Alan Feduccia: the feathered dinosaur maverick
A review of: Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs by Alan Feduccia BrownWalker Press, 2020
Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs is the eighth book by fossil bird expert Alan Feduccia (figure 1). In this book, Feduccia provides a more systematic overview of how cladistics and a commitment to dino-to-bird evolution have turned contemporary dinosaur paleontology into a farce. Feduccia opposes the popular evolutionary consensus that birds are descendants of theropod dinosaurs. Instead, he believes that birds evolved further back in time from an archosaurian common ancestor.
Feduccia is a maverick. In this book, he takes on the evolutionary establishment and hones in on various aspects where he disagrees with the consensus. Each chapter focuses on a key aspect of this controversy.
Criticism of multivariate approaches in cladistics
Creationists skeptical of feathered dinosaur claims will find that Feduccia echoes many of the same concerns they have raised in recent years. For example, Feduccia criticizes multivariate approaches in cladistics that ignore or marginalize unique key traits. He points out that the move to eliminate character weighting in favour of hundreds of insignificant traits has resulted in the artificial grouping of unrelated creatures together. Since these analyses usually only involve bird and dinosaur measurements, the cladistic approach, by default, frames the narrative such that birds are more likely to be grouped as a type of dinosaur even if they are unrelated. This derived cladogram is then re-asserted as proof of dino-to-bird evolution despite the obvious circular reasoning.
Feduccia does not mince his words when it comes to attacking cladistics and how the methodology involves imposing ideology onto the evidence. A biological species is defined as a group of individuals that can breed together but are reproductively isolated from other groups. This is contrasted with phylogenetic cladistics which often results in the over-splitting of species.
Feduccia believes that the overarching paradigm that ‘birds are living dinosaurs’, together with a naïve application of cladistics, has resulted in several mistakes, namely: the belief that flight evolved from the ground up in both dinosaurs and pterosaurs (i.e. cursorial origin of flight); that aerodynamic flight feathers evolved as exaptations before the ability to fly; and that dinosaurs had to be warm-blooded since birds are warm-blooded. Feduccia believes that the unique anatomical and aerodynamic body plans of birds could not have evolved in a context other than flight.
Rejection of biomolecule finds in fossils
Feduccia rejects the possibility that scientists have discovered original biomaterial and DNA in dinosaur fossils. He acknowledges the fact that these biomolecules have such a short halflife that they cannot exist for millions of years old. Consistent with his belief in deep time, Feduccia dismisses all soft-tissue discoveries. However, at the time of writing, at least 115 publications spanning 29 journals have catalogued endogenous biological material in supposedly ancient bone.1 57 of these involve dinosaurs, and 7 of the papers are supposedly from samples that are dated to more than half a billion years using evolutionary dating assumptions!
I am unsure if Feduccia is aware of the number of publications that have discovered original biomaterials in ‘ancient’ fossils, but Feduccia is consistent here. Having recognized that biomolecules cannot last that long, and since he cannot reject the ‘millions of years’ as an evolutionist, he ends up concluding that all these discoveries are ‘pseudo-science’ (p. 33).
Two types of ‘feathers’
Feduccia notes there are two types of ‘feathers’. The first is ‘proto feathers’. This group consists of filamentous fuzzy structures. These are not feathers, but decayed skin collagen. The second group consists of real pennaceous feathers on birds, but these birds have been wrongly classified as dinosaurs. Both ‘feather’ types are conflated into one so that birds are now regarded as theropods (p. 237).
Most evolutionists believe that dinosaurs evolved into modern birds. Therefore, it is easier to say that dinosaurs evolved endothermy just once early on in dinosaur evolution, rather than through convergence in each lineage leading to modern birds. Feduccia believes that dinosaurs were likely ectothermic and unrelated to the lineage that led to endothermic birds.
While Feduccia is highly critical of cladistics, he is even more critical of phenetic approaches that do not discern between significant and insignificant traits. Cladistics today often involves algorithms that analyze hundreds of paleontological measurements. These measurements are then grouped according to how similar they are from one another. Feduccia calls these approaches ‘clado-phenetics’ (p. 138) somewhat similar to a more sophisticated form of 1970s phenetics.
