You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me


Dr. Alan Feduccia is struggling for relevance. One might say this about much of his career, from his first big book on birds (1980’s The Age of Birds), to his repeat performances (The Origin and Evolution of Birds, 1996’s first and 1999’s second editions), to the latest, a treatise on disbelief in a dinosaurian-origin for birds (2012’s Riddle of the Feathered Dragons). Feduccia has of late made a career out of trying to find different ways to say how dinosaurs cannot give rise to birds — all without specifying what, exactly, does — with his most recent attempt being no less unremarkable.

The old idea, made antique in the middle of the last century, is that birds were some, strange kind of archosaur, perhaps descended from a lizard like animal; feathers developed from segmenting scales, and plate-like scaled turned directly into feathers; there’s something called “Sauriurae,” cause you can’t — no matter what — have birds evolve from within Maniraptora while also being dinosaurs. The new idea, which actually has its roots alongside those of the old idea, with Huxley’s defense of Darwin and refutation of Owen’s antiquated concepts of evolution, stresses the dynamic of phylogenetic analysis and absolute data: Data speaks for itself.

Despite this, some, chief among them the Smithsonian’s Storrs Olson and University of North Carolina’s Alan Feduccia, have taken up the banner of the old idea, regardless of the new. Their claim has a rallying cry, one which seems reasonable and was a key element of Olson’s famous response to National Geographic’s Robert Sloan: People keep calling birds “dinosaurs”! Well, yeah … that’s where the data points, and if you have better data, you publish it and let IT speak. Whose data speaks louder, is better — whose theory fits the evidence better — is closer to being right.

Our knowledge of the biology of bird origins runs apace with new studies on the integument of ancient animals, and their phylogeny with ever-expanding amounts of anatomical detail and new taxa, some showing the presence of nonscaly integument in “clearly” nonavian dinosaurs. Cladistic analysis is a robust, ever improving process of using mathematical algorithms to find “best-fit” arrangements of fixed morphological sequences to unfixed species arrangements, and under various assumptions (all spelled out and clear) how robust this data is and how “well” these species are arranged in comparison to variation in the resultant trees. Yet, both of these factors represent the raison d’être for a small group of mostly ornithologists.

1. Integument is attacked. We either can’t be certain about the nature of the morphology — perhaps we disagree on its preservation integrity — or it’s really epidermal or dermal structural fibres, collagen of “fins.”
2. Phylogeny is attacked. In two ways: first, the very methodology of cladistic analysis is attacked, as either being unreasonable, unuseful, or prone to error; and second, that the results differ so much we can’t put any stock in anything, and if the results consistently place modern birds among maniraptoran theropods which are among nonmaniraptoran theropods like Concavenator and Dilophosaurus, well, then they must be wrong!

These represent the two prongs of BAND (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) and MANIAC (Maniraptorans Are Not In Actuality Coelurosaurs) adherents, but neither are really propositional arguments, save perhaps the “feathers are really collagen” aspect of Argument 1. Instead, the argumentation of these is to push doubt in the analyses to the forefront, ignoring the results. Indeed, it is a fundamental aspect of these positions that they are based on arguing against what they feel is the “established” agreement among thousands of scientists (i.e., “the orthodoxy”). They exclude themselves from a substantive, scientific agreement — a similar agreement that gave us a spherical globe, a heliocentric solar system, evolution, plate tectonics, fundamental particles of the universe, and so forth — and offer in exchange … what? Longisquama? They publish papers arguing, often with long discourses of rhetoric and appeals to long-dead and fundamentally wrong people, against the “establishment,” telling them (or in Olson’s case, yelling at them) that they need to rethink their ingrained beliefs, as if the argument that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs — were dinosaurs — is equivalent to belief in a Flat Earth, a faked Moon landing, to the Illuminati.

An outdated reconstruction of Longisquama insignis (Sharov, 1970), with the limbs held in an erect, potentially terrestrial posture. (I no longer agree with this interpretation.)

They’re feathers, I tell ya!

