Really, again? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!


I honestly don’t think I can write any more on how bad Alan Feduccia’s “science” is on the subject of bird origins than I already have, here. Briefly, Dr. Alan Feduccia has teamed up with earstwhile companion in quackery Stephen Czerkas to pen a missive on Scansoriopteryx heilmanni (named by the former in 2002) to “demonstrate” how it and all other maniraptoran theropods (oviraptorosaurs, troodontids, dromaeosaurids, and other scansoriopterygids) are not, and cannot be, theropods or, even, dinosaurs, but birds. That is, birds are not dinosaurs, and neither are maniraptorans.

(An update to this post is emmended below.)

The literature is rich on the subject of dinosaur relationships, and the strength of the data regarding the origins of various clades within and without dinosaurs to birds. The authors do not even substantially disagree anymore (as their kindred once did a few decades ago, in the days of Max Hecht and Storrs Olson, or the days of John Ruben and Nicholas Geist who tried to argue [wrongly] that dinosaurs had a croc-like respiration but because modern birds don’t they couldn’t be related) with the basic relationship of birds and crocs uniting to form Archosauria within Sauria. They merely position dinosaurs next to crocs, then birds outside that. And it’s fanciful, utterly unsupported by the raw data.

Key to this, apparently, is their over-interpretation and lack of any substantive relationship of Scansoriopteryx heilmanni to bird origins. This is done solely on the back of the idea that “dinosaur” involves some ridiculous concept of the giant lumbering monster and birds are anything but. It’s absurd (ABSRD: Anything But a Small, Running Dinosaur), proving them fairly maniacal (MANIAC: Maniraptorans Are Not, In Actuality, Coelurosaurs). Their argument is to effectively resurrect, as Czerkas attempted in 2002, the concept of the “tetrapteryx” of William Beebe and the arboral/scansorial feathered lizard of Gerhard Heilmann as the precursor to bird origins. Because this concept firmly places birds arising from tiny, arboreal animals, and that Scansoriopteryx somehow neatly fits this concept, it proves utterly their case that the giant tyrannosaurs, the abelisaurs, the sauropods, the Triceratopses, cannot be bird relatives — at least, not as close as crocs are as well.

And they write this crap up in a paper that may seem, to the unaided eye, to be sound logic, a good paper, a firm rebuttal and revision of the scientific paradigm that, assuming regardless of the absurdity of the theory, that birds arose from within a group of animals that just so happens to have sauropods attached to it. We all grew up with the idea of dinosaurs including the giants, the lumbering behemoths — it’s surely hard to then grasp how they include many slick, svelte and sleek ornithischians, them also covered in bristly and feathery integument, and feathery, slick coelurosaurs, small and large (from Yutyrannus down to Archaeopteryx). But they are wrong to think so, as has been demonstrated when the death knell of the “birds ≠ dinosaurs” debate rang in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and has been ringing since. Nothing Czerkas and Feduccia write is new. The problem is that to get to their conclusion, they consistently ignore the rebuttals specific to their work. They do not even cite the work that seeks to poke holes into Feduccia’s early missive (2002) that sought to pick up the mantle of Stephen Czerkas’s semi-articulate paper in the same year, whereby they “removed” maniraptorans from dinosaurs so as to finally reconcile what Feduccia spent the previous three decades arguing against. They moved the goalposts. Then they moved them again. They accepted the rebuttals to their work on dromaeosaur anatomy and relationships, and their decidedly bird-like appearance, and then further out. They supported Maryańska et al.’s (heavily flawed) 2002 paper on the origin of Oviraptorosauria, itself built by excluding a host of disconfirming data. And they do it by obviously refusing to cite or even mention rebuttals to their work, a decade of which has included specific refutations of their step of their argument. To wit: Prum in 2003 in The Auk (a response to Feduccia’s article in the same journal not three months previous) notes how this group’s entire operandus is based in rhetoric, and little on science. We are over a decade removed from that response, and it remains unchallenged; the players on the one side of the fence remain devoted to their “rhetorical sham” of fomenting an illusion to their ornithological brothers that there is real science here. There is none.