Feduccia brings attention to the fact that there is an inherent circularity in cladistics. One problem is that of character weighting, where certain traits are given more significance than others. Quoting Peter Sneath, he points out:
“One cannot reconstruct phylogeny from synapomorphies if one must first know the phylogeny to recognize correctly the synapomorphies. This is logically the same as trying to select the discriminatory characters before knowing which groups are to be discriminated. One must not know the answer in advance; to do so is not science” (p. 115).
However, Feduccia believes that there are even more problems for approaches that do not discriminate between significant and insignificant traits. Taking a non-discriminating approach is worse since it results in the marginalization of key traits. These approaches often give ambiguous results, and the genealogies that are obtained depend heavily on the data that is used.
For example, he cites crocodile-line archosaurs as generally only distinguishable from theropods and dinosaurs by the presence of certain key characteristics such as the ankle or hip structure. Feduccia believes that archosaurs, poposaurids, rauisuchians, and some putative saurischians evolved similar traits by convergence (p. 140). So Postosuchus was originally described as a theropod dinosaur, but later on, it was identified as a rauisuchian based on its key characteristic ankle. Feduccia uses this as an example of why the indiscriminate analysis of traits often results in unrelated creatures clustering together.
Feduccia claims that only 40% of published cladistic studies can be replicated (p. 116).
“Most disturbingly, characters, typically skeletal, are represented in a binary code of ones and zeros, so that computer processing is facilitated according to a chosen algorithm. One can legitimately question whether the mind-boggling complexity of organisms can even be reasonably represented by such a simplistic and reductionist system. Massive numbers of unsorted characters, mostly primitive, have rendered such analyses meaningless” (p. 119).
Feduccia also refers to criticsms “by distinguished paleornithologist Gerald Mayr, who noted that the inclusion of huge, often trivial, characters produced a ‘low ratio of phylogenetic signal to “noise” in the data’” (p. 124). Feduccia’s criticism is important for the creationist community. It also applies to some creationist baraminology methods such as BDIST.
Vicariance biogeography is the idea that creatures gradually evolved after being isolated due to biogeographical events. For example, flightless bird populations may become isolated on an island due to continental drift. Traditionally, ratites are believed to have evolved this way from a single lineage of flightless birds. During the Mesozoic, ratites were stranded on continents during the Cretaceous. This resulted in rheas in South America, ostriches in Africa, and emus and cassowaries in Australia.
Interestingly, ratite fossils have yet to be found in Mesozoic layers. Feduccia points out that birds are morphologically very similar, and modern bird orders exhibit very little protein amino acid differences. This seems to rule out an ancient origin. But if ratites only evolved more recently in the post-Cretaceous era, how can continental drift during the Cretaceous have a bearing on the distribution of ratites? Feduccia believes that cladistics has been a failure in ratite phylogeny because these birds are secondarily flightless and paedomorphic, and cladistics is unable to take these factors into account. Unfortunately, the idea of a Gondwanaland origin of ratites has been used to calibrate molecular clocks for years resulting in false conclusions.
Feduccia criticizes Richard Dawkins who devoted 15 pages in The Ancestor’s Tale explaining how ratites reached their present location by staying on dry ground. Contrary to this, Feduccia believes that ratites evolved from post-Cretaceous lithornithids or ‘stone birds’, and that recent genomic analysis supports the idea that these ratites independently lost the ability to fly after the K-Pg extinction event. Feduccia explains that molecular analysis shows that there have been at least six independent losses of flight in ratites after the breakup of the continents. He quotes Gerald Mayr, who concluded that the ratites continental drift explanation was “a textbook example of Gondwanan vicariance [having been] dismantled” (p. 160).
A few mutational changes in key developmental genes may often result in major phenotypic changes. Feduccia points to key characteristics that show that ratites came from flying ancestors. For example, despite losing the ability to fly, ostriches still retain the structure of flight-capable ancestors, cassowaries retain large rigid flight quills, rheas exhibit an alula and distinction between primary and secondary feathers, and emus show a hallux that points backwards, which he regards as a sure sign of ancestors that perched in trees. However, many evolutionists ignore this and continue to insist that ratites evolved from non-flying ancestors. As with the flightless cormorant, organs may become vestigial through the loss of flight.