What is unfortunate is that Feduccia and Olsom find acolytes to their cause, most recently workers who’ve supported and co-authored with them the latest of these papers, and many of which are merely reinterpretations of the data, as if there are necessary “rebuttals” as if the papers were the US State of the Union address and there was a required opposition-party “response.” That is what it feels like when Feduccia publishes a “review” of the previous years’ latest discoveries (or at least the ones they want to acknowledge). The authors continuously allege that advocates for pro-theropod origins for birds — that is, most other scientists — promote creationism:

Another overlooked but dangerous aspect of this entire debacle involves the ever-lurking Creationists, who see the layered flaws and junk science in the current unchallengeable orthodoxy on bird origins and have leapt into the fray, like circling sharks in a feeding frenzy, terming this phenomenon “The Disneyfication of Paleontology!” (see http://www.csm.org.uk/news.php?viewmessage=34). As one well-known creationist noted following a presentation of an egregiously flawed study claiming the discovery of dinosaur DNA in Triceratops purported to be identical to turkey DNA, “This isn’t science. This isn’t even myth. This is comic relief!” (Wells 2000:133). It is chilling to contemplate that the Creationists may be the ones to sweep our own house clean.

This is bizarre, as many creationists tend to point to those BANDits’/MANIACs’ own papers and arguments as the basis of their attacks on evolution. Here’s a small smattering of Intelligent Design proponents (Creationism in disguise) favorably citing Alan Feduccia, and some more. That the controversy of avian origins is promoted by guys like William Dembski, Ken Ham, Casey Luskin, or Jonathan Wells is almost directly due to folks like Feduccia and Olson peddling incredulous arguments, as if there was an intrinsic divide between scientists on this, is so blatant that it takes a case of extreme ignorance or self-delusion to argue they are defending the case of evolution. Whether he likes it or not, Alan Feduccia walks hand in hand with Creationism. They have a common purpose: disprove the case of birds evolution from dinosaurs, though their base premises may differ.

No, there’s just Feduccia, Olson and a few other guys. They are themselves not even suited to make the critiques they do: Neither of them study non-avian archosaurs, nor do they use or agree with cladistic analysis. It may seem they are not well-suited to the task of criticizing these factors, yet are ready to suggest potential other ancestors for birds … so long as they aren’t dinosaurs. One must wonder why — O, why — dinosaurs cannot give rise to birds? When it is pointed out to them that dromeosaurids were so similar to “clear” birds, they refused to consider, but eventually conceded and decided dromaeosaurs and birds are related … but the former cannot be dinosaurs. Shifting the goalposts, it’s called, and is as illogical as they claim of those of us who argue birds derive from dinosaurs. The flaw of the shifting goalpost is one of the slippery slope, the inevitable eternal moving position and the end of reason. Eventually, as it goes, all of non-crocodilian archosaurs will end up as “birds” to satisfy it … and that reveals the illogic of the argument.

It is a benefit of the persistence of good ideas and logic that they gain intelligent adherents; but the ideas of BAND and MANIAC are stale: They are the retention of arguments made in the 1970s that have gained no new traction, no new technology, no new blood. While recently students of Olson’s, Martin’s and Feduccia’s have entered the debate pandering the arguments of their teachers, these have been few and far between.

Feduccia’s latest salvo is a weak creature, filled with rhetoric he’s written before, arguments that have been made before, and appeals to ideas that are more relevant as a criticism to his own work than he would claim of “the orthodoxy.” Perhaps worst of all, Feduccia provides a quote by Carl Sagan to make a point, and fails utterly:

Whatever happened to astronomer Carl Sagan’s well-worn axiom, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? It is time to move beyond the unchallengeable orthodoxy currently shrouding the field of bird origins to unravel the long-hidden secrets of the Mesozoic: are the truly “feathered dinosaurs” of China in reality its hidden birds?

One thing: The “Birds are Dinosaurs” folks have evidence — lots of it. The “Birds are not Dinosaurs” folks do not — theirs is a position of contrariness. It is ironic that it is Feduccia accusing people like Xu Xing or Mark Norell of error for arguing through cladistic analysis, detailed structure of integument, and only rely on the a small set of publications from three or four authors for “refuttal.” Indeed, Feduccia’s latest has 66 references, and of these 26 (46%) are written by MANIACs like David Burnham, Stephen Czerkas, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, or himself; or with students of Olson like Carla Dove or Francis James. (I recently discussed Dove’s reply to a paper describing Campanian-aged amber from Canada with apparent stage II or III feathers in it; that paper also make a stab at a creationism angle, and it’s appearance in Feduccia’s latest lends credence to the apparent ignorance these authors have to their influence on ID- and Creationism-supporters.) The rest include criticisms of cladistic analysis or references to large datasets (which are argued against: e. g., Livezy and Zusi’s huge 2006 analysis has “massive convergence”) and a smattering of primary research, though much of it are citations which the main 26 argue against. It amounts to a review of reviews, amassing the criticisms against a methodology and result the author has a personal disagreement with. But, this will change.

