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Rails derail evolution

The loss of flight is not evolution!


Published: 8 August 2019 (GMT+10)
Updated on 12 August 2019


commons.wikimedia.org, Charles J Sharpwhite-throated-rail
Figure 1. White-throated rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri)

A recent paper in an esteemed zoology journal caused a stir in the science media. Its authors claim that fossils of a species of bird called the white-throated rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri; see figure 1) show evidence for the repeated loss of flight in this bird in several islands in the southwest Indian Ocean near the island of Madagascar.1 As well as the flight-capable (volant) form of this species, which originates from the islands of Madagascar and Mayotte, there are several flightless subspecies on surrounding atoll islands. One of these, the Aldabra rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri aldabranus) is the last flightless subspecies in the Indian Ocean, found on the Aldabra atoll (island reef) in the Seychelles.

What is special about these species of birds is that the loss of flight capabilities has occurred several times rapidly, under specific conditions. These include the lack of land predators and other animals which could compete with the birds, principally for food. The authors of this paper claim that flightlessness has “evolved” several times. The online journal Science Daily reports these findings as birds coming back from the dead.2 But is this really a demonstration of de-evolution followed by re-evolution actually happening? What is really going on here?

Loss of flight is not evolution!

There are several problems with the evolutionary story of these rail species “evolving” “flightlessness”. Flightlessness is not a characteristic that can be gained, since it involves the loss of a morphological structure (for example, consider the flightless cormorants that Charles Darwin saw on the Galápagos Islands). No new gene arose for the development of any new kind of structure. When the flight-capable birds first arrived at the relatively underpopulated island, there was no pressure on them to escape from predators by flying away from them. Therefore, we can surmise that retaining their wings would have been unnecessary. In contrast, flying birds evolving from flightless birds has never been demonstrated.

It is quite possible that these birds actually lost genetic information (i.e. one or more mutations in homeobox genes, which function in development) or in some other piece of coding DNA for flight structures. If a mutation causes a structure to degenerate, which is not needed for survival, the animal may still survive and pass on this trait to the next generation.3 This would be a case of devolution and not evolution. The actual de novo generation of genes responsible for flight has never been demonstrated. This is what is necessary in order to demonstrate that evolution is true.

What is even harder to believe is that loss of flight happened at least three times in the white-throated rail. The same kind of change happening in an organism, with the same result, is called “iterative evolution”. The probability of the same organ being affected on different occasions over tens to hundreds of thousands of years in the same species is very small indeed. The question also arises as to why the wings of these birds did not evolve into useful appendages, such as grasping arms?

But on the other hand (pun not intended), it is ordinarily said that the same evolutionary trajectory cannot repeat itself, much less reverse itself and happen again. It also shows that is why it is absurd to say that these species of bird “came back from the dead”.

Lastly, the rapidity of flight loss in these birds goes against the standard evolutionary view of millions of years being required for such processes to happen.

Comparisons with insects

Flight supposedly arose several times according to the theory of evolution. The first time this happened was allegedly 400 million years ago in insects.4 Evolutionists do not have a clear concept about how this happened. However, what they do know is that the activities of dozens of genes are necessary for flight. In their thinking, all that complexity must have gradually arisen via unplanned, unguided, goal-less mutational events over deep time. These genes influence a host of things vital to flight, including muscle and nerve formation, and also affect sugar and energy metabolism.

However, flight has been lost thousands of times in insects, for example in beetles5 or in stick insects.6,7 This demonstrates the removal of pressure on organisms to retain anatomical structures or genes as opposed to gaining new ones. Thus, the scales are tipped heavily towards devolution as opposed to evolution.


The fact that evolutionists are actually promoting the multiple loss of wings in a bird species as evidence for evolution is a signal that there really isn’t much evidence for their theory. Loss of an anatomical structure is exactly the opposite of evolution. Also, the loss of anatomical structures is quite common in biology. Loss of flight has also happened in several other bird species, such as the great auk, the dodo, the moa, ostrich, rhea, emu, cassowary, kiwi and kakapo.3 Iterative devolution has also been observed in ammonites, sea cows and sea turtles.

The main problem here is that evolutionists are forced by their worldview to look at the fossil evidence as a linear record of evolution through time. This kind of thinking leads them to make patently absurd claims, such as that evolution is equal to the loss of flight.

