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The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on evolution
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati

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by Dr Jonathan Sarfati

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Skeptics/Australian Museum ‘Feathered Dinosaur’ display:
Knockdown argument against creation?

by Jonathan Sarfati

26 November 2002

Table of contents


  • Who’s behind all this?
  • Answers to claims
  • Conclusion
  • Who’s behind all this?

    ‘The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age—the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion.’ [Emphasis added]

    Was this said by some Bible-thumping, scientifically ignorant creationist, as our wishful-thinking opponents love to paint us? No, this was written by Dr Storrs Olson, Curator of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and an evolutionist himself. He wrote this in an Open Letter in response to National Geographic’s shameless promotion of Archaeoraptor as the ‘proof’ of the dino-to-bird theory. (Since then, Archaeoraptor was conclusively shown to be a hoax.)

    Now, to Olson’s list can be added a ‘cadre of zealous’ atheistic Australian Skeptics, joining forces with the taxpayer-funded Australian Museum. They have put on a display of supposed feathered dinosaurs, and fit the description of ‘outspoken and highly biased proselytizers’ for evolutionism (the belief that everything came to be by purely materialistic processes over billions of years).

    For example, they have allied with Paul Willis, Palaeontologist and Science Journalist at ABC Radio & Television [In Australia, ABC stands for Australian Broadcasting Corporation.]. On the ABC The Science Show, compèred by the atheist Robyn Williams, Willis said:

    ‘If proof were still needed about the truth of evolution, the treasure trove of feathered dinosaurs found at Laioning [sic—Liaoning] in China would definitely be the clincher. … Laioning was created by God to show us all how much he hates creationists.’ (China’s Fabulous Dinobirds, The Science Show, ABC, 9 November 2002).

    Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that even if we grant that he’s right about feathered dinosaurs, we have stated several times that there is nothing in the Biblical Creation/Fall model that prohibits them. Rather, we are simply not convinced there is any evidence for them.

    Dr Michael Archer, local ringleader

    Archer, a paleontologist and now Director of the Australian Museum, has a long history of fanatical opposition to creation. For example, he even wrote to Dr Carl Wieland, CEO of CMI-Australia making it clear that he had no problem with Professor Ian Plimer’s gutter pedophile smear against a leading American creationist, and expressed his ‘enormous respect’ for Plimer. Archer even had the temerity to suggest that creationists should apologize to Plimer, as if we were the ones responsible for ruining his reputation when of course the blame lies squarely on Plimer for saying it in the first place (and on those who condone this behaviour).

    Archer was also most upset that Plimer lost his court battles with Ark Search (not a creationist organization per se), accusing the judge of getting it wrong. Archer has a number of features in common with his hero/mentor Plimer (including the evident support for the latter’s approach that the end (combatting creationists) justifies the means (deception, falsehood and slander)). For example:

    • Both are secular humanists (committed to opposing the supernatural): Plimer was Australian Humanist of the Year; Archer quipped about ‘swearing on a stack of Origin of Species’, which is in effect the Humanist’s ‘bible’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 1999, p. 3s (Spectrum Features)).
    • Both make village-atheist style attacks on the Bible, e.g. Archer is on record accusing it of teaching dogmatic geocentrism, a flat Earth supported by pillars and covered by a hard dome (The Weekend Australian, 11–12 January 1986). All nonsense of course.
    • While Archer hasn’t gone as far as Plimer, who has actually given indications on at least one occasion that he was a Christian, he has resorted to saying that he’s not against religion, merely against Biblical ‘literalism’ of the creationists, and cites anonymous theologians saying it’s ‘bad theology’ (Creation versus Evolution, Catalyst, ABC, 3 October 2002). Of course, he couldn’t care less about it being bad theology! But it’s a common tactic of many atheistic evolutionists to reassure their churchian allies and not alert them to the way they are really ‘useful idiots’ (Lenin’s phrase), inadvertently undermining their own faith.
    • Both commit the logical fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority) and at the same time arguing about things well outside their fields of expertise and making crass blunders in the process.
      • Some good examples from Plimer can be found in More nonsense from Professor Plimer, while Archer made some laughable errors about probability and the origin of life in an anticreationist book refuted by Dr Don Batten here. Actually, what’s even more laughable is that a palaeontologist was apparently the best person the editors of that book could dredge up to try to rebut the powerful creationist arguments in those areas!
      • In one column in Nature Australia (Winter 1999, pp. 70–71), Archer undertook to lecture his readers on logic (by which he meant Skepticism with a capital S). But he made a beginner’s error, confusing the terms valid and true, terms which are clearly distinguished even in introductory logic courses. (Validity refers to the form of the argument: if the premise is true then the conclusion follows—it says nothing about whether the premise is true. See Logic and Creation: Validity.)
      • Even in a field closely related to the feathered dinosaur exhibits, Archer is demonstrably unreliable. For example, in the same anti-creationist book, he claimed:
        ‘There is even a fossil record of feathers that demonstrates a structural gradient between simple reptilian scales and the complex feathers of Archaeopteryx.’

