This article is a warning to Christians to be discerning when it comes to accepting creationist research, just as we would be with other research. Underlying evolutionary assumptions are everywhere; therefore, discernment is always needed. In researching and critiquing the claims of the video from Dr. Matthew McLain, I am challenging the conclusions presented in the video.
In a video series published by Grace Media Center for Thinking Biblically, Dr. Matthew McLain, a creation paleontologist at The Master’s University, talks about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs and puts forward the idea of feathered dinosaurs.
Part 5 of the series is a 16-minute-long video, “Birds and Dinosaurs,” in which Dr. McLain argues that evolutionists are correct that dinosaurs had feathers, providing several examples to support his point. Then, he wraps up his presentation by referencing a baraminological analysis that he believes further supports the idea of feathered dinosaur kinds.
Dr. McLain has unwittingly trusted and uncritically accepted many of the evolutionary claims about feathered dinosaurs. This article will discuss and analyze some of the pertinent points he presented in his video to demonstrate how the evolutionary worldview is applied in this hypothesis and how the consequences of this can lead to wrong conclusions about the definitions of relationships between birds and dinosaurs and supposed feathered dinosaurs.
Biologist and secular humanist Thomas Huxley first proposed the idea of a relationship between birds and dinosaurs in 1868. As an avid supporter of Darwin, Huxley saw in the discovery of Archaeopteryx (once considered a transitional form between reptiles and birds) a solution to the challenge of the supposed missing links in the evolutionary model. Paleontologist John Ostrom revived this idea 100 years later after studying Deinonychus (classified by many evolutionists as a theropod dinosaur). He noted similarities between Archaeopteryx (which we now know is a bird) and coelurosaurs (a subgroup of theropod dinosaurs) and proposed that birds were descendants of theropod dinosaurs.
These claims are biased since we all have a worldview from which we interpret the facts. Evolutionists are not immune to that.
Thus evolutionists, based on their naturalistic evolutionary belief that reptiles evolved into birds, have been working hard to try to fit the evidence they find into this belief. This means creationists should at least be very suspicious about claims concerning feathered dinosaurs. Or at least understand these claims are biased since we all have a worldview from which we interpret the facts. Evolutionists are not immune to that. Of course, God can create animals in any way he wants (consider the “mosaics” in the animal world, such as the platypus). But because of the intense efforts by evolutionists to “prove” dinosaurs evolved into birds, we should be extra careful in our research about claims of dinosaurs with feathers.
In 1881, Othniel Charles Marsh created the Theropoda suborder (now “clade,” a new grouping of organisms according to how they supposedly evolved and are related), grouping all known dinosaurs from the Triassic and the carnivorous dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Jacques Gauthier described theropod in 1986 via cladistics (which, as a classification system, already assumes evolutionary ancestry and relationships) as a group of birds and all saurischians (dinosaurs).1 The meaning of the words Theropoda and theropod were thus changed because of evolutionary influences.
Now Linnaeus (considered the father of classification) based his groupings on similarities in creatures. But Darwin’s classification was based on their supposed ancestry.2 The animals and data have stayed the same, but the lenses used to interpret them have changed because the classification system is now based on evolutionary assumptions. Thus, the evolutionary classification of cladistics resulted from a change in the classification system itself. This has great consequences for how data is currently interpreted in regard to birds and dinosaurs.
This short history demonstrates that terms and definitions have been changed to fit the evolutionary story. Another pertinent example is the term Aves, derived from the word birds in Latin (Avis). In the past, Aves was synonymous with birds. But this term now has four to six different meanings because of evolutionary ideas.3 So, Aves and birds are no longer synonymous. One more example is the term feather, which has been applied both to what we would normally regard as a feather (a complete, complex, and functional structure) and “its close evolutionary predecessors.”4 A new theory was proposed for the origin of feathers and their development based on evolution. The author stated,
I propose a new theory for the evolutionary origin [my emphasis] and diversification of feathers that hypothesizes [my emphasis] a transition series from the simplest feather follicle to the modern feather follicle through a series of novelties in feather development.5 (See also Fig. 1.)
Even creationists can be led astray in their conclusions about the evidence if they trust and accept evolutionists’ ideas.