What the evidence is really showing us is that genetic elements and anatomical structures naturally devolve over time. This cannot be used as convincing proof of evolution. Furthermore, since all of these changes happen between related species, this also reinforces the reality of the created kinds in Genesis 1:21, 24, 25. Again, the evidence from nature, which is so often presented as proof for evolution, overwhelmingly supports creation instead.

References and notes

  1. Hume, J.P. & Martill, M., Repeated evolution of flightlessness in Dryolimnas rails (Aves: Rallidae) after extinction and recolonization on Aldabra, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2019. Return to text.
  2. University of Portsmouth, The bird that came back from the dead, sciencedaily.com, 9 May 2019; accessed 6 June 2019. Return to text.
  3. Sodera, V. One small speck to man, the evolution myth 2, Bekaam Printers Pte Ltd, Malaysia, pp. 153–158, 2009. Return to text.
  4. Mitterboeck, T.F., et al, Positive and relaxed selection associated with flight evolution and loss in insect transcriptomes, Gigascience 6(10):1–14, 2017. | doi:10.1093/gigascience/gix073. Return to text.
  5. Wieland, C., Beetle bloopers, Creation 19(3):30,1997. Return to text.
  6. Roff, D.A., The evolution of flightlessness in insects, Ecol Monogr 60:389–421, 1990. Return to text.
  7. Whiting, M.F., Bradler, S. & Maxwell T., Loss and recovery of wings in stick insects, Nature 421(6920):264–7, 2003. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Philip R.
It seems to me that Alf F is missing the information aspect. Evolution is not a matter of chemical processes of the type that can occur in both directions, but of information content in the genome. And the loss of information (e.g. losing the information for flying) is far more likely to occur than gaining that information, which essentially can't occur at all, without an intelligence adding the information.
Matthew Cserhati
Good comment. This article also explains very well the relationship between mutations and information.
Thomas P.
Oh no. Sorry for the way I worded my question the first time. I simply meant that if birds lost the ability to fly because of predators, could the reason they learned the ability to fly in the first place was because of predators? They then developed wings and took to the trees as biology is taught in school about dino to bird types of evolution.
Matthew Cserhati
Hello Thomas,
According to the original paper, the rails lost their flight capabilities several times, very quickly. This goes to show that loss of a complex structure (a wing) happens very easily, and should be a major obstacle for evolution. It's like trying to climb up a flagpole covered with oil. You start out at the top, and since it is so slippery, you can only fall downwards, you cannot pull yourself upwards. The kinds of mutations that we observe in nature are not the kinds that evolution needs in order to work. For example in these rail species it is highly likely that a deletorious mutation happened to cause the loss of the wing. So many mutations have to occur all at once, to form a wing, that it is practically impossible. Predators or no predators. An animal with a half-formed wing which still cannot fly will be captured by predators the next thing it knows.
Thomas P.
Could the same be said for the development of wings? The birds had so many predators on the ground that they had a strong stress to change. Limbs slowly moved from the front of the bird to back over a long period of time. I heard that flying reptiles had feathers from Evolution the Grand Experiement Living Fossils which I recently watched on pterosaurs having fur in the bonus content. This is a creationist movie I heard this from, if this is the case, how much harder would it be for a bird to develop feathers? Anyways, to go back to the original topic sorry for trailing off, the last point of mine would be that this would demonstrate that all birds go back to one kind if we take this article as truth. If this bird lost its flight ability, we now know why we have ostriches, penguins, and other birds such as the chicken. Thanks.
Matthew Cserhati
Hello Thomas,
I am not quite sure I understand what you are asking, but let me address what I think you’re saying. The zoology journal that I analyzed says that the rail species lost its wings because there was no pressure for it to fly away from predators absent on the atoll. Creation Ministries International is not the one that produced “Evolution the Grand Experiment”, but we do distribute it. I am not aware that the authors would have made a statement about pterosaurs having fur. I am skeptical about this, because we have written several articles demonstrating that dinosaurs did not have feathers. My article does not prove that all birds come from one kind, only that loss of flight is not an example of evolution. In fact, the creationist literature is full of baraminology studies which show that there are multiple bird kinds. I am currently working on a baraminology study which describes the relationships between birds of prey, owls, caprimulgids, hummingbirds and swifts.
Francisco S.
excelente articulo DIOS los bendiga Creation Ministries Internacional
[Excellent article, God bless Creation Ministries International] (editor's translation)
Alf F.
If devolution occurred so rapidly due to passive environmental conditions (lack of pressure), why does evolution not occur so rapidly in response to pressure of environment? I'm talking in terms of percentages of birds per community "surviving" environmental factors due chiefly to advantageous mutation. Surely lack of predation is not even a pressure on flight ability, flight ability has many other advantages, whilst predation is a strong and selective pressure: to wit, why are ostriches and emus not taking to the air in hordes and droves? Blind chemical reactivity is surely not afraid of or aware of seeming upward gradients, as the scenario presents itself to our minds? Selectively, I should think that the steeper gradient is towards flightlessness rather than flight, or does the island setting present some ingredient in the mix that I am missing?
Matthew Cserhati
Hello Alf,
You are correct in stating that flight is definitely an advantage in most scenarios, and that as such, it should be possible for ostriches and emus and other flightless birds to take to the skies (if evolution were true). The fact that they don't shows that large morphological structures don't evolve. I'm not quite sure what you mean about steep gradients, but I do think that losing flight capability should be easier than attaining it. This is because it has happened so many times. It's easier to break something to fix it or make something new.
Virgil B.
I suggest that during the loss-gain-loss-gain cycles of flight there is an alternative possibility. Rather the loss-gain of genetic material, there is the possibility that genetic material was unaltered but that the genes were turned off and on, which can occur through methylation of genes. Methylation can be lost and gained, thus turning on and off the genetic strands without altering the genetic code.

