Did dinosaurs evolve into birds?
Published: 16 April 2015 (GMT+10)
Most evolutionists now believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs. However, there are well-informed evolutionary dissenters who are experts on birds, such as Alan Feduccia, his late colleague Larry Martin, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, John Ruben, and Storrs Olson. As with many issues, we should differentiate between observations and interpretations of these, and between the direct teachings of Scripture and models to elucidate these teachings. While Scripture is non-negotiable, models should be held loosely.1
So first, it’s important to discuss what the Bible says, as well as what it doesn’t say, either directly or by logical deduction. Second, it’s important to show what unique creatures birds are, with many design features for flight. Third, some of the main candidates as evolutionary transitional forms are discussed. Finally, there are huge problems with the evolutionary story even if we accept their dating methods.
Scripture explicitly teaches that God made birds (and other air creatures) and sea creatures on Day 5 of Creation Week. He made land animals and man on Day 6. Since dinosaurs were land animals, they have a different origin from birds, and indeed came after birds. Therefore the Bible contradicts dino-to-bird evolution.
However, the Bible uses functional classifications, according to the mode of locomotion and where they live, not anatomical ones. Even modern marine ecologists classify water-dwelling life in a very similar way according to their mode of living: plankton (floaters/drifters), nekton (swimmers) and benthos (bottom-dwellers). So on Day 5, the air creatures are called ‘ôph, a generic word for flying creatures. This includes not only birds, but also bats and pterosaurs. Feathers are not mentioned. Similarly, there is nothing about the Day 6 land creatures that says that they cannot have feathers. Thus creationists can’t rule out ‘feathered dinosaurs’ from Scripture alone, which is not to say that many creationists and even evolutionists are convinced by the best candidates.
Special features of birds
Since heavier-than-air machines must overcome gravity, they need some balancing upward force, which comes as a direct result of the special shape of their wings. Birds, and now airplanes, have wings shaped as aerofoils, so that as they move forward, air is deflected downward. This is due to the fact that the wing is angled slightly upward during flight (“angle of attack”) and because the air follows the curve on the upper surface (the “Coandă effect”), which eventually points down. This downward airflow produces an upward force (lift) because of the Third Law of motion,2 which was discovered by the esteemed creationist, Sir Isaac Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You can feel this strong downdraught of air under a helicopter’s rotor, which is essentially a rotating wing.
Airplanes need a motor to move forward, while in birds, this effect is produced by flapping. Birds’ primary flight feathers are angled in such a way that they also force air backward, so the bird is also propelled forward, again in compliance with Newton’s Third Law.
For flapping flight, the wing has to be lifted to get ready for the next downstroke. Birds accomplish this with an intricate pulley system—the supracoracoideus muscle pulls on its tendon, which winds around a ‘pulley’ comprising the coracoid and clavicle bones. The tendon is anchored to the humerus or upper arm/wing bone.
Birds can still fly with the tendon cut, but takeoff is badly hindered.3It is highly questionable that natural selection would drive the many co-ordinated changes needed to form this pulley system. Indeed, there is no evidence of transitional half-pulley systems in the fossil record, and would such a half-pulley be any use at all?4 In other words, how could natural selection ‘select for ’the early stages of this system when those half-finished stages are of no use to the animal and quite likely detrimental?
Alan Feduccia, a world authority on birds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an evolutionist himself, says “feathers are a near-perfect adaptation for flight”5 because they are lightweight, strong, aerodynamically shaped, and have an intricate structure of barbs and hooks. This structure makes them waterproof, and a quick preen with the bill will cause flattened feathers to snap into fully aerodynamic shape again.
Some evolutionists claim that feathers evolved from scales, but scales are folds in skin. Feathers, on the other hand, are complex structures with barbs, barbules, and hooks. Feathers also originate in a totally different way, from follicles inside the skin in a manner akin to hair. Finally, feather proteins (φ-keratins) are biochemically different from skin and scale proteins (α-keratins) as well.6 It is nonsensical to think any animal would accidentally stumble upon the special function, shape, biochemistry, and anatomical developmental pathway of feathers by chance, especially when the intermediate stages have little to no known survival advantage.