Instead, you get a paper that creates a concept that dinosaurs are this alien thing that are so distinct, as “thecodonts” were before them, from birds as to paint the association in ridiculous stripes, to call out in mockery. It never substantiates this charge, but then moves on to self-congratulating their own work. Scansoriopteryx heilmanni is based on a small specimen in which the bones are preserved flattened and in some places split down the middle but when not as impressions on one side and inclusions on the other of a pair of plates, the fossil sandwiched between. Faint impressions left on the slab at the split speak of a wispy, filamentous integument, but the authors call them feathers and even reconstruct them as forming a series of primaries, secondaries, and “tertials” (Czerkas and Feduccia, 2014, Fig.2E). Two facts elude the authors, but they did not always: the first is that when the bone surface is shown, it is irregular, with large foramina, and an unfinished texture; the other is that when bone ends are available, they are rounded, and seem incomplete, as if not fully ossified. When first describing this, Czerkas (as Czerkas and Yuan, 2002) even claimed the material was juvenile. These two facts support this conclusion. Neither are presented in the new work. They are an inconvenient truth every work that seeks to discuss Scansoriopteryx heilmanni, and its likely synonym Epidendrosaurus ningchengensis, notes as a caution to forming conclusions about the shapes, proportions, and morphology of the animal. Czerkas is willing to discard his own observation to get at this fiction.

Much work on the paper goes into the description of the structure and extend of the integument, and the process by which it was uncovered. However, all that is shown are photographs of the slab under lighting conditions that do not reveal at all the integument, or at the least separate it from possible tooling marks. The authors sought to employ a method by the use of a specific microscope to examine and then generate 3D images they could use to construct a virtual specimen. The results of this work are not shown, but referred to continuously. Instead, we are treated to a variety of high-angle and low-angle photographs (no UV photography was employed) that reveal very little of their arguments. The clearest image of integument shows a patch of tuberculate scales around the metatarsus of one leg, but despite this, the restoration assumes the tarsus featured a full “wing” a la Microraptor. In short, the very nature of the test they purport as unique to this work that would make it valuable is not shown. There is no supplemental data to drawn upon. They did the opposite of the addage, “show, not tell.”

What follows (half of the paper) is the rhetorical sham of Feduccia, including the idiocy often peddled by this group about what is and what should be the defining, and unaltering character of Dinosauria. Dinosaurs must have perforate acetabula (despite multiple lineages demonstrating reclosure, without recourse to birds); the femur isn’t “upright” (remember what I wrote about imperfect bone ends and irregular development due to maturity?); absence of a supracetabular shelf or antitrochanter (a morphofunctional argument would assert these features are asserted in larger bipeds, would be reduced in quadrupeds and/or smaller cursors, and this is the case; also, birds have giant antitrochanters); a short pubis (I have no idea how this argument is even relevant, much less how the authors reconstruct the full pelvis is side view when the only articulated hip is obscured by its own sacrum in this specimen). Moreover, the authors assert that many of these imperfect preservations are, in fact, certain and secure, and propose an entire schematic habitus for the animal (sprawl-legged, feathered lizard) which beggars the imagination how they think they can get this and turn it into a upright-legged, tuck-legged flyer? They certainly seem to think the sprawl-legged model fo Xu et al. for Microraptor in 2003 is correct, despite considerable revision in the meanwhile, as if they exist in an existential timebubble in which only papers they like appear before their eyes.

And somehow, this got published.

In my post to Feduccia’s quackery, and those I linked to it, I discuss what science entails, and how to do it well. Science is a process whereby you add and then collate data (additive) and formulate an observation, and then through the process of removing elements (reduction) of the hypothesis until it fits the facts. However, some scientists feel, because some processes require partially removing data from datasets, that they can do this to the data itself. That is, they remove whole swaths of data, and by this fit the data to their theory. This is neither reductive, deductive, nor science.

Feduccia’s work, and that of Stephen Czerkas, has been cited by other quackaloons in the past, but most of these have sought to either fix their unsound logic, or ran with it to their own perceived goalline, including but not limited to William Dembski at Uncommon Descent, the blog of the Discovery Institute, which peddles the “Intelligent Design” bullshit. I won’t link to it here, but hope that when you Google it, you end up reading all the bad stuff about these arguments. Long story short, it’s about creationism and sowing strawmen of the dissent among scientists.

Alan Feduccia has enjoyed a healthy relationship with the Journal of Ornithology which, while providing a disclaimer to the “debate” (which is solely between him and Storrs Olson – and their scions – versus the rest of anatomical scientists), has allowed Feduccia almost certain free reign to publish crap in its pages. As with the climate science “debate,” it falsely paints the picture that there is a real, actual debate going on with respect, well-meaning, and sound-thinking scientists. Their work plays into the differences of cladistic results, anatomical information during the evolution towards birds with various animals, and over- and under-interpreting of fossil data. It’s a philosophy of strawmen.