Once a researcher accepts the current evolutionary hypothesis for how feathers supposedly “evolved,” what is considered a “feather” has to be redefined—and suddenly a creature has feathers, when in reality, it does not. Even creationists can be led astray in their conclusions about the evidence if they trust and accept evolutionists’ ideas. It is thus necessary to say that the traditional meanings are intended when the words feather, bird, and Aves are used in this article, not the modern meanings influenced by evolutionary ideas. Biologist Dr. David Menton produced an excellent presentation on feathers that clearly shows their complex structures.
Defining terms is vital to any discussion, or people may end up talking past one another. What is a bird? Feathers have been an essential feature to classify an animal as a bird based on the classical, conventional, and traditional taxonomy developed by Linnaeus in the 18th century. In the animal groups alive today, feathers are only present in birds.7
In the Thinking Biblically About Dinosaurs video series, Dr. McLain argues that the presence of feathers on extant (living) birds should not be used as an argument for classifying a feathered animal as a bird because that implies uniformitarianism (that the present is the key to the past). In other words, he is saying that it may be true today that all birds have feathers, but we should not make this assumption about the past, so some non-birds in the past (particularly dinosaurs) might have had feathers.
But Dr. McLain’s argument is fallacious. Many things today have always been the same in the past (e.g., humans have always been humans), but some things have not been the same in the past (e.g., there’s only been one global flood). So yes, biblical creationists do believe, based on God’s Word, that some things have been much the same, but also some things have been very different.
There are reasonable explanations for using feathers to classify an animal as a bird that do not require uniformitarianism. Anatomical structures for flight (many uniquely avian features are required other than feathers) and feathers have always been related to birds.8 So, if an animal possesses any or all of them, there is no reason it should not be classified as a bird—unless the evolutionary classification system, with its new terms, definitions, and data borrowed from secular scientists that believe in feathered dinosaurs is applied. Also, McLain’s uniformitarianism argument is inconsistent since he accepts and uses many arguments from evolutionists that are driven by uniformitarianism.
Many competent secular scientists are honestly trying to do good research, as Dr. McLain points out, suggesting we should trust them. However, scientists’ biases and assumptions (often unknown or unrecognized by them) have an essential role in their methods and the interpretations they draw. No one is truly neutral, and all that should be taken into consideration. Also, Dr. McLain’s argument doesn’t account for many other respected scientists (both evolutionary and creationary) who do not support the feathered dinosaur hypothesis. Shouldn’t they also be trusted? How do we decide who to trust? Furthermore, using the argument that the majority of the scientists support the feathered-dinosaur hypothesis should not be used since it represents an appeal to majority fallacy. The majority of scientists also believe life arose by natural processes, so should we accept that and reject God as Creator? Of course not. History has shown the majority is not always correct!
Evolutionary ideas about dinosaurs and birds have now influenced the understanding and definition of a dinosaur.9 In the new definition of dinosaurs, bird characteristics have actually been added. So now, the dinosaur group has been divided into what they call avian dinosaurs (birds) and non-avian dinosaurs (dinosaurs). So now a bird is considered to be a dinosaur!
According to Dr. McLain, Archaeopteryx presents a mixture of bird and dinosaur traits. Dr. McLain states, “not every Archaeopteryx‘s specimen preserves feathers, by the way.” While this is technically true, of 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx, 11 do have preserved feathers that show complexity and functionality, looking like the ones we see in living birds. Only the last specimen found does not have preserved feathers, and that is due to the poor preservation of the whole fossil specimen.
Dr. McLain presents the following features of Archaeopteryx as dinosaur characteristics. But are they really dinosaur characteristics? I will list each claim and then comment on it.
The question here is this: How long is long enough? Archaeopteryx (clearly a bird) has around 21–23 caudal vertebrae, and dinosaurs have 30–50 (Fig. 2).10 Some extinct birds, such as Jeholornis from the Cretaceous, have the same “long” bony tail as Archaeopteryx.11 The following figure (Fig. 2) shows other differences as well.
Figure 2. Tail comparison diagram (Credit: Joel Leineweber). In blue, supposed dinosaurs and living birds show the same tail characteristics in clear contrast to those of dinosaurs, shown in green.
