Questioning the Dino-Bird Hypothesis
The scientific consensus has pretty much declared it a fact of natural history that birds evolved from dinosaurs. One evolutionary professor remains a gadfly, though. He contests the evidence on which the hypothesis is based, and also believes his maverick position is growing.
Alan Feduccia, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, wrote an essay for New Scientist (subscription required). His position does not deny an evolutionary origin of birds, but places the “feathered dinosaurs” so often portrayed as ancestors of modern birds on a dead-end branch. He claims his position is more in line with 19th century paleontologist Richard Owen and 20th century evolutionist Gavin de Beer. These men viewed flightless birds as degenerate products of variation, not stages toward flight; for instance, de Beer in 1956 “showed conclusively that flightless birds descended from flying ancestors and have never re-evolved flight.”
Similarly, Feduccia holds that the “feathered dinosaurs” attracting so much attention in the media were either pure scaly dinosaurs with whose decayed collagen has been misinterpreted as “proto-feathers,” or were degenerate flightless birds. His own view is that the birds evolved from archosaurs, the predecessors in evolutionary history of the true dinosaurs. He thinks some of the archosaurs lived in trees and developed flight as they jumped (the arboreal hypothesis).
Critics of Darwinism will, therefore, find Feduccia’s own evolutionary view to be just as implausible as the consensus view. What he says in his essay, however, is illuminating about the habits of a scientific consensus. Here are some salient points:
- Sinosauropteryx, a fossil with alleged proto-feathers, caused a sensation when it was announced in Nature in 1998. But “no evidence then or now has emerged showing that these structures are anything other than collagen fibres supporting a typical reptilian frill,” Feduccia said. “The fact that the filaments are located within a clearly demarcated body outline – indicating the fibres were not external, as they would be if they were feather-like structures – was completely ignored.”
- “Additional fibres of varying forms and lengths classified as various stages of protofeathers have subsequently been described in myriad dinosaurs, including in a recent Nature paper on tyrannosaurids,”1 Feduccia continued, aware of the latest claims. “Other fibres have been described in herbivorous ornithischians and pterosaurs, which have no connection with birds, but there is still little evidence to connect any of these structures with feathers.” The tyrannosaurid’s fibers, whatever they were, cannot possibly have been used for flight; see Science Daily: “The large size of Yutyrannus and the downy structure of its feathers would have made flight an impossibility,” the article stated April 5.
- Feduccia described some of the other alleged feathered dinosaurs, like Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx, but considered them secondarily flightless birds.
- He sees the consensus view as a dangerous return to dogma over scientific caution:
Birds as “living dinosaurs” is now a cornerstone of modern palaeontological thought. But a consensus is always in danger of turning into dogma. Indeed, given the cult-like belief in the field’s orthodoxy, it seems that every fossil pulled from the Chinese deposits is accompanied by hyperbolic pronouncements of it having filled a major evolutionary gap. Yet many of these discoveries lack normal scientific stringency, and we see a transition from normal scientific falsificationism to simply confirming what is already thought to be known.
- Feduccia described his opinion as “a minority one, but growing in popularity”.
- He rejects the “fantastical proposals” about “dinosaurs with protofeathers, dinosaurs with bird wings and modern feathers, four-winged gliding dinosaurs, and tiny supposed theropods from the Jurassic period with avian wings.”
- The birds-from-dinosaurs controversy has a long history, Feduccia explained. Richard Owen in 1875 “set the record straight” when Thomas Huxley first advanced the view that birds evolved from dinosaurs. “Owen predicted that ‘science will accept the view of the Dodo as a degenerate Dove rather than as an advanced Dinothere,’ thus stating the crux of the current controversy.”
- Feduccia believes the “feathered dinosaurs” adorning covers of Nature were flightless birds. He calls them “Mesozoic kiwis.”
- He believes it “biophysically improbable” that birds evolved from the ground up in theropod dinosaurs. “No flightless bird ever gave rise to a flying one; the same is surely true in the dinosaur fossil record.“
- It’s even more improbable, he thinks, that dinosaurs gave rise to all the special features of birds. “Most disturbingly, current orthodoxy dictates that the entire suite of sophisticated avian flight architecture, including aerodynamic wings and specialised brain structures, evolved in earthbound dinosaurs in a non-flight context, a proposal that is practically non-Darwinian.”
My central idea, that Chinese fossils bearing modern feathers are early birds, seems new and revolutionary yet it is new only as a fresh application of de Beerian thinking to a new set of problematic fossils. Paraphrased, de Beer’s axiom still holds: if it has feathers and avian flight wings, it’s a bird!
So are you better off with Feduccia, de Beer and Owen than you were with Thomas Huxley and Xing Xu? Feduccia still believes that non-flying archosaurs evolved into birds. He just feels it is less biophysically improbable that the “sophisticated avian flight architecture, including aerodynamic wings and specialised brain structures” came from animals jumping in trees rather than running along the ground. Look, Dr. Feduccia, if it is “practically non-Darwinian” to imagine theropods generating these sophisticated structures from the ground up, it is just as “non-Darwinian” and “biophysically improbable” to imagine archosaurs generating them while jumping out of the trees.
Actually, both Feduccia’s and Xu’s positions are 100% Darwinian. That’s because the essence of Darwinism is the Stuff Happens Law. If an animal develops flight, it’s because stuff happens. If an animal doesn’t develop flight, it’s because stuff happens. Darwinians don’t need evidence; they need imagination. The play is the thing. The scattered fossils from China, Germany and wherever don’t tell one story; they are scattered pieces of evidence that can be interpreted multiple ways. In Darwinism, data are mere props for imaginary scenarios.
Darwinism allows for opposite outcomes from the same laws of nature. Feduccia’s story, for instance, employs gravity (a law of nature) as the creator of flight: “Flight originated from the trees down, with small size and gravity providing the impetus, as is the case for all animals that developed flight.” But the same law (gravity) produced opposite outcomes, according to evolution. Bats developed flight by jumping out of trees, but lemurs didn’t. Pterosaurs developed flight by falling off cliffs, but apatosaurs didn’t (even though some pterosaurs were large as giraffes and were able to take off from the ground). Birds developed powered flight by jumping out of trees, but lizards didn’t. Don’t even ask about insects. According to Feduccia’s imagination, gravity gave the “impetus” for caterpillars to invent a chrysalis and emerge as butterflies (watch the documentary Metamorphosis to understand how silly such an idea is).
If gravity had such law-like powers of creation, everything would fly, even pigs and humans. (Humans do fly, but that’s using aircraft built by intelligent design.) This should be a testable scientific hypothesis. Shove a billion lizards out of trees, and see which ones become birds under the impetus of gravity (remember, half a wing doesn’t count). Come now. External influences like gravity cannot command unguided variations, including chance mutations, to produce an ordered result. It’s crazy (and non-Darwinian) to expect environmental influences to act as an “impetus” for coordinated design.
Feduccia’s usefulness for thinking people, therefore, is merely to point out the anti-scientific power of dogmatic paradigms. He is a maverick within the Darwinian camp. Those outside the camp can use him like the hero in the fairy tale Seven at One Blow, a logically thinking tailor, who slew the giants by getting them to finish each other off.
1. Xing Xu et al., “A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China,” Nature 484 (05 April 2012), pp. 92–95, doi:10.1038/nature10906.