        However, as documented in Fuzzy feathers and walking whales, the reference Archer cited was based on the fossil of a single ‘heavily weathered’ ‘feather fragment’. No ‘structural gradient’ (series) between scales and feathers exists. Furthermore, the profound difference between feathers and scales makes any such transition rather difficult to even imagine, to say the least. See the interview with Dr David Menton.

    Answers to claims

    We should note that even biased people can be right—after all, CMI is up-front about its own Biblical bias. Even people who clearly see nothing wrong with blatant dishonesty and gutter tactics can be correct about some things. However, their track records should make us question how anyone can be sure that things that these atheists/Skeptics write about supposed feathered dinosaurs is not also deception for the good of the ‘cause’.

    Readers of Creation magazine and our website (see Did birds really evolve from dinosaurs?) will already have the information about the supposed proofs of the dinosaur-to-bird theory touted in this exhibition. These articles also show that the dinosaur-to-bird theory is strongly disputed even by evolutionists, but of course this is not normally revealed in public exhibitions! Examples of evolutionist experts who dispute the dino-bird connection include Dr Storrs Olson as quoted above, Dr Alan Feduccia, professor and former head of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of the encyclopedic The Origin and Evolution of Birds (1999), University of Kansas palaeontologist Dr Larry Martin.

    Therefore this article presents only brief responses to some of the key claims, and hyperlinks to the appropriate articles on our Web site. The headings and quotes are from the Australian Museum Web site.

    The first feathers

    ‘The first dinosaur found with feathers was called Sinosauropteryx prima, which means ‘first Chinese dragon feather’.’

    This is an unacceptable translation, and clearly skewed towards their feathered dinosaur agenda. The Greek πτέρυξ (pteryx) means wing or fin, while πτερόν (pteron) means wing or sometimes feather. But in the context of naming extinct reptiles, ptero– or –pteryx means ‘wing’. (For example, the pterosaurs were so named because they were winged reptiles, not feathered reptiles (they did not have anything that could be construed as feathers).)

    It is also highly misleading to call this the ‘first’ dinosaur found with feathers—and fail to point out that it is younger (according to evolutionary ‘dating’) than Archaeopteryx, a more birdlike creature even according to this display. Sinosauropteryx is ‘dated’ to 125 million years ago (as the Web site reveals elsewhere), while Archaeopteryx is allegedly 153 million years old.

    ‘Its skeleton was surrounded by a halo of feathers. Sinosauropteryx’s very simple feathers were almost hair-like and probably first evolved to insulate small, warm-blooded dinosaurs from cold and heat. Sinosauropteryx could not fly.’

    The so-called ‘feathers’ were likely frayed collagen fibres. [Update: see Dr Feduccia’s recent research supporting the identification as collagen, ‘Do Featured Dinosaurs Exist?: Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence’, by Alan Feduccia, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, and J. Richard Hinchliffe, Journal of Morphology 266:125–166, 2005; Published Online: 10 October 2005 (DOI: 10.1002/jmor.10382).]

    It’s also most unlikely that flight feathers would evolve for heat insulation first, because natural selection for heat insulation would tend to remove any complexity, because a hairlike structure is much better for insulation. In fact, flightless birds have feathers superficially similar to hair, and in some cases this can be explained by loss of information for the complexity of flight feathers, so is compatible with the creation model.

    A very important point: scales or hairs can’t be the forerunners of feathers as such. Rather, evolution posits that genetic information is passed on with modification from ancestors to descendants. So the only way the Sinosauropteryx structures can be the beginnings of feathers is if Sinosauropteryx was the ancestor of birds. But there are two key problems (among others):

    • Enough of the lung structure is preserved to know that it had the bellows-like lungs of reptiles, not the unique flow-through structure of birds’ lungs, possessed even by Archaeopteryx (see below). A transitional series from the reptile to the bird lung design would need to start from a poor creature with a diaphragmatic hernia (hole in the diaphragm), and natural selection would work against this.
    • The embryonic development of dinosaur and bird hands is completely different—see Ostrich eggs break dino-to-bird theory.

    Feathers for effect

    ‘Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx were small dinosaurs that had a downy covering of feathers over most of their bodies, but also had longer, more complex feathers on their arms and tails, arranged like those of modern birds.’

