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← Paper Challenges Ideas About 'Early Bird' Dinosaur

Paper Challenges Ideas About 'Early Bird' Dinosaur - Comments

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 1 by Jos Gibbons

So, they've found a way it's neither like modern reptiles nor like modern birds, but rather somewhere in between ... well, duh! It's a transitional form, isn't it? "Not a bird"? It's neither unambiguously a bird nor unambiguously not one. We already knew that. Teeth, claws at the front of its wings, a long bony tail - not like any modern bird. Done. That's what evolution predicts. This paper just continues that pattern. It's not revolutionary. But you can bet some people will act as if this somehow refutes evolution or something.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 15:36:00 UTC | #404654

dumbcountryhick's Avatar Comment 2 by dumbcountryhick

"Birds, in that sense, are avian dinosaurs, although some ornithologists insist that is a stretch."

But not nearly as much of a stretch as creationists try to make the ornithologists argument out to be.
Ornithologists simple argue that the immediate ancestors of birds predate theropod dinosaurs not that birds were created.
While not at all popular with dinosaur paleontologists (or the public that they pander to) their is actually some merit to the claim. Those dinosaurs whose bones resemble birds the most appear much later in the fossil record than archeopteryx and may well be secondarily flightless birds instead of 'true' theropods. (Assuming that any 'true' theropod ever existed at all.)

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 15:41:00 UTC | #404656

phasmagigas's Avatar Comment 3 by phasmagigas

isnt this a bit like looking at a lemur and saying 'oh its not actually an ape'

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 17:20:00 UTC | #404680

benrinnes's Avatar Comment 4 by benrinnes

Please forgive me if I'm wrong but my outlook on the subject has been. "Dinosaurs evolved feathers to keep warm, NOT to fly". "Birds grow at such a high rate because they need to leave the nest quickly and fly,(or run), away to another area for feeding".
Is there something wrong with journalists, or is it just me?

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 18:18:00 UTC | #404691

RichardofYork's Avatar Comment 5 by RichardofYork

Why don't people get it? A cat is probably on the way to being a ...insert different animal species here...Its quite easy

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 18:49:00 UTC | #404695

ggab7768's Avatar Comment 6 by ggab7768

Oh good "lord"!!
As you read the article, the "journalist" is obviously trying to make it sound controversial in order to get attention.
Do we have to keep manufacturing creationist ammo for the sake of sales? Is there really no way to be honest and further our careers?
Okay, from now on, all newspapers have to hire Carl Zimmer to write every science article.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 18:56:00 UTC | #404696

Friend Giskard's Avatar Comment 7 by Friend Giskard

I'm not going to read this newspaper article as it's sure to be bullshit. I'll wait till Jerry Coyne writes it up on WEIT.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 19:31:00 UTC | #404708

Muetze's Avatar Comment 8 by Muetze

"Birds, in that sense, are avian dinosaurs, although some ornithologists insist that is a stretch."

Why? All birds descend from something that was obviously a dinosaur, so if we are going to put them in any category that is even remotely based on factual observation and not completely arbitrary, aren't they dinosaurs?

At least that's how I keep explaining it to people, and it frequently blows their minds. After all, this means not only that we humans are apes (descending as we do from something that was clearly an ape) but, if you want to be completely consistent, fish (etc.),— being as we are descended from something that was a fish by any definition of the term that we recognise. The only way that can not be true is if we decide that the common ancestor of humans and fish (…) gets called something other than a fish, and I cannot imagine any reasons why we would do that.

So, hit me with your science!

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 19:44:00 UTC | #404714

fossil-fish's Avatar Comment 9 by fossil-fish

OK, so we have learnt something new. That will disprove all that evolution stuff again.

You can almost write the script yourself.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 20:13:00 UTC | #404723

the4thNeutralNuclide's Avatar Comment 10 by the4thNeutralNuclide

Muetze, (comment 422938) when you say

All birds descend from something that was obviously a dinosaur , so if we are going to put them in any category that is even remotely based on factual observation and not completely arbitrary, aren't they dinosaurs?
I think we need to remember that all categories assigned to species (extant and extinct) are arbitrary. Specialists just have to argue well for any labels that they choose. I am less sure what your point is when you say this,
The only way that can not be true is if we decide that the common ancestor of humans and fish (…) gets called something other than a fish,
. It has to be called something other than a fish in the same way that evolutionary ancestors to humans are not called humans! This is a fundamental point and I'm not clear why you,
cannot imagine any reasons why we would do that.
The transition labelling problem is no more odd than deciding when a few grains of sand are defined as a pile of sand. At some point a normative decision is made in the same way that legal frameworks pick an age where sexual intercourse is legal, as opposed to feasible!

