Fuzzy feathers and walking whales?
More reasons to be skeptical of the Skeptics
In 1987, an important and influential anti-creationist book, ‘Confronting Creationism: Defending Darwin’, was released in Australia in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Biology in response to the perceived ‘threat’ of the rising influence of creation science.1
It is clearly intended to be the ‘definitive’, front-line weapon against creation, to make readers so certain of the ‘fact’ of evolution as to immunize them against even considering the idea of Genesis creation as a scientifically valid position.
More scholarly than the usual attacks, it mixes some high-calibre science and astute reasoning with large doses of prejudice, misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of the creationist position, and old-fashioned, skilful propaganda.
One of the main contributors is a Sydney zoologist-palaeontologist, Dr Michael Archer who, as one of the leading lights of the anti-creationist crusade in Australia is also, as usual, affiliated with the Australian Skeptics.
Archer’s forceful, confidently written, attempts to demolish the creationist use of probability arguments and thermodynamics do little else but show that he is outside his field of expertise. Similar arguments to some of his have already been answered in these pages.2 But when we get into his area of expertise, namely vertebrate palaeontology (the study of fossils of animals with backbones), a more critical dissection is in order, particularly where there is evidence of a less-than-open approach to the evidence.
Space forbids a lengthy analysis of why some palaeontologists persist in loudly delivering the impression that the fossil record is loaded with lots of transitional forms, when the world’s leading fossil experts have publicly admitted on many occasions that precisely the opposite is the case.3
Two statements in this palaeontologist’s contribution to the book caught my eye in particular. They are not the only highly questionable areas in the book by any means, but they graphically illustrate some of the contrasts between the impressions given by these expert ‘defenders of the (evolutionary) faith’ and the far less impressive reality of the evidence. Readers may draw their own conclusions from observing this contrast.
The first is as follows:
‘There is even a fossil record of feathers that demonstrates a structural gradient between simple reptilian scales and the complex feathers of Archeopteryx.’ 4
The reader of Confronting Creationism has by now had a barrage of impressive-sounding arguments for the reality of evolution revealed in the fossil record -- this comment about scales and feathers comes at the right time to be sort of a coup de grace, to make the whole thing rock-solid. After all, if we are looking for transitional structures, part-scale/part-feather would be a classic example. Not many readers would bother to look up the references he gives. Read the quote again. Does it not conjure up images (without actually saying so) of a series of in-between forms, convincingly showing how the scale turned into the feather?
I was puzzled when I read it. If there is such a transitional series, showing such a ‘gradient’, how could a leading palaeontologist like Colin Patterson of the British Museum of Natural History say that there is not one transitional fossil for which one could make a watertight case?5
... vs the reality
The reference given by Archer is based on the fossil of one single feather.6 In fact, it is described as a ‘feather fragment’ on a plate of clay shale which was described as ‘heavily weathered’. Figure 1 is a faithful attempt to reproduce the photograph of this weathered fragment of feather. The Russian author of the article in question used it to establish a new subclass, order, family, genus and species. Shades of Nebraska man, when an ‘ape-man’ and his family were confidently reconstructed from a pig’s tooth!
The second statement I refer to is on page 101 of Confronting Creationism, where the same author (Archer) blithely states: ‘...there are many other examples of significant links found in the fossil record such as forms intermediate between whales and ungulates ...’
Ungulates are hoofed animals, such as cows. The idea that one of these evolved into the present-day whales has long been one of the most difficult pills to swallow in the whole evolutionary pharmacopoeia. A genuine transitional series between these two would cause something of a sensation in creationist circles, so again I was puzzled as to why I had not seen it used by evolutionists in debates, for instance. Looking up the reference given by Archer,7 one is struck by an impressive-looking picture of something which is clearly supposed to represent a part-way land animal/whale. (Figure 2 is drawn after the original article.8)
... vs the reality (yet again)
But again, there is a yawning gulf of contrast between the facts and the interpretations. Figure 3 shows the extremely fragmentary nature of the actual evidence, which as usual was honoured with a brand-new name, Pakicetus.9
All of this reinforces our suggestion in previous issues of Creation magazine that arguments emanating from anyone affiliated with the Skeptics should be themselves regarded skeptically, and checked very carefully rather than taken at face value. After all, to a fervent true believer in the religion of evolutionary materialism/humanism, preventing people from straying from this glorious faith is very, very important.
References and Footnotes
- D.R. Selkirk and F.J. Burrows (Eds), Confronting Creationism; Defending Darwin, University of New South Wales Press (in association with the Australian Institute of Biology), Kensington (New South Wales), 1987. Return to text.
- Carl Wieland, Be Skeptical About the Skeptics, Part 2, Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol.11 No.2 (March-May 1989), p.48; Part 3 Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol.11 No. 3(June-August 1989), pp.46-47. Return to text.
- See for instance Darwin’s Enigma, by Luther D. Sunderland (Revised Edition), Master Books, Santee (California), 1988. Sunderland tape-recorded conversations with the heads of leading museums who are evolutionists and who have an intimate knowledge of the fossil record. Because of the context of the interviews, they were prepared to deal frankly and openly with the facts of the fossil record in all its anti-Darwinian starkness. Return to text.
- Ref.l, p.81. Return to text.
- As Ref.3. Return to text.
- A.S. Rautian, ‘A unique bird feather from Jurassic lake deposits in the Karatsu’, Paleontological Journal, No.4, 1978, pp.520-528. Return to text.
- P.D. Gingerich, ‘Evidence for Evolution from the Vertehrate Fossil Record’, Journal of Geological Education, Vol.31, 1983, pp. 140-144. Return to text.
- The diagram in Figure 2 has nothing to do with the ‘whale with feet’ claim, discussed briefly in Creation magazine Vol. l2 No. 4, p.5. ‘That fossil was not found at the time Archer’s article was written; its rear appendages are clearly functional (as admitted by its discoverer) yet had nothing to do with walking. By contrast, the Pakicetus, reconstructed from skull fragments, was hailed as a ‘walking whale’, as is clear from the speculative evolutionary reconstruction. Return to text.
- P.D. Gingerich, N.A. Wells, D.E. Russell, and S.M. Thrahim Shah, ‘Origin of Whales in Epicontinental Remnant Seas.’ ‘New Evidence from the Early Eocene of Pakistan’, Science, Vol.220, 1983, pp.403-406. Return to text.