Creationists have long pointed out that whatever truly vestigial organs there might be are not problematic for the creation model. Secondarily flightless birds may retain real examples of vestigial organs associated with the loss of flight. This does not ‘prove’ evolution, since vestigial by definition is a breakdown and not gain of function.
Dollo’s law states that once a creature has lost a structure, it is unlikely that the same structure will evolve again in the same form in its descendants. While most paleontologists reject Dollo’s law, most biologists see it as a significant principle for evolution. Reactivation of silenced genes and long unexpressed developmental pathways are not normally possible due to the statistical improbability of following the same evolutionary trajectory twice. While there are some instances where stick insects regain their wings, occasional exceptions do not disprove the general rule.
It is also important to note that Dollo’s rule does not apply to variation within small local populations over short periods. For example, the beaks in Darwin’s finches are labile and can reverse and adapt to conditions very quickly. But this does not negate Dollo’s law. Dollo’s law applies to creatures at the anatomical and molecular level over long periods.. For example, there are no examples of a secondarily flightless bird having re-elongated its wings and re-evolved flight again.
Feduccia applies this concept to dinosaurs. If Dollo’s law were invalid, where are the examples of structures that are regained after an extensive loss, and why haven’t snakes regrown limbs? (p. 183). Feduccia raises a question in light of Dollo’s law: “is it possible for dinosaurs with already drastically reduced fore-shortened forelimbs to re-elongate these structures into elongated forelimb wings seen in the urvogel and basal birds?” (p. 185) Most evolutionists believe that theropods with foreshortened forelimbs evolved into modern birds with elongated modern wings. Feduccia says that this is highly improbable due to Dollo’s law.
Digits in the hand of birds
Most vertebrates share a pentadactyl limb structure (homology). At a superficial level, theropods have a hand that resembles the birds. However, the embryonic development in both groups is very different. Therapods have elongated digits I, II, and III, but the corresponding digits in birds develop from digits II, III, and IV.
While cladistics today has a disdain for single key character analysis, ‘trump characters’ are logically more important than trivial bumps on bones (p. 190). However, dino-to-bird paleontologists reject this because this would require disavowing the cladogram. Most paleontologists ignore the evidence and insist that the avian hand has to be the same as those of dinosaurs. Feduccia calls this denial “establishing homology a posteriori” (p. 196). Most try to dismiss the problem by appealing to a homeotic frameshift during development. Feduccia likens appeal to a frameshift as a ‘just so’ story—a mysterious ‘deus ex machina’ to save dino-to-bird cladistics.
Feduccia echoes what creationists have long said: vastly different creatures from fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals have similar-looking structures (homology), yet the genetics and the embryonic developmental pathways for these organs are very different. As an evolutionist, Feduccia admits that the classical basis of homology discerned by structure, position, and embryological connectivity is problematic, but that it remains the only reasonable and workable approach to homology today (p. 206). Creationists, on the other hand, have long pointed out that homology is best explained as evidence for a common designer. For example, while the pentadactyl structure is common among vertebrates, embryonic development,2 and even the genes that control embryonic development are often different.3
Feduccia demonstrates that many birds are dated to be older than the supposed feathered theropods. Feduccia goes through many examples, and shows that phylogenetic models are often topsy-turvy.
Dino fuzz is not feathers
Focusing on the identification of dino fuzz, Feduccia points out that the downy covering on Sinosauropteryx does not represent feathers. The fibres are under the skin—within the confines of the body outlined on the fossil. He notes that small tuberculated dinosaurian scales were also observed on the body. He points to experiments and explains how the same fuzzy structure is found on fossils and carcasses of ichthyosaurs, dolphins, pterosaurs, and other creatures.
We have well-preserved impressions from hadrosaurs, sauropods, stegosaurs, ceratopsians, ankylosaurs, and theropods. Some are even preserved with details of internal organs and muscle. Feathers would have been preserved on those fossils if they had existed. Dinosaur skin is generally tuberculated, and only scales are observed wherever high-quality specimens are found. Feduccia cites two examples, a mosasaur fossil and a basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) where thick ‘dino fuzz’ lies beneath translucent scales—meaning that the ‘dino fuzz’ cannot be feathers but are just skin collagen (pp. 226, 245).
Birds did not evolve from dinosaurs
Feduccia believes that flight had evolved independently in some form or fashion in 30 vertebrate lineages, yet no vertebrate has ever done so from the ground up. Feduccia then makes a case for an arboreal origin of flight in birds.
