Information on Archaeopteryx

Author: David Buckna
Subject: Biology
Date: 10/19/95

(In response to a young student’s question)

A paper published October 19/95 issue of Nature:

[Hou, L., Z. Zhou, L.D. Martin, and A. Feduccia. 1995. A beaked bird from the Jurassic of China. Nature 377:616-618] reported about a bird that is as “old” or “older” than Archaeopteryx, and yet is more modern in form. This newly-discovered fossil, named Confuciusornis sanctus, was discovered in the Yixian formation of the Liaoning province of northeastern China. Though the stratigraphic sequence in the area is disputed, Confuciusornis is presumed to be Late Jurassic. Confuciusornis is about half the size of the London specimen of Archaeopteryx, but does have several features in common with this more famous fossil: both birds possess long claws on their wings, and the profile of both their skulls is roughly triangular. This is the first Jurassic bird to be discovered outside of Germany.

Not only are there problems linking Archaeopteryx to theropods, there is no link from it to any modern birds. Martin (1985, p. 182) states: “Archaeopteryx is not ancestral to any group of modern birds. It has specializations in its tarsometatarsus and skull which show conclusively that it is on a side branch of avian evolution.” Since this is so, then ask your teacher:

“Where then are the alledged intermediates lying on the main branch?”

Another question for your teacher to ponder is: “How could scales become feathers, and not only be useful in the intermediate stages but provide a comparative advantage?”

And according to Barbara Stahl, in Vertebrate History: Problems in Evolution, (pp. 349-350) “how [feathers] arose initially, presumably from reptiles scales, defies analysis…It seems, from the complex construction of feathers, that their evolution from reptilian scales would have required an immense period of time and involved a series of intermediate structures. So far, the fossil record does not bear out that supposition.”

Nick, you could also obtain more info on the 1993 discovery of a small creature named Mononychus, hailed by some paleontologists as “a new link between dinosaurs and birds” because it shares some features with modern birds, such as a keeled sternum and some fused wristbones. (On the April 26/93 Time magazine cover,the creature is drawn having feathers instead of scales, which is entirely speculative.) Be sure to point this out to your teacher.

Finally, although Archaeopteryx has some features that are similar in morphology to those of reptiles (eg. a bony tail) so what? It does not necessarily follow that Archaeopteryx was a transitional creature between reptile and bird.

Dinosaur paleontologists would do well to consider what Phillip Johnson says on the subject of fossil “evidence” for evolution: “The fossils provide much more discouragement than support for Darwinism when they are examined objectively, but objective examination has rarely been the object of Darwinist paleontology. The Darwinist approach has consistently been to find some supporting fossil evidence, claim it as proof for “evolution,” and then ignore all the difficulties.” (“Darwin on Trial”, 2nd edition 1993, p. 86)

When discussing origins topics in the science classroom, it’s important that you raise questions that will assist in developing critical thinking skills on the part of your teacher and fellow students.

The following questions have been freely adapted from an article on critical thinking found at Christian Answers network:

Question #1: What do you mean by this?

Question #2: How do you know that’s correct?

Question #3: Why do you believe this is correct?

[This question may “encourage” the teacher to admit that what he claims to be true is merely belief, and so must present evidence to support it.]

Question #4: What specific information can you give that shows what you’re saying is correct?”

Question #5: Could the information be in error?

Question #6: Are there any scientists who don’t share your view? If so, who?

[With respect to origins, teachers may hold to one position very strongly over all others. In class, they may assert, either implicitly or explicitly, that what they believe to be true is also objective truth.

Therefore, they may give little or no consideration to other views, and may ridicule an opposing view. The astute and student will ask such teachers to defend the other side as a means of proving that they have weighed both sides, and made an informed decision. Either way, the student wins. The teacher has two options: 1) give the merits of the other side (thus demonstrating to the class that his is not the only way to think about the issue), or, 2) admit that he has not studied both sides, and has thus made an uninformed decision without weighing all of the possible information.

Question #8: Why is this significant?

[Unless challenged by students, teachers may not provide the connection between their worldview and the point they are making.]

Question #9: How do I know what you’re saying is correct?

[A ill-prepared teacher may respond by listing his qualifications or the qualifications of those cited. A well-prepared teacher may say “Don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself!”

Question #10: How did you come to this conclusion?

[Asking the teacher how he reached that conclusion will assist him to focus on logical reasoning.]

Question #11: What’s an alternate explanation for this?

Question #12: How do you know that your explanation is the correct/most reasonable one?

[Especially in college classes, students may be frustrated by professors who, at least on the surface, refuse to take a position on an issue. They may appear to be objective, even when they may not be. Students should politely ask them to defend what they claim is true.]

Note: The strategy of asking questions is a powerful one, but should be done with courtesy, respect and tact. When questioning the ideas of others, (particularly one’s teacher or professor!) one must be careful not to challenge the authority of the teacher. By presenting these questions in a courteous way, you increase the likelihood for more in-depth discussion of the various viewpoints.

Do not, they say, ask students to learn fact, but teach them to think. “O, Thinking—what intellectual crimes are committed in thy name. How can man think if he doesn’t know?” (W.E. McNeill).

David Buckna