Putting Feathers on Reptiles

Be Sceptical about the Sceptics! Part 1

The first in a brief series examining some of the arguments in the book 'Creationism: An Australian Perspective' (edited by M. Bridgstock and K. Smith) - a publication of the Australian Sceptics. This is an organisation, affiliated with similar groups overseas, which tests 'claims of paranormal phenomena'. Many of its members are heavily committed to atheism/evolutionary materialism. Rather than just keeping to their usual mandate of exposing bogus claims by repeatable scientific testing (with which we could heartily agree), they have chosen to attack biblical Christianity by attacks on Creation Science. This series deals with a few of the most obvious and easily demonstrated fallacies in the book.

In spite of the fact that so many prominent evolutionary fossil experts insist that there are no satisfactory fossils of transitional forms between different kinds of creatures, on page 35 of the Sceptics book, the author tries to show that there are. In his article about '"Gaps" in the fossil record', he neither mentions nor shows a single diagram of any fossil. In fact, much of the article is taken up explaining away the very gaps which he elsewhere seems to deny by saying that 'the fossil record contains literally thousands of transitional forms.'

In spite of many words, the author neither mentions nor shows a single diagram of a fossil showing a true transitional structure - part-limb; part-wing; part-scale; part-feather, for example. This, of course, is for the simple reason that there are none.

However, all of this has been so adequately documented - not only by creationist writers such as Dr. Duane Gish (Evolution: The Challenge of the Fossil Record) but also by leading evolutionists - this is not the issue I wish to discuss here.

Archaeopteryx is a fossil creature with some reptilian and some bird features. Most leading evolutionary palaeontologists today would not regard it as a transitional form because it has no transitional structures, and because fossils of true birds have been found in a supposedly earlier geological layer. Under the subheading, 'Archaeopteryx and feathers', the author says this:

'Is it really impossible for scales to have evolved into feathers? Many birds, from chickens to ostriches, show a continuous gradation from scales on some parts of their bodies to feathers elsewhere (Lucas and Stettenheim, 1972; Dyck, 1985). Moreover, scales and feathers are identical in chemistry, molecular structure and mode of development (Spearman, 1966). Most significant of all is the fact that scales and feathers are interchangeable. Recent laboratory studies demonstrate that chicken embryos can be induced to transform their developing scales into feathers, and their feathers into scales (e.g. Dhouailly, Hardy and Sengel, 1980). In their structure and appearance such artificially induced feathers are indistinguishable from natural ones. Indeed, it now seems possible for scientists to transform scales to feathers, and vice versa, almost at will! Similar interchanges between scales and feathers are known to occur spontaneously in wild populations of birds. Does the transformation of scales into feathers require massive genetic engineering? The answer is no. The transformation is triggered by a single chemical - retinoic acid, which is probably better known as vitamin A.

Archaeopteryx is a splendid example of a transitional fossil, showing an undeniable mixture of reptile and bird characteristics. In every feature except its feathers, Archaeopteryx is similar to theropod dinosaurs. That one distinguishing feature - feathers - represents the crucial dividing-line between reptiles and birds. And today, in the laboratory, it is possible to breach that dividing-line by using simple chemical treatment to transform scales into feathers.'

Simple Transformation?

One gets the impression that it is a fairly simple matter to transform scales into feathers with the addition of a single chemical. If so, it would not be at all difficult to imagine how scales could have evolved into feathers by only a small genetic change. However, common sense shows the huge flaw in this argument.

Bird featherBird feather First, let us look at the detailed structure of a feather (Figure 1). Superbly engineered for lightweight aerodynamic efficiency, the system of interlocking hooks and barbules means that a quick preen with the bill will cause flattened feathers to snap into a fully aerodynamic shape again. But note that every structure or organ must be represented by INFORMATION (written in a chemical alphabet on the long DNA molecule) at the genetic level. Clearly, the information required to code for the construction of a feather is of a substantially different order than that required for a scale. For scales to have evolved into feathers means that a significant amount of genetic information, or specific chemical complexity, has to exist in the bird's DNA which is not present in that of the reptile.

At this stage we should be feeling uneasy about the idea that a simple chemical, containing a small amount of 'information', could cause such an ordered structure to arise. And here's the catch, of course. The author himself has already told us that the experiment was done on CHICKEN embryos, which already HAVE THE INFORMATION coding for feather construction. The simple chemical is used as a 'switch' or 'trigger' during embryonic development.

That is, what we are witnessing is the fact that physico-chemical manipulation of the developing embryo can cause a developmental pathway, which would normally result in scales, to result in feathers instead. But the INFORMATION required to construct/assemble the structure of the feather is already there, and is simply being expressed at a different site. Genetically, there has been no evolutionary change - no information has been added to the organism's 'blueprint' which was not already there.

Putting Feathers on Birds

So what has been achieved is that feathers have been induced to form in BIRDS - although in locations at which they would not usually form. Equally, interference with the developmental machinery in fruit flies can cause a leg to grow where there would normally be an antenna. Such homoeotic mutations, as they are called, are not strictly analogous to the chicken example, but the point is the same, in that the genetic information for forming a leg was already in the embryo. Growing ectopic, or out of place fur on mammals, or extra legs on flies or cows, demonstrates nothing about the origin of the information coding for fur or legs.

Thus, growing feathers on chickens cannot possibly have any value for the idea of evolution.

What if a researcher reported that vitamin A in a reptile embryo caused feathers to form? Now that indeed would be spectacular evidence for evolution. But no serious scientist would expect that such a thing were possible, for the simple reason that it would be a violation of the fundamental principles of entropy/ information theory. The reptile does not contain the information for feather construction in its code. Vitamin A contains less 'information' in its chemistry than that required to code for a complex feather. The addition of a small amount of unrelated information cannot spontaneously cause a quantum leap towards information which was not there already.

Put simply, you cannot get something from nothing; this is why there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. Exactly the same principle of science forbids reptile feathers as forbids perpetual motion machines.

If a clever genetic engineer were to splice out the information coding for feather construction from a chicken embryo, and splice it into a reptile embryo to cause it to grow feathers, this would confirm the point we are trying to make here - that is, such complex information cannot spontaneously arise - it has to be created or transferred from a pre-existing source. And furthermore, that an intelligent mind is required to conduct the experiment.

by Dr. Carl Wieland

Source: 'Creation Ex-Nihilo', Vol.11, No.1