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Did dinosaurs evolve into birds?

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Published: 16 April 2015 (GMT+10)
archaeopteryx
Artist reconstruction of how Archaeopteryx may have appeared

Most evolutionists now believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs. However, there are well-informed evolutionary dissenters who are experts on birds, such as Alan Feduccia, his late colleague Larry Martin, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, John Ruben, and Storrs Olson. As with many issues, we should differentiate between observations and interpretations of these, and between the direct teachings of Scripture and models to elucidate these teachings. While Scripture is non-negotiable, models should be held loosely.1

So first, it’s important to discuss what the Bible says, as well as what it doesn’t say, either directly or by logical deduction. Second, it’s important to show what unique creatures birds are, with many design features for flight. Third, some of the main candidates as evolutionary transitional forms are discussed. Finally, there are huge problems with the evolutionary story even if we accept their dating methods.

Biblical issues

Scripture explicitly teaches that God made birds (and other air creatures) and sea creatures on Day 5 of Creation Week. He made land animals and man on Day 6. Since dinosaurs were land animals, they have a different origin from birds, and indeed came after birds. Therefore the Bible contradicts dino-to-bird evolution.

However, the Bible uses functional classifications, according to the mode of locomotion and where they live, not anatomical ones. Even modern marine ecologists classify water-dwelling life in a very similar way according to their mode of living: plankton (floaters/drifters), nekton (swimmers) and benthos (bottom-dwellers). So on Day 5, the air creatures are called ‘ôph, a generic word for flying creatures. This includes not only birds, but also bats and pterosaurs. Feathers are not mentioned. Similarly, there is nothing about the Day 6 land creatures that says that they cannot have feathers. Thus creationists can’t rule out ‘feathered dinosaurs’ from Scripture alone, which is not to say that many creationists and even evolutionists are convinced by the best candidates.

Special features of birds

Since heavier-than-air machines must overcome gravity, they need some balancing upward force, which comes as a direct result of the special shape of their wings. Birds, and now airplanes, have wings shaped as aerofoils, so that as they move forward, air is deflected downward. This is due to the fact that the wing is angled slightly upward during flight (“angle of attack”) and because the air follows the curve on the upper surface (the “Coandă effect”), which eventually points down. This downward airflow produces an upward force (lift) because of the Third Law of motion,2 which was discovered by the esteemed creationist, Sir Isaac Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You can feel this strong downdraught of air under a helicopter’s rotor, which is essentially a rotating wing.

Airplanes need a motor to move forward, while in birds, this effect is produced by flapping. Birds’ primary flight feathers are angled in such a way that they also force air backward, so the bird is also propelled forward, again in compliance with Newton’s Third Law.

Pulley system

For flapping flight, the wing has to be lifted to get ready for the next downstroke. Birds accomplish this with an intricate pulley system—the supracoracoideus muscle pulls on its tendon, which winds around a ‘pulley’ comprising the coracoid and clavicle bones. The tendon is anchored to the humerus or upper arm/wing bone.

Birds can still fly with the tendon cut, but takeoff is badly hindered.3It is highly questionable that natural selection would drive the many co-ordinated changes needed to form this pulley system. Indeed, there is no evidence of transitional half-pulley systems in the fossil record, and would such a half-pulley be any use at all?4 In other words, how could natural selection ‘select for ’the early stages of this system when those half-finished stages are of no use to the animal and quite likely detrimental?

Feathers

Alan Feduccia, a world authority on birds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an evolutionist himself, says “feathers are a near-perfect adaptation for flight”5 because they are lightweight, strong, aerodynamically shaped, and have an intricate structure of barbs and hooks. This structure makes them waterproof, and a quick preen with the bill will cause flattened feathers to snap into fully aerodynamic shape again.

Some evolutionists claim that feathers evolved from scales, but scales are folds in skin. Feathers, on the other hand, are complex structures with barbs, barbules, and hooks. Feathers also originate in a totally different way, from follicles inside the skin in a manner akin to hair. Finally, feather proteins (φ-keratins) are biochemically different from skin and scale proteins (α-keratins) as well.6 It is nonsensical to think any animal would accidentally stumble upon the special function, shape, biochemistry, and anatomical developmental pathway of feathers by chance, especially when the intermediate stages have little to no known survival advantage.

Special flow-through lung design

Bird lung

Bird lungs are very different from reptile lungs. A reptile lung is like a bellows, that is, air is breathed in, and blood takes up the oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. The stale air is then breathed out the same way it came in. Mammal lungs have a different internal structure, but also work like a bellows.

