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A Reply to Woodmorappe on the Evolution of Birds

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A Reply to Woodmorappe on the Evolution of Birds

In the halls of that repository of all things witless, Answers in Genesis, John Woodmorappe has been busy offering his fairly inept pen, to what must qualify as among the most idiotic and vacuous creationist attacks on avian phylogenetics, ever offered. This latest AIG tirade about bird evolution is in response to intriguing new research on the phylogeny of Oviraptorosauria (Maryanska et al. 2002) which concluded that oviraptorosaurs are in fact secondarily flightless birds more derived than the urvogel. In stereotypical creationist form, Woodmorappe attempts to deconstruct in cavalier style a science of which he clearly knows nothing. Oblivious to reality, Woodmorappe indulges in wholesale ineptitude, drubbing the reader with some of the most egregious inaccuracies and errors to be found in any published account of avian evolution.

There are several salient points of this new essay, however, which might be summarized as such. First and foremost there is a vague and internally contradictory discussion about cladistic analysis, which at one moment derides it as the subjective tool of horrid evolutionists, and in the next the rational, quantitative method for charting lineages without evolutionary suppositions, (which smacks of pseudo-cladistics, or baraminology). Apparently to suitably impress his gullible readers, Woodmorappe pastes obligatory graphics modeling character distribution (e.g., Table 1), and a simplified cladogram of Aves (e.g., Table 2). What Woodmorappe conveniently omits from his tantrum in press is the actual character set and resultant matrices from which Maryanska et al. (2002) derived their phylogenetic hypotheses. We would think that if Woodmorappe were actually interested in discussing avian phylogeny and not merely presenting hollow rhetoric he would at least mention in passing the character data from Maryanska et al. (2002). It is further worth noting that his Table 1 bears no appreciable resemblance to any of the figures published in the Maryanska et al. paper.

The vacillation continues as Woodmorappe turns to addressing the cladistic support for a theropod origin of birds. As cladistics is now inconvenient for him, he has to attack its reliability and thus invokes sanctimonious preaching about its being rigged to support evolution. But the fantasia on a theme really begins when Woodmorappe stumbles onto his main points: a) character reversal is not explicable within an evolutionary context and b) the acquisition of avian features during theropod evolution was saltational, and thus cannot be accepted.

Needless to say neither of these assertions has even the slightest basis in reality. Woodmorappe presents no data to suggest why character reversal is of profound difficulty for evolutionary biology to accommodate, and merely offers special pleading that reversal is less “parsimonious” than special creation. Needless to say this reflects a catastrophic (albeit amusing) misunderstanding of what parsimony actually is. Parsimony quite simply is the epistemology that the explanation, which requires the least ad hoc hypotheses and auxiliary assumptions, is most favorable as it maximizes the ability of empirical data to discern amongst competing explanations. How the invocation of a deity renders a postulate more parsimonious is not readily apparent.

His second assertion, that massive saltations exist in the acquisition of avian characters, is simply farcical and reflective of complete ignorance of theropod phylogeny. The entire clade Neotetanurae (Coelurosauria + Allosauroidea) exhibits a progressive ornithization trend that was first noted over a century ago and has been the most striking aspect of theropod evolution since commented on. There is in effect a smooth gradation between the most basal potential theropod bird ancestors and the most paravian of theropods, such that forms like the marvelous Sinornithosaurus milleni are nearly identical to the urvogel. Most damning to creationism is the fact that even the derivation of feathers--long hailed as the death knell of avian evolution--is demonstrably gradual exhibiting a series of hierarchically derived stages, which conforms precisely to what we should expect if feathers evolved in the first place. Nowhere in his monumentally disingenuous essay does Woodmorappe quantify exactly what evolutionary changes in the lineage leading to birds were saltational, he merely asserts baldly that they were. Fearing not where anyone with a brain would rather not set foot, Woodmorappe then goes on to assert that the same is true in reverse: the evolution of flightless forms from flighted ancestors is saltational and thus highly improbable! If his first lecture on saltationism was not enough to stretch the bounds of credulity, then this next dose is guaranteed to do so. Apparently unperturbed by the fact that the process by which flight is lost in birds and its attendant morphological changes are among the best understood phenomena in ornithology, Woodmorappe offers no clarification of what changes he considers saltational in this scenario.