Feduccia takes several chapters to go through many of the alleged feathered dinosaurs and discuss their anatomy and whether they are birds or dinosaurs. Pennaraptors is a newly named group phylogenetically defined as the most recent common ancestor of Oviraptor, Deinonychus, and Passer domesticus (house sparrow). This is a group that includes the most avian of the maniraptorans. They include Oviraptorosauria, Dromaeosauridae, and Troodontidae—and possibly also the Scansoriopterygidae (figure 2).
Contrary to the popular view that birds evolved from dinosaurs, Feduccia discusses Gregory Paul’s Neo-flightless Hypothesis. Gregory Paul considers maniraptorans to be either flightless or flying lineages of birds. Paul believes that some theropods were winged fliers, while others had flying ancestors but then lost the ability to fly and became secondarily flightless. Feduccia discusses the merits of Gregory Paul’s approach. He acknowledges that some penneraptorans have some features common to birds, such as pennaceous flight feathers (not in all in this group), and a semilunate carpal. Thus, he agrees with Gregory Paul that they are derived from flying ancestors. Classic theropods lack this unique carpal feature.
Feduccia does not believe that dinosaurs evolved into birds, but that birds evolved from a separate lineage from an archosaurian line before the theropods. For this reason, Feduccia believes that penneraptorans are not theropods, nor are they related to dinosaurs. Feduccia concludes that Deinonychus is not a feathered dinosaur, but a secondarily flightless bird. Remember: in Feduccia’s view, birds are not dinosaurs but are derived from a separate archosaurian lineage. Thus, it would be incorrect to call Deinonychus a dinosaur. The fossils from China that do show real pennaceous feathers, however, are from birds that have been wrongly classified as feathered dinosaurs. Feduccia is open to the possibility that Velociraptor may have feathers, although he thinks that the evidence for this is equivocal. However, even if it is shown that Velociraptor had feathers, like Deinonychus, it would not be a feathered dinosaur, but a secondarily flightless bird—again, remember that in Feduccia’s view, birds are not derived from dinosaurs.
Feathered-dinosaur movement a religion
In the book, Feduccia often quips about how the dino-to-bird paradigm limits the way the evidence is interpreted, but the same criticism can be made about how his archosaur-origin paradigm shapes the way he interprets the evidence. This is a classic example of how scientific data doesn’t speak for itself but is always interpreted in light of an a priori worldview.
Feduccia likens the feathered-dinosaur movement to a religion. Throughout the book, Feduccia describes proselytes of this movement with invectives such as dogmatic, orthodoxy, religious, faith, and cult-like.
He is equally hostile to both creationists and the Intelligent Design movement. He calls Intelligent Design a “supposed scientific term to disguise and substitute for special creation”, calling it “a sleight of hand” that “provided their flocks with a sophisticated and refined system of ‘belief’, albeit not falsifiable, and therefore not science” (p. 37). However, apart from several passing remarks, the rest of the book sets its sights on those who believe that dinosaurs evolved into birds.
Despite the polemical undertone, this is a well-written book jam-packed with excellent technical analysis. It is chock-full of information, yet succinct, considering how much he manages to condense into 400 pages. The underlying thesis that runs throughout the book is that cladistics and a commitment to the dinosaur-to-bird paradigm have resulted in many false conclusions.
Creationists interested in the feathered dinosaur controversy will find this book to be rewarding. However, there is a need for the reader to be discerning and to give special attention to how his evolutionary presuppositions shape his interpretation of the evidence. The book is a nice follow-up to his 2012 book, Riddle of the Feathered Dragons, with a lot of new material. In Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs, Feduccia ups the ante and makes a strong case for why dinosaurs could not have evolved into birds, although biblical creationists will also disagree with his archosaurian-origin model.
References and notes
- Thomas, B. and Enyart, B., List of Biomaterial Fossil Papers (Maintained), tinyurl.com/4u34hex9, accessed 19 May 2020. Return to text.
- Statham, D., Problems with the evolutionary interpretation of limb design, J. Creation 26(2):10, 2012. Return to text.
- ReMine, W., Developmental genetics supports creation theory, J. Creation 30(1):36–42, 2016. Return to text.