Under a barrage of attacks from creationists, Scientific American has published a 10-page cover story admitting the need to abandon old dogmas about dinosaur-to-bird evolution. They just don’t work.

Instead, in a surprising article entitled “Which came first, the feather or the bird?” (by Richard Prum and Alan Brush, March 2003, pp. 84–93), the authors propose a “new paradigm” to help answer the vexing questions about bird evolution.

But before we look more closely at this “new paradigm,” it’s interesting to look at how the article dismisses the old arguments, while skimming over other inherent flaws in their theory that still plague them.

Out with the old

Since the start, the dino-to-bird theory has had one insurmountable problem. In Genesis, the Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, says that birds were created on Day 5, and land animals on Day 6. Dinosaurs did not precede birds, according to God’s eyewitness testimony. But since evolutionists reject God’s revelation, they are hopelessly trying to shore up their own mistaken myth about history.

The authors are surprisingly honest about the challenges they face. In the opening two paragraphs, they state,

How did these incredibly strong, wonderfully lightweight, amazingly intricate appendages evolve? . . . Although evolutionary theory provides a robust explanation for the appearance of minor variations in the size and shape of creatures and their component parts, it does not yet give as much guidance for understanding the emergence of entirely new structures, including digits, limbs, eyes and feathers.

Bravo. Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations have been saying all along that it’s deceptive to lump “minor variations” in the same category as the emergence of entirely new structures. And we have made it clear that it’s not just a question of accumulating minor variations, but that they are the wrong type of variation. I.e. goo-to-you evolution requires genetic information to increase, while the observed variation involves sorting and loss of information. At least the Scientific American authors recognize these as two categories, though they still call them both “evolution.” This is the deceptive tactic of bait “n” switch, or equivocation.

So what old, “long-cherished” views did the authors toss out, after examining them under the glare of new findings (the treasure trove of “feathered dinosaurs” recovered over the past five years in northeast China)?

1. Archaeopteryx

No news here. Although this is widely claimed to be the oldest bird, the authors admit:

Archaeopteryx offers no new insights on how feathers evolved, because its own feathers are nearly indistinguishable from those of today’s birds.

2. Feathers from scales

Apparently the authors have been keeping tabs on what creationists have been saying about the flaws in the argument that complex feathers arose from reptilian scales. (“Feathers and fur” is one of the most popular presentations that anatomist Dr David Menton, an AiG speaker, gives in his creation talks.) The Scientific American authors end their article grudgingly acknowledging the work of creationists, saying:

Creationists and other evolutionary skeptics have long pointed to feathers as a favorite example of the insufficiency of evolutionary theory. There were no transitional forms between scales and feathers, they argued.

The first two or three pages of the article show why they believe that evolutionists made a false “assumption that the primitive feather evolved by elongation and division of the reptilian scale.” They say they have a “new appreciation” of what a modern feather is and how it develops.

The feather is a skin appendage, like hair, that grows as a unique hollow tube from a follicle by the controlled proliferation of cells in a ring. Pennaceous (rigid, non-downy) feathers have an even more complex development, where barb ridges grow helically (spirally) inside the follicle, and meet to form the rachis (shaft) ridge. Then the feather emerges from the sheath and unfurls to its planar shape. And to make the barbs lock together, each barb has a branching pattern very similar to the rachis and barbs. That is, the main shaft of the barb, the ramus, has a branching pattern of barbules (“little barbs”). In turn, the tips of the barbules have a tiny hooklets that fit into grooves on adjacent barbules. This enables the feather to form a stiff vane, and if it is ruffled, the bird merely has to preen it and it will lock back into shape.

Obviously this has no similarity to scales, and so early evolutionary theorists were hampered by the “lack of primitive fossil feathers,” at least until some of the more recent finds since Archaeopteryx. Indeed, we have cited an earlier paper by co-author Brush to refute the scale-to-feather transition (On the origin of feathers, Journal of Evolutionary Biology 9:131–142, 1996). So we hope that this more widely publicized article will finally lay to rest the common evolutionary claim that feathers are just evolved scales.

3. Feathers for flight

The article also admits that creationists correctly “asked why natural selection for flight would first divide an elongate scale and then evolve an elaborate new mechanism to weave it back together.” So the authors’ solution is to propose that feathers were not initially designed for flight. They say the new evidence “puts to rest the popular and enduring theory that feathers evolved primarily or originally for flight.”

Their “revolutionary” answer to the feather question is:

Feathers originated and diversified in carnivorous, bipedal theropod dinosaurs before the origin of birds or the origin of flight.

