March 4, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin for the Birds

Here’s a flock of bird stories that have Charles Darwin on stage or in the wings, so to speak.

  1. Was Darwin wrong?  Yes!  Contra National Geographic (10/24/2004), the science news outlets are all saying today that Darwin was wrong – but only about the origin of chickens (see EurekAlert #1, EurekAlert #2 and Science Daily).  The point of contention is so trivial, creationists lured by the headline might be chagrined to find the science media making such a big flap about a misdemeanor by the father of evolutionary theory, but not making a peep about what they perceive as his much bigger flights of fancy.
  2. Why pigeons sleep:  Pigeons take power naps, reported EurekAlert.  In fact, their sleep patterns seem similar to those of humans.  This can only mean one thing: “the independent evolution of similar sleep states in birds and mammals might be related to the fact that each group also independently evolved large brains capable of performing complex cognitive processes.”  Darwin was not mentioned but we all know he was a pigeon fancier.  He most likely took power naps himself, presumably not when writing books.
  3. Dino-age cormorants:  National Geographic News reported a discovery of large amounts of seabird fossils in Cretaceous strata on an island off New Zealand.  The “spectacular deposit” also included “bones that are too large to belong to birds, including what could be the big toe from a two-legged carnivorous dinosaur known as a theropod.”  The identification of the big one as a dinosaur, however, is tentative.  The bird fossils “seem to resemble modern seabirds known as cormorants” (see 05/24/2004).
  4. Darwin’s finches redux:  Peter and Rosemary Grant, the Darwin-finch experts, have distilled their 30+ years of research into a new book, How and Why Species Multiply (Princeton, 2008).  From the title, the book generalizes far beyond a few species on the Galapagos Islands.  Hanna Kokko reviewed the book in Science.1  Kokko did not add much new beyond the obligatory retelling of the Galapagos voyage and the inspiration it gave the young naturalist.  She hurriedly listed a few of the conclusions from the Grants’ painstaking research: stories of hybridization, founder populations, genetic bottlenecks, heterozygous genes, competition for resources, and the effects of drought on beak size.  None of this led to definitive conclusions.  Rather, “That context is where we start to understand what all the details mean.”  She ended quoting the Grants’ takeoff on Dobzhansky: “Nothing in evolutionary biology makes sense except in the light of ecology.”

Another quick bird factoid comes from PNAS:  a Hungarian team found that falcons and humans (using paragliders) employ the same soaring strategies.2  “We find that there are relevant common features in the ways birds and humans use thermals,” they said.  “In particular, falcons seem to reproduce the MacCready formula widely used by gliders to calculate the best slope to take before an upcoming thermal.”


1.  Hanna Kokko, “Evolution: Happening Now, Outdoors,” Science, 29 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1187-1188, DOI: 10.1126/science.1154815.
2.  Akos, Nagy and Vicsek, “Comparing bird and human soaring strategies,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online on March 3, 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0707711105.

Look carefully in each of these stories for clear, unambiguous evidence for Darwin’s primary contention that all living things – from bacteria to birds and humans – emerged from a single primordial cell through an unguided process of natural selection acting on random mutations.  You’ll see a lot of fluttering and clucking, but nothing of substance.  What has Darwin laid but a DODO egg? (i.e., a biology that chirps “Darwin only, Darwin only.”)
    Flight engineering technology in birds, imitated by humans, leads to the conclusion birds were designed.  Was Darwin wrong?  Don’t be a chicken; answer the question with logic and evidence.

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Categories: Birds, Fossils

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