Feduccia is at it again

4 06 2007

Uh-oh, creationist-darling Alan Feduccia is at it again. In an new Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper entitled “A new Chinese specimen indicates that ‘protofeathers’ in the Early Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are degraded collagen fibres“, Feduccia (along with Theagarten Lingham-Soliar and Xiaolin Wang) claim that the primitive feathers of the small dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are merely only degraded elements of the animal, and thus it did not have feathers. Reputable dinosaur experts vehemently disagree with Feduccia’s assertions however (and have for some time; Feduccia’s take on Sinosauropteryx is not new), and Kevin Padian succinctly put it this way;

“These people have been flogging the same horse for a long time… It is appalling that Proceedings B chose to publish this nonsense.”

The majority of the National Geographic news story reporting the new paper, however, is devoted to the claims of Feduccia and other scientists who don’t believe birds evolved from dinosaurs at all, the whole article having an intelligent-design sort of vibe to it. Says Feduccia;

We are dealing here basically with a faith-based science where the contrarian view is silenced to a large extent by the popular press.

The article also hints at a rather interesting claim by Feduccia; that dinosaurs like Sinosauropteryx aren’t, in fact, dinosaurs at all;

When they become flightless, they superficially resemble small dinosaurs.

This stems from the logic that if Sinosauropteryx is a secondarily flightless descendant of birds, birds which evolved from a non-dinosaur ancestor, then Sinosauropteryx is really a paleontological red-herring, converging on the dinosaur body plan. As Ned Flanders would say, “Sounds like he’s strainin’ to do some explainin’.”

So if birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, what did they evolve from? Feduccia’s choice is Longisquama insignis, a lizard-like diapsid with a row of skin flaps on its back, which some believe are feathers or feather-like structures. Here’s a reconstruction (with and without the skin flaps) from Wikipedia;

Longisquama

Ironically, just as Feduccia doubts that dinosaurs had feathers, the structures on the back of Longisquama seem even more dubious; they’re not feathers, but they could be anything from skin-flaps to a fossilized fern on the same slab. Beyond the odd structures, however, there does not seem to be any compelling reason to believe Longisquama is a bird ancestor outside of preference; while a dinosaur-bird relationship seemed apparent very early in the study of dinosaurs, the view switched over to a thecodont origin for birds as outlined in Heilmann’s The Origin of Birds, the “dinosaur renaissance” fueled by the work of Ostrom and Bakker revitalizing the notion that birds are related and derived from dinosaurs. There are some who still cling to the old model however, and even Ernst Mayr briefly alluded to his affinity for a thecodont-bird relationship in his book What Evolution Is.

While the new fossils coming out of China require careful and meticulous study, there is no reason to believe that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, and even if Feduccia’s analysis of the particular Sinosauropteryx fossil mentioned in his paper was correct it would not somehow demolish all we’ve come to understand about dinosaurs and birds. There are plenty of problems to be solved, that is certain, but the general ancestor/descendant relationship is clear.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the new Feduccia paper itself. While There are plenty of pictures and analysis, the bottom line is this; Feduccia doesn’t accept dinosaurs are bird ancestors and the structures on the Sinosauropteryx have some resemblance to collagen fibres, therefore they can’t be feathers. This, of course, is extended to other fossils like Dilong as well;

As in Sinosauropteryx, proposals that integumental structures preserved in Sinornithosaurus (Xu et al. 2001) and tyrannosauroids (Xu et al. 2004) are the remains of protofeathers/feathers do not withstand scientific scrutiny (Lingham-Soliar in Feduccia et al. 2005).

Of further interest is this somewhat paradoxical claim from the paper’s introduction;

Sinosauropteryx. Clearly, the results on whether or not they [the "integumentary structures" on the fossil] are protofeathers will impact on the vital question of feather origins, dinosaur physiology and bird flight (Feduccia et al. 2005 and references therein); on the other hand, we emphasize, the wider question of whether or not birds originate from dinosaurs does not concern the present study.

This is especially intriguing in light of what Feduccia was quoted as saying in the National Geographic article;

“The existence of protofeathers in these dinosaurs was considered critical evidence that birds were derived from dinosaurs,” said study co-author Alan Feduccia, a bird evolution expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“What we have shown is that there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that protofeathers existed in dinosaurs, period.”