Max Planck (of the constant and length) said: “Science advances one funeral at a time.” We are heartened that eventually this old-guard of “Birds Are Not Dinosaurs” adherents (not ironically termed “BANDits”) – who will try to chose any animal they can to wrest birds outside of the concept of “dinosaur,” based on their idea of what “dinosaur” means, however poorly formulated – will disappear. Planck’s quote is a sad one, because it necessitates realizing that there are scientists, those who do some sound work, who nonetheless hold extremely unpopular opinions and are given mouthpieces to shout them from the highest pinnacles of academia. They are given bullhorns, in the guise of promoting debate.

This is not sound, and should not stand. There is no debate. They do not add new data. Each new iteration of this back-and-forth doesn’t advance the conversation, it merely shoehorns the new into the old concept, and doesn’t seek to substantially revise the old. Birds cannot be dinosaurs, they think, because … dinosaurs? This is a fundamental premise to their arguments, and it underpins everything. Honest debate would attempt to determine, phylogenetically, substantic differences on a deep, anatomical level, but that failed in the 1970s through 1990s. it died off, and the old guard started dying off. Now few are left. But still they are given bullhorns, press releases, and Google hits of support. It’s not science anymore; there’s no debate. It’s a joke.

Update:

In a curious twist, I’ve gotten a response [n1] from the Uncommon Descent people, but not anything substantive on the nature of my argument, whilst they praise the value of Czerkas’ and Feduccia’s. That they do so to either is no surprise: Uncommon Descent is the blog of the Discovery Institute, and is run by such luminaries as Marcus Ross and Denyse O’Leary. These names are common if you’ve ever been to the Panda’s Thumb blog. They accuse me of attributing their post to William Dembski, a DI fellow, but I never wrote that Dembski was the author of the post in question. I attached his name to the blog (he used to be the sole blogger in its infancy) and to the DI itself, which they do not contest.

This blog never pulled from my earlier post (first link way at the top of this post) on the inane and debunked arguments of Feduccia, nor the earlier revisions of the arguments of Czerkas to Scansoriopterygidae, found here. It is further notable that that last post there was also a direct response to a paper that Czerkas and Feduccia used to help support (while using the similarly flawed Maryańska et al. paper) the idea (not the data) that scansoriopterygids are bird-like but not dinosaurs.

As noted in my first post, I called out Feduccia for his use of rhetoric over data. Prum did the same in 2003; this is nothing new. The entire body of work of alan Feduccia, Storss Olson, the late Larry Martin, Zhou Zhonghe, Stephen Czerkas on the subject of bird origins is rife with rhetoric and culled analyses, selective attention and reading, and little to any raw data to draw on. That Uncommon Descent would pick up on this is no surprise: they will, like many, flock to ideas that help confirm their own views. And make no mistake: However much that Olson equated the birds-as-dinosaurs group (mainstream science, backed by libraries of data) as sleeping with creationists, the opposite is true, and it is Olson and his bedfellows that have made common allies with creationists like the Discovery Institute (which includes William Dembski, its most prominent member, along with fellows like Michael Behe). This has been pointed out before, and it is ignored, by them, as what I called an inconvenient truth.

It’s okay to disagree: even the scientists who disagree on the exact structure of avian phylogeny and which group of non-birds is closer to true-birds, they do all agree that birds arise from within dinosaurs. That they are dinosaurs. Creationists, and people like Marcus Ross are no different, cannot grasp the fundamental fact that changing over time doesn’t render you no longer a part of your parent group. They honestly seem to believe the rhetoric of “if evolution is real, why are there still monkeys and apes?” They understand nothing because their world view is focused on the preclusion that the god-driven evolution is correct and countermands other types of organismal development. To them, the enemy is “the science squad,” a term they apparently give to those who actually study, investigate, and attempt to discern the closest to the truth the world has to tell. Intelligent Design is a smokescreen for creation teaching, and has been so far rejected in virtually all states where it has been introduced by these fellows. It walks hand-in-hand with teaching a literal Biblical creation and getting it placed into law, and it is not interested in determining the closet there is to truth the world can tell us; they know it, in their hearts. They cannot be swayed.