However, birds have a complicated system of air sacs that makes use of even the hollow bones. This system keeps air flowing in one direction through special tubes (parabronchi, singular parabronchus) in the lung, and blood moves through the lung’s blood vessels in the opposite direction for efficient oxygen uptake,10 an excellent engineering design.11

How would the bellows-style of reptile lungs evolve gradually into avian lungs? The hypothetical intermediate stages could not conceivably function properly, meaning the poor animal would be unable to breathe. One of the first developmental stages would be a poor creature with a diaphragmatic hernia (hole in the diaphragm), and natural selection would work against this.7 Also, the air sacs require a fixed thigh bone for support—in birds, the thigh is inside the body, and what seems like its ‘knee’ is equivalent to our ankle. However, dinosaurs had movable thighs, so could not have supported an avian lung system.8,9

Recent research shows that some reptiles, including iguanas, monitor lizards, and alligators, have a form of unidirectional airflow. However, they don’t need the avian system of air sacs and parabronchi; instead, the airways are shaped and angled to generate jets that produce one-way airflow,10 an ingenious design that humans may never have imagined possible.11

This has generated more problems than it solves: First, it means that the energy requirements for flight could not have provided selection pressure for one-way air flow, because it also occurs in heavy, non-flying creatures. Second, one-way airflow could not have been a selective force for driving the evolution of hernias, air sacs, parabronchi, and the fixed thigh, since it can exist without these features.

Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx at its largest was only about the size of a raven, but has an outsized place in evolutionary claims. Its fossils were first discovered in Bavaria in 1861, with the interesting combination of clear feathers and wings, as well as teeth and a tail. As this was only two years after Darwin published Origin of Species, it was quickly hijacked as one of the intermediate forms he predicted, an intermediate between reptiles and birds. However, it did not have intermediate features; rather, it had many fully avian features:

  • Perching foot.12 This means that its wings would have needed to be sophisticated enough to produce the special wing turbulences (leading edge vortices) like those of modern birds, so that it could land delicately on a branch.13
  • Classical elliptical wings like modern woodland birds.8
  • Fully-formed flying feathers (including asymmetric vanes and ventral, reinforcing furrows as in modern flying birds).8
  • A large wishbone for attachment of strong muscles responsible for the downstroke of the wings.
  • The unique avian lung design with air sacs, fixed thigh, and one-directional airflow.14

And, finally, Archaeopteryx, despite the fact that it could fly, and despite the fact that it has several non-birdlike reptilian features (like a long bony tail), is out of place for the evolutionist. Too many other birds and bird-like fossils have been discovered that ‘predate’ it (see below).

Sinosauropteryx

commons.wikimedia.org, Sam/Olai Ose/Skjaervoy from Zhangjiagang, ChinaSinosauropteryxfossil
Sinosauropteryx: a supposedly feathered dinosaur with dubious ‘feathers’, and is younger than birds Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis).

Sinosauropteryx was another small creature, only 1.07 metres (3.5 feet) long, yet classified as a theropod, the same group to which T. rex belongs. But with 64 vertebrae in its tail, it had the longest tail relative to body length of any theropod. Discovered in northeastern China in 1996, it was the first claimed feathered dinosaur. It also had remarkable preservation, enabling study of some of its organs. However, in two major ways, this creature must disappoint evolutionists:

It lacked the unique avian lung. Instead, it had a crocodilian-like ‘hepatic piston’ respiratory system, working on the normal reptilian bellows method. John Ruben, a respiratory physiology expert at Oregon State University in Corvallis, concluded that Sinosauropteryx’s “bellowslike lungs could not have evolved into the high-performance lungs of modern birds.”15

Also, its ‘feathers filaments’ were most likely nothing to do with feathers. Rather, in the typical arched-back position in which we find many dinosaurs fossils (due to perimortem submersion16), the thick integument (skin) on the animal’s back was buckled, which would be possible only if the filaments were part of a single structure, not separate feathers.Prof. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa argued that the filaments were part of “a clearly unified structure, i.e. an upright frill or crest overlying the neck, back and tail of Sinosauropteryx … as opposed to individual proto-feathers”17

Grandfather paradox of dino-bird evolution

The dating, even by evolutionary methods, shows that the order is wrong. Archaeopteryx is allegedly 153 Ma (million years old),18 but their alleged feathered dinosaur ancestors such as Sinosauropteryx are ‘dated’ to 125 Ma.19 This problem is accentuated by another extinct bird called Confuciusornis, which even had a toothless beak, but is ‘dated’ to 135 Ma. Thus, by the evolutionists’ own methods, Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis are dated as being millions of years older than their alleged dinosaur ancestors. Evolutionary paleo-ornithologist Alan Feduccia, a well-known critic of the dino-to-bird dogma, often quips that you can’t be older than your grandfather!

commons.wikimedia.org, Eduard SolàConfuciusornis-sanctus
Confuciusornis was a beaked bird that evolutionists date to older than its alleged feathered dinosaur ancestors

Dino-bird believers respond that sometimes a grandfather can outlive his grandson. But while correct, it’s hard to understand that an ‘advanced’ beaked bird like Confuciusornis could appear 10 million years before there is a trace of its ‘feathered dino ancestors’. Also, one of the major ‘evidences’ of evolution is how the evolutionary order supposedly matches the fossil sequence. Therefore the gross mismatch with the dino-birds is a severe challenge to the evolutionary explanation.