So the study has nothing to do with dinosaur->bird evolution, except that it (in Feduccia’s view) disproves dinosaur->bird evolution. These are rather bold claims stemming from a paper that looks at two fossils and says that the structures present can’t be feathers because of pre-existing preferences to alternate hypotheses involving the origin of birds. It should be noted, however, that paleontologists aren’t going to be fooled by the new paper because they have heard the argument before; those who want to adhere to a non-dinosaurian bird origin will likely tout it as startling new evidence, the majority of paleontologists will see it for what it is.

I have to say that I am a little disappointed by the NG coverage of the story, however; more time is given to Feduccia and others pleading their rather hopeless case than to analysis of the paper. The comments of David Unwin is a bit of a help, but overall the article has the same “teach the controversy” vibe that I wouldn’t have expected unless I saw it myself. Just like the coverage for the Creation Museum, objectivity was valued higher than validity, a problem that seems to be a huge problem for journalists dealing with science.

(Hat-tip to Larry Moran)

End Note: Ed Darrell rightly points out that Feduccia is not a crackpot, fringe pundit; he’s done a lot of good work in the field of ornithology. He is not a creationist or ID-advocate either; my main point was that creationists latch on to his ideas because they go against the accepted model for bird origins, and the complaints of Feduccia and others (that they’re an intellectually-persecuted minority challenging “scientific orthodoxy”) remind me of arguments used by advocated of intelligent design. While Feduccia does not doubt evolution, his rhetoric does sometimes resemble that of evolution opponents.

What I do find interesting, however, is how many scientists who are primarily ornithologists (like Ernst Mayr) have a problem with a dinosaur-bird evolutionary relationship while paleontologists don’t seem to have the same issue. Unfortunately for Feduccia, he’s known more for his opinions on the dino-bird issue than his other work and the language he (and others who hold his view) uses reminds me of ID-speak, but however wrong he might be on this issue he has contributed important work to the field of ornithology in general.

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19 responses

4 06 2007
Chris Harrison

Infidels has a decent discussion concerning this here:

http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=208970

Check out Dlx2′s posts, specifically.

4 06 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the link Chris; there are obviously people who know a lot more about this topic than I do, so I definitely appreciate the link. I don’t know of anyone who really takes Feduccia’s hypotheses seriously, and like I said in my post it seems to be a remnant of the thecodont hypothesis for bird origins like put forward in Heilmann’s book (which should be arriving this week, so expect more on that).

6 06 2007
Ed Darrell

You ought to get a copy of Feduccia’s book, Evolution of Birds (I hope I have the title right).

Feduccia is hard core in favor of evolution. He’s got some of the best stuff on how flight might have evolved.

But he thinks there’s a third line of lizards out there somewhere from which modern birds evolved. In chasing that track, he’s quite contrarian sounding. He holds everyone else’s feet to the fire on making sure their evidence says what is claimed for it — and often, there are leaps of logic and some leaps of faith. So his criticism is not wholly unbeneficial.

And on modern birds and their near immediate ancestors, he’s probably just the best — so NGS stands by him. His expeditions bring back the goods, in Kodachrome (probably now on hard drives, but you get my drift).

The trick with Feduccia is to read what he says and keep copies of his major papers around, so when a creationist starts citing Feduccia claiming support of intelligent design, you can whip out the quotes where he notes evolution is the only possibility.

At least, that’s my advice.

6 06 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the suggestion Ed. I know I was probably a little hard on Feduccia in this post; I just find it odd that in the paper he says the findings have nothing to do with the “big question” of bird evolution, yet in various interviews (and even later in the paper itself) he suggests that the findings disprive the dino-bird relationship. I don’t doubt that he’s an authority on birds or that he’s fully in support of evolution, however, but I do find it curious that ornithologists have put up a fair amount of resistance to the evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds (like I said in the post, Ernst Mayr preferred a thecodont origin).

You’re right in that I should dig up more on Feduccia because the last I heard (and as I mentioned) I know he was favoring Longisquama, but that link has essentially be discredited. It is good that Feduccia is, as you put it, “holding everyone’s feet in the fire” because I think this area can be prove to “flights of fancy,” but he does seem bent on trying to discredit the various feathered dinosaurs of China.

