17 Why did the oldest birds have teeth?

Now that I accepted that the Earth was old, the domino effect of a crumbling paradigm brought to me another problem. How many times had God created new kinds of organisms, and when had He done so? Was the creation account in Genesis actually describing a re-creation after one or more previous cataclysms, as some old-earth creationists suppose, following the “Gap Theory”? (A future post will offer a discussion of that theory.) If so, did it matter theologically how many re-creations there had been?

On the basis of what I knew of the fossil record, there had never been a time when all living things had become extinct, followed by the introduction of an entirely new suite of hitherto unknown species everywhere on Earth. Even during those times of mass extinction, such as at the end of the Permian Period (225 million years ago) and the Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago), there were some species that had clearly survived, because their fossilized remains were found both below and above the time of the mass extinction event.

I did not entertain for long the only alternative explanation: that there had been a total extinction of life on Earth, but that God had immediately made identical re-creations of some of the creatures that had been there before the extinction event. In other words, I reasoned that when two organisms assigned to the same species were encountered at different horizons in the stratigraphic column, it was more likely that they were related by genealogy (they were homologous) than that they had been created independently at different times (that is, only analogous). Therefore, I concluded that no matter how great the catastrophe, life in one form or another had been on our planet continuously from the day God had first introduced it to the present.

If some species had survived extinction events, then it seemed reasonable to me that at least some of these species had been around longer than those that had become extinct. Unless, of course, God, knowing when they would become extinct, had staggered the times of their creation so as to ensure that each species spent equal time on Earth before becoming extinct. Having never met anyone willing to defend this hypothesis, and having no reason to accept it myself, I opted to believe that different species had indeed survived for differing lengths of time.

Although some species may have coincidentally existed for exactly the same length of time, there was no a priori reason to believe that any should have lasted equally long. Unwilling to accept the origin of a species by natural means, I concluded that God had introduced new species ex nihilo into suitable geographic areas throughout the ages, the timing of which had not necessarily followed the even meter of a metronome. But the fossil record did not support the notion of multiple complete extinctions followed by unknown lengths of time after which God introduced entirely new global biotas. I would have been content to believe that God had miraculously created every species instantaneously at different times in the geologic past, except that I could not help but notice the lines paleontologists were drawing connecting fossils so as to describe evolutionary lineages.

My sojourn at McGill in the early-to-mid 1980’s coincided with a number of court battles in the United States over the teaching of evolution in schools and the demands for equal time for creationism in science curricula. At a public lecture given at Concordia University in Montreal, Stephen Jay Gould described some of the courtroom “debates” he’d had with Duane T. Gish and other young-earth creationists. One of the questions Gould had asked the creationists was, “Why did the oldest birds have teeth?” His implication was that they had inherited teeth from their dinosaurian ancestors. Was this not a powerful argument for the truth of evolution?

A Mesozoic toothed bird, Ichthyornis first described by 19th century vertebrate paleontologist O. C. Marsh. (Public domain: F. Berger, illustrator; E. Chrisand, lithographer; 1880)

Because I understood the young-earth creationist paradigm, I knew that this argument would not hold much sway over someone who believed that all organisms that had ever lived on Earth were here together only about 6000 years ago. A young-earth creationist would deny that the fossils in question were old in the first place. They would claim that birds with and without teeth had all lived at the same time, so it was meaningless within their paradigm for Gould to ask them this question.

However, now that I knew of the great age of the Earth, and that the earliest birds did have teeth, I could no longer easily dismiss such questions. Why were the oldest birds so much more like some small theropod dinosaurs in their anatomy than they were to living birds? (I knew this was true from the literature I had gathered on Archaeopteryx a few years earlier at Bishop’s University.)

Perhaps paleontologists were wrong in describing as evolutionary what was really the result of the fortuitous burial of similar-looking animals at about the same stratigraphic level in the geologic column. In their desperation to link disparate groups of organisms together in illusory evolutionary lineages, paleontologists may just have been deceived into making the dinosaur-bird connection. Or perhaps the similarities and differences in these so-called Mesozoic feathered dinosaurs were just extreme variations within a dinosaur-bird-like created “kind.” Maybe the breadth of genetic variability within a Mesozoic toothed bird-kind included varieties that were toothless.

These were the possibilities that occurred to me as I tried to come to grips with Gould’s question and the larger phenomenon it illustrated.

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