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 20:19:00 UTC | #404725

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 11 by prolibertas

“You would expect to find its physiology to be transitional from what we see in modern birds and modern reptiles.”

Um... duh?? What was the purpose in writing this article? Why can't the media just report the findings, rather than trying to make it sound like the findings disproved all earlier theories? No wonder people get the impression that science is constantly changing in its every particular.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 20:35:00 UTC | #404727

Muetze's Avatar Comment 12 by Muetze

Thanks for the reply. :-)

It has to be called something other than a fish in the same way that evolutionary ancestors to humans are not called humans!

I think there's a difference. If you are just talking about any human ancestors, of course those could be anything, even single-celled organisms. Allow me to clarify my example:

All modern bony fish and tetrapods descend from a creature that lived in the Devonian oceans. As I understand it (and I would ask you again to correct me on any of this), this creature was a fish. It had a spine, fins, a jaw and a proto-swim bladder. It might not have corresponded to a specific species of fish alive today, but looking at it, you would recognise it as a fish as clearly as you would call the common ancestor of humans and orang-utans an ape.

Now, my point is this: It is not helpful to ever consider this creature to not any more be a fish. At some point in time, something like Tiktaalik started to show amphibian features, but why stop calling it a fish — just because it changed some of its part around a bit? Why stop calling the animal a fish that first layed its eggs on land? and so on.

In short: Isn't it a more reasonable way of thinking to call *all* creatures fish that descend from fish (and then create subgroups, of course), instead of arbitrarily dividing vertebrates into those that are still finned/scaley/gilly/watery enough to qualify as a fish and those that aren't?

Aren't we *still* fish?

And does this way of classifying organisms correspond to any methodology in modern biology?

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 20:41:00 UTC | #404729

Border Collie's Avatar Comment 13 by Border Collie

'Turning out to be a complex evolutionary story' ... Imagine that. I mean, is there REALLY a 'the archetypal bird' and or one dead-center transitional form? Probably not. And if there is or isn't? BFD. Research will continue, more and more fossils will be discovered and the picture will become clearer and clearer. That's enough for me.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 21:29:00 UTC | #404735

black wolf's Avatar Comment 14 by black wolf

This will make creationists sad. Not because it's another example of science responding to new research, which they bizarrely regard as a weakness.
But because according to creationism (Answers in Genesis), Archaeopteryx is definitely fully a bird, and allegedly "this is a problem for evolution because Archaeopteryx is now generally recognized to be a true bird" ( The research reported in the nytimes article states the opposite, and confirms the transitional characteristics of life.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 22:58:00 UTC | #404753

dumbcountryhick's Avatar Comment 15 by dumbcountryhick

It does seem that when a publisher wants attention all they have to do is describe something new in science as 'challenging the orthodox' and the next thing you know a creationist gives them the spotlight.

Sat, 10 Oct 2009 23:02:00 UTC | #404755

Shuggy's Avatar Comment 16 by Shuggy

The story seems to have its creationist counterpart here in The Onion:

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 05:30:00 UTC | #404794

the4thNeutralNuclide's Avatar Comment 17 by the4thNeutralNuclide

Muetze, Thanks for reinforcing your point. I can see what you are getting at. I think it's just that we need labels to help us talk about things. If we took your example to its extreme - sorry about that but it's a useful rhetorical tool :o) - would we all be classified as DNA? I grant that it's useful to put things into 'boxes' (knowledge, scientific or other domains would not move forward otherwise) but I'm not sure that just because it 'walks like a duck, talks like a duck' means that we should label it as a duck. Middle-sized organisms that move well through water are going to be streamlined and that means generally fish-shaped (barring, of course, all the middle-sized organisms that move well through water that aren't fish-shaped!). I found the article to be well-written and generally fair. I don't think the journalist did a bad job at all – perhaps we here at are a bit paranoid on occasion. The journalist interviewed scientists and did not ask creationists for their perspective on this scientific paper. Science moves forward on challenging orthodoxy (unlike the religious perspective of creationists).
Newspapers have to exist in their cultural milieu (the natural selection metaphor is entirely appropriate here) and that means writing things in a way that their subscribers both comprehend and would be willing to buy the paper for. This is a delicate balance with science written for the public because, despite everything that science and its supporters say, most people don't find that science, per se is immediately relevant to their lives. They love technology and things that help them get on with their economic activity or help them live longer but thinking about science is not something that many really want to do day-to-day. Ho hum!

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 09:55:00 UTC | #404815

Raiko's Avatar Comment 18 by Raiko

You see a headline like this and you can't help thinking: "What paper did journalists misquote and misrepresent this time?"

And you're never disappointed.