Special flow-through lung design
Bird lungs are very different from reptile lungs. A reptile lung is like a bellows, that is, air is breathed in, and blood takes up the oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. The stale air is then breathed out the same way it came in. Mammal lungs have a different internal structure, but also work like a bellows.
However, birds have a complicated system of air sacs that makes use of even the hollow bones. This system keeps air flowing in one direction through special tubes (parabronchi, singular parabronchus) in the lung, and blood moves through the lung’s blood vessels in the opposite direction for efficient oxygen uptake,10 an excellent engineering design.11
How would the bellows-style of reptile lungs evolve gradually into avian lungs? The hypothetical intermediate stages could not conceivably function properly, meaning the poor animal would be unable to breathe. One of the first developmental stages would be a poor creature with a diaphragmatic hernia (hole in the diaphragm), and natural selection would work against this.7 Also, the air sacs require a fixed thigh bone for support—in birds, the thigh is inside the body, and what seems like its ‘knee’ is equivalent to our ankle. However, dinosaurs had movable thighs, so could not have supported an avian lung system.8,9
Recent research shows that some reptiles, including iguanas, monitor lizards, and alligators, have a form of unidirectional airflow. However, they don’t need the avian system of air sacs and parabronchi; instead, the airways are shaped and angled to generate jets that produce one-way airflow,10 an ingenious design that humans may never have imagined possible.11
This has generated more problems than it solves: First, it means that the energy requirements for flight could not have provided selection pressure for one-way air flow, because it also occurs in heavy, non-flying creatures. Second, one-way airflow could not have been a selective force for driving the evolution of hernias, air sacs, parabronchi, and the fixed thigh, since it can exist without these features.
Archaeopteryx at its largest was only about the size of a raven, but has an outsized place in evolutionary claims. Its fossils were first discovered in Bavaria in 1861, with the interesting combination of clear feathers and wings, as well as teeth and a tail. As this was only two years after Darwin published Origin of Species, it was quickly hijacked as one of the intermediate forms he predicted, an intermediate between reptiles and birds. However, it did not have intermediate features; rather, it had many fully avian features:
- Perching foot.12 This means that its wings would have needed to be sophisticated enough to produce the special wing turbulences (leading edge vortices) like those of modern birds, so that it could land delicately on a branch.13
- Classical elliptical wings like modern woodland birds.8
- Fully-formed flying feathers (including asymmetric vanes and ventral, reinforcing furrows as in modern flying birds).8
- A large wishbone for attachment of strong muscles responsible for the downstroke of the wings.
- The unique avian lung design with air sacs, fixed thigh, and one-directional airflow.14
And, finally, Archaeopteryx, despite the fact that it could fly, and despite the fact that it has several non-birdlike reptilian features (like a long bony tail), is out of place for the evolutionist. Too many other birds and bird-like fossils have been discovered that ‘predate’ it (see below).
Sinosauropteryx was another small creature, only 1.07 metres (3.5 feet) long, yet classified as a theropod, the same group to which T. rex belongs. But with 64 vertebrae in its tail, it had the longest tail relative to body length of any theropod. Discovered in northeastern China in 1996, it was the first claimed feathered dinosaur. It also had remarkable preservation, enabling study of some of its organs. However, in two major ways, this creature must disappoint evolutionists:
It lacked the unique avian lung. Instead, it had a crocodilian-like ‘hepatic piston’ respiratory system, working on the normal reptilian bellows method. John Ruben, a respiratory physiology expert at Oregon State University in Corvallis, concluded that Sinosauropteryx’s “bellowslike lungs could not have evolved into the high-performance lungs of modern birds.”15
Also, its ‘feathers filaments’ were most likely nothing to do with feathers. Rather, in the typical arched-back position in which we find many dinosaurs fossils (due to perimortem submersion16), the thick integument (skin) on the animal’s back was buckled, which would be possible only if the filaments were part of a single structure, not separate feathers.Prof. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa argued that the filaments were part of “a clearly unified structure, i.e. an upright frill or crest overlying the neck, back and tail of Sinosauropteryx … as opposed to individual proto-feathers”17
Grandfather paradox of dino-bird evolution
The dating, even by evolutionary methods, shows that the order is wrong. Archaeopteryx is allegedly 153 Ma (million years old),18 but their alleged feathered dinosaur ancestors such as Sinosauropteryx are ‘dated’ to 125 Ma.19 This problem is accentuated by another extinct bird called Confuciusornis, which even had a toothless beak, but is ‘dated‘ to 135 Ma. Thus, by the evolutionists’ own methods, Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis are dated as being millions of years older than their alleged dinosaur ancestors. Evolutionary paleo-ornithologist Alan Feduccia, a well-known critic of the dino-to-bird dogma, often quips that you can’t be older than your grandfather!