    It’s not surprising that they had arrangements like modern birds, because it’s likely that they were (flightless) birds, not dinosaurs at all! Caudipteryx even used gizzard stones like modern plant-eating birds, but unlike theropods. The Australian Museum site says here that it was 125 million years old, also younger than Archaeopteryx. See What? Another feathered dinosaur claim?

    From grasping arms to flying wings

    ‘These dinosaurs had also developed a special bone in the wrist that enabled them to fold their long arms against their body, just as birds do today. It also allowed them to move their hands in a broad fan-shaped motion and to snap their long arms and grasping fingers forward to grab fleeing prey. This powerful, flapping motion has today become an important part of the flight stroke in modern birds.’

    This can’t be serious—powered flight is far more complex than simply a flap. For some information about the complexity of flight, see the interview with Prof. Andy McIntosh, an expert in aerodynamics. Especially in this case there are several problems:

    • A flap in the forward direction would have the effect of pushing the bird backwards by the reaction. In a flap for powered flight, the primary flight feathers are angled in such a way that they force air backwards so the bird is propelled forwards. The wings have an aerofoil shape like an airplane’s wings, so that forward motion makes air flow faster over the top surface than the bottom. This lowers the pressure on the upper surface by the Bernoulli Principle, resulting in lift. Most accounts say that this is the main lift generator. (More recent studies show that more lift is produced by the reaction of air directed downwards (Newton’s Third Law of Motion). There are two reasons that the wings deflect air downwards with forward motion: first, the wings are slanted slightly upwards into the air stream (a positive ‘angle of attack’); second, the Coandă Effect where a fluid follows the curve of the surface, which on the upper surface points downwards—see A Physical Description of Flight).
    • Limbs that flap at a prey animal are the last place it would be advantageous to have delicate structures like feathers.
    • Since the purpose of the wings is to force air backwards so the bird is propelled forwards, they should form a wide surface that has high air resistance, so it can move large volumes of air. But for a limb designed to grab forward at prey, it’s an advantage to have a surface that has low air resistance, i.e. lets air through easily. Think of the holes in a fly swat, or streamlined shapes designed to move through the air as opposed to moving the air itself.

    Feathered predators

    ‘Sinornithosaurus had a broad range of feathers including downy, insulating fluff over most of its body and longer display feathers on its arms, tail and head. Some of its long feathers had barbules and hooklets that bound together a feather’s barbs and gave the feather greater strength, flexibility and surface area.’

    These claims are highly exaggerated. At best there was only a downy coating, and even this may have been simply collagen fibres. Yet this didn’t stop this blustering from Paul Willis:

    ‘We have 100% bonafide dinosaurs with 100% genuine feathers on their arms and tails. We have all the significant stages in the evolution of that most birdish of all features, the feather. From a hair-like origin through to tufts of hair resembling down feathers, and branching hairs as precursors of the central shafted feather that makes the wings of true birds. Every possible missing link that could reasonably be asked for in the continuum between dinosaurs and birds has been exquisitely preserved in this remarkable locality.’ (China’s Fabulous Dinobirds)

    See also Yet another new ‘feathered’ dinosaur?

    The earliest birds

    This section had a picture of Archaeopteryx lithographica. At least this section didn’t claim it was basically a dinosaur. Archaeopteryx was a true bird, because it had a birdlike skull, perching foot, fully-formed flight feathers, a modern-looking elliptical wing, a furcula (wishbone) and avian lung design. See Bird Evolution flies out the window and Archaeopteryx (unlike Archaeoraptor) is not a hoax.

    Feathered dinosaurs photo gallery

    One picture was of Confuciusornis sanctus. This is allegedly the oldest bird with a true beak rather than a toothy jaw as Archaeopteryx had (not that this proves that Archaeopteryx is ‘reptilian’—its teeth were bird teeth, not reptilian at all in form). Even this beaked bird, with even more direct evidence of feathers, is ‘dated’ to 135 million years, so older than its ‘feathered dinosaur’ ancestor.

    The Web site pictured it perching on a tree branch. This is accurate because it had a huge claw on the outer finger (digit 2), excellent for climbing trees.

    Conclusion

    This Australian Museum exhibit is yet another example of how taxpayers fund the pushing of extreme ideologies. However, if ‘feathered dinosaurs’ are the best the Skeptics can do, then they are in worse trouble than ever because:
    • Feathered dinosaurs are not prohibited by creation.
    • There is a lack of transitional structures leading to flight feathers, flight and avian breathing.
    • The fossils are out of sequence, even if they bore out the imaginative hype applied to them.

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