At the time of writing, a flurry of new fossils have been discovered and new ‘discoveries’ are continually being revealed. The situation is in flux and not even the evolutionists have a clear story. It may be that dinosaurs had feathers, but obvious birds have also been discovered and ‘dated’ to deep within the dinosaur era. Not too many years ago, evolutionists were teaching that birds evolved right before dinosaurs went extinct. Now they say they evolved ‘millions of years earlier than once thought’. If birds evolved from dinosaurs, when? They may have run out of time.

References and notes

  1. Sarfati, J., Biblical history and the role of science, Creation 33(4):6 October 2011; creation.com/biblical-history-science. Return to text.
  2. See Anderson, D.F. and Eberhardt, S., Understanding Flight, McGraw–Hill, 2001; aa.washington.edu/faculty/eberhardt/lift.htm. Return to text.
  3. Fastovsky, D. amd Weishampel, D., The Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs, p. 298, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Return to text.
  4. Sodera, V., One Small Speck to Man: The Evolution Myth, pp. 292–302, Vija Sodera Publications, Bognor Regis, UK, 2003. Return to text.
  5. Feduccia, A., The Origin and Evolution of Birds, p. 130, Yale University Press, 1996. Return to text.
  6. Brush, A.H., On the Origin of Feathers, J. Evolutionary Biol. 9:131–142, 1996. Return to text.
  7. Ruben, J.A., et al., Lung structure and ventilation in theropod dinosaurs and early birds, Science 278(5341):1267–1270, 1997 | doi:0.1126/science.278.5341. Return to text.
  8. Quick, D.E. and Ruben, J.A., Cardio-pulmonary anatomy in theropod dinosaurs: Implications from extant archosaurs, J. Morphology, 270(10):1232–124620 May 2009 | doi: 10.1002/jmor.10752. “The thin walled and voluminous abdominal air-sacs are supported laterally and caudally to prevent inward (paradoxical) collapse during generation of negative (inhalatory) pressure: the synsacrum, posteriorly directed, laterally open pubes and specialized femoral-thigh complex provide requisite support and largely prevent inhalatory collapse.” Return to text.
  9. Sarfati, J., Bird breathing anatomy breaks dino-to-bird dogma, creation.com/dino-thigh, 16 June 2009. Return to text.
  10. Cieri, R.L. et al., New insight into the evolution of the vertebrate respiratory system and the discovery of unidirectional airflow in iguana lungs, PNAS 111(48):17218–17223, 17 November 2014 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1405088111. Return to text.
  11. Lead researcher Colleen Farmer, although an evolutionist, says, “The geometry of these lungs, it is so weird. I don’t think any engineer would dream that up.” Why lizards have bird breath: Iguanas evolved one-way lungs surprisingly like those of birds, University of Utah scientists have found, unews.utah.edu, 17 November 2014. Return to text.
  12. Feduccia, A., Evidence from claw geometry indicating arboreal habits of Archaeopteryx, Science 259(5096):790–793, 5 February, 1993. Return to text.
  13. Sarfati, J., Fancy flying from advanced aeronautics: The design of swifts and jet fighters, Creation 29(1):37–39, 2006, creation.com/swift; after Videler, J.J., Stamhuis, E.J. and Povel, G.D.E., Leading-edge vortex lifts swifts, Science 306(5703):1960–1962, 10 December 2004. Return to text.
  14. Christiansen, P. and Bonde, N., Axial and appendicular pneumaticity in Archaeopteryx, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B. 267:2501–2505, 2000. Return to text.
  15. Ruben, J.A., quoted in Ann Gibbons, Lung fossils suggest dinos breathed in cold blood, Science 278(5341):1229–1230, 1997. Return to text.
  16. Sarfati, J., ‘Feathered’ dinos: no feathers after all! (Update), J. Creation 26(3):8–10, 2012; creation.com/featherless#update. Return to text.
  17. Lingham-Soliar T., The evolution of the feather: Sinosauropteryx, life, death, and preservation of an alleged feathered dinosaur, J. Ornithol 153(3):699–711, 2012. Return to text.
  18. Xiaotingia may be an even ‘older’ bird than ‘Archie’, ‘dated’ to 155 Ma. Return to text.
  19. Other favourite ‘feathered dinosaurs’ like Sinornithosaurus and Caudipteryx are also dated to 125 Ma. Return to text.

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