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Butterball Meets the Missing Link
In Defense of the Faith
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Wendy Wippel

Ever been to a natural science museum? Then you've probably seen a picture of the archaeopteryx, a long-extinct animal that Berkeley's website calls ''intermediate between birds that we see flying around and the predatory dinosaurs'', and ''one of the most important fossils discovered''.  I concur with the latter. But not for the same reasons.

The first archaeopteryx fossil was found in a limestone quarry near Solnhofen, Germany  in 1861, just two years after Darwin's "Origin of Species" was published. It electrified the scientific community. Why?  It pretty much looked like all the other Mesozoic era dinosaur  skeletons (three fingers ending in claws, rows of sharp teeth, long bony tales, and hyperextensible second toes), with one big difference:

It had wings. With feathers.

Darwin had predicted that his theory would be confirmed by the discovery of "transitional fossils" (meaning "missing links"), saying that "by the theory of natural selection all living species have been connected with the parent species of each genus and "as a consequence, "the number of intermediate and transitional links  between all living and extinct must have been inconceivably great."  When "Origin of Species" was published, the expected evidence  of the inconceivably great number of intermediate forms had not come to light, and  Darwin lamented, "Why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?.”

His hypothesis?  The "imperfection of the fossil record."

So when that first Archaeopteryx was found, a mere two years after Darwins's theory was published, (the first of ten total, all found in the same quarry) it was like finding the Holy Grail. It was slam-dunk proof, so it seemed, that Darwin's theory was true.  Archaeopteryx, half dinosaur (i.e. reptile), half bird was the missing link between dinosaurs and the birds that descended from them. 

That was their story, and they were sticking to it.

And boy, have they stuck to it. Berkeley's website, 150 years later, says that archaeopteryx is intermediate between birds and dinosaurs. An exhibit at Smithsonian, 150 years later, calls archaeopteryx the "strongest evidence that birds had evolved from dinosaurs". And the exhibit in Berlin which showcases the first Archaeopteryx fossil ever discovered, 150 years later, states that archaeopteryx places the dinosaur at the base of the birds evolutionary tree.  Penn State anthropologist Pat Shipman, calls it a "Holy relic of the past" and "a powerful symbol of the evolutionary process."

Despite the fact that they all know that there's no real evidence to back any of that up.  And that there have been cracks in the model for a long time. The theory really started to unravel in the 70s as a result of a biological research methodology called cladistics.

Cladistics, defined as a method of classification of animals and plants according to the measurable characteristics (mostly anatomical) that they have in common and assumes that the more structural or physiological characteristics two organisms share, the more recently they diverged from a common ancestor.

And based on the assumption that the scales of the reptiles evolved to become feathers in birds, if Archaeopteryx was, in fact, a transitional form, then the feather should be a transitional feather. A scaly feather.

But it wasn't. It was a full-fledged mature flying feather.

Strike One. And some scientists, in a rare moment of actual evolutionary scientific honesty, started to question the Darwinian dogma.

Like Barbara Stahl: "How birds arose, initially, presumably out of the scales of reptiles, defies analysis." (Vertebrate History, 1974)

And Alan Feduccia: the feather is "essentially like those of modern birds" and "not a transitional form of a feather". (Science, 1979)  

And Larry Martin : "Archaeopteryx is not ancestral of any group of modern birds" but "the earliest known member of a totally extinct group of birds." (1985)

And in fact, cladistics had also shown that the dinosaurs most closely related to Archaeopteryx-- by cladistics (and prevailing theory) therefore being assumed to be its probable ancestor--in fact lived millions of years after Archaeopteryx.

Strike 2

Luis Chiappe, at the American Museum of Natural History, however, didn't see that as a problem. "We don't see time as particularly important", he told BioScience magazine. "We think the fossil record is incomplete. "

The problem here is that dreams die hard. And in the words of James Patterson, "sometimes they don't have to die at all." Darwin's disciples found a new missing link to replace Archaeopteryx.

 Bambiraptor was discovered on a farm in Montana. No evidence of feathers on this fossil (but depicted with them nonetheless) hailed as a new candidate for missing link. 

And again, shown  to live 75 million years after Archaeopteryx, its supposed ancestor. 

In 1999, the National Geographic Society purchased a fossil with characteristics of both dinosaurs and birds at a show in Arizona, said fossil supposedly smuggled out of China. National Geographic features their astounding discovery in the magazine, announcing that  the real missing link between dinosaurs and modern birds had been found. The article, written by Christopher Sloan, asserted that with this discovery,  we could confidently assert that feathered dinosaurs preceded the first bird.

They named it Archaeoraptor. The article included a picture of the actual fossil and an exultation that the fossil displayed features which were exactly what scientists would expect to find in dinosaurs experimenting with flight.

There was a reason for that. It was eventually discovered that the Archaeoraptor was forged, and the forger knew exactly what features would convince paleontologists eager to find a new missing link high dollar for its possession. And there was a reason it had characteristics of both dinosaurs and birds: a Chinese forger had expertly cemented a fossil of a dinosaur tail to a fossil of a body of a fossilized bird.

Storrs Olson, curator of ornithology (birds) at the Smithsonian, agreed, chastising the National Geographic ociety for being in bed with "zealous scientist", "outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. " (But still no mention of the fact that this ancestor would still be much younger than its progeny.)

Strike 3. Or so you'd think.

In  the year 2000 a symposium on Dinosaur/Bird evolution featured an announcement, made by one William Gartska, that DNA had been successfully extracted from a the fossil of a 65-million year old dinosaur, and that DNA had been compared to modern birds. Despite the fact that results from DNA that old is at best dubious, Garstka  announced that their research had demonstrated "the first direct genetic evidence to indicate that birds represent the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs." Science reported their discovery.

Not so fast.  The dinosaur they tested was a Triceratops, which isn't even in the proposed line. And second? Garstka claims that the dinosaurs DNA was 100% identical to the DNA of modern turkeys.

Let me say here that I am a molecular biologist, and DNA has a predictable mutation rate over time. For some mitochondrial DNA, for example, used in archaeogenetic analysis, has a mutation rate of roughly one mutation every 1200 years.

And between the Triceratops and the butterball in my freezer? A whole lot more time than that.  In other words, there is no way in the world any fossilized animal is going to have 100% homology between its DNA and a modern animal.

No way. The possibility of someone's lunch contaminating the fossil DNA is infinitely more likely.

By 2009 the theory had completely unraveled. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported that an international research team had determined that the Archaeopteryx wasn't a bird at all: "an examination of its bone cells revealed for the first time that the 150-million-year-old creature had the slow growth rate of a dinosaur, not a bird", and when compared to other early fossils, the "telltale physiology of modern birds likely didn't emerge until 20 million years or so after archaeopteryx flapped its broad wings across primordial lagoons."

Gareth Nelson of the American Museum of Natural History once spilled the beans on how this stuff happens:

“We’ve got to have some ancestors. We’ll pick those.” “Why?” “Because we know they have to be there, and these are the best candidates.”

"That’s by and large the way it has worked. I am not exaggerating."  ~Gareth Nelson

So now we know.

Wippel" href="http://www.omegaletter.com/content/?Bio_Wendy_page">About Wendy Wippel

Last week: Wippel" href="http://www.omegaletter.com/articles/articles.asp?ArticleID=7751">Evident Design



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