The strange recurring case of the feathered reptile
Our four-part series ‘Be Skeptical About the Skeptics’ dealt with some of the fallacious arguments in a book put out by the Australian Skeptics. The first article was titled ‘Putting Feathers on Reptiles’, by Dr Carl Wieland (Creation magazine Vol. 11 No.1). This was in response to an article by evolutionist zoologist Dr Tony Thulborn in the Skeptics’ book, in which he left readers with the impression that it was a simple matter to change scales into feathers merely by the addition of a chemical (vitamin A).
Our rebuttal article made the point that the experiment Dr Thulborn referred to was on chicken embryos, which already had the genetic information for both scales and feathers. Therefore, it had nothing to do with demonstrating how the genetic information coding for feathers could have arisen in the imagined reptilian ancestors of birds.
We stated: ‘What if a researcher reported that vitamin A in a reptile embryo caused feathers to form? Now that indeed would be spectacular evidence for evolution. But no serious scientist would expect that such a thing were possible … the reptile does not contain the information for feather construction in its code.’
Some time later, Australian Science Mag (Issue 1, 1990) featured a written debate between Drs Wieland and Snelling for creation, and the same Dr Thulborn for evolution. This concerned the fossil record. Each side was able to see the other side's constructive arguments in order to prepare a rebuttal. All four (two constructive, two rebuttal) were published simultaneously.
In Dr Thulborn’s constructive, he re-presented the evidence for ‘transitional structures’ on the feet of chickens. Presumably anticipating that the creationist response would be the same as before (that feathers on chickens are not impressive, but transforming lizard scales into feathers would be). Thulborn in his rebuttal wrote:
‘My comments on scales and feathers might draw the response that chickens have genetic information for both, so that there's nothing particularly remarkable about switching their scales into feathers or vice versa … Dr Wieland might well demand more convincing evidence—in the form of feathers grown on living reptiles. In that case, he may be surprised to learn that rudimentary feather-like structures have been developed experimentally on the epidermis of lizards (see P. Sengel, Morphogenesis of Skin, Cambridge University Press, 1976, Figure 87b).’
Notice carefully the context of this claim concerning lizard skin and the experimental growth of rudimentary feather-like objects. It is specifically in answer to the creationist objection that lizards don’t have the genetic information for the complex, aerodynamic structure of feathers. Therefore the implication certainly seems to be that it is not necessary to have the genetic information for feathers in order to make feathers experimentally in reptiles.
Unfortunately, under the terms of the debate, no further rebuttal was possible, and most readers of Australian Science Mag would not have bothered looking up the reference Dr Thulborn gave. If they had, however, they would have discovered that the experiment in question involved grafting portions of chicken skin on to living reptiles. Such chicken tissue of course contains chicken DNA which of course contains the information coding for feather production!
We suggest that the Thulborn statement we quoted risks being highly misleading in this context because of the omission of this crucial information. We believe that the omission would have had the effect of greatly strengthening the argument for evolution to the casual reader.
In subsequent correspondence with Dr Thulborn, we were told that his original statements were not misleading. However, in spite of ample opportunity and encouragement to do so, there was no clarification of this crucial omission, nor any retraction.
In light of all this, the closing paragraph of our original Creation magazine article is highly relevant:
‘If a clever genetic engineer were to splice out the information coding for feather construction from a chicken embryo, and splice it into a reptile embryo to cause it to grow feathers, this would confirm the point we are trying to make here—that is, such complex information cannot spontaneously arise—it has to be created or transferred from a pre-existing source. And furthermore, that an intelligent mind is required to conduct the experiment.’