[Editors: This classic article from the very first issue of Creation magazine showed the state of play way back in 1978. It’s remarkable how this article has stood the test of time. See Update below.]
Creation scientists and speakers have a wealth of documentation to support their claim that the general nature of the fossil record is hostile to evolution but supports the predictions of the creation model. All higher kinds of plants and animals appear abruptly and without transition. Are we misrepresenting evolution to insist on transitional forms? How many should we expect?
If we examine the mutation/selection theory, which is the mechanism of evolution held by the overwhelming majority today, we see that each change is slow and gradual, involving the accumulation of a vast number of small genetic coping mistakes, i.e. ‘micromutations’ or ‘point mutations’. We see then, that the number of transitional forms involved in the transformation of, say, fish to amphibian over hundreds of millions of years would be incredibly vast (or ‘innumerable’ as Darwin predicted1)—so much so that we would not expect to be able to recognize end forms and transitional forms separately—there would be an almost imperceptible ‘oozing’ of one kind into another.
Furthermore, it is an integral part of the theory that each form is successful, that is, each ‘successive approximation’ has a survival or reproductive advantage over its predecessor, or else it would not become established and give rise to subsequent forms. Therefore there is no reason whatever for the ‘end forms’ to have more chance of fossilization than the ‘intermediates’. Sampling errors (which includes the ‘poverty of the record’ argument that Darwin invoked) are random, and while they could account for occasional or sporadic gaps, they may not be used as an excuse for systematic gaps.
What do most evolutionists offer in the place of the millions upon millions of transitional forms between higher kinds predicted by their model? The answer is usually a handful of transitional forms, and probably the most prominent is Archaeopteryx. You see, by making the prediction of no transitional forms versus billions of such forms, creationists are really ‘laying it on the line’. All the evolutionist has to do is produce one indisputable transitional form between the higher kinds to seriously challenge the creation model. Others are occasionally mentioned, such as Seymouria, but these are not seriously considered as links by informed evolutionists (although many still do) for the simple reason that their supposed descendants appear ‘earlier’ in the fossil record than these ‘transitional forms’! However, Archaeopteryx is usually proudly mentioned as a classical example of a transitional form (without of course mentioning that it is one of a handful compared to the millions Darwin hoped for).
Let’s take a close look at this remarkable ancient creature. The first specimen was found in Upper Jurassic limestone in Bavaria in 1861, missing only the right foot, the lower jaw and a few cervical vertebrae. The second specimen was found ten miles away in 1877. There have been several more finds since, very fragmentary, but all our knowledge is based on these first two.
Archaeopteryx had many features which caused most investigators to class it immediately as a bird, Aves. The feathers were identical in structure and arrangement to those of modern birds, a highly complex arrangement. It also had a birdlike posture, perching feet, a long sinuous neck holding its head high and a beaklike structure. However, it had many features not typical of modern birds and more typical of the class Reptilia. The most obvious two are the long, drooping tail and the teeth it possessed. Modern birds do not have teeth. However, extinct birds such as Ichthyornis and Hesperornis, which were unquestionably 100% birds, also had teeth. Closer examination reveals many other features which Archaeopteryx shared in common with reptiles. For example, the skull has many ‘reptilian’ features including lack of the posterior domelike expansion typical of birds otherwise.
Other such features are listed below and most may be visualized by a comparison diagram between Archaeopteryx and the modern pigeon.
- The cervical vertebrae lacked the heterocoelous centra peculiar to birds (heterocoelous means ‘saddle shaped’; centra, singular centrum, are the central parts of vertebrae).
- The trunk vertebrae were not fused together as in birds.
- The weight of most birds is supported by a solid synsacrum, an extended bone at the end of the spine formed from several vertebrae fused together. Archaeopteryx had a tail which functioned to counterbalance his weight and the weight of his abdominal viscera was supported by a belly wall stiffened with gastralia, thin slivers of bone.
- The ribs were not connected by uncinate processes (hook-shaped protrusions) nor anchored into the sternum, as in birds.
- The pelvic bones were much smaller than most birds and did not extend nearly so far along the vertebral column. However, they had the avian backward twist of the pubes below the ischia.
- It had claws at the ends of the three digits. There are three living birds today which have claws in either the adult or juvenile form. Archaeopteryx seems to have been able to crawl agilely through the trees as well as making short flights. That it was not a powerful flier may be inferred from the small area of origin which it had for flight muscles.
- The hand and wrist were not in the form of an inflexible blade.
- It had three independent metatarsals, rather than one as birds do.
- The fibula was equal in length to the tibia, as in reptiles, but not birds.
In summary, it may be said that Archaeopteryx is truly unique, and appears to exhibit a mosaic of characters, sharing some in common with the class Aves and some with the class Reptilia. It seems to have been suited to a lifestyle of short flights and agile crawling in trees, and those features which make it unquestionably a bird for classification purposes are uniquely and completely present and perfect. The feathers are not halfway transition from scales to feathers, an assumed transformation of the most astounding complexity. If for no other reason, this would disqualify it as a transitional form. A bat is not a transitional form between bird and land mammal, nor is a platypus transitional between duck and mammal, even though it exhibits some features of both.