Oddly enough, I just received a copy of Gerhard Heilmann’s 1927 book “The Origin of Birds” yesterday, and many of Feduccia’s arguments fall in line with Heilmann’s. Heilmann favored the “pseudosuchians” like Ornithosuchus, and while we now know this to be incorrect, many of the criteria he uses to weed out non-bird ancestors are the same or parallel to Feduccia’s what I know of Feduccia’s work. Indeed, Heilmann properly nails earlier (and even contemporary) scientists for suggesting that ornithiscian dinosaurs like Iguanadon and Camptosaurus could have been bird ancestors based upon their hips alone, so there is certainly merit to what these scientists have to say.

Be that as it may, I think some of the parallels I drew in the post are still relevant; Feduccia is certainly smart and has done some good work, but as far as the dino-bird controversy goes it does strike me as a bit ID-like in the way he and others bemoan their status as a scientific minority and say that the scientific majority have what equates to religious belief without evidence. I’ll definitely check his book out soon (it’s been on my amazon wish list for some time) and I appreciate your comment, tempering my narrow view on the topic.

11 06 2007
Opisthotonus in dinosaurs « Laelaps

[...] is the surprisingly similar (even near-identifical) positions of many fossil dinosaurs. While I disagree with Alan Feduccia about the true identity of Sinosauropteryx’s feathers, his recent paper is worth another look [...]

19 06 2007
marc eppley

Feduccia’s work and opinions are based on solid science, including, without limitation, embryology, and an encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of Vertebrate structure and morphology. This is by almost any measure a harder and more serious undertaking than reading what one wants to see in the tea leaves of naked paleontology informed by cladistics.
To pretend to know and understand Dr. F’s work and yet be reduced to ad hominem associations between him and creationists/intelligent designers is laughable. The argument that “even if the Sinosauropteryx in question were really just a convergent flightless bird it doesn’t mean anything because we all know what we all know,” is magnificently revealing. Remember it when you see the same Sinosauropteryx pictured on the glossy cover of “Popular Science for the Unwashed” jumping and swatting Jurassic dragonflies with its feathery “insect nets,” a cuddly, downy raptor on the verge of evolving into a form a hundred million years its senior.

19 06 2007
laelaps

I’m sure Dr. Feduccia would be glad you came to his defense, Marc, but you’ve contributed absolutely nothing to this debate. If you actually read the post (rather than issuing a knee-jerk response) you would have seen that I made sure to mention that Feduccia is a respected scientist in the field of ornithology and has indeed done good work, although (much like Lynn Margulis) just because he has done good work does not mean he’s always right. What you suggest in your introductory paragraph, however, is that other paleontologists don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to vertebrate anatomy and Feduccia is superior just because you say so, and that is certainly a fallacy.

As for the relationship between Feduccia and creationists, all I did was say that they like his work and provided a link; it was an introductory aside and far from the meat of my argument. I don’t know where you’re getting the “even if the Sinosauropteryx in question were really just a convergent flightless bird it doesn’t mean anything because we all know what we all know” argument from; Confuciusornis is 120 million years old as well, so while Feduccia is trying to say that Sinosauropteryx didn’t really have feathers, whether it did or did not does not tell us much about the origin of birds because birds had already evolved.

You also fail to give us any alternative hypothesis, Marc. If birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, then from what? From Longisquama? Thecodonts? The “pseudosuchians” Heilmann mentions in The Origin of Birds? I would say that your argument isn’t convincing, but you simply do not have an argument at all. Your comment essentially amounts to “You’re wrong because Feduccia is right, and Feduccia is right because he just is.” Perhaps you’re doing exactly what you’re blaming paleontologists of; denying the evolution of birds from dinosaur ancestors because you simply don’t want that to be true. If there is evidence to the contrary, I’d be more than happy to hear it.

19 06 2007
Ed Darrell

The more important point is that Feduccia in no way supports creationism and intelligent design. He indeed bases his criticisms on encylopedic knowledge — but none of his knowledge claims to refute evolution in any way, shape or form. The dispute is over which line birds evolved from, not whether they evolved.

