Archaeopteryx Reclassification Raises Fear of Creationists
Archaeopteryx isn’t the first bird. At least, not today. It may be reclassified again, but Xing Xu, the man who brought a panoply of “feathered dinosaurs” to the world’s attention, has announced another Chinese fossil that led him to shuffle the bird evolution tree around, putting Archaeopteryx, an “icon of evolution” since its discovery in1861, onto a branch that includes dinosaur terrors like Deinonychus. At least, today. The backstory behind the shuffling of family trees, an upset that raises questions about everything evolutionists thought they knew about the evolution of birds, is political, not scientific. Evolutionists are worried about how creationists are going to “spin” the news.
Nature published the paper by Xing Xu et al.1 The fossil that knocked Archaeopteryx off its perch is named Xiaotingia zhengi, but it was not found in situ; Xing purchased it from a dealer. In the same issue of Nature,2 Lawrence Witmer [Ohio U] discussed the implications. “Given this iconic role, Archaeopteryx has also been in the cross-hairs of creationists, and remains a lightning rod for political debates and legal proceedings about teaching evolution in schools,” Witmer remarked. “Of course, Xu and co-workers’ finding only deepens the impact of Archaeopteryx by highlighting the rich evolutionary nexus of which it is a part, but how the ever-clever creationist community will ‘spin’ it remains to be seen.” His final paragraph seemed to hand them ammunition:
In truth, this chapter of the scientific story is just beginning. Just as Xiaotingia moved Archaeopteryx out of the birds, the next find could move it back in — or to somewhere else within this fuzzy tangled knot that makes up the origins of birds and bird-like dinosaurs. That said, during this sesquicentennial anniversary of Archaeopteryx, which is being honoured with exhibits and commemorative coins, the bitter irony may be that it may not have been the bird we’ve always thought it was. But Archaeopteryx will remain an icon of evolution, perhaps even more so now, providing compelling evidence that, as we should expect, evolutionary origins are rather messy affairs.
The news media are all over this story, and some, like Witmer, are doing pre-emptive damage control against creationist ‘spin.’ The BBC News admitted, “Archaeopteryx has a hallowed place in science, long hailed as not just the first bird but as one of the clearest examples of evolution in action.” The new fossil is very similar to Archaeopteryx in many respects; reporter Matt McGrath agreed with Witmer that another new find could rearrange the tree again and put Archaeopteryx back as First Bird. Even Xu et al. said, “It should be noted that our phylogenetic hypothesis is only weakly supported by the available data,” primarily because of “widespread homoplasy” (convergent evolution of similar traits among unrelated species), which he said is common in examples of “major transitions” in evolution.
PhysOrg, publishing a report by Associated Press, argued that the upset doesn’t change much: “while it might shake scientific understanding within the bird lineage, they said, it doesn't make much difference for some other evolutionary questions.” The article echoed Witmer’s excuse that the murky lineages between all these fossils is just what evolutionary theory would expect. Live Science added a note of philosophy from Witmer: “That’s how it should be, how science works – new evidence changes our conclusions.”
All the popular press were prepped ahead of time with artwork to show off, just as the paper was published in Nature. The artist’s rendition shows Xiaotingia in a handsome black-and-blue feathery suit, looking like it is ready for either fight or flight, evolutionists are not sure which.
New Scientist added another pre-emptive strike from Gareth Dyke of University College Dublin: “I am not surprised,” he said. “Flight may have evolved many times among small bodied theropod dinosaurs.” It is not clear whether such a line of argument is helpful against creationists. An editorial on New Scientist continued the philosophical meme: “we should celebrate the fact that science is still doing what it does best: revising cherished ideas in the light of new evidence.” No problems; everything is under control, even if everything you thought you knew about Archaeopteryx is wrong. At least today.
Other reporters specifically tried to pre-empt creationists. Alan Boyle on MSNBC News Cosmic Log quoted Witmer, who warned him that creationists would try to use the news for their advantage. “It may well be they’re going to suggest that we evolutionists don’t know what we’re doing,” he told Boyle. “In reality, it’s just the opposite. It just shows what evolution is all about. A prediction of evolutionary theory is that it should be really hard for us to figure out what’s going on in an origin.”
Witmer’s response seemed to become an unofficial talking point. It was picked up Discover Magazine, which wrote, “Creationists will doubtlessly pounce upon this story and quote-mine articles for supposedly damning phrases. But revisions and uncertainities like this are to be expected.” And Witmer on his own blog Witmer Lab reinforced the talking point, stating righteously, “Although the creationist apologetics mill will no doubt seize on this shift of Archaeopteryx out of birds as showing the folly of evolutionists, they’ll be wrong to do so. This latest finding is a glorious affirmation of evolution in action, blurring the boundaries between different lineages within the tangled knot of an evolutionary origin.” Ending on a triumphal note, as if the party must go on, he hailed the iconic fossil, saying, “It’s only fitting that 150 years later, Archaeopteryx is back at center stage, still an icon of evolution. It’s a happy birthday indeed!”
