Separating fact from fiction in a farcical story!
Were fossil dinosaur feathers really found near the South Pole?
Dino-bird evolution frequently causes excitement on social media platforms so my attention was grabbed by a picture of a fully feathered dinosaur with a sensationalist National Geographic headline that read, “In a first, fossil dinosaur feathers found near the South Pole”.1 However, what had actually been found differed so significantly from the headline that words such as overreaching speculation and grandiose story-telling immediately came to mind. In what follows, I have broken down the article’s salient points to highlight the highly misleading nature of National Geographic’s claims.
What was actually found?
Fact – The research team described ten exquisitely preserved 10–30 mm long fossil feathers, found from 1962 onwards over multiple digs in the Koonwarra Fossil Bed, south-eastern Australia.2 The feathers include downy feathers, contour body feathers, a complex juvenile flight feather “like those on the wings of modern birds”, and one that they refer to as a ‘protofeather’.
Speculation – They allege that the feathers are 118 million years old, and that some of them belonged to ground-dwelling carnivorous dinosaurs. Conventionally, this ‘dates’ from the early Cretaceous period when they believe that the landmass of Australia was joined with Antarctica, before drifting north to its current location. This is why they have fossil feathers coming from near the ‘South Pole’ in their article title, rather than Australia, to make the story even more sensational. Although they think Antarctica would not have been as cold as it is today, they speculate that, “feathers may have been important for insulation, allowing small carnivorous dinosaurs to survive the difficult winter months.”
With what type of dinosaur did they find the feathers? – “None of the feathers are currently associated with distinct dinosaur or bird bones. Instead, they were probably lost during molting or preening and drifted on the wind onto the surface of an ancient lake, where they sank to the bottom and were preserved in the fine mud.”
What they would like to find in the future? – “To actually find the skeleton of a feathered dinosaur here in Australia would be amazing,” said Dr Stephen Poropat, a paleontologist at Swinburne University, Melbourne. It appears that we can agree on something: amazing it would be!
Imposed Ideology – The National Geographic article tries to reinforce the current evolutionary idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. This is done by use of a spurious picture of a fully-feathered dinosaur (which is simply made up) and the misleading headline. The details in the actual article do not begin to support the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds, nor even that dinosaurs had feathers (although the creation model does not necessarily rule this out). This kind of blatant propaganda occurs on an all too regular basis; for another example, see: Sorry, how many feathers did you find? The reality is this is simply one more case of paying homage to the altar of naturalistic evolution.
Geological context – The research team presented no direct evidence whatsoever that the feathers did not belong to birds. And they must have been rapidly covered in sediment to preserve them. They have been found in a sedimentary rock layer laid down by water in Australia. The fossil bed also contained numerous other animals: freshwater ray-finned fish, lungfish, various insects, arachnids and other terrestrial invertebrates, aquatic insect larvae, hydrophilid beetles, and horseshoe crabs. Plant fossils were found as well: mosses, liverworts, fern-like plants, Ginkgo, and conifers.
A better explanation – The reality is that these fossil feathers and their geological context fit much better with biblical history. The fossilised feathers provide yet another example of swiftly-lithified fossils. These, along with the range of other creatures and plants mentioned above would have been fossilised during the conditions provided by the Noahic Flood some 4,500 years ago, itself a successive burial of pre-Flood ecosystems. Finding feathers at an alleged 118 million years old adds nothing to the evolutionary story anyway; there are ‘older’ birds with feathers in the fossil record, such as Confuciusornis, an alleged 135 million years old. Genesis 1 clearly teaches that animals were created to reproduce within their own kinds. This is exactly what the fossil record shows, and is what we observe today.
Lessons to learn that should have been learnt
Social media is used to share news stories quickly and widely. In doing so, organisations often use unique punchy headlines to get people’s attention, hoping that they visit their websites, and read their material. Creation Ministries International also use social media (why not give us a like if you have not already?). However, we are very careful to ensure that our article headlines, images and captions are factually accurate and not misleading. Unfortunately, organisations that zealously promote big-picture evolution, such as National Geographic in this bold and fanciful instance, frequently do not take the same care when titling their articles or matching the content to real facts and verifiable history.
This is not the first time that National Geographic has blatantly promoted the false idea of dinosaur to bird evolution. After the notable Archaeoraptor hoax scandal, a phony dino-feathered fossil that they published and promoted, but then had to recant, one might hope they had learnt their lesson. Leading paleornithologist Alan Feduccia was scathing in denouncing the debacle over Archaeoraptor:
In his open letter to Peter Raven, Storrs Olson asserted that National Geographic had “reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism,” and “The idea of feathered dinosaurs . . . 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.” Although the scandal was resolved through the self-corrective process of science, it is worth noting that it would not have occurred had a more critical attitude toward dinosaurs and the origin of birds prevailed in the scientific and popular literature. In illustrating the degeneration of scientific discourse with respect to this issue, Olson’s letter clearly illustrated that the highly respected magazine National Geographic and a major scientific journal, Nature, were incapable or unwilling to consider critically the question of the origin of birds.3
Christians should always adhere to a higher standard of truth, being careful in the information they present to others. In the National Geographic article the intention of the headline is clear, as well as the implications: another ‘helpful’ example of evolution has now been discovered, which adds to the enormous body of evidence that evolution is a fact. Yet many readers likely never clicked on the story, and actually read the details, so this is the message that they would have taken away. However, had they read carefully, with an inquisitive mind, then they should have been left with a very different understanding altogether. In view of the unwarranted imagination promoted to an unsuspecting public as fact (compared to the factual data about these fossil feathers), the whole story is farcical.
Our prayer at CMI is that people will come to embrace the alternative and true understanding of the world around them: Humanity was created in the image of God (the day after the birds, and on the same day as dinosaurs; Genesis 1:20–31), but we are separated from Him due to our fallen nature (Romans 3:23). This, we have inherited from Adam, and our own personal sin further condemns us (Romans 5:12; 1 John 1:8, 10). This is bad news: each of us is totally helpless because we cannot make up for our sin towards God (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:27). But God, being gracious, sent His son Jesus to live a perfect life, to shed his blood on the cross in payment for sin, and that all those who repent and believe on Him can be saved: This is good news to all people. Amen!
References and notes
- Pickrell, J., Fossil dinosaur feathers found near the South Pole, nationalgeographic.com, 19 November 2019; accessed 27 November 2019. Return to text.
- Kundrát, M. et al, A polar dinosaur feather assemblage from Australia, Gondwana Research, 11 November 2019 | doi:10.1016/j.gr.2019.10.004. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., Riddle of the Feathered Dragons: Hidden Birds of China, Yale University Press, pp. 8–9, 2014 (Kindle Edition). Return to text.