or left; why would an arm have only six feathers in the middle of the arm?  The vulture bone showed the knobs all the way along the bone.
  7. They did not show similar knobs on the other arm, or on any of the other parts of the skeleton.
  8. Not all birds have quill knobs.  Eagles, for instance, do not.  The authors admit that lack of the knobs is not evidence for lack of feathers, but argue that presence of knobs is direct evidence for feathers.  This is an argument from silence, because there might have been non-feathered animals with knobs.  Their ending statement, therefore, is unsupportable: “Whether this feature represents retention of an ancestral function or the cooption for other purposes, the presence of quilled feathers on the posterior of the arms in a medium-sized derived, clearly nonvolant dromaeosaur can now be established.
  9. These structures might have had a different function than supporting feathers.
  10. Velociraptor had no use for feathers.  The authors admit that the skeleton of the creature did not allow it to fly; the arms are too short to serve as wings.
  11. The authors could only speculate what feathers would be used for: perhaps sexual display or downward lift while running.  For this they referred to Ken Dial’s ridiculous hypothesis about the origin of flight (see 05/01/2006, 12/22/2003, 01/16/2003).
  12. The paper claims that Velociraptor descended from more bird-like feathered dinosaurs that might have been capable of flight.  Not only is there no evidence for this, it would represent devolution, not evolution.
  13. Feathers are very different from scales.  The existence of pits along an arm bone falls far short of explaining how complex feathers could have evolved.  The authors said, “This report of secondaries in a larger-bodied, derived, and clearly flightless member of a nonavian theropod clade represented by feathered relatives is a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the evolution of feathers.”  Such a claim vastly oversteps the evidence.
  14. The introduction said, “Some nonavian theropod dinosaurs were at least partially covered in feathers or filamentous protofeathers.”  But the reference was to a paper by one of the coauthors, not to an independent source.  It would have been a more solid argument to cite a critic of dinosaur-to-bird evolution as a hostile witness.
  15. They said “We present direct evidence of feathers” but did not show any feathers!  The evidence, therefore, was indirect.
  16. Quill knobs are usually indicative of secondary feathers, i.e., those with vanes and barbs used for flight.  None of the other “feathered dinosaur” candidates have advanced feathers like this, unless they were arguably true birds.
  17. The bone was found in isolation and “possesses several characteristics” of Velociraptor.  This allows for the possibility this bone was misclassified.
  18. This claim cannot be taken in isolation from the other controversies about dinosaur-to-bird evolution (see 09/06/2007 and its embedded links to previous entries; see also the four Dinosaur chain links in the Oct. 2005 page).

Paleontologists with more experience, with access to this bone, will need to weigh in on this claim.  But even if definitive evidence were to be established for feathered Velociraptors, what would this mean for creationists?  Nothing.  It would mean that extinct creatures were more varied than previously thought.  Some birds and reptiles had teeth, and some did not.  Some birds and reptiles flew, and some did not.  Some birds and reptiles had different numbers of toes.  The morphological differences within class Aves and within class Reptilia is enormous even today (picture ostrich vs hummingbird, alligator vs turtle).  The diversity was even much more so in the past.  Creationists allow for a Designer who could use His designed structures where needed.  There are many other cases where common structures are found in different groups; evolutionists explain them away with their miracle phrase, “convergent evolution.”  Feathering would just add one more example.
    Feathered Velociraptors would also mean that the scientists were wrong, and the animators of Jurassic Park were wrong.  It would not establish a link between dinosaurs and birds, because this creature was not on the line leading to birds.  Even the authors admitted that the Velociraptor lineage must have been in the process of losing its feathers (if these members indeed had any), while the ancestors (according to the story) would have had functioning feathers, with no ancestors before that showing how the feathers evolved.
    Evolutionists are in a frantic campaign to support their theory.  That’s why this circumstantial evidence is getting so much press.  But at best, it’s merely another argument from homology.  As Jonathan Wells pointed out so well in his book Icons of Evolution, homology does not prove evolution; it can just as well support common design.  Give them all the feathered dinosaurs they want; it will not prove that one kind of animal evolved into another kind.  Until then, we’d like to see a lot better evidence than this one bone.
    Notice one other thing about scientific papers in this vein.  Its authors referenced Ken Dial’s absurd just-so story suggesting that flight evolved when baby dinosaurs held out their arms as stabilizers while running uphill.   These guys used Dial’s paper for support rather than laughing at it as they should have.  This would be a good time to re-read the entry from 03/17/2006, in which a team of social scientists demonstrated that scientific papers can actually perpetuate false ideas rather than build up knowledge.
    On the History Channel tonight, a documentary was shown that illustrates how vastly different interpretations can come from the same evidence.  A 2005 program about dragons was rerun.  It acknowledged that dragon legends exist worldwide, crossing all cultures around the world: Maya, Chinese, American Indian, European.  The similarities between these legends is striking.  Also, each culture believed that these creatures really existed, and some claimed that they were witnessed in recent times.  How is this to be explained?
    Creationists have used these facts to support the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted till recent times, and the memory of the awesome beasts was perpetuated in dragon legends.  The secular TV program admitted that dragons bear striking resemblances to dinosaurs, but it put forth a completely different explanation.  Assuming in advance that the existence of humans and dinosaurs was impossible, the commentators made up explanations out of thin air: for instance, that humans are hard-wired to imagine dragons in their evolved brains, such that instinctive fear of predators (eagles, snakes and lions) combined into one imaginary creature, the dragon.  The program also suggested that primitive peoples found dinosaur bones in the ground and projected them into their mythology as large, fearsome monsters.  “Instincts that kept our evolutionary ancestors from being eaten,” combined with the human capacity for vivid imagination, produced dragon myths around the world, independently, with striking similarities in many details.  The program, as could be expected, claimed ownership of “science” as its superior alternative to any other explanation.  This is not about science.  It’s about the science of one world view arguing with the science of another.
    According to Dykstra’s Law, everyone is someone else’s weirdo.  Creationists will surely laugh as hard at the evolutionary explanation as the evolutionists would about the creation alternative.  This is not to say that all weirdos are equally weird, or that all weird ideas have equal validity, or that world views are arbitrary.  It does illustrate, though, that evidence does not interpret itself.  Presuppositions and biases cannot be avoided.  They need to be acknowledged and can, to some degree, be kept under control by honesty and love of the truth.  Claims about Velociraptor feathers need more control than we are seeing today.

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Categories: Birds, Dinosaurs, Fossils

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