Chapter 3

Vertebrates: Animals with Backbones

by Dr. Gary Parker on January 1, 1994

When we come to the vertebrates, the situation changes dramatically. We run smack into the most powerful evidence of evolution. At least that’s what I used to tell my students.

But when we come to the vertebrates, the animals with backbones, the situation changes dramatically. We run smack into the most powerful evidence of evolution. At least that’s what I used to tell my students when I taught university biology as an evolutionist.

Sometimes I would run into a student who would ask me, “If evolution is true, where are the missing links?” “Missing links?” I’d say. “Glad you asked. It just so happens we have a perfect example: Archaeopteryx, the link that shows how reptiles evolved into birds!”

Archaeopteryx is the showcase for evolution. There is only one really photogenic specimen, the Berlin specimen, which is pictured in essentially all biology textbooks. That specimen, along with a reconstruction in the same position, is shown in Fig. 25.

Reconstruction vs. Fossil Specimen

Figure 25. At last—evidence of evolution! … or is it? The famous Archaeopteryx combines features most often found in reptiles (teeth, claws, unfused vertebrae, and a long bony tail) with features distinctive of birds (wings, feathers, and a furcula or wishbone). Does Archaeopteryx provide clues as to how scales evolved into feathers, or legs into wings? Is Archaeopteryx more likely an evolutionary link, or a mosaic of complete traits (a distinctive created kind)? Read both sides and think about it.

At first, you may wonder what the fuss is all about. It has feathers, wings, and a beak, so it’s a bird. But look closer. It has teeth in the bill, claws on the wings, no keel on the breast bone, an unfused backbone, and a long, bony tail. These are all characteristics we normally associate with reptiles. What’s more, the existence of a creature like Archaeopteryx was predicted by evolutionists before any such specimen was found! What’s a creationist going to say to a “perfect example of evolution” like Archaeopteryx? There’s no way I can get you to consider creation without facing up to Archaeopteryx.

Well, first of all, the reptile-like features are not really as reptile-like as you might suppose. The familiar ostrich, for example, has claws on its wings that are even more “reptile-like” than those of Archaeopteryx. Several birds, such as the hoatzin, don’t have much of a keel. The penguin has unfused backbones and a bony tail. No living birds have socketed teeth, but some fossil birds do. Besides, some reptiles have teeth and some don’t, so the presence or absence of teeth is not particularly important in distinguishing the two groups.

More importantly, take a look at the individual features of Archaeopteryx. Is there any clue as to how legs evolved into wings? No, none at all. When we find wings as fossils, we find completely developed, fully functional wings. That’s true of Archaeopteryx, and it’s also true of the flying insects, flying reptiles (pterodactyls), and the flying mammals (bats).

Is there any clue in Archaeopteryx as to how reptilian scales evolved into feathers? No, none at all. When we find feathers as fossils, we find fully developed and functional feathers. Feathers are quite complex structures, with little hooks and eyelets for zippering and unzippering them. Archaeopteryx not only had complete and complex feathers, but feathers of several different types! As a matter of fact, it had the asymmetric feather characteristic of strong fliers. An evolutionist once claimed that penguin wings showed the transition from scale to feather. Their small feathers do overlap like scales (or roofing shingles!), but their microstructure and development are 100% feather. He might as well have claimed the feathers evolved from shingles!

What about lack of a keel? Actually, muscles for the power stroke in flight attach to the wishbone or furcula, and Archaeopteryx had “an extremely robust furcula.” As a matter of fact, a growing number of evolutionists, perhaps a consensus, now believe that Archaeopteryx was a strong flier. Many now consider Archaeopteryx the first bird, and not a missing link between reptiles and birds (See Denton,8 and Wiford9). (A few scientists, including Sir Fred Hoyle, think Archaeopteryx is a hoax. See Ian Taylor,10 for discussion.)

Actually the final piece in the Archaeopteryx puzzle (for the time being, anyway) has been put into place with the discovery in Texas of a quarry full of bird bones (“proto-avis”), entombed in rock layers much “deeper” than those which contain Archaeopteryx remains. What does that mean? It simply means that the Archaeopteryx specimens we have cannot have been the ancestors of birds, because birds already existed.

Evolutionists who accept Archaeopteryx as a bird must, of course, look elsewhere for the ancestors of birds. The new candidate is called “pro-avis” (which is not the same as the Texas birds loosely called “proto-avis”). John Ostrom11 of Yale University discusses two possible pictures of this pro-avis, as re-drawn in Fig. 26. One hypothesis has birds starting as partially feathered reptiles gliding down from trees. Ostrom points out a number of anatomical inconsistencies in that view. He then suggests that birds began as two-legged reptiles, with feathery baskets on their forearms, that jumped higher and higher to catch flying insects.