The French theistic evolutionist and leading biophysicist Lecomte du Noüy (1883–1947) recognizes this:
“… we are not even authorized to consider the exceptional case of Archaeopteryx as a true link. By link, we mean a necessary stage of transition between classes such as reptiles and birds, or between smaller groups. An animal displaying characters belonging to two different groups cannot be treated as a true link as long as the intermediary stages have not been found, and as long as the mechanism of transition remains unknown.” 2
Furthermore, Archaeopteryx stands alone, uniquely himself with no fossil between himself and either birds or reptiles. Vertebrate paleontologist Barbara Stahl (1934–2014) writes:
“Since Archaeopteryx occupies an isolated position in the fossil record, it is impossible to tell whether the animal gave rise to more advanced fliers or represented only a side branch from the main line.”3 [This section of her book was reviewed by Prof. Alfred Romer (1894–1973).]
Scottish paleontologist William Swinton (1900–1994) states:
“The origin of birds is largely a matter of deduction. There is no fossil of the stages through which the remarkable change from reptile to bird was achieved.”4
All of this is surely enough to establish that this bird is not a transitional form. Yet the above has been known for years, and still many evolutionists present it as a striking example of a transitional form. There has been a new discovery which surely demolishes the last hope in this direction. A bird which is unquestionably a true bird has been found which dates (by the evolutionists’ own methods) at some 60 million years older than Archaeopteryx, which was ‘dated’ at about 150 million years old.5 The find was assessed as above by paleontologist James Alvin Jensen (1918–1998) of Brigham Young University. The article also quotes noted dinosaur expert John Ostrom (1928–2005) of Yale:
“… we must now look for the ancestors of flying birds in a period of time much older than that in which Archaeopteryx lived.”
As leading creationist Duane Gish (1921–2013) has said in another context, children cannot be older than their parents!
I will restate simply the reasons why Archaeopteryx cannot be regarded as a transitional form.
- It has a ‘mosaic’ of characters in common with both groups but shows no true transitional structure such as a part-scale, part-feather.
- There are no fossil links between it and either reptiles or birds—it stands alone.
- True birds have been found which are assigned by evolutionists to an earlier time than Archaeopteryx.
More recent work strengthens the points still further,6 and shows Archaeopteryx was a bird—not a missing link, and not a forgery either as some more recent critics asserted.
For example, Archaeopteryx had elliptical wings like modern woodland birds and fully-formed flying feathers (including asymmetric vanes and ventral, reinforcing furrows as in modern flying birds, and its claw geometry was suited for perching.7
Its skeleton had pneumatized vertebrae and pelvis, which indicate the presence of air sacs. This shows that they had the unique avian lung with one-way air flow, not the reptilian bellows lung. It was already present in what most evolutionists claim is the earliest bird.8
Analysis of Archaeopteryx’s skull with computer tomography (CT) scanning shows that it had a brain like a modern bird’s, three times the size of that of a dinosaur of equivalent size. This included large optic lobes for processing visual input, and inner ear structures (cochlea and semicircular canals) in the size range of modern birds, meaning good hearing and balance. Both would have been useful for flying.9
Furthermore, although a number of claimed ‘feathered dinosaurs’ have been discovered since this article, nearly all are ‘dated’ as millions of years younger than Archaeopteryx that is alleged to have descended from them. Indeed, they are not even older than the beaked and tailless bird Confuciusornis (120–125 million years), which evolutionists must regard as even more evolved.
References and notes
- Darwin, C.R., On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, Ch. 6, “On the absence or rarity of transitional varieties”, 1st Edn, John Murray, 1859. Return to text.
- du Nouÿ, P.L. Human Destiny, Longmans, Green and Co., 1947. Return to text.
- Stahl, B.J., p. Vertebrate History: Problems in Evolution (McGraw–Hill 1973). In a later Dover edition (1985), she added: “retrieval of true bird fossils of Lower Cretaceous age has only strengthened the argument that the famous feathered Archaeopteryx may be an archaic side branch of the ancestral avian stock.” Return to text.
- Swinton, W.E., The origin of birds; in: Marshall, A.J., ed., Biology and Comparative Physiology of Birds, p. 1, Academic Press, NY/London, 1960. Return to text.
- Science-News 112:198, Sep 1977. Return to text.
- See summary article, Sarfati, J. and Carter, R., Did dinosaurs evolve into birds? creation.com/dinosaur-bird-evolution, 16 April 2015; also Thomas, B. and Sarfati, J., Researchers remain divided over ‘feathered dinosaurs’, J. Creation 32(1):121–127, 2018; creation.com/feathered-dinosaur-debate. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., Evidence from claw geometry indicating arboreal habits of Archaeopteryx, Science 259(5096):790–793, 5 Feb 1993. Return to text.
- Christiansen, P. and Bonde, N., Axial and appendicular pneumaticity in Archaeopteryx, Proc. Royal Soc. London, Series B. 267:2501–2505, 2000. Return to text.
- Alonso, P.D., Milner, A.C., Ketcham, R.A., Cokson, M.J and Rowe, T.B., The avian nature of the brain and inner ear of Archaeopteryx, Nature 430(7000):666–669, 5 Aug 2004; Witmer, L.M, Inside the oldest bird brain, perspective, same issue, pp. 619–620. Return to text.