As Dr. McLain mentioned, even modern birds such as hoatzins possess claws, and one- to two-wing claws are found in nine different orders of extant (living) birds.12 Confuciusornis, an extinct bird, had three claws.13
Though not present in known birds today, teeth are present in enantiornithines (extinct birds). Sapeornis14 and Pengornis15 are examples of this group.
Therefore, none of these supposed dinosaur characteristics found in Archaeopteryx are restricted to dinosaurs. Dr. McLain’s claim that Archaeopteryx had dinosaur characteristics fails. It was a bird. (For further details, see my forthcoming paper on Archaeopteryx in the Answers Research Journal.)
Dr. McLain wants to argue that Sinosauropteryx (a theropod dinosaur) had feathers. To do this, he mentioned that many studies demonstrate the presence of melanosomes in Sinosauropteryx. Melanosomes are a trait common in feathers, particularly involved in their pigmentation. However, the supposed presence of melanosomes preserved in fossils is also questioned by many scientists who argue that the structures could be artifacts from bacterial activity and not true melanosomes. Also, there is no confirmation of the branching structure of a feather of Sinosauropteryx.16
Melanosomes are organelles within specialized cells (melanocytes) where melanin pigments are found. These organelles are visible and have been shown to be distinct from structures formed by bacteria by the use of TEM (transmission electron microscopy). Yet in most of the papers that mentioned the presence of melanosomes in the fossil material, the scientists did not perform any of this specialized TEM analysis that would distinguish between the bacterial structures and melanosomes.
Dr. McLain mentioned an article about the orange-and-white banded tail on Sinosauropteryx, but it too did not report any TEM or chemical analyses being done on the specimens used in that study. The claim about the tail is instead based on reconstructions and circular reasoning:
From reconstructions based on exceptional fossils, the color pattern is compared to predicted optimal countershading transitions based on 3D reconstructions of the animal’s abdomen, imaged in different lighting environments. Reconstructed patterns match well with those predicted for animals living in open habitats.17
But such markings on Sinosauropteryx go against the forested habitat that is presumed for the Jehol habitats (in northeast China) in which Sinosauropteryx supposedly lived. That sort of striped camouflage would have worked best in open habitats, not in the forests that it supposedly lived in, as they acknowledge, so the tail reconstruction does not even make sense:
Most groups of terrestrial vertebrates in Jehol show a strong tendency toward forest-living adaptations. Sinosauropteryx, however, appears to be an exception to this rule.18
Experiments by Dr. McNamara and colleagues show that the evidence of color is lost and the shape of melanosomes is affected by temperature and pressure.19 So reconstructions of colors based on the shapes of melanosomes need to be “treated with caution.”20 Also, the reconstructions and modeling, which are based on evolutionary assumptions about past habitats, try to force the idea there is evidence for feathers on Sinosauropteryx. In other words, there is no obvious evidence definitively substantiating the claim this dinosaur had feathers.
Besides all that, Sinosauropteryx presents the skeletal anatomy of a dinosaur (Fig. 3). It’s obvious that Archaeopteryx is a bird and Sinosauropteryx is a dinosaur.
Dr. McLain wants to argue that many other specimens that have feathers are dinosaurs. However, in many of these cases, they are not dinosaurs. They are much more like birds. Sinornithosaurus shares similarities with Archaeopteryx and belongs to the family Dromaeosauridae, which has been considered by some evolutionary scientists to have many genera that could be classified as birds. Those scientists also consider that most maniraptorans (another group of theropods) are birds, not dinosaurs.22
Caudipteryx, Microraptor, and Anchiornis present many characteristics of birds. The comparison between Sinosauropteryx’s wrist and Archaeopteryx‘s, Caudipteryx‘s, Anchiornis‘s, and Microraptor‘s wrists is shown in Fig. 4. The swivel wrist is an anatomical structure related to flight that Sinosauropteryx does not have because it is a dinosaur. But the others, being birds, do have it.23
Dr. McLain states that these two genera present feathers or feather-like structures and thus represent feathered dinosaurs. However, the papers first published on those genera28 mention the presence of only filamentous structures, not complete, complex, and functional feathers. Filamentous structures could be called feathers or feather-like only if the new evolutionary definition for feathers (a redefinition based on evolutionary assumptions) is applied. In this view, a filamentous structure is one of the first stages of supposed “feather evolution,” and therefore such a structure can be called a feather (sadly, that is what Dr. McLain is doing). But if a feather is defined as a complete, complex, and functional structure, then, no, a filament should not be called a feather nor even a feather-like structure.