Dino-bird believers respond that sometimes a grandfather can outlive his grandson. But while correct, it’s hard to understand that an ‘advanced’ beaked bird like Confuciusornis could appear 10 million years before there is a trace of its ‘feathered dino ancestors’. Also, one of the major ‘evidences’ of evolution is how the evolutionary order supposedly matches the fossil sequence. Therefore the gross mismatch with the dino-birds is a severe challenge to the evolutionary explanation.
At the time of writing, a flurry of new fossils have been discovered and new ‘discoveries’ are continually being revealed. The situation is in flux and not even the evolutionists have a clear story. It may be that dinosaurs had feathers, but obvious birds have also been discovered and ‘dated’ to deep within the dinosaur era. Not too many years ago, evolutionists were teaching that birds evolved right before dinosaurs went extinct. Now they say they evolved ‘millions of years earlier than once thought’. If birds evolved from dinosaurs, when? They may have run out of time.
References and notes
- Sarfati, J., Biblical history and the role of science, Creation 33(4):6 October 2011; creation.com/biblical-history-science. Return to text.
- See Anderson, D.F. and Eberhardt, S., Understanding Flight, McGraw–Hill, 2001; aa.washington.edu/faculty/eberhardt/lift.htm. Return to text.
- Fastovsky, D. amd Weishampel, D., The Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs, p. 298, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Return to text.
- Sodera, V., One Small Speck to Man: The Evolution Myth, pp. 292–302, Vija Sodera Publications, Bognor Regis, UK, 2003. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., The Origin and Evolution of Birds, p. 130, Yale University Press, 1996. Return to text.
- Brush, A.H., On the Origin of Feathers, J. Evolutionary Biol. 9:131–142, 1996. Return to text.
- Ruben, J.A., et al., Lung structure and ventilation in theropod dinosaurs and early birds, Science 278(5341):1267–1270, 1997 | doi:0.1126/science.278.5341. Return to text.
- Quick, D.E. and Ruben, J.A., Cardio-pulmonary anatomy in theropod dinosaurs: Implications from extant archosaurs, J. Morphology, 270(10):1232–124620 May 2009 | doi: 10.1002/jmor.10752. “The thin walled and voluminous abdominal air-sacs are supported laterally and caudally to prevent inward (paradoxical) collapse during generation of negative (inhalatory) pressure: the synsacrum, posteriorly directed, laterally open pubes and specialized femoral-thigh complex provide requisite support and largely prevent inhalatory collapse.” Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Bird breathing anatomy breaks dino-to-bird dogma, creation.com/dino-thigh, 16 June 2009. Return to text.
- Cieri, R.L. et al., New insight into the evolution of the vertebrate respiratory system and the discovery of unidirectional airflow in iguana lungs, PNAS 111(48):17218–17223, 17 November 2014 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1405088111. Return to text.