The old idea will die, and the new take hold, until displaced by a newer, better idea. But, I do not think Feduccia will be its herald. The “orthodoxy” is not unchallengable, the proponents of avian dinosaurs not impervious to criticism; it is merely that the empty “I don’t believe” arguments of Feduccia, Olson, TLS,  that fail to challenge. There may be something to the arguments that the structure of “feathers” in Sinosauropteryx prima are nothing of avian integument … but so far no one has made the claim convincingly: supposition and fervor doesn’t do it. Once upon a time, Terry Jones and John Ruben argued that no theropod dinosaur, much less a dromaeosaurid, could have a metabolism like a bird’s — now, they won’t even cite the studies, nor those referring to Longisquama. This, too, will pass.

Feduccia, A. 2013. Bird origins anew. The Auk 130(1):1-12.

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14 Responses to You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me

  1. Leo says:

    An amazing post, Jaime, and very well written indeed!

  2. fer says:

    excellent post ;)

  3. Eric Weis says:

    Great post. What’s that quote… “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

  4. Paul P. says:

    What does M.A.N.I.A.C. stand for..?

    • It’s in the post: Maniraptorans Are Not In Actuality Coelurosaurs. The premise is that dromaeosaurs, troodontids, alvarezsaurs, and oviraptorosaurs (i.e., “maniraptorans”) are all near-birds, but NOT dinosaurs! This argument was founded for the most part by Stephen Czerkas in 2002 and since then has been the go-to “hypothesis” for BANDits (“Birds Are Not Dinosaurs” adherents) whose sole goal is to find any way in which to characterize maniraptorans and birds as “different” from every other coelurosaur. This is mostly predicated on an argument that Sinosauropteryx prima is apparently surrounded by a collagen halo, and not fuzzy feather-like structures. I go through this in a post here and here. Darren Naish details some of the classic arguments (involving the metabolic data that was once used to separate maniraptorans from birds) here; since those arguments were made, modern BANDits dropped the whole metabolism argument “accept” maniraptoran origins for birds, but now seek to move maniraptorans out of theropods, and never cite the dozen or so arguments that have been published to refutre their “anything but” dogma. Indeed, they call the “Birds Are Dinosaurs” argument a dogma because its adherents, for some reason, back this shit up with data.

  5. I’m harassed by creationists telling me God’s word is true because birds aren’t dinosaurs. Then I replied and, then, of course, they consulted the one paleontologist who doesn’t believe birds are dinosaurs, Feduccia, to back them up.

  6. Pingback: A Look Back at the Bite Stuff, 2013 Edition | The Bite Stuff

  7. David Marjanović says:

    e. g., Livezy and Zusi’s huge 2006 analysis has “massive convergence”

    It does, actually. It contains almost no fossils, and its results line up extremely well with Wetmore’s (1960) classification while being not even similar to the results of molecular analyses – or of morphological ones like Gerald Mayr’s.

    • The point of that was that Feduccia doesn’t qualify his remakrs. In fact, they only try to qualify their own arguments, after the strawman they construct. Many phylogenies contain convergences; it’s impossible not to when you have little to no framing for your data and are just throwing in data from everywhere. It’s like taking the context out of words and assuming structure exists.

  8. Pingback: Really, again? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! | The Bite Stuff

  9. Jimmy Jj says:

    We are all gonna die one day. Our words will be erased by time and forgotten. Can’t we all just get a long until then.

    • And when we have passed through the world sowing destruction in our wake, certain nonetheless we will die, we seek to gain virtual immortality by leaving behind as our mark that destruction. To be remembered, either as a hero or as an apocalypse. To stem the destruction, we must isolate the chaos, and bring it to bed before it can wreck too much havoc. Feduccia struggles for relevance, his world is passing him by and leaving him behind. His work, his books, deriding the consensus of science without more valuable input — repeating the claims of three decades or a century ago, however debunked — shows he is desperate. This is not to be allowed, when it causes more and more people, people who misunderstand or are just learning of science and its processes, to confuse what that is. He promotes it, through willful ignorance, and wrecks havoc in his wake. If he was just a man, your concern might be wise. But he’s not just a man.

    • Glenn Higgins says:

      “Never!!!” (In my best Homer Simpson voice)

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