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Dinosaur-faced chickens?

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Published: 26 May 2015 (GMT+10)

Recently, evolutionary scientists have been experimenting with the development of chicken embryos, trying to create an animal without a beak.1 They were partially successful, and the media are currently buzzing with the news, but what did they actually accomplish and how should the creationist answer the claims?

bbc.com skulls
Normal chicken embryo (left), altered chicken embryo (middle), alligator embryo (right). Look carefully; the middle embryo is still very much like that of a bird.

First, birds have beaks, not snouts. A snout projects forward from the face and is made up of an upper and lower jaw bone, often with teeth imbedded in those bones. While a beak also projects forward from the face, the upper and lower mandibles in birds are made up of a different set of bones, move differently, and are covered with a thin layer of keratin that is excreted from the underlying skin.

The shape of the beak and the way that shape changes over time have been the source of much evolutionary speculation over time. The beak is a well-designed feature. It has a multitude of uses, ranging from excellent heat regulation in the toucan to a jack hammer in the woodpecker. For a long time, scientists did not know what controlled the development of the beak or why some animals had a beak and some had a snout. Today, however, we know that specific genes drive the development of the beak and are responsible for the diverse beak shapes found among birds.

What was actually accomplished?

The fact that most of the popular-level reports have included an artist’s conception of the face of putative feathered dinosaur has not helped public perception. Nobody created a living, breathing bird in an ancestral dinosaur-like state. However, by interfering with the proteins that drive beak development in the chicken, they created an embryonic bird with thicker and more snout-like bones. These results are quite interesting from a scientific standpoint. But, modern birds and specific breeds of certain species include a huge range of beak shapes. It is not clear that they actually created anything new. In fact, the BBC article included this quote from the lead scientist:

“These weren’t drastic modifications,” says Bhullar. “They are far less weird than many breeds of chicken developed by chicken hobbyists and breeders.”2

So what are we supposed to make of this? Did they create a snout on a bird or just modify the shape of a chicken’s face? It seems that all they did was tinker with the facial development in the chicken embryos. They claimed that the birds were developing along the lines of the ancestral form and that the bones were more aligned to that ancestral form. While it might be true that the birds were looking more like reptiles, this is what would be expected if beak development requires extra genes and if one turned off those genes.

Think about it this way. Dogs and cats have many similarities. If someone were to make a cat that could bark, for example, would this prove the common ancestry of dogs and cats? No. It would prove that dogs and cats are similar enough that one could monkey around with some of their genes to create dog-like traits in cats. The similarities among these animals are due to common design, not common ancestry. Likewise, the appeal to a common designer can be use to explain the similarities among birds and various reptiles.

Creationists have no problem thinking that some species are more similar to each other than they are to other species (dogs + cats vs. jellyfish, for example). We know that birds and dinosaurs share many features. Given the abilities of modern scientists and scientific techniques, it would not be expected that one could create jellyfish-like features in a bird before they could create reptile like features in that bird. Likewise, since birds are in some ways more similar to reptiles than they are to mammals (with certain specific exceptions like the fact that all birds are warm blooded), it might be expected that it would be easier to create certain reptilian features in a bird than it would be to produce mammalian features. This is all part of the nested hierarchy of design that has been discussed since the time of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the creationist ‘father of taxonomy’. But there is a raging and ongoing debate about the relationship of birds and dinosaurs, so we need to be cautious when declaring that something should be ‘easy’ vs. ‘difficult’ like I did above.

How should we respond?

There are several take-away points from this work that benefit creation science. First, beaks develop along very different lines than snouts. They are something entirely different and require different genetic wiring. Beaks are NOT modified snouts. This study has confirmed that.

Second, the genes that are involved are unique to beak-bearing animals. Thus, in order for the beak to ‘evolve’, brand new genes must have come into existence in the ancestor to beaked birds. Where did these genes come from and why would they develop if the beak did not yet exist? What possible selection pressure would cause the creation of new information that is useless until all the parts come together into a working whole? This is an old evolutionary puzzle, and we feel that it has remained unanswered because it shines light on the great gulf between evolutionary theory and scientific reality (see Can Mutations Create New Information?).

Third, think about what these genes would have been doing to the animal as they were evolving! How could any species survive as the face was undergoing the many random changes that must have occurred while snouts were turning into beaks? This is but one of many ‘morphological change’ problems inherent in evolutionary theory, for all transitional states must be survivable. The problem with fitness landscapes, local fitness peaks, the great gaps between different peaks, etc. has been known for quite some time. See our review of Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mt. Improbable for more information.

In conclusion, what these scientists did was interesting and on the cutting edge of current technology. What they concluded, however, is a bit more ambiguous, especially compared to the popular-level reporting. We are standing on the edge of the brave new world of genetic engineering. Be prepared for even more amazing (and potentially scary) applications of these technologies. Also be prepared for the requisite ‘evolutionary pronouncements from on high’, even if they are more bluff than substance.

References and notes

  1. Bhulla, B.-H.S, et al., A molecular mechanism for the origin of a key evolutionary innovation, the bird beak and palate, revealed by an integrative approach to major transitions in vertebrate history, Evolution (preprint version) doi:10.1111/evo.12684, 2015. Return to text.
  2. Hogenboom, M., Chicken grows face of dinosaur, bbc.com/earth/story/20150512-bird-grows-face-of-dinosaur, 2015. Return to text.

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