- Lead researcher Colleen Farmer, although an evolutionist, says, “The geometry of these lungs, it is so weird. I don’t think any engineer would dream that up.” Why lizards have bird breath: Iguanas evolved one-way lungs surprisingly like those of birds, University of Utah scientists have found, unews.utah.edu, 17 November 2014. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., Evidence from claw geometry indicating arboreal habits of Archaeopteryx, Science 259(5096):790–793, 5 February, 1993. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Fancy flying from advanced aeronautics: The design of swifts and jet fighters, Creation 29(1):37–39, 2006, creation.com/swift; after Videler, J.J., Stamhuis, E.J. and Povel, G.D.E., Leading-edge vortex lifts swifts, Science 306(5703):1960–1962, 10 December 2004. Return to text.
- K. Schmidt-Nielsen, How birds breathe, Scientific American 225(6):72–79, 1971. Return to text.
- Ruben, J.A., quoted in Ann Gibbons, Lung fossils suggest dinos breathed in cold blood, Science 278(5341):1229–1230, 1997. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., ‘Feathered’ dinos: no feathers after all! (Update), J. Creation 26(3):8–10, 2012; creation.com/featherless#update. Return to text.
- Lingham-Soliar T., The evolution of the feather: Sinosauropteryx, life, death, and preservation of an alleged feathered dinosaur, J. Ornithol 153(3):699–711, 2012. Return to text.
- Xiaotingia may be an even ‘older’ bird than ‘Archie’, ‘dated’ to 155 Ma. Return to text.
- Other favourite ‘feathered dinosaurs’ like Sinornithosaurus and Caudipteryx are also dated to 125 Ma. Return to text.
Hello Dr. Carter,
Thanks again for your response. I understand your points and agree with you. Yes, I have read many of CMI's articles on Archaeopteryx, and I highly appreciate them. I would really like to see a book written on this topic, as it's becoming increasingly relevant in our culture.
One concern I have with statistical baraminology is that our data points used for determining fossil 'kinds' is riddled by many of the same problems that cladistics has, namely, missing data, and evolutionary bias in fossil descriptions. For example, in the paper describing and classifying the fossil Microraptor as a member of Dromaeosauridae, nearly half of the data points were described with a "?" mark. And, unfortunately, because most creationists don't have access to the original fossils, we are forced to work with the evolutionary descriptions and interpretations of the fossils, which are sometimes not accurate. For example, Dr. Carl Werner has shown that although fossil species Pakicetus and Ambulocetus are claimed to have whale-like 'sigmoid process' in the inner ear, this claim is based on weightless imagination. The problem of evolutionary descriptions has created a challenging situation for baraminologist Dr. Todd Wood, who has been criticized for classifying one member of the Australopithecine genus within the human baramin. Unfortunately, the only way to overcome these types problems is to examine the fossils for ourselves, something which I can imagine is very hard to do in today's highly-discriminatory academic world.
Thanks again for responding, and God bless!
These are all good points. Baraminology is a tricky field, as is statistical phylogeny. We have a lot still to learn, evolutionists have made sweeping assumptions that have turned out to be glaring errors, and we have been lied to on several occasions. It is akin to walking through the proverbial minefield. Getting back to something I said earlier, and that you reacted to, what else can we do? Certainly we should not put a lot of stock in the conclusions of the evolutionists, yet neither should we discard every data point they use. Even if much of the data are tainted, skewed, or carefully selected, some of them are still accurate and useful. But because we cannot always tell which are which, a healthy dose of skepticism is always appropriate.
Wow, Robert Carter, just reading this article again, and in addition to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution by natural selection, there is also clearly a total lack of knowledge of nucleosynthesis, and the evolution of matter. May I recommend a book to you? The Evolution of Matter, from the Big Bang to the Present Day, by Igor Tolstikhin, published by the Cambridge University Press? ISBN 9780521169646.
You took a discussion about whether or not dinosaurs had feathers and turned it into a discussion of our relative understanding of natural selection. I believe I answered this clearly. You then turn the discussion to nucleosynthesis in a big bang universe? All you have done is hurl blanket accusations about us being 'ignorant' without providing any substantive evidence. Thank you for illustrating to our readers a common rhetorical tactic. See Anyone for Tennis?