Reconstruction vs. Fossil Specimen

Figure 26. Two concepts of the evolutionary ancestor of birds, called “pro-avis,” are redrawn here from an article by Yale’s John Ostrom. As Ostrom says, “No fossil evidence of any pro-avis exists. It is a purely hypothetical pre-bird, but one which must have existed.” But this case for evolution is based on faith, not facts. The fossils found so far simply show that birds have always been birds, of many distinctive kinds.

Take a look at the idea of pro-avis in Fig. 26-B. Can you see any problems in getting it off the ground? Perhaps you’ve seen children tie towels onto their arms and try to fly. If you ever tried it yourself (as I once did), you found that all that flapping created more drag than lift! Even though it’s his idea, Ostrom acknowledges that the muscle action for catching insects is all wrong for flying. And eating insects out of the feathers would tear up the feathers anyway.

Besides these difficulties, Ostrom also points out that “No fossil evidence exists of any pro-avis. It is a purely hypothetical pre-bird, but one must have existed.” Apparently, where facts fail, faith avails! Ostrom and other evolutionists can be commended for their imagination. But their ideas cannot be presented in science classrooms as logical inferences from observed data, since they admit themselves the data simply do not exist.

As far as the fossil evidence is concerned, different kinds of invertebrates and plants have always been different kinds of invertebrates and plants…and birds have always been birds. The fossil evidence of creation is just as clear in the other vertebrate groups as well (See Gish12 and see Bliss, Parker, and Gish13). It seems to me that “creation” is clearly the logical inference from our scientific knowledge of fossils.

The Return of Hopeful Monsters

Figure 27. Harvard’s Stephen Gould says that, “The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change ….” He proposes instead that evolution occurs in jumps by the “rare success of those hopeful monsters.” Could a bird, for example, hatch from a reptile’s egg? Gould assumes a materialistic philosophy for himself and all other scientists, however, and that does not permit him to consider creation as a more-logical inference from the fossil evidence.

During the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, a group of evolutionists led by Harvard’s Stephen Gould tried to resurrect the idea that evolution happened in big jumps, “The Return of Hopeful Monsters” Gould called it.14 The hopeful-monster idea (variously expressed as punctuated equilibrium, saltatory evolution, or quantum speciation) was proposed to explain why the links required by gradual evolution have never been found. But the “big jumpers” were never able to explain how these big jumps could occur genetically, nor could they answer this crucial question about the first appearance of any hopeful-monster: with what would it mate?

At least the creationist and the post-neo-Darwinian punctuationalist agree that the missing links are missing. But what is the scientific difference between saying that the missing links can never be found (the “new” evolution) and saying that they never existed at all (creation)?

Sometimes it’s kind of fun to be a creationist. The “rear-guard” neo-Darwinian evolutionists like to point out the apparent absurdity of hopeful-monster evolution and claim that evolution could not happen fast. The punctuational evolutionists point to genetic limits and the fossil evidence to show that evolution did not happen slowly. The creationist simply agrees with both sides: Evolution couldn’t happen fast, and it didn’t happen slowly-because evolution can’t and didn’t happen at all! In terms of the kind of variation that can and did occur, the creation concept seems to be the far more logical inference from our observations.

At least the hopeful monster concept avoids the problem of missing links. But notice: this alternate concept of evolution is based on the fossils we don’t find and on genetic mechanisms that have never been observed. The case for creation is based on thousands of tons of fossils that we have found and on genetic mechanisms (variation within kind) that we do observe and see occurring every day. As a scientist, I prefer a model that’s based on what we do see and can explain (creation), rather than one that’s based on what we don’t see and cannot explain (evolution). [Ed. note: For more information on Archaeopteryx, punctuated equilibrium and the fossil record, see Get Answers: Fossils.]


  1. Denton, Michael. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. London: Burnett Books. 1985. Return to text.
  2. Wilford, John N. “Feathered Dinosaur or Real Bird.” New York Times, February 5, 1993. Return to text.
  3. Taylor, Ian. In the Minds of Men. 3rd ed. Toronto: TFE Pub. 1992. Return to text.
  4. Ostrom, John H. “Bird Flight: How Did It Begin?” American Scientist, January/February 1979. Return to text.
  5. Gish, Duane T. The Challenge of the Fossil Record. Colorado Springs: Master Books. 1986. Return to text.
  6. Bliss, Richard B., Gary E. Parker, and Duane T. Gish. Fossils: Key to the Present. Colorado Springs: Master Books. Two Models Creation-Evolution Series. 1980. Return to text.
  7. Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Return of Hopeful Monsters.” Natural History, June/July 1977. Return to text.

Creation: Facts of Life

Dr. Parker, a leading creation scientist and former AiG speaker, presents the classic arguments for evolution used in public schools, universities, and the media, and refutes them in an entertaining and easy-to-read style. A must for students and teachers alike! This is a great book to give to a non-Christian as a witnessing tool.

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