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 10:09:00 UTC | #404816

the4thNeutralNuclide's Avatar Comment 19 by the4thNeutralNuclide

Shuggy, I'm not sure if your comment (423019) is tongue-in-cheek. The Onion is one of the better creationist (and other pseudo- and psycho-babble bullshit)-bashing satirical sites on the web.

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 10:09:00 UTC | #404817

Muetze's Avatar Comment 20 by Muetze

Nuclide, thanks again for the reply.

but I'm not sure that just because it 'walks like a duck, talks like a duck' means that we should label it as a duck. Middle-sized organisms that move well through water are going to be streamlined and that means generally fish-shaped

But that's exactly my point. When talking about evolution, I use the word fish to refer to all descendents of fish, no matter how much they have changed. I don't really see why you would draw a line around fish and exclude amphibians who are after all just heavily modified fish. However, it works the other way round. So by my way of thinking (warped as it may be), all amphibians are fish, but not all fish are amphibians. Also, all humans are apes who are monkeys who are primates who are mammals who are reptiles who are amphibians who are jawed fish who are jawless fish who are mollusks, who are sponges who are colonies of single-celled organisms who are bits of DNA — or something roughly like that. I guess you can tell that I just read The Ancestor's Tale. :-)

Anyway, that is precisely why it's not classifying organisms by what they look like, but by their (genetic) relation. And isn't that what phylogeny is?

By the way, this is hardly relating to the article at all. In fact I really like it. Sometimes I have to remind myself that not every single word written by somebody not revered on this website seeks to disprove common descent. Only recently I have watched a really well-made and fascinating TV programme about the many commonalities among great apes, including humans. Even though I enjoyed learning about some of the things that I really hadn't known before, I was very eager to jump on the editors for not stressing the fact that humans indeed are apes consistently enough; but that was very unfair of me. They were obviously not working from the presupposition that we were created seperately and large part of the programme even dealt with DNA comparison.

So yeah, you can get a bit caught up in the business of proving evolution, and lose sight of the fact that most people already accept it (at least in Germany).

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 10:38:00 UTC | #404826

the4thNeutralNuclide's Avatar Comment 21 by the4thNeutralNuclide

Muetze, I think we’re in a language-driven loop here. You have chosen fish as the starting point for your description.

I use the word fish to refer to all descendents of fish, no matter how much they have changed.
Why choose fish? Who decides what was the first fish?
So by my way of thinking (warped as it may be), all amphibians are fish, but not all fish are amphibians..
I don't think that this is a good use of logic. Modern fish and amphibians are descended from a common ancestor or two. The ancestor, which 'flopped' out of the sea, had some phenotypic feature(s) that allowed it to thrive in a new environment with few predators to bother it for a while. Ensuing generations had minor genetic variations that gave rise to what we arbitrarily call new species.

By the way, 'The Ancestor's Tale' is an excellent (2x read) book that should make the point I am making well. We could call all life Eubacteria (after the 39th Rendevous that Dawkins describes). But we don't and I think it's simply because it's not useful to do this.

I also agree that most editors putting together programmes on evolution don't worry too much about what creationists think - we do here because there are implications for society when these powerful religious forces start churning out material that is not scientific but couched in scientific terms (this is called 'Scientism' and is just like the pet food sellers on TV who claim that 8 out of 10 cats (or their owners who expressed a preference) prefer KittyKattyKrunch)
Phylogeny started well before techniques for DNA analysis and sequencing became available. The job was well-done but clearly an analysis technique based on DNA sequences will give a better view of how all life on Earth is related. In many cases, however, the DNA sequencing corroborates choices made using other classification techniques.

Tom (a human-shaped Eubacterium) :o)

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 11:26:00 UTC | #404829

PERSON's Avatar Comment 22 by PERSON

"[One can] lose sight of the fact that most people already accept it (at least in Germany)."
I have to admit, I thought 80% or more of people in the UK would accept natural selection, but surveys seem to imply that's not the case. I can't recall the "don't know" proportion, though, and I'd be interested how that breaks down into "inclined to accept" and "inclined to reject" (IYSWIM). Do you know of any opinion surveys about this conducted in Germany? You might be surprised by the result.

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 15:01:00 UTC | #404845

FuerstOpus's Avatar Comment 23 by FuerstOpus

"Birds, in that sense, are avian dinosaurs, although some ornithologists insist that is a stretch."

I thought it was funny that following this NYTimes link takes you to an article that, in discussing this issue, points out...

"The "controversy" remains an interest more of the press than the general scientific community."

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 15:23:00 UTC | #404850

black wolf's Avatar Comment 24 by black wolf

Muetze, PERSON,

I've found a survey on evolution conducted in Germany, 2005.

