Which came first—the dino or the bird?
21 December 2000
According to the Word of One who was there, the bird came first—air and sea creatures were created on Day 5, while land creatures (which must logically include dinosaurs) were created on Day 6. However, evolutionists, who weren’t there, believe that birds evolved from land creatures, and therefore must have come after them.
One group of evolutionists believes that birds evolved from small tree-dwelling reptiles (not dinosaurs), hence it’s called the arboreal theory. Its intellectual leader is probably Dr Alan Feduccia, University of North Carolina ornithologist and author of the encyclopedic book The Origin and Evolution of Birds.1 The other, more vocal, group believes that that birds evolved from running dinosaurs, so it’s called the cursorial theory. The dinosaurs concerned are types of theropod (carnivorous dinosaur) called the Dromaeosaurs, the group to which Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame belongs.
Bird evolution is one of the most controversial areas in evolutionary paleontology, and leaders of both groups have made extremely powerful (and sometimes acrimonious) criticisms of the other. I think they are both right in their criticisms—birds evolved from neither! For evidence against the evolution of birds from anything, see the articles in Q&A: Fossils, or chapter 4 of Refuting Evolution.
One of the most scathing critiques was by Dr Storrs Olson, curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in an open letter:
‘The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age—the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion.’
This was part of a criticism of the National Geographic article on Archaeoraptor, which turned out to be a fraud—see Archaeoraptor—Phony ‘feathered’ fossil for more information.
In early December, papers published by different groups of Chinese scientists within a day of each other in the two top secular science journals were used as support for both camps.
Xing Xu et al. reported the discovery of the smallest known theropod, the crow-sized Microraptor zhaoianus, in Nature.2 It supposedly lived 125 million years ago. The researchers believe it could have lived in trees, and its small size is supposed to help solve a big problem with the dino-to-bird idea, i.e. how to evolve small flying creatures from large dinosaurs. This would be an unusual combination of the arboreal and dino-origin theory.
In Science, Fucheng Zhang and Zhonghe Zhou reported on a fossil of what they claim is a true flying bird they named Protopteryx fengningensis.3 It was part of the groups of extinct birds known as the enantiornithines (from the Greek for ‘opposite birds’, and they date it at 120 million years.3 The fossil had imprints of downy feathers as well as a structure of the pelvis called the procoracoid process that is an indicator of flight ability in modern birds. This has led to media headlines like ‘Scientists Say Fossil Shows Birds Came Before Dinosaurs.’4
Feduccia claims that Protopteryx is good evidence against the dino-bird theory. He has consistently claimed, with good reason, that ‘feathered dinosaurs’ were really nothing of the kind—in some like Sinosauropteryx, the feathers were frayed collagen fibres, and others like Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx were really flightless birds. Feduccia has also consistently rejected the idea that feathers first evolved for heat insulation, favoured by the cursorial school; rather, he suggests they really did evolve for flight. He thinks that the Protopteryx feathers were somewhat transitional between scales and feathers.
Previously, Feduccia had co-authored a controversial paper claiming that the highly elongated scales of the tiny (50 mm / 2 inch–long) non-dinosaurian reptile Longisquama (‘dated’ 220 million years ago) were really feathers.5 However, the dino-to-bird advocate Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was not convinced that they were feathers, and added: ‘Even if these turn out to be feathers, they have not established that Longisquama is ancestral to modern birds.’6
The article Bird evolution flies out the window points out that feathers are far closer to mammalian hairs than reptilian scales, and illustrates this with pictures of scales and a feather under the same magnification.
Another important point is that the evolutionary ‘dates’ are wrong. Archaeopteryx with ‘feathers almost identical to those of modern birds’,7 is ‘dated’ at 25 million years older than Protopteryx with its allegedly primitive feathers, and Archaeopteryx is also dated 20 million years older than Microraptor. Some evolutionists are claiming that this is an ‘evolutionary reversal’, but this doesn’t change the fact that the evolutionary order does not support evolution of birds from non-birds.7
What should creationists think about the latest claims?
While these are both interesting finds, there is nothing to invalidate the arguments already presented against evolution. Feduccia admits in an interesting turn of phrase: ‘The true origin of birds is still up in the air.’4 One thing that must be avoided is using that headline4 as ‘proof’ of the Genesis order of creation. The fossil order has nothing to do with the order in which they were created, but everything to do with the order in which Noah’s Flood buried different ecosystems.
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