Hello Dr. Carter,
Thanks for replying to my comment. I certainly agree that nothing in Scripture requires that feathered dinosaurs cannot exist. However, by this same logic, couldn't one also say that the Bible does not discount the existence of soul-less 'hominid' creatures, as long as they didn't evolve from ape-like creatures into modern humans? Now, neither I nor CMI would agree with this statement, but if this type of logic is allowed, then where do we draw the line? One could argue that it is because the evidence better fits that creatures like Australopithecines are more ape-like, but don't evolutionists also admit that creatures like Microraptor and Caudipteryx are actually more bird-like? Also, as I stated in my previous comment, evolutionists predicted feathered dinosaurs, so if creationists said that they really did exist, couldn't this be counted as a victory for them?
I would like to ask you to clarify what you meant when you said, "As far as cladistics is concerned, what else can we do?" Are you saying that creationists have no better method for determining 'kinds' then the evolution-based model of cladistics?
If this is the case, do you think a design-based model is a tenable alternative. After all, if the differences really come down to a few strange 'reptilian' features on extinct birds like long tails, shouldn't creationists strive to discover their function, using the assumption of design by an all-wise Creator, instead of simply accepting the evolutionary declarations of these creatures as 'feathered dinosaurs'?
I hope you understand my concerns. May God continue to bless the ministry and research of CMI. Thanks!
Oh yes, I understand your concerns, but in some areas there are no easy answers. First, cladistics is more than just evolutionary theory. Yes, most cladists are biased in a certain direction, but morphological data can still be useful (ask anyone involved in the field of baraminology). When you start discovering groups of species that are hard to separate based on morphological traits, you have to seriously pause to consider what it might mean. I certainly do not want to give up easily, but I will allow the data to help discriminate the lines between the created kinds. The dino-to-bird argument is different from the australopith-to-human argument. The former involves a cluster of confusing chimeric forms. The latter involves a gradation that evolutionists are trying to use to bridge the gap between ape and human. As far as searching for design, have you read any of our articles about Archaeopteryx where we describe it as being designed for flight?
A question I have is why is Scripture non-negotiable?
The following statement in the article is nonsensical and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution by natural selection: "It is nonsensical to think any animal would accidentally stumble upon the special function, shape, biochemistry, and anatomical developmental pathway of feathers by chance, especially when the intermediate stages have little to no known survival advantage."
Natural selection does not happen by accident. It is a process that follows well researched and established patterns. Genetic variations do happen by chance or accident. Natural selection is the result of the interactions between genetic variations in a population and the environment.
Wow, I.F., you have obviously not read our Q&A on Natural Selection. Nor have you read the chapter on natural selection in our fast-selling Evolution's Achilles' Heels. We are quite well aware of everything you said, but you seem not to be aware of the arguments we make. Note also that the sentence did not include the phrase 'natural selection'. You added that. Of course mutations are random, and that is what you must appeal to in order to explain away the giant leap in biological technology associated with the leap from arms to wings and from scales to feathers and from a brain that controls walking to a brain that controls flight. The problem you have is that slight modifications don't get the animal anywhere in terms of differential reproduction (i.e. natural selection), such changes are obscured by genetic and environmental noise, there are non-survivable transitions that must be made, etc. etc.
Could birds and reptiles have interbred, perhaps through some form of genetic engineering, and could this account for very bird-like feathered dinosaurs? I am not sold on this idea, but I have heard it discussed, and I bring it up as food for thought.
God created different "kinds" designed to reproduce within themselves and not with other "kinds". Problem is, he did not tell us where the boundaries between most kinds were. He also did not tell us the mechanisms keeping different kinds distinct. After genetics was figured out, however, we have a pretty good idea that boundaries are determined by genes and chromosomes. If birds and dinosaurs were different kinds, then no, they could not interbreed. If they were, they could. This is a matter of dispute. Yet, cats and dogs cannot interbreed and they are more similar in many ways than birds are to dinos (in my opinion). As far as genetic engineering is concerned, by whom? Pre-Flood people? Demons? God? Not the former, neither the latter. That leaves demons, and if they could do this we will have to throw out the entire field of paleontology for then we could not tell if something is real or engineered. So, no, I see no reason to go there. There should have been no genetic engineering prior to the 20th century.