(V) Ken Bertel (I am more familiarly known as Ken)
Colorado Springs, CO

Note I am not a geneticist but I did read a book about the epigenome. I believe it was from the Discovery institute.
Edmond C.
Just out of curiosity, I know that creatures do lose information and we see loss of some functionality quite often. But, is it possible that what we are seeing here is more a case of gene switching? Where the loss of functionality is due to a genetic switch triggered by the lack of predators. We know that certain fish can completely change within just a single generation depending on whether or not there are predators present in the lake or pond. Gene expression has been shown in recent years to have the ability in some creatures to create dramatic changes. Are we witnessing real genetic loss, or maybe just different genetic expression?

Another thing to ponder, we believe that before Adam sinned that all animals ate fruits and vegetables just like Adam and Eve. Could it be that because food became more scarce as part of the fall that some creatures became predatory by design?With what we are finding out about gene expression could that possibly explain how predators came to have things like fangs, claws, poisons, etc. Is it possible that even physical death itself is the result of genetic change resulting from removal from the tree of life? I know this is just speculation on my part, but these seem like fascinating possibilities.
Matthew Cserhati
Hello Edmond,
Thanks for your feedback. Indeed, as you say, it is possible that we are dealing with a genetic switch. We have actually written about such phenomena on our website about genetic switches in yeast and algae. There is an upcoming article on such a genetic switch in algae. However, the yeast and algae species always revert to a single-celled stage after the multicellular phenotype arises. Have these birds ever regained the capability of flight? They have not, and it seems that in this case, their flightlessness is permanent, just as in the ostrich.
As to predatory behavior being a result of scarcity of food, there are multiple views in biblical creationist circles. It could be possible, since there have been cases of cows and sheep eating chicken, indicating that this is a learned behavior. But some animals such as fruit bats have sharp teeth, but it is well-known that they eat fruit, pollen and nectar. It's more likely that the changes that happened at the Fall as described in Genesis 3:14-19 in man, animals and the natural world were supernatural. Before the Fall, there was no death or pain, now there is death and pain. God pronounced this as part of the curse, and it happened according to His word. Nevertheless, the curse could have effected the genomes of different organisms, causing harmful, disease-causing mutations to accumulate.
Gina T.
Thank you Matthew for your excellent, easy to understand article! It's amazing that evolutionist thinking hasn't recognized that the loss of information is not evolution at all, but as you say, the exact opposite. The claims that evolutionists level at creationists can be leveled back at them - there is no logic in their thinking. Rather Evolution is based on a lot of nebulous ethereal surmising, but when you start to diligently apply the science, the theory is left with no legs at all.
Philippus S.
Evolution never had rails, it is too disorganized, by nature.

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