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Bird brain!

October 2004 | by Paul Garner

Last month we reported briefly on recent findings regarding the fossil Archaeopteryx. In this longer article Paul Garner develops the matter further.

Archaeopteryx

— meaning ‘ancient wing’ — must be one of the most famous fossils in the world. The first skeleton belonging to this creature was discovered in the Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria in 1861 — and a remarkable creature it was.

It was undoubtedly a bird because unmistakable feather impressions had been preserved in the fine limestone around the specimen. However, Archaeopteryx was no ordinary bird — unlike its modern counterparts it had teeth in its beak, claws on its wings, and a long bony tail.

Evolutionary music

This was music to the ears of those who challenged the account of creation in the Bible. Only two years earlier, Charles Darwin had published his theory of evolution. According to evolution, God had not created the major groups of organisms separately — rather all living things had arisen from a single common ancestor.

However, the theory faced a serious problem. If living things had evolved by a process of gradual change, then transitional forms linking major groups ought to be common in the fossil record.

In fact, convincing links were generally missing. Charles Darwin himself acknowledged the difficulty. ‘Why then’, he wrote, ‘is not every geological formation full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most serious objection which can be urged against the theory.’

The discovery of Archaeopteryx delighted the champions of Darwinism. Here was a creature that seemed to bridge the gap between two basic types — a fossil possessing a curious mosaic of reptile-like and bird-like features. Here was proof that Darwin was right and the Bible was wrong! Even today Archaeopteryx is the prize exhibit in most evolutionary textbooks.

Combination of structures

So what are we to make of Archaeopteryx? Is it really evidence for Darwin’s theory? How else are we to understand its curious mixture of characters?

In fact many creatures, both fossil and living, have similarly strange mixtures of characters. The duck-billed platypus, for instance, has features of both mammals (hair, milk production) and reptiles (egg-laying).

However, as Dr Kurt Wise — a creationist fossil expert — has pointed out, it is the combination of structures that is intermediate, not the structures themselves. Archaeopteryx had teeth, claws, and feathers — but they were fully-formed and fully-functional teeth, claws, and feathers!

This is quite different from the kind of transitional features required by evolution, where partly evolved feathers etc. are needed to support the theory. An intermediate combination of fully ‘evolved’ organs can better be understood as the outcome of intelligent design by a wise Creator.

Brain case

Recent research casts further doubt upon the status of Archaeopteryx as an evolutionary intermediate. In August 2004, the journal Nature published three-dimensional X-ray scans and reconstructions of the braincase of one of the best Archaeopteryx specimens

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The new study revealed that the fossil’s brain and inner ear — used for balance and co-ordination in the air — had proportions similar to modern birds. One of the authors of the study, Dr Angela Milner of the Natural History Museum, said, ‘In birds and small meat-eating dinosaurs the brain sits tightly inside the brain case and leaves a nice imprint on the inside of the brain case bones. From these marks we found that the brain had been re-organised for flight. It is surprisingly similar to modern birds’.

Dr Timothy Rowe of the University of Texas, Austin, who carried out the scan, added: ‘This animal had huge eyes and a huge vision region in its brain to go along with that and a great sense of balance. Its inner ear also looks very much like the ear of a modern bird’.

Sophisticated

For scientists working within an evolutionary scenario, this was unexpected — far from being transitional, the brain of Archaeopteryx turned out to be much more sophisticated than previously recognised.

In terms of its hearing, vision, balance, and neural processing, Archaeopteryx was essentially modern. This is strong evidence that Archaeopteryx was an accomplished flyer, and did not simply use its feathers for insulation as some evolutionists had suggested. Yet Archaeopteryx is the oldest known bird!

Evolutionary scientists are left to speculate about when flight first evolved. ‘Now that we know Archaeopteryx was capable of controlling the complex business of flying, this raises more questions’, said Dr Milner. ‘If flight was advanced by the time Archaeopteryx was around, then were birds actually flying millions of years earlier than we’d previously thought?’

The transitional fossil ‘problem’, which was such a puzzle to Darwin in 1859, appears to be just as acute today to evolutionists — 150 years on!