March 21, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Origin of Bird Flight: Pick Your Miracles

(1) Powered flight arose only once;
(2) No! it arose many times!

 

While you’re having fun with one miracle, why not have many?

Dr Feathered Dinosaur himself, Xing Xu, sees powered flight as just one of those things that evolves from time to time. Yes, it’s astonishing, he agrees, to think that random changes in genes would produce an eagle, but given that evolution is a fact (shoo! you creationists!) he has no other choice. And since creation explanations are routinely censored by Big Science, Xing never has to hear the laughter of sensible people at the notion that flight just happened.

We point out routinely that both sides believe in miracles. Creationists believe in miracles that were intelligently designed, like the creation of birds and all flying creatures on the Fifth Day of Genesis. Evolutionists believe in miracles of chance. Their miracles are built into the Stuff Happens Law.

Let’s see how Dr Feathered Dinosaur from China handles miracles in his scenario of the origin of bird flight.

Inferring aerial behavior in Mesozoic dinosaurs: Implications and uncertainties (PNAS, 20 March 2024). In this “Commentary” article on “Evolution,” Dr Feathered Dinosaur admits that it is astonishing to imagine that flight could just happen.

The last few decades have witnessed tremendous efforts to infer whether particular Mesozoic dinosaurs could fly and how the seemingly volant ones moved through the air. Both questions are directly relevant to one of the most astonishing events in vertebrate evolution, namely the transition from land to air along the line to modern birds.

It’s only one of the most astonishing events, because evolutionists believe that it happened four times in different unrelated lineages.

How did powered flight originate 4 times in different animal groups? To evolutionists, it was a miracle each time.

Given that it did happen (it must have, since evolution is an assumed fact), Dr Feathered Dinosaur considers a paper by Kiat and O’Connor (PNAS 12 Feb 2024) who concluded that the origin of flight in birds only took a single miracle. Xing is not sure about that.

The authors’ analyses suggest that theropod flight had a single origin at the base of the Pennaraptora (Fig. 1A), a group containing not only all birds but also several other dinosaur clades including the oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurs, and troodontids. Such results are not surprising, given that a suite of other important avian characteristics also originated at the pennaraptoran node. However, other studies have supported a multiple-origins scenario for flight in pennaraptorans (Fig. 1B). Several factors have contributed to making the question of single flight origin versus multiple origins controversial, including variation across flight performance studies in both methods and results, and uncertainties in ancestral state reconstruction derived from limited taxon sampling, phylogenetic uncertainties, and differing model choices.

Did you catch that? Dr Feathered Dinosaur is not surprised that powered flight “originated” in dinosaurs. Why? Because a lot of other miracles (“important avian characteristics”) also “originated” back in the imaginary past when dinosaurs were thinking about flight.

Dr Feathered Dinosaur couches his terms in his favorite euphemism for evolution: he says it originated. He speaks of flight origins. This sleight-of-mind wording absolves him from having to locate specific genetic mutations that were blindly selected by Darwin’s blind Watchmaker or careless Tinkerer.

Dr Feathered Dinosaur uses another trick to prop up his scenarios: he tries to smooth out the sudden leap from a ground-based dinosaur to an eagle or hummingbird by adding a gliding stage. Nevertheless, uncertainty is inescapable when trying to account for evolutionary miracles in the unobservable past: “assumptions about the range of gliding postures and/or patterns of flapping kinematics that a volant taxon could have utilized are also subject to uncertainty.”

In the end, Dr Feathered Dinosaur is faced with a dilemma. Positing multiple miracles for the origin of flight in different dinosaur lineages sounds less probable, but a single origin of flight creates problems for Hollywood animators.

A single-origin scenario for dinosaur flight would significantly affect our conventional understanding of birds and other pennaraptoran dinosaurs. For example, many familiar dinosaurs, such as Velociraptor, Troodon, and Oviraptor, would have to be regarded as secondarily flightless (i.e., descended from volant animals).

While that option would be inconvenient for animators, Dr Feathered Dinosaur is not surprised (again). He knows that the Stuff Happens Law works in any direction: upward and downward, progressive and regressive, forward and backward (and sideways), evolving and devolving.

This would not be particularly surprising, however, for several reasons. First, flightlessness has evolved many times among different crown bird lineages; second, it would have been relatively easy for early birds to revert to the flightless condition, given that they were less specialized for volancy than crown birds; and finally, the Mesozoic aerial space was highly competitive because of the presence of pterosaurs alongside volant pennaraptoran dinosaurs.

The Stuff Happens Law works in strange ways. Pterosaurs chased dinobirds down to the ground, but it didn’t happen the other way. Why are there no flightless pterosaur fossils? That’s because Darwin’s Hunger Games have winners and losers. Pterosaurs won the first round of competition, but birds won the second. It’s hard to predict what will happen.

Also, acceptance of a single-origin scenario would highlight an interesting question: How to define birds and distinguish them from non-birds.

In his new book Darwin’s Bluff, Dr Robert Shedinger points out that one of Darwin’s rhetorical talents was to hide his lack of evidence behind “imaginary scenarios” (pp 172, 182) and then put forward his own imagination with an air of authority, using phrases like “I can see no reason to doubt” that selection happened here or there, or “for myself I am fully convinced that there does exist, in Nature, a means of Selection, always in action & of which the perfection cannot be exaggerated” (p 171). Dr Feathered Dinosaur has learned well from his master.