There is room for discussion, for disputing, for alternative hypotheses. Feduccia distinguishes himself from creationists particularly in this: He does research, in the field, in the laboratory, and he writes up the research to publish and share.

That alone puts him at odds with creationism of all stripes.

19 06 2007
laelaps

Indeed, Ed; I recall a “Discover” article where he makes this clear. My main point in drawing the correlation in the post was that the arguments he and other ornithologists have used to try and refute dinosaur->bird evolution sound quite like the same claims made by ID advocates and others, playing the role of the persecuted minority while the rest of the scientific community is somehow delusional. As I’ve acknowledged before, Feduccia is a real scientists who has done real work and done much to help our understanding of birds, but in this one area I feel he’s off base and unduly branding paleontologists as engaging in “faith-based science.” His alternate hypotheses may help in tuning up the established dinosaur/bird relationship, but I feel that in popular articles (like the National Geographic one cited) he is trying to attack the “scientific orthodoxy” rather than provide positive evidence for his particular view.

21 06 2007
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[...] all dogmatic fundamentalists” card that is reminiscent of arguments by ID advocates and those who deny birds evolved from dinosaurs. Indeed, creationists have latched on to Fassett’s papers as proof that paleontologists [...]

1 10 2007
Danniel

While I’m somewhat agnostic in this whole discussion, I find frustrating with Feduccia’s (and other’s) arguments against the dino-bird link, it indeed has much resemblance to creationist speech, at the same time that accidentally supplies them with arguments such as “bird evolution flies away: biological similarities are just a bunch of coincidences, scientists admit”. Almost every line of argument they point against the link could be applied to their favourite closely-related original group as well, usually with more counter arguments (morphological dissimilarities). They just apparently prefer (arbitrarily, as far as I saw) a certain group of features to be more strong indicatives of relationship. At the same time, falls in contradiction when needs to admit that things like Sinosauropteryx were actually flightless birds. It’s similar to the arbitrary creationist real original created “kinds”. The arguments against that, which would be against some other closely related taxa are simply ignored when they for some reason don’t mind a certain specific taxon to be included in the taxon they want.

The strongest point, in my opinion, would be the chronology “paradox”, but even so, it’s pretty much comprehensible if we have in mind that there are things like stasis and not all fossils are known. It’s also somewhat similar to creationist arguments such as “if we evolved from monkeys, why still there are monkeys?”. I do find it somewhat of a plausible clue of secondary flightlessness of some theropods, anyway.

The worst argument I can recall was Larry Martin’s on some Discovery Channel documentary, where he pointed that Deinonychus was a heavy weight dinosaur, asking if someone could picture it flapping and flying or perching in a tree (or something close to it). If that’s not a straw-man, I don’t know what a straw-man is. They also love to dichotomize the whole thing as arboreal versus cursorial origin of flight, which is somewhat correlated with this sort of “strict”, interpretation, assuming a necessary very narrow taxon specificity for ancestry.

This whole “I’m a victim of the scientific nomenklatura and I know I’m right while they’re in denial, because they’d like dinos to still be alive” position is not only nocive as it gives ammo to creationists and the like, but perhaps it might also be harmful to parts of their theories that could perhaps could be detached and modularly accepted. For instance, what if Longisquama had feathers after all? That does not necessarily mean that it’s an ancestor of birds and dinosaurs are not. Perhaps feathers or proto feathers are something more basal, and even the fur-like integument of pterosaurs has some homology with it; perhaps even the psittacosaurian bristles. Is not known that, bot birds and crocodiles have a similar sort of scale – scutes – and the bird’s feathers can be switched to develop into scutes on birds? But I’m afraid that this sort of thing might be rejected in a similar way that the BAND people reject things in “packages”.

I’m just a layman however, and I don’t know if at a microscopic level the “feathers” of Longisquama could not be feathers at all, for sure. They just look pretty convincingly like feathers to me, and I know that some people have a few articles rejecting this interpretation, but I wonder if (actually I just don’t recall, but I suspect that it is) it’s not partly based on the fact that a theropod origin of feathers would be more “proper” considering the whole amount of evidence linking them with birds, as if Longisquama having feathers would necessarily imply that the whole BAND theory is true, when it’s a false dichotomy.

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