1. Xing Xu et al., “An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae,” Nature 475 (28 July 2011): pp. 465–470; doi:10.1038/nature10288.
2. Lawrence M. Witmer, “Palaeontology: An icon knocked from its perch,” Nature 475 (28 July 2011): pp. 458-459, doi:10.1038/475458a.
This is rich. Witmer is concerned about the news becoming a “lightning rod” for creationists. He thinks they might take this news to school boards to question the teaching of evolution in schools, because creationists are “ever clever” and eager to “spin” it to their political agenda. He worries that they will “pounce upon” the uncertainty in the analysis, and “quote-mine” reports for “damning phrases” failing to realize that messy data sets is exactly “what evolution is all about.”
Of course evolutionists are NEVER clever; they NEVER spin findings, because they NEVER have a political agenda (see previous entry). They are objective, unbiased scientists, with motives as pure as the wind-driven snow. They know exactly what they are doing. They ALWAYS revise their theories in the light of new evidence, don’t they? They NEVER pounce on anyone or anything, and they NEVER have anyone in their cross-hairs, do they? (Watch Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and read Jerry Bergman’s Slaughter of the Dissidents that documents decades of discrimination against creationists.) The hypocrisy is juicy.
Witmer revealed some philosophical buttons, so let’s push on them and see what lights up. Evolution is “messy,” he says. OK; when does a messy set of data become a science? How messy can a data set be to be considered confirmation of a theory? If the prediction of your theory is that it’s going to be really hard to figure out what’s going on, do you have a scientific theory or an ideology masquerading as a theory, immune from testable evidence?
Evolution, everyone knows, is supposed to represent a law of nature that Darwin “discovered” – the law of natural selection (actually, he plagiarized it; see Bergman’s The Dark Side of Darwin). Darwinism predicts a branching tree of life with species splitting and going their separate ways. Understand that fossils represent leaves on the mythical tree (individual species well-adapted to their environments); the branches are inferred. Is this messy data set, with “widespread homoplasy,” really a confirmation? On what basis would evolutionists expect to find mosaics of traits scattered among unrelated branches, so confusing that different phylogenetic analyses can produce different results? (See what Cornelius Hunter has to say about the status of evolutionary trees on his blog, Darwin’s God.)
Convergent evolution is a disconfirmation of evolution. If Witmer wants to assert that the complex traits already existed in the common ancestor before the groups diverged, he merely pushes the problem back into the ancestor, demanding multiple lucky mutations in one species that generated all kinds of complex innovations at once. But if, like Dyke argues, flight evolved multiple times in n lineages, that only multiplies the improbability n times. In addition, the Darwin Party has no reason to predict that scale-covered dinosaurs would evolve feathers or flight (09/06/2007). They still can’t agree whether the ancestors of birds jumped out of the trees, ran along the ground, or stretched out their bony arms running up ramps until feathers sprouted (along with flight muscles, new lungs, hollow bones, flight software and all the rest). They don’t know what the feathers were used for, if they were feathers at all in the non-flying creatures, and what specific mutations could turn a scale into a feather – a very different, and much more complex, structure (01/21/2009). Meanwhile, reptiles seem to be doing just fine today without feathers.
Another question is rarely asked: why are these “feathered dinosaurs” all coming from one man, Xing Xu? (05/01/2010, 10/01/2009.) If feathers and flight were such a hot ticket in the evolution innovation contest, why are they all coming from Liaoning Province? Why has the only other site on the planet been Bavaria, where only Archaeopteryx, not these other diverse kinds, appears? The world is a big place. Surely there are other sites where these creatures would have flown the Chinese coop, if that is where they evolved. And why are so many of the weird fossils coming from dealers? There’s absolutely no chance that Xing has a vested interest in becoming famous for these discoveries. He unmasked Archaeoraptor, didn’t he? That proves he is Mr. Honesty. He could not possibly have ulterior motives; he would never want to unmask a hoax to perpetrate a better hoax, or learn from the mistakes of the earlier hoaxster, to prop up his own credibility. Look; all evolutionary paleontologists trust him and his lab workers implicitly. Isn’t that enough for you? And there is no motivation on the part of Chinese artisans to bring him spectacular fossils with feathers on them. Look away; there’s nothing to see here.