Finished dismantling evolution with these deep philosophical objections, Woodmorappe focuses on specific objections to the theropod hypothesis for avian ancestry, pilfered of course from actual scientists. His first and most hysterical is in fact outrageously Darwinian, and as a creationist he should be ashamed to use it. He insists (correctly) that some theropods are more avian than Archaeopteryx, and is thus only one small step away from making an evolutionary argument. We might hold out with the hope that perhaps someday Woodmorappe would put two and two together and get four. Needless to say, the fact that some theropods are more avian than the most primitive birds is powerful confirmation of their phylogenetic affinities.

He goes to make the same tired and wearisome allegation that has plagued this poor fossil since its discovery, insisting that Caudipteryx is in fact a secondarily flightless bird and thus of no relevance to the theropod descent of birds, or even their evolution. Woodmorappe does his AIG compatriot Ashby Camp one better by claiming without equivocation that the avian status of Caudipteryx has been proven. Of course one has come to expect such fiction from AIG. In the real world just the opposite is true. Repeated cladistic analysis of morphological characters (which Woodmorappe likes sometimes, and dislikes other times depending on what sort of argument he is making) have time and again corroborated the oviraptorosaur affinities of Caudipteryx and the argument that in fact represents a flightless bird is increasingly untenable.

Such obligatory comments out of the way, Woodmorappe proceeds to unveil la piece de resistance, the coup de grace with which to forever shatter the theropod origin of birds…temporal paradox. Sounding more like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone than a scientific rebuttal, he drags out the same sorry, endlessly refuted stratophenetic objections that have so long been standard fare amongst those who oppose the theropod origin of birds. Following this devastating blow, he reveals the first trump card, “Protoavis texensis” as a shattering disproof of theropod origins on temporal grounds. Of course Woodmorappe fails to mention that a) “Protoavis” is a fauna, not a species, b) the chimerical material is not particularly avian in any regard, and c) most creationists would chide him on using it at all. Unhindered by such trifling things, Woodmorappe plows ahead to eviscerate the theropod/bird nexus with extensive quotes from Dr. Peter Dodson, an expert not on theropods but on ceratopsians. Dodson implies temporal disparity where none exists, as Coelurosauria, the clade, which is the most logical avian ancestral taxon given character data, predates Archaeopteryx. Moreover, there is compelling evidence for at the very least, the Upper Jurassic derivation of Maniraptora, a yet closer avian outgroup. Woodmorappe obligingly fails to make note of this (at least Dodson has the excuse of his not being a theropod expert).

In an anti-evolutionary tour de force, Woodmorappe closes with a deconstruction of avian evolution post-Archaeopteryx, starting with the bizarre statement that there is a massive saltation between the Archaeopteryx node and the level of organization reflected in the osteology of Confuciusornis. Considering how astonishingly primitive Confuciusornis is, this claim is difficult to take seriously. Woodmorappe’s typical reluctance to provide anything like data in defense of assertions only further weakens his credibility. Similar assertions are made when comparing Archaeopteryx and the Malagasy Rahonavis and apparently Confuciusornis and Enantiornithes and just as before, Woodmorappe is indulging in marvelous fantasy writing. His supposed saltations are quite simply non-existent as even a cursory examination of the morphology of the species he discusses, would reveal. Of course Woodmorappe does not do this for fear of revealing the rag of tissue that his essay is, instead couching his objections in pseudocladistic rot with which to dazzle the eyes of loyal creationists.

Following this comes the masterful conclusion of Woodmorappe’s paper, a paragraph so bereft of factuality and so crowded with distortions, fallacies and outright lies, that it would put Kent Hovind to shame. In a whirlwind of rhetoric Woodmorappe categorically announces that: there is no “half-wing/half-leg” structure in the lineage leading to Archaeopteryx (quite correct since wings are forelimbs, not hind-limbs and moreover because no such structure would be expected in the first place), we cannot explain the origin of feathers, embryology disproves the theropod origin of birds, and so on. After we stop laughing, we can reiterate that not a single one of these statements belongs outside the annals of fiction—which is precisely why we find them at AIG.

All in all, I have rarely seen so delusional a creationist essay as Woodmorappe’s and that is a dubious distinction indeed.

For a critique of the specific charges, please see: A reply to Ashby Camp and TrueOrigins on Avian Phylogeny, Evolution of feathers, Discussion of Maryanska et al. (2002) and Urvogel Take Two: Confuciusornithidae and the Early Evolution of Birds.

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