It always amazes me that evolutionists claim they know “dinosaurs evolved into birds” when there are such obvious problems in their hypothesis.
Thank you for this brief review of the dinosaur to bird evolutionary saga. I just finished chapter 8 (The Bird) of Dr Vij Sodera’s wonderful book (One Small Speck to Man, 2nd ed). He takes a different view of Archaeopteryx and perhaps a few other details, but ends with the same conclusion—a dinosaur to bird transition is simply untenable.
For anyone wanting a detailed look at a wide variety of creation / evolution topics, Dr Sodera’s book certainly fit's the description of Dr Bergman on the back cover—encyclopedic. It is available on the CMI store, and you will not be disappointed.
The next time you carve your Thanksgiving turkey, note whether the femurs are inside or outside the body, and whether they are fixed or are articulated with the pelvis. This would be a good exercise in ‘observational science’.
Is the Alan Feduccia mentioned in the article the same Alan Feduccia as the one who wrote, “The creature thus memorialized was Archaeopteryx lithographica, and, though indisputably birdlike, it could with equal truth be called reptilian. … The Archaeopteryx fossil is, in fact, the most superb example of a specimen perfectly intermediate between two higher groups of living organisms—what has come to be called a ‘missing link’, a Rosetta stone of evolution. …”?
It almost seems that some creationists are ‘succumbing’ to the idea of ‘feathered dinosaurs’, and it seems that our arguments against them are growing weaker and weaker. While I recognize that nothing in Scripture rules out that possibility, wouldn’t feathered dinosaurs be a huge confirmation of the predictions of the evolutionary hypothesis that dinosaurs turned into birds?
From my studies, the evidence for ‘feathered dinosaurs’ appears to be highly-unconvincing. Creatures like Microraptor, Anchiornis, and others, have been classified as dinosaurs based on cladistic analyses which are, as admitted by experts (i.e. Mark Norrell) to be “a relatively subjective procedure.” Worse yet, much of the data points used for classification are missing from fossils like Microraptor, so why do we even bother trust the results of cladistics? As admitted by some evolutionists, some of these creatures are more like ‘modern’ birds than Archaeopteryx, so why are they not classified as birds?
It seems like it would be a better approach to develop a design-based model of creatures like Archaeopteryx before we start saying that 'feathered dinosaurs' existed. What do you think of the possibility that this creature (and possibly others like it) were actually flightless birds, which used their wings to glide from branch to branch, their claws to climb vertically along tree trunks, and their long tails for stability, extra lift, and abrupt stopping? This hypothesis seems to explain both its unique combination of traits as well as its relatively deep position in the fossil record compared to more modern birds. Also, we can explain similarities in skull design between 'early' birds and dinosaurs because they both needed to be lightweight enough to bear teeth.
Since the Scriptures are silent about whether or not dinosaurs had feathers, this is a matter for science to determine. Yes, the current data are imperfect, but there are a lot of data to consider. As far as cladistics is concerned, what else can we do? Putting evolutionary extrapolation aside, there are bird-like creatures with long, bony tails found in the fossil record. That much is certain. But are they bird with bony tails (unlike any modern bird) or dinosaurs with feathers? That is the debate.
Note also that the question "Did birds evolve from dinosaurs?” is not the same question as “Did dinosaurs have feathers?" To the first we say “Absolutely not!”, but to the second we say, “Let the chips fall where they may.” The fact that the path from dinosaur to bird has been so difficult for the evolutionist to figure out is testimony to the fact that they are chasing phantoms. Birds apparently lived with dinosaurs. Likewise strange creatures that are hard to classify. I would love it if God had created life to be easily categorized. That would suit my personality quite well. However, there are definite puzzles in the world of classification, and this is one of the big ones.