Ann Coulter on Archaeopteryx
Over at Talk Reason, James Downard has been taking apart Ann Coulter’s arguments against evolution. Of course, it is kind of like watching a pitbull tear apart a chiuahua, but there is this interesting quote that he has pulled from Coulter’s book Godless,
For over a hundred years, evolutionists proudly pointed to the same sad birdlike animal, Archaeopteryx, as their lone transitional fossil linking dinosaurs and birds. Discovered a few years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, Archaeopteryx was instantly hailed as the transitional species that proved Darwin’s theory. This unfortunate creature had wings, feathers, teeth, claws, and a long, bony tail. If it flew at all, it didn’t fly very well. Alas, it is now agreed that poor Archaeopteryx is no relation of modern birds. It’s just a dead end. It transitioned to nothing.
But could Archaeopteryx be our one example of bad mutations eliminated by natural selection? Archaeopteryx can’t fill that role either, because it seems to have no predecessors. The fossils that look like Archaeopteryx lived millions of years after Archaeopteryx, and the fossils that preceded Archaeopteryx look nothing at all like it. The bizarre bird is just an odd creation that came out of nowhere and went nowhere, much like Air America Radio.
I find this particularly fascinating as it pertains to something I’m pretty interested in, dinosaurs, and in particular Deinonychus antirrhoppus, a relative of Archaeopteryx.
Coulter’s main problem is stunning ignorance of Archaeopteryx and its taxonomic history. Initially, it was thought to be the dinosaur Compsognathus a small dinosaur that looked quite a bit like Archaeopteryx, but was missing a finger on each “hand”. Now, this part might be hard to follow, Compsognathus was part of the Tetanurae clade that included many dinosaurs that had three fingers like Archaeopteryx, and it is not uncommon for theropods to lose digits during evolution. Hence Coulter’s claim that none of the predecessors looked like it is dubious at best. Also, witht he discovery of Sinosauropteryx, many paleontologist are coming around to the idea that feathery integument on theropods was more common that initially though. In fact, some now wonder if perhaps Compsognathus may have also had feathers as well since small feathers tend not to be preserved. And then there is my favorite dinosaur Deinonychus antirrhoppus, while it was known to have lived in the Cretaceous, there is the question of when did it appear and when exactly did Archaeopteryx appear? This is an important question in that both Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx are from the same family, Eumaniraptora. In other words, Coulter’s claim that the predecessor’s didn’t look like Archaeopteryx is based solely on ignorance. That is the entire basis for Coulter’s claim: paleontologists haven’t found fossils to tell us when various dinosaurs first appeared so therefore we can make statements about when various dinosaurs and birds appeared with certainty. Your standard variety creationist argument from ignorance. Downard covers all of this and more, but his discussion is a bit garbbled, IMO, with all of the asides to trash Philip Johnson, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells.
This is what Creationists often do and rely on the fact that figuring out the basis for the claims is pure ignorance requires a great deal of digging. I don’t think that Coulter realized her argument was based on ingorance. That gives Coulter far too much credit for having the intellectual apptitude to know this and/or dig up this kind of information. My guess is that instead she relied on guys like Dembski and/or Wells to provide the argument about ther being no predecessor that looks like Archaeopteryx. Downard makes this point as well when he writes,
What has confused Wells along with all of the antievolutionists in this area (including secondary addict Coulter) is something that should be obvious to anyone operating with a working map of Deep Time. The Cretaceous maniraptorans get highlighted because those are the fossils that have been found comparatively complete. That’s true for most of the Mesozoic, where the bulk of the taxa date from the Cretaceous because that’s where the deposits are. It’s the Bermuda Triangle Defense again.
But paleontology marches on, and the maniraptorans get pushed farther back with each new discovery.
Basically, the argument is just another God of the Gaps argument and with each new find in the maniraptoran group that gap gets smaller and smaller and soon it might be completely filled forcing God out of that gap he is currently living in.
As for Coulter’s comments about Archaeopteryx was a “poor unfortunate creature with wings, teeth, feathers, claws, and a long bony tail” are several of the aspects that make Archaeopteryx a transitional fossil. Yes Archaeopteryx looks like a weird mix of bird and dinosaur/reptile…because that is precisely what is expected with a transitional fossil. This kind of rhetoric would be really funny if it wasn’t both so ignorant and also so convincing to many people. On the one hand we have the Creationists saying, “Show us a transitional fossil…part bird-part reptile. You show them a fossil that meets their demand and they mock it for being part bird and part reptile! Same thing with hominid fossils. You show them an early hominid that also has feature similar to modern chimps and the Creationists rush to claim the fossil is either an ape or man. What is truly funny is that different creationists claim different things for the same fossil. For example, Talyor and Lubenow claim Java man is a human, but Gish, Cuozzo, Mehlert claim it is an ape. Similarly for Homo habilis, some Creationists say ape, others human.
Creationists seem to be fairly evenly divided on whether 1470 is an ape or a human. Originally, Gish (1979) thought it human, then later (1985) decided it was an ape. Lubenow’s (1992) opinion that it was a human seemed to be gaining ground in the early 1990’s, but more recently other creationists such as Mehlert (1996) and Hartwig-Scherer have decided that it is just a large-brained ape.–link
This is what makes the Creationists so hard to reply too. Replying to a couple of paragraphs of ignorance and dopey rhetoric requires a not so short trip through cladistics, dinosaurs taxonomy, geology and so forth. In short, by the time the Creationist has rattled off a litany of “problems” with evolution before dozens of audiences the scientists are just begining to answer the first item on the list and usually the answer is boring, boring, boring to the average person. Most people aren’t going to care enough about Sinosauropteryx to even try to figure out how to pronounce it let alone worry exactly when it appeared in time relative to other organisms of the time and about the number of fingers a given dinosaur had. Toss in a couple of claims that scientists are also liberals and atheists and who cares what the facts are, scrap teaching evolution and pray that H5N1 doesn’t mutate. Oh wait…I’m sorry it can’t mutate since evolution is just a liberal atheistic lie.