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Dinosaur-faced chickens?

by 

Published: 26 May 2015 (GMT+10)

Recently, evolutionary scientists have been experimenting with the development of chicken embryos, trying to create an animal without a beak.1 They were partially successful, and the media are currently buzzing with the news, but what did they actually accomplish and how should the creationist answer the claims?

bbc.com skulls
Normal chicken embryo (left), altered chicken embryo (middle), alligator embryo (right). Look carefully; the middle embryo is still very much like that of a bird.

First, birds have beaks, not snouts. A snout projects forward from the face and is made up of an upper and lower jaw bone, often with teeth imbedded in those bones. While a beak also projects forward from the face, the upper and lower mandibles in birds are made up of a different set of bones, move differently, and are covered with a thin layer of keratin that is excreted from the underlying skin.

The shape of the beak and the way that shape changes over time have been the source of much evolutionary speculation over time. The beak is a well-designed feature. It has a multitude of uses, ranging from excellent heat regulation in the toucan to a jack hammer in the woodpecker. For a long time, scientists did not know what controlled the development of the beak or why some animals had a beak and some had a snout. Today, however, we know that specific genes drive the development of the beak and are responsible for the diverse beak shapes found among birds.

What was actually accomplished?

The fact that most of the popular-level reports have included an artist’s conception of the face of putative feathered dinosaur has not helped public perception. Nobody created a living, breathing bird in an ancestral dinosaur-like state. However, by interfering with the proteins that drive beak development in the chicken, they created an embryonic bird with thicker and more snout-like bones. These results are quite interesting from a scientific standpoint. But, modern birds and specific breeds of certain species include a huge range of beak shapes. It is not clear that they actually created anything new. In fact, the BBC article included this quote from the lead scientist:

“These weren’t drastic modifications,” says Bhullar. “They are far less weird than many breeds of chicken developed by chicken hobbyists and breeders.”2

So what are we supposed to make of this? Did they create a snout on a bird or just modify the shape of a chicken’s face? It seems that all they did was tinker with the facial development in the chicken embryos. They claimed that the birds were developing along the lines of the ancestral form and that the bones were more aligned to that ancestral form. While it might be true that the birds were looking more like reptiles, this is what would be expected if beak development requires extra genes and if one turned off those genes.

Think about it this way. Dogs and cats have many similarities. If someone were to make a cat that could bark, for example, would this prove the common ancestry of dogs and cats? No. It would prove that dogs and cats are similar enough that one could monkey around with some of their genes to create dog-like traits in cats. The similarities among these animals are due to common design, not common ancestry. Likewise, the appeal to a common designer can be use to explain the similarities among birds and various reptiles.

Creationists have no problem thinking that some species are more similar to each other than they are to other species (dogs + cats vs. jellyfish, for example). We know that birds and dinosaurs share many features. Given the abilities of modern scientists and scientific techniques, it would not be expected that one could create jellyfish-like features in a bird before they could create reptile like features in that bird. Likewise, since birds are in some ways more similar to reptiles than they are to mammals (with certain specific exceptions like the fact that all birds are warm blooded), it might be expected that it would be easier to create certain reptilian features in a bird than it would be to produce mammalian features. This is all part of the nested hierarchy of design that has been discussed since the time of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the creationist ‘father of taxonomy’. But there is a raging and ongoing debate about the relationship of birds and dinosaurs, so we need to be cautious when declaring that something should be ‘easy’ vs. ‘difficult’ like I did above.

How should we respond?

There are several take-away points from this work that benefit creation science. First, beaks develop along very different lines than snouts. They are something entirely different and require different genetic wiring. Beaks are NOT modified snouts. This study has confirmed that.

Second, the genes that are involved are unique to beak-bearing animals. Thus, in order for the beak to ‘evolve’, brand new genes must have come into existence in the ancestor to beaked birds. Where did these genes come from and why would they develop if the beak did not yet exist? What possible selection pressure would cause the creation of new information that is useless until all the parts come together into a working whole? This is an old evolutionary puzzle, and we feel that it has remained unanswered because it shines light on the great gulf between evolutionary theory and scientific reality (see Can Mutations Create New Information?).

Third, think about what these genes would have been doing to the animal as they were evolving! How could any species survive as the face was undergoing the many random changes that must have occurred while snouts were turning into beaks? This is but one of many ‘morphological change’ problems inherent in evolutionary theory, for all transitional states must be survivable. The problem with fitness landscapes, local fitness peaks, the great gaps between different peaks, etc. has been known for quite some time. See our review of Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mt. Improbable for more information.

In conclusion, what these scientists did was interesting and on the cutting edge of current technology. What they concluded, however, is a bit more ambiguous, especially compared to the popular-level reporting. We are standing on the edge of the brave new world of genetic engineering. Be prepared for even more amazing (and potentially scary) applications of these technologies. Also be prepared for the requisite ‘evolutionary pronouncements from on high’, even if they are more bluff than substance.

