07 My college honors project on dinosaurs and birds

In my final year at Bishop’s University, I decided I would study vertebrate paleontology in graduate school, to find out first-hand if the paleontological evidence was reliable. I really wanted to know if there was some conspiracy to “fix” the fossils so as to give the appearance of an evolutionary sequence. I also honestly believed that I might be able to discover evidence that would bolster the creationist position, or otherwise contribute to refuting the evolutionists.

This goal was of crucial importance because my confidence in the reliability of the Christian faith rested at that time on my acceptance of a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. I fully believed that my faith would be solidified by the discoveries I would make in the field of vertebrate paleontology.

As I came to understand much later, my trust in the Bible as a book of divine origin hinged at that time upon the expectation that when it spoke on matters relating to science, its statements would be accurate by today’s standards, rather than reflecting the observational perspective of the culture in which it was composed. Establishing objective scientific accuracy in a book from ancient times would prove that the author had been given some supernatural or divine insight within the natural realm, and this would be a sign to indicate that when the Bible spoke on matters relating to morality, it drew on the same supernatural, authoritative source. After all, if the Bible were inaccurate on natural-scientific matters, on what basis was I to accept its divine authority on matters of morality?

Early on in my final year at Bishop’s University, I received from Chris Smith, a camp friend (and my future brother-in-law), a photocopy of the senior thesis in biology his Harvard roommate had written. The paper presented the essentials of young-earth creationism, and, to my mind at the time, did so very well. I was impressed that someone had had the nerve to submit such a forcefully creationist document to the Harvard Biology Department. It contributed to the confidence I had in creationism, despite my growing misgivings.

As part of my final year honors project at Bishop’s, I completed a literature review on Archaeopteryx, a creature known to us only through fossils, and which is often described as the “first bird.” (Several more feathered dinosaurs are now known.) My initial goal was to show the impossibility of birds having evolved from dinosaurs. In spite of the fact that I did not believe evolution had occurred, I was nevertheless impressed with how similar the skeletal anatomy of Archaeopteryx was to that of some small theropod dinosaurs, such as Compsognathus.

 

The entire length of Compsognathus (center), a small Jurassic dinosaur, is only as long as the skull of Brachiosaurus (background), a huge sauropod dinosaur. In the foreground, the skeletal silhouette of Archaeopteryx displays numerous dinosaurian skeletal features. But it would be difficult for creationists to refer to Archaeopteryx as both a bird and a dinosaur because to do so would be to admit that it bridges the morphological gap between these two groups. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

In fact, I discovered that Archaeopteryx was much more similar to many of the meat-eating dinosaurs than these meat-eating dinosaurs were to other dinosaurs. In other words, the anatomical variations within dinosaurs were greater than those between some dinosaurs and birds. I began to wonder whether our taxonomic system, i.e. the names we give to groups of animals (specifically the Linnaean hierarchical system of classification), might be obscuring close relationships, artificially creating groups of more dissimilar creatures and separating ones which were really very similar anatomically.

Creationists had no problem recognizing tiny Compsognathus and the huge sauropod Brachiosaurus as dinosaurs, but Archaeopteryx had to be referred to as a bird because it had feathers, even though Compsognathus was much more similar to it than to Brachiosaurus. (In other words, the “bird” resembled the small dinosaur much more than the small dinosaur resembled the large dinosaur. I originally chose Compsognathus for this illustration based on the knowledge I had of dinosaurs at the time. More recently, beautifully preserved feathered dinosaurs have been discovered in China that are even more like Archaeopteryx.)

These were disturbing yet fascinating questions, but I did not pursue them in depth at that time. Rather, I simply completed my literature review and presented my findings as a departmental seminar.

The instant I finished my seminar, there was a university-wide power failure, leaving all of us in total darkness. Many in the audience knew what I was up to, so in spite of the power failure, the atmosphere was electric. Unfortunately, the question and answer segment had to be canceled and I was unable to lecture the department on the impossibility of evolution. As we filed out into corridors lit only by emergency lighting, one of my fellow students asked if God had turned out the lights. I did not know how to answer his question.

A few weeks later, I was given an opportunity to answer questions that may have arisen as a result of my seminar. Since there weren’t any initially, I took the opportunity to inform the department that I did not believe in evolution or theistic evolution and started to detail the creationist position. The experience was an awkward one, however, because I soon discovered that I really didn’t know very much about the details of Flood Geology. What was there to know about a divinely ordained event, the geologic results of which are nowhere to be found in the Bible?

The wind was taken out of my sails when I was asked by my advisor, Dr. Donald F.J. Hilton, how I might explain multiple fossilized forest layers. How could these multiple layers have formed during one world-wide flood?   I was speechless. (Years later, I had a chance to see first-hand multiple fossilized forest layers at Joggins, Nova Scotia, Canada. I shall relate this experience, and its significance for my thinking, in a later post.)

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