In the old states (the 'West') About 56% accept evolution, 29% ID, 13% Creationism. Amusingly, more Protestants than Catholics accept evolution, whereas more Catholics believe in ID. Both groups share an equal portion of Creationists.
In former East Germany, 82% accept evolution.
Of the non-denominational people, 86% accept evolution. Only 20% of regular church goers accept evolution.

In total, the survey found 12.5% agreeing with Creationism (all species directly created by God as written in the Bible), 25% ID (life created by a higher power respectively God, and then developed onward in a process directed by God), 60.9% accept evolution.
Interestingly, far more women than men believe ID, and more men accept evolution. I assume this is partially due to the overall still lower proportion of women in academic circles and of higher education. Somewhat alarmingly, even among university/college graduates, only about 64% accept evolution - the proportion among high school graduates (Abitur) is 66%. Acceptance of evolution is higher by each younger generation. Predictably, Creationism finds most adherents in the group of the lowest education standard. ID belief slightly increases by education standard; I suspect these are the believers who manage to preserve their faith throughout higher education and probably haven't studied a natural science field.
The conclusion they added is fine: "It is not a proof of quality of German school education that in the old states every third person represents a belief that resembles Creationism respectively ID. In this regard it is not something to boast about for a modern industrialized nation with a scientifically grounded education system respectively a rational world view orientation."

P.S. Another survey conducted in 2002 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, paid for by a Swiss Creationist group and conducted by a Swiss survey institute, allegedly found a narrow overall majority in favor of Creationism. If that survey was credible, this supports the down trend of Creationism, but it also demonstrates that misinformation, superstition, fundamentalism and ignorance are far more prevalent in our country than we'd like to believe.

Sun, 11 Oct 2009 16:30:00 UTC | #404861

dumbcountryhick's Avatar Comment 25 by dumbcountryhick

"In former East Germany, 82% accept evolution."

Unfortunately this may only be due to previous communist influence.

Mon, 12 Oct 2009 02:38:00 UTC | #404967

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 26 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #423192 by dumbcountryhick

If that's the case, they'll be Lamarckians. It would be interesting to test your hypothesis.

Mon, 12 Oct 2009 04:23:00 UTC | #404974

Roland_F's Avatar Comment 27 by Roland_F

The evidence, they reported Thursday, challenges the hypothesis that Archaeopteryx had already developed characteristics of a physiologically modern bird.

And what is new ?? it is known since years that Archaeopteryx is not the “missing link” between dinosaurs and bird, but an earlier form which went extinct without being the predecessor of birds. The split followed much later after Archaeopteryx was already gone. And cladist think that many theropod dinosaur even mighty T-Rex had feathers as insulation, which is supported by some recent finds of some more feathered fossils of theropod dinosaurs in China.
So another journalist have to make a “sensational” and “new” announcement because there is nothing else to write about ?!?

About the creationist believe statistics in Germany: regular church goers (every Sunday) are more than 90% cretinist/ IDiots believing.

Mon, 12 Oct 2009 04:33:00 UTC | #404977

johneales's Avatar Comment 28 by johneales

There really was nothing about this article that bothered me as it seems to have bothered others. It didn't seem to be particularly broadsheet-worthy (not that it wasn't interesting) in that this research doesn't represent a fundamental change in our views about the origins of birds.

My only gripe is that the headline might have read 'research sheds new light on...' rather than 'paper challenges ideas about...’ It seems to me that this headline misleads the casual reader in to assuming that the paper is more contentious than it is.

Mon, 12 Oct 2009 12:22:00 UTC | #405044

phasmagigas's Avatar Comment 29 by phasmagigas


Aren't we *still* fish?

this reminds me of a little point i was trying to make to a creationist: we share a more recent common ancestor with tuna than with sharks so if we call a shark a 'fish' and a tuna the same, we by definition also have to be fish, i think i was trying to explain how names can be confusing, anyway he became interested in the idea but did spend a couple of posts laughing at me because i'd suggested that people would be fish if sharks were also considered fish.

it can be confusing especialy as we (for eg) seem to have changed more from our LCA with current bony fish than have the 'fish' themselves although a modern tuna looking at that LCA might suggest I am biased and that despite the superficial fishiness of the ancestor he really is way different!

Mon, 12 Oct 2009 12:56:00 UTC | #405045

MatthaiNazrani's Avatar Comment 30 by MatthaiNazrani

I was about to give the journalist the benefit of the doubt, and then I noticed that the text under the fossil image concluded that the Archeopteryx was a dinosaur. A dinosaur, not a transitional species!

@Muetze: I'm not a biologist, but I'm told that old non-phylogenetic systems of classification still hold sway when humans are considered distinct from fish. It seems a bit arbitrary to some of them too, apparently.

Thu, 29 Oct 2009 04:42:00 UTC | #409557