I am accused of profanity (no contest) and of rhetoric (again, no contest). What they miss is that these posts are reviews (where rhetoric rules) and the first post, which is practically required reading, lacked any profanity. And so their responses, quoting from me, are so filled with such profanity. Maybe my work is done? I got profanity on the pages of Uncommon Descent.

Feduccia and Czerkas and the rest walk hand-in-hand with these people, ill to each others’ touch (Feduccia is not a creationist, and accepts both deep time and an unguided evolutionary process; Storrs Olson has been known to rant on the idiocy of creationist thought, and I think he’d be perturbed by the association were he not so blind to his own fallacies). The merest thing I can do is to point this out and share it. And I’ll do this every single time this subject comes up.

[n1] I hope this is the only time I ever link to their blog.

Beebe, W. A. 1915. Tetrapteryx stage in the evolution of birds. Zoologica 2: 39-52.
Czerkas, S. A & Yuan C. 2002. An arboreal maniraptoran from northeast China. The Dinosaur Museum Journal 1: 631-95.
Czerkas, S. A., Zhang D., Li J. & Li Y. 2002. Flying dromaeosaurs. The Dinosaur Museum Journal 1: 97-126.
Feduccia, A. 2002. Birds are dinosaurs: Simple answer to a complex problem. The Auk 119: 1187-1201.
Heilmann, G. 1926. The Origin of Birds. Witherby, London.
Maryańska, T., Osmólska, H. & Wolsan, M. 2001. Avialan status for Oviraptorosauria. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 47 (1): 97-116.
Prum, R. O. 2003. Are current critiques of the theropod origin of birds science? Rebuttal to Feduccia (2002). The Auk 120 (2): 550-561.
Xu X., Zhou Z., Wang X., Kuang X., Zhang F. & Du X. 2003. Four-winged dinosaurs from China. Nature 421: 335-340.

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18 Responses to Really, again? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!

  1. It truly is baffling that Feduccia et al.’s model for bird origins seems to have less in common with birds than do plain old “classic” dinosaurs.
    A lot of it seems to be based on willful ignorance of taphonomy as well–I recall a documentary in which Larry Martin confidently argued that a direct cast of a Microraptor femur was more accurate than a painstaking reconstruction based on dozens of specimens, which appears to be the mentality that created the ABSRD myth that Microraptor et al. were lizardlike sprawlers.
    Their reconstruction techniques are hardly better than those of David Peters and their grasp of phylogenetics even more flawed, as they lack a concept of “reversal” or “long-branch attraction”.

    • “as they lack a concept of “reversal” or “long-branch attraction”.”

      Or even modular evolution.

      The biggest element of this ignorance is that they are unable or unwilling to accept new, developed techniques for separating data from fiction. They feel the just so story of their old days (make an hypothesis, throw features at it, publish) is sound today as it was when they were fresh PhDs. Philosophical science in their days supported this, but now we need hard data.

  2. ijreid says:

    This is complete and utter insanity!!! There reputations and opinions should now be regarded as garbage. Why are they even trying to get a point across, they have absolutely no hope. It’s not even systematically possible for birds to be outside dinosaurs, as the groups definition is “The last common ancestor of Triceratops horridus and Passer domesticus [a bird!] and all of its descendants”. Unless they completely redefine Dinosauria, birds will forever be dinosaurs. This is almost as unrealistic as the movie Pacific Rim stating that dinosaurs were the first attempt by extraterrestrial predators to comsume the earth and its resources; more insane than the recent paper by Fraser predicting that herbivorous dinosaurs evolved horns and frills and spines to dislodge parasitic dromaeosaurs that thereby evolved flight to stay attached (much discussed on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:WikiProject_Dinosaurs#.22The_Journal_of_Paleontological_Sciences.22 ); and also crazier than the 2010 paper on “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”, which names a new species for all the morrison diplodocids even though plenty of names already exist. This is soooooo crazy, I even want to know which journal published it and what it is titled so I can advertise how stupid they are.

    • It’s considered inappropriate to define clades to include by definition taxa which are traditionally not included or whose membership is controversial. If birds were somehow outside of Dinosauria in the traditional sense, I suspect it would be agreed that Dinosauria’s contents should not be expanded to include them.
      The study is in the Journal of Ornithology, which is, as Qilong said, sort of Alan Feduccia’s personal mouthpiece in this regard.