Yet in all 10 pages of discussion and illustration, the authors offer no new evidence and suggest no new mechanism to explain how or why feathers would have formed for something other than flight. They simply allude to unresolved guesswork:

Numerous other proposed early functions of feathers remain plausible, including insulation, water repellency, courtship, camouflage and defense. Even with the wealth of new paleontological data, though, it seems unlikely that we will ever gain sufficient insight into the biology and natural history of the specific lineage in which feathers evolved to distinguish among these hypotheses.

In with the new—the so-called “evo-devo” paradigm

This debunking of old views is some heady stuff, which you might think would be an embarrassment to evolutionary theory. But in fact, challenging “evolution as fact” was never in view. The authors simply believe evolutionists need to look at the evidence in a fresh way. They call their model evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo.”

According to “evo-devo,” “the complex mechanisms by which an individual organism grows to its full size and form can provide a window into the evolution of a species’ anatomy.” In other words, by looking at the stages of feather development in a bird today, we can look for “ancient” dinosaurs that had feathers similar to that stage of development.

The authors have a pretty, two-page illustration showing five stages in the development of a feather, and along the bottom they show a proposed timeline of current “feathered dinosaurs” that fit the respective stages in the development of a modern feather.

This proposed model for understanding the evolution of feathers is rife with ungrounded assumptions and unsupported conclusions.

  • Archaeopteryx, which is shown as a fully formed bird, has been dated as evolving before many of the dinosaurs with allegedly primitive feathers.

  • Since the Archaeoraptor hoax of 1999, the cloud of “faked fossil” hangs over everything coming out of China.

  • Similarity of design is not an indicator of similar history. We would expect creatures with a similar lifestyle to have been designed by the Creator with similar structures, but that does not mean one of these creatures descended from the other (or was even related to the other). In fact, it’s likely that the similarities are a “biotic message“ from the Creator that points to a single designer rather than many, while the differences thwart evolutionary alternatives.

  • “Developmental evolutionary novelty” is more consistent with created new information. The authors say:

    Our developmental theory proposes that feathers evolved through a series of transitional stages, each marked by a developmental novelty, a new mechanism of growth.

    However, they also point out that the developmental sequence is precisely controlled by a sequence of expression of two other genes, one which encourages cell proliferation and the other which regulates this proliferation and promotes cell differentiation (i.e. into specialized types). So this is yet another layer of genetic information required to form feathers, and which is lacking in reptiles.

    The claim that the sequence of feather development parallels the evolutionary sequence is reminiscent of Haeckel’s embryonic recapitulation fraud. This argued that embryonic development (ontogeny) recapitulates evolutionary history (phylogeny)—see Something fishy about gill slits!.

  • Our knowledge about the real nature of these feathers is too sketchy to draw such confident conclusions about a continuous scale of dinosaurs from so-called “primitive” symmetrical downy feathers to the asymmetrical “flying feathers.” Even co-author Brush previously said about Sinosauropteryx, “The stiff, bristlelike fibers that outline the fossils lack the detailed organization seen in modern feathers” (cited in: Gibbons, A., “Plucking the Feathered Dinosaur,” Science 278(5341):1230, 14 November 1997).

  • The attempt to differentiate types of feathers is highly artificial and incomplete. The authors admit that they have not found any clues—even with “evo-devo,” to help them explain the transition from a loose downy feather to symmetrical feathers with vanes. Their own illustration of the five stages of feather development has a question mark beside stage 3 (the critical divide between the two major classes of feathers.)

The authors admit that their approach raises basic questions about the definition of birds and feathers, to begin with. Creationists do not have any problems believing that God could have created dinosaurs with feathers. They simply believe that flying creatures were created before the land animals. Yet many of the creatures touted as “feathered dinosaurs” appear to be nothing of the kind. Creatures like Archaeopteryx were just another type of bird, not a dinosaur. And fossil expert Dr Alan Feduccia (an evolutionist) has claimed that the “feathers” of Sinosauropteryx were frayed collagen fibers. He also argued that Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx were really flightless birds, which the Scientific American authors lamely disagree with.

Moreover, the debate over feathers barely scratches the surface of the problems with bird evolution. For example: bird embryos lack a thumb that dinosaurs had, the lungs of the “feathered dinosaurs” could not have evolved into the complex lungs that birds require, and the pelvis does not have any similarity to that required in modern birds (see Did Dinosaurs Turn Into Birds? and Blown Away by Design).

Creationists have no reason to fear the latest model or discovery that gets front-page coverage in the media. If you accept God’s Word as true, the newest findings make sense within the creation model. Evolutionists, on the other hand, start with the wrong assumptions about the authority of the Word of God. Therefore they will often come up with the wrong interpretations about the significance of evidence in explaining the origin of life on Earth.

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