Another lesson Xing has learned well is how to nudge the public to accept evolution-tainted classifications by the Darwin Party:

Technical terms for grouping animals are relatively easily created and disseminated among the academic community, but only terms that belong to the vernacular can leave a deep mark in popular culture. To the general public, birds are feathered animals whose bodies are highly specialized for flight. If flight, pennaceous feathers, and some other salient avian features indeed originated at the base of the Pennaraptora, wouldn’t it be better for us to call all pennaraptoran dinosaurs birds, just like we called Archaeopteryx a bird when this iconic species was first discovered?

The popular evolutionary dogma “Birds are dinosaurs!” shouted with sufficient authority is an example of this rhetorical talent. Nowhere does Dr Feathered Dinosaur give any place to critics of the dinobird hypothesis, such as Dr Alan Feduccia. There is only one brief mention of him in the references on an unrelated topic about Archaeopteryx feathers from 1979. And there is certainly no place given to even think about those who claim that the miracle of powered flight was intelligently designed. Clutch your pearls and hold out a Darwin tree to ward off those demons!

Thinking about flight, or secondarily flightless?

A brief guide to birdwatching in the age of dinosaurs  (The Conversation, 11 March 2024). In this article, postgrad student Abi Crane engages in the rhetoric of card stacking. She shows only extinct birds that fit the evolutionary narrative, and alleges that powered flight was a fact of evolution. She repeats the myth that birds are dinosaurs.

Scientists think that the small size of birds such as Asteriornis helped them to survive the mass extinction. Because smaller animals need less food and take less time to reproduce, these humble birds were able to survive and evolve into the birds you can see through your binoculars today.

And yet in the new movie The Ark and the Darkness that premiered this week, Dr Carl Werner, who has traveled to major museums in Europe and America to study how they present the fossil record to the public, found that museum curators do not show modern birds in their dinosaur exhibits. They should show ducks flying over T. rex’s head, he remarks, because such have been discovered. From his own study of living fossils, he has collected a large sample of animals and plants that are indistinguishable from their modern counterparts, yet are usually given different genus and species names if they lived in the time of dinosaurs. Werner has documented his findings in a DVD and a book.

Imaginary duckbilled bird evolving into a penguin, in a Nature article. Can’t fly or swim. Will it survive until the next lucky mutation?

Sexual selection and the evolution of dinosaur flight (PNAS, 11 Jan 2024). In this Commentary article, paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, like Xing Xu, brushes over the miracle of powered flight by alleging that feathers evolved for a different function: sexual display.

How, then, did sexual selection become such a force in avian evolution? To address this question, we must look to the fossil record. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and many dinosaurs had fanciful structures that probably served a role in display and mating, from the horns of Triceratops to the head crests of duck-billed hadrosaurs. Furthermore, many early birds and their close theropod relatives had a rich variety of feather colors and shapes, which were probably involved in display.

Does anybody think for a minute that a prominent evolutionist like Brusatte would dare to mention that soft, stretchy tissue has been found in a Triceratops horn? (This was also presented in The Ark and the Darkness). Of course not; it would collapse the entire myth of deep time on which Darwin built his Stuff Happens Empire. If Brusatte can simply repeat “birds evolved from dinosaurs” often enough and emphatically enough, perhaps the public will believe in Darwin’s miracle scenario through repetition. And so, children, birds began by showing off their sexual traits and then realized that those feathers might lift their heavy bodies off the ground against gravity.

Dinosaurs (or their ancestors) initially acquired feathers for reasons unrelated to flight, as the first feathers were simple fuzz-like bristles, probably helpful in regulating body temperature, but as useless for aerial pursuits as our own heads of hair. Many dinosaurs, maybe even most, sported these basic feathers. Some derived theropods, however, elaborated those simple feathers into larger, branching, vaned quill-pens that lined up along the arm (and in some species, the legs and tail).

They acquired feathers. Got it? They elaborated them after thinking long and hard about it (see cartoon above). Now, Brusatte piles on the miracles.

These dinosaurs invented wings. Because birds use their wings to fly, we might assume that wings evolved for flight. The fossils, though, hint at a more subversive story.

They “invented” wings, he says. Was this after a committee meeting? We interrupt that logical thought for a twist in the plot. Everyone likes a subversive story! The plot thickens:

The wings that appear earliest on the dinosaur family tree, in theropods like ornithomimosaurs and oviraptorosaurs, were small—too small for flying. If these sheep-to-horse-sized dinosaurs flapped their incipient wings, any lift or thrust would have been so minimal that their bodies would fail to get airborne.

Incipient wings, therefore, could not have been used for flight. Brusatte has set up his miracle scenario for a grand denouement of his tale:

Why, then, did wings evolve? We must remember that today’s birds use their wings for many purposes, not only soaring through the skies. Wings can be used to brood eggs in the nest, to swim, and for display. Might the dinosaur ancestors of birds have also used their wings as sexual signals?

The flightless bird flexes its feathered arms for its mate and then looks to the skies. We watch with baited breath as if listening to the countdown of the new Starship rocket. The launch is called off, but there will always be another day.

When imagining how complicated structures evolve, biologists since Darwin have often agonized about intermediate stages. What adaptive value is half a wing? In the case of dinosaurs, sex may hold the answer. A half-wing may not be any good for flying, but plenty good for attracting mates and intimidating rivals. Sexual selection may have even pushed the development of bigger wings, as ever-larger advertising billboards to woo mates. Then, at some point, the laws of physics would have taken over as these billboards became big enough to provide a bit of lift, a bit of thrust. Flight was born—and if this scenario is correct, it was born inadvertently, a byproduct of sexual selection.

And that, children, is how the hummingbird at the backyard feeder became the aerobatic champion of the world. It’s like… a miracle. Funny that no other animal groups thought of that. Pay no mind; let’s all flap our arms and sing,

The Darwin in the tale
The Darwin in the tale,
Hi-ho scenario
The Darwin in the tale.

 

 

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