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MSNBC’s Birthday Present to Charles Darwin: Puff-Pieces on Evolution (Part 1)

With Darwin’s 200th birthday recently upon us, the media is pushing Darwinism harder than ever. MSNBC, in particular, has recently posted three puff-pieces about the evidence for evolution. My purpose here is not to exhaustively rebut everything these articles say, but to show that for a lot of the evidence they cite in favor of evolution, there’s another side to the story that isn’t being represented. It’s too bad the media is only telling the public one-side of the story.

Fluffy Evidence for the Dino To Bird Transition
The first piece, titled “9 links in the dinosaur-to-bird transition is intended to bolster the theory that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. The MSNBC piece cites as its primary piece of evidence the fossil Archaeopteryx, about which it says: “Archaeopteryx’s feathers and birdlike wishbone — along with reptilian features such as a long bony tail, claws and teeth — are seen as strong evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs.” While there is no doubt that Archaeopteryx represents a bird species with a mosaic of some reptilian and many avian traits, these observations are not support for a transition unless the fossil fits a larger, coherent picture of evolution.

Archaeopteryx was a true bird, capable of flight, but where did it come from? The theropod dinosaurs, from which Archaeopteryx is said to have descended, lived at least 20 million years after Archaeopteryx (see Nature, Vol. 400:58–61 (July 1, 1999)). This leaves us with a striking situation: Archaeopteryx, a true bird, has no real candidates for fossil ancestors whatsoever. Given that Archaeopteryx really is a bird, then from what, if anything, did birds evolve?

The theropod-to-bird hypothesis has bigger problems than fossil order. An evolutionary interpretation of the fossil data requires that many specialized features required for birds flight, including feathers, evolved for purposes other than flight. Feathers supposedly evolved from scales, but pennaceous feathers are so well-suited for flight that it is difficult to imagine functional transitional stages between scales and fully functional flight feathers. According to much prevailing evolutionary wisdom, natural selection is not the powerful force driving the evolution of traits necessary for flight. Rather, bird flight has become a mere accident and lucky byproduct of a morphological coincidence. This does not make for a compelling evolutionary story.

And there are other problems. Bird evolution expert Alan Feduccia explains that developmental biology strongly challenges the theropod-to-bird hypothesis. In all egg-laying vertebrates, the digits (i.e. fingers) on the hand develop out of a mass of cartilage. Bird digits develop out of digits 2, 3, and 4 from the cartilaginous array, but fossil evidence indicates that theropod dinosaurs develop their “fingers” from digits 1, 2, and 3. This strongly contradicts the cladistic methodology which evolutionists use to argue that birds must be descended from theropods.

But if birds didn’t come from theropods, this leaves a large gap, for there are no nearby fossil candidates for the ancestor of birds. Feduccia concludes, “In spite of some paleontologists’ desperate pleas for us to accept through faith the dinosaurian origin of avian flight, the details of the origin of birds remain elusive after more than a hundred and fifty years.” If Archaeopteryx is the first known true bird, then again I ask, from what, if anything, did birds evolve? The fossil record does not tell us. There is simply not a coherent picture of evolution through this transitional form. Perhaps a better explanation is that Archaeopteryx represents a mosaic form where an creative designer used creativity to play a variation upon a theme.

The MSNBC site also makes a big deal out of other evidence that appears highly circumstantial and uninteresting. The site claims that certain dinosaurs laid 2 eggs at a time, and that daddy dinosaurs guarded eggs. Two questions arise: Why is this impressive evidence that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs, and how they know this for a fact? Lots of species lay eggs (of varying numbers) and daddies often get involved with child protection. The article also cites a bird-like feature of “pneumatization” in some theropod dinosaur bones where “air sacs from the lung invade the bone.” But again, it has been long known that non-theropod dinosaurs far removed from birds have pneumatization of their bones, so this evidence isn’t especially interesting either. MSNBC even cites the fact that some theropods were small as another crucial piece of amazing evidence that birds evolved from theropods. Forgive me if this seems like unimpressive circumstantial evidence.

Finally, the story cites alleged feathered dinosaurs. Assuming that they’ve found real feathers, and not “dino-fuzz,” it’s worth nothing that, as Alan Feduccia observes, many of these alleged feathered dinos are “replete with features of secondarily flightless” birds, meaning that they are true birds that have lost their ability to fly and are not evolutionary intermediates. I discussed this in detail at Is the Latest ‘Feathered Dinosaur’ Actually a Secondarily Flightless Bird?.

Despite the weak evidence supporting this evolutionary story, Phillip Johnson provides a lucid and charitable analysis of the importance of Archaeopteryx: “Archaeopteryx is on the whole a point for Darwinists, but how important is it? Persons who come to the fossil evidence as convinced Darwinists will see a stunning confirmation, but skeptics will see a lonely exception to a consistent pattern of fossil disconfirmation.”


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.