Caudipteryx, Microraptor, Sinornithosaurus, and Archaeopteryx are some genera Dr. McLain mentioned as dinosaurs, but they all show stages 4 and 5 of feathers in the supposed “feather evolution.” Now those stages are considered modern feathers30 because they are like those found only on birds today (Fig. 5). There is no reasonable explanation not to classify Caudipteryx, Microraptor, Sinornithosaurus, and Archaeopteryx as birds or Sinosauropteryx, Yutyrannus, and Beipiaosaurus as dinosaurs with no feathers.
The secular data should not be ignored, but they need to be critically analyzed rather than implicitly trusted. Scientists, whether creationists or evolutionists, can do good observational science, but one has to carefully search out biases and assumptions in interpretations of the evidence.
Note that this perspective of uncritically using secular datasets also brings problems for some creationists and for their baraminological analyses31 (studies of created kinds) that use such secular datasets to perform their studies. When these creationists accept many of the evolutionists’ assumptions regarding classification, they can end up with wrong conclusions. This uncritical use of evolutionary datasets is dangerous within the creationist community.
When these creationists accept many of the evolutionists’ assumptions regarding classification, they can end up with wrong conclusions.
Dr. McLain attempts to further support his feathered dinosaur argument by appealing to a baraminological analysis that he argues confirms there were kinds of dinosaurs that had feathers and others that did not. But the baraminological analysis Dr. McLain relies on to support his points is based on an approach that depends on a statistical analysis of data on the features found in fossils. Without going through all the statistical details, there are large problems with these analyses. First, the data is exclusively derived from the evolutionary literature. That, in itself, should warn researchers they cannot accept it without question. Further, the interpretation embedded in the data relies on the assumption that similarity is equivalent to a relationship. This is equivalent to the evolutionists using homology (similar structures) to argue for evolution: something creationists have long decried. The other problem with statistical baraminology is that it produces results that are not reliable in groups where we know the correct answer. For example, a study of chickens and their relatives suggested four separate kinds,32 yet hybrid data showed it was a single kind. As creationists are skeptical of radiometric dating because it fails in correctly dating rocks of known ages, they should also be cautious about statistical baraminology that fails to correctly classify known groups.
The overriding issue with Dr. McLain’s claims, and those he cites approvingly, is not primarily paleontological. Dr. McLain is a highly qualified paleontologist. The problem is the uncritical acceptance of the consensus interpretation regarding feathered dinosaurs and trying to find ways to fit that into the Scripture. The history of why evolutionists have been so adamant about “feathered dinosaurs” (to “prove” their evolutionary ideas) should at least make us suspicious of this claim. Thus, every researcher should be diligent to ensure they are not unwittingly accepting evolutionary assumptions, as I understand that is what Dr. McClain has done.
As shown in this article, there are problems with the claims of feathered dinosaurs. While it is theoretically possible that God could have created dinosaurs with feathers, evidence for such a claim is currently lacking. Christians would be wise to critically review any claim made by evolutionary scientists to see if it matches both Scripture and the available evidence, even if that claim is repeated by a fellow creationist.
The question of feathered dinosaurs is not merely an academic exercise with little real-world application. This is a big issue because at its core, the idea of dinosaurs displaying a coat of feathers is an evolutionary one, meant to bolster their claim that birds and dinosaurs are related and that birds are actually dinosaurs. Because the idea is based on little observational evidence and much evolutionary speculation, storytelling, and assumptions, it opens the door for other similarly unfounded evolutionary ideas to creep into the biblical creation community.
Since Dr. McLain is a college professor, he is training the next generation of creation scientists to, perhaps unwittingly, accept certain evolutionary assumptions as fact, and this has dangerous ramifications for future research.
As creationists, we must be very careful not to allow compromise with evolutionary ideas to creep into our research.
As creationists, we must be very careful not to allow compromise with evolutionary ideas to creep into our research, or biblical faithfulness will eventually be lost by either this generation or the next.
Answers in Depth explores the biblical worldview in addressing modern scientific research, history, current events, popular media, theology, and much more.Browse Volume
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.