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References and notes

  1. Bhulla, B.-H.S, et al., A molecular mechanism for the origin of a key evolutionary innovation, the bird beak and palate, revealed by an integrative approach to major transitions in vertebrate history, Evolution (preprint version) doi:10.1111/evo.12684, 2015. Return to text.
  2. Hogenboom, M., Chicken grows face of dinosaur, bbc.com/earth/story/20150512-bird-grows-face-of-dinosaur, 2015. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
John W., United Kingdom, 5 June 2015

The more these attempts to 'prove' evolution as the answer to origins are made the more they simply reinforce that it is not. They shout desperation to anyone who can hear. Years ago Monty Python created a comedy sketch where a dishonest pet shop tried to convince an angry customer that the dead parrot they sold him was only sleeping. Once found out, the salesman then offered to convert a dog into a goldfish as an alternative. The wise visitor to the Darwin pet shop realizes the evolutionary parrot (or chicken in this case) died before it even hatched and all their attempts to change lizards into birds, or apes into people, have long since ceased to be.

David D., United Kingdom, 5 June 2015

This kind of experimentation makes me wonder with a little shiver of what they will think of doing next. It's ok perhaps while these people are tempered by some Christian principles but we should remember the warnings in C.S..Lewis' 'That Hideous Strength' when worldly principles come to full flower in the N.I.C.E.

Olufemi B., United Kingdom, 5 June 2015

There is a desperation on the part of evolutionists and neo-Darwinians (Should that be neo-Darwinists) to make acts fit the theory. Unfortunately in the UK, the atheists and humanists have hoodwinked government into the banning of creation science/intelligent design in schools (faith based or not) at pain of losing government funding. I intend to send copies of my book [name edited, as we may or may not be able to endorse the books' contents] at my own expense to the Prime minister and all MPs and lobby for a restoration of the right of students not to be denied the right to ask questions and debate controversies.

Please keep up the good work.

Christine E., United States, 29 May 2015

I notice that the bones (or whatever) of the snout are extremely porous looking, like it isn't

as solid and useful as the beak, more likely to

not withstand impact from pecking with it as much.

Greg T., Canada, 27 May 2015

Thank you Robert, for such a great objective article. I would think it would have been also helpful to mention that the picture published with the BBC article not only included feathers, but quite importantly, teeth, which further misled people, including the scientist who presented this article to me initially. There was no mention of teeth being produced in the actual paper the article referred to.

Gary T., United States, 27 May 2015

I've been looking forward to Creation.com's response to this particular article. A friend of mine had brought the BBC article to my attention not too long ago. When I read it, I noted that it spoke only of appearances. The article did not claim what its headline proclaimed, and I relayed this on to my friend.

Gary W., United States, 26 May 2015

Thanks for the article Rob. When you mentioned that birds are warm blooded it reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago about the Opah or the Moon fish. It is warm blooded because of the design of it's gills, blood vessels, and fins. Does this have any bearing on the creation/evolution debate?

Robert Carter responds

Gary,

A hat tip to you for pointing this marine biologist to this new story. I knew that tuna are partially warm blooded and use muscle heat to keep themselves above a minimum temperature when swimming in cold water. The Opah seems to have additional features to keep itself warm. Let the reader note that this is not true warm-bloodedness. These fish are retaining heat only and it is not clear that they would die if they got too cold (like a warm-blooded animal). However, this is still fascinating and should generate a lot of interesting discussion.

Caleb L., United States, 26 May 2015

Thanks again for another great article! More and more goofy stuff like this is starting to come out, including a recent report of scientists creating dinosaur feet in chickens.

One question I have regarding this topic is, "Could it be legitimately said that the field of evolutionary developmental biology is based on a 'recapitulated' belief in the outdated idea of recapitulation (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny)?" Thanks again!

Robert Carter responds

Quite possibly. For the interested reader, here are some search results for "ontogeny" on creation.com.

Grahame G., Australia, 26 May 2015

This (and most "evidence" for evolution) reminds me of the quote in Ray Comfort's "Evolution vs God" by an agnostic evolutionary lecturer where she told Ray that the reason people don't believe evolution is because they don't have imagination.

Yes, quite so!

And the reason people believe evolution is because they are more prepared to trust their imagination then their logic and reason.

And then the promoters of this godless and anti-God philosophy dress it up with pretty pictures and half-truths.

The devil's methodology has not changed from his very first interaction with humans - appear in an interesting form with an attractive story (attractive to our curiosity for evil) and feed our potential to distrust God and believe anything but.

Thanks for once again highlighting how shallow and errant the "evidence" for evolution really is.

Dean R., Australia, 25 May 2015

I suppose this is a similar argument often applied to ape & human skeletons, there are similarities but each species/kind is still limited in how far it can go regarding change, much like the ocean & the land.

I thought alligators were like crocodiles & virtually 'unchanged' as far as fossil record goes.

Robert Carter responds

Yes, in evolutionary theory the crocodilians have been around for a very long time. But, as they group different animals into larger and larger clades, they give the appearance of evolution over time. E.g., the Pseudosuchia/Crurotarsi includes some things that are debatable "crocodilians" but the higher taxonomic group (Archosauria) would also include things like birds. The group that includes crocodile/alligator/gharial/caiman as we know them today 'appears' in the Late Cretaceous. So, yes, they are 'unchanged', but be careful when using that argument. See Australian croc rolls evolutionary story and Australian crocodile fossil rewrites evolution

Paul S., Australia, 25 May 2015

Say "would need to" rather than "must have" since that is the evo statement of faith (they would say: genes for beaks Must Have developed; which means there is no evidence for it but they believe it).

Robert Carter responds

Paul,

I appreciate the comment, and it would be generally more correct to say it like that. But, in context, there is no problem with the grammar of that statement.

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