      • It’s … okay-ish … to use birds and a stable element of the definition. Archosauria is rooted on the extant birds and crocs, and picking a representative from either (Crocodilus niloticus for crocs, Vultur gryphus for birds) creates a firm, stable footing for Archosauria: It’s a crown clade including those taxa, and thus must include the descendants of their shared common ancestor. This means dinosaurs. Where Czerkas has issues is whether birds or dinos came first, which in his view apparently forced birds first for no other reason, essentially (as shown by Feduccia) than because the mere concept of birds as dinosaurs (not merely descendants of, but are) doesn’t appeal to their typological view: Dinosaurs are this firm, concrete thing, and cannot be different from that thing. They espouse paraphyly, and try to reconcile it with phylogenetic data they know nothing about.

    • There’s currently no settled definition. There’s a “bird matters” one, which you note, and one which defines the clade on the basis of the three famous included species: Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, and Megalosaurus. Both of these are stable, in that they cannot be paraphyletic, but their content can differ from phylogeny to phylogeny. The problem with Feduccia and his ilk is that they adhere to a very rigid, typological view that groups of animals have strict features that define them, and without which are or cannot be part of said group. This is what led to many paraphyletic groups of birds, mammals, etc., and the profusion of “Orders” which are mostly meaningless at this points. Swifts and Hummingbirds are nested with Frogmouths, Nightjars, and with Owls, which used to be “raptors.” All were “Orders.”

    • Andrea Cau says:

      I don’t like the “Triceratops + Passer” definition of Dinosauria. It is not historically-founded and misleading as it may seem as an ad hoc taxonomic escamotage to “force birds into dinosaurs”, when we all agree that such placement is based on a huge amount of data, not just on a clade definition. I think the “Megalosaurus + Iguanodon” definition is the best definition for Dinosauria. Birds are dinosaurs because are phylogenetically member of the “Iguanodon + Megalosaurus” node, not due to a taxonomic definition.

      • Exactly. In any reasonable phylogeny, Triceratops + Passer and Megalosaurus + Iguanodon are the same clade; the latter has historical weight behind it and doesn’t carry the implication that birds are only dinosaurs because some paleontologist decided to make them be.
        It seems like nobody at this point considers Aves to be outside of Ornithodira. Feduccia et al.’s position, however, raises the question of why two closely-related lineages solved the problem of flight in such radically different manners.

        • There are all sorts of animals that solve the problems of locomotion in different environments (subterranean, aquatic, aerial, and even variable terrain) with similar, but divergent morphologies, from different origins. We know not all marine-going diapsids (placodonts, ichthyosaurs, thalattosaurs, crocodilians, snakes, mosasaurs, turtles, etc.) arose from the same base morphology, and we know not all flying archosaurs (birds, pterosaurs) did so. We know that various digging mammals (moles, molerats, golden moles — mole in name only) arose convergently, as did gliding/”flying” mammals (colugos, sciurids, two types of dormouse, scale-tailed squirrels – not actually “squirrels” – and some far more primitive therians). Similarly, “winged” lizards like Coelurosaravus, kuhneosaurids, Icarosaurus, etc., are all convergent upon one another. There has never been “one way” these things happen, and they often involve the same features reappearing over and over again as nature removes features that are developmentally costly and useless for life in these environments.

          It is rather hard to see the types of typological thinking that gave us creationist “kinds” appear in Feduccia’s work, but to him, if it looked like a flamingo in anyway, he called it one; owls got lumped in with vultures of both Worlds because they were “aerial predators,” birds of prey. Whales are fish. Bats are birds. So on and so on.

  3. Pingback: Birds are (or aren’t) dinosaurs, but it’s nothing to do with Bill Dembski | Uncommon Descent

  4. feducia: devid peters revisited?

  5. Feduccia was there first, and (in print) far more significant. Peters “strength” is that he knows how to use the web.

  6. gpiotr says:

    In a curious twist, I’ve gotten a response [n1] from the Uncommon Descent people,

    I’m probably responsible for attracting their attention to your blog. I offered a link after one of the UD regulars posted some nonsense about the “myth of the feathered dinosaurs”.

    but not anything substantive on the nature of my argument…

    No, of course not. The only thing they noticed, understood and rolled their eyes at was the fucking title.

    • I don’t blame that on you; I understand that is their operandus, and accept it. I find it amusing though that people will now link through to my post (as they have been pushing up my hits each day for the last 3) and that perhaps someone will realize how incredibly disturbing this paper is (but not for the reasons Ross and the rest feel).

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