Thursday, September 20, 2012

Creationists Hate Feathers

Well, at least if those feathers happen to be attached to a dinosaur. Back when I was a kid dinosaurs were thought of as large lizards - in fact, "terrible lizard" is the etymology of the word - but then science happened. The most recent research shows not only were dinosaurs the direct ancestors of modern birds, they were also the first creatures to develop feathers. Modern renderings of dinosaurs like the image above emphasize both the existence of feathers and a birdlike appearance, and are believed to be much closer to what the "terrible lizards" really looked like. Creationists, though, take exception to this, insisting that the older idea of what dinosaurs looked like is in fact correct and that their newly discovered birdlike appearance is part of an evil plot by secular humanists to undermine true believers. Why any scientist would bother with such a thing, I suppose, remains one of those mysteries of faith.

Dinosaurs are unlikely symbols of religious fundamentalism. The first dinosaurs evolved about 230 million years ago, and, with the exception of birds, perished about 66 million years ago. Archaic humans didn’t originate until 60 million years later, so it’s not surprising that Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and kin aren’t mentioned in the Bible. Of course, Ham and like-minded literalists would beg to differ. Non-avian dinosaurs were created on Day 6 of creation week 6,000 years ago, with birds being brought into existence on Day 5 (which is out of order with the fossil record). Creationists also fervently believe that Behemoth and Leviathan of the Old Testament were actually dinosaurs, all scientific and historical evidence to the contrary. I’ve never seen creationists propose that we lived in a Dinotopia per se, but a saddle-bearing dinosaur at the Creation Museum is meant not as a fanciful kiddy ride but as a historical reconstruction.

But dinosaurs with feathers are not welcome at Ham’s amusement park. Even though paleontologists have uncovered numerous dinosaurs with everything from bristles and fuzz to full-flight feathers—which document the evolution of plumage from fluff to aerodynamic structures that allowed dinosaurs to take to the air—creationists deny the clear fossil record. There’s plenty of reason for creationists to abhor dinosaur feathers. The mountain of evidence that birds are living dinosaurs, and that many “bird” traits were widely shared among non-avian dinosaurs, are among the most gorgeous examples of evolutionary change yet found. Put feathers on a Velociraptor—we know it had feathers thanks to quill knobs preserved along its arm bones—and you get something disturbingly birdlike, revealing the dinosaur’s kinship to the ancestors of Archaeopteryx and other early birds. Not surprisingly, creationist groups like Answers in Genesis don’t feature feathery dinosaurs in their literature and museum exhibits. Instead, they take pride in promoting out-of-date, monstrous dinosaurs that more easily fit their contention that these animals were created separately from all other forms of life.

The Bible says nothing about dinosaurs, and it's a pretty significant stretch to argue that what they looked like has anything to do with anyone's religious beliefs. That Genesis apparently lists the fossil record out of order is of little significance - in fact, if you read the "animals" created on day 6 as mammals and group dinosaurs with birds on day 5 it actually makes more sense. Even so, the creation narrative has a number of other problems that I would imagine to be far more significant in the context of a literal account, such as how at the end of chapter 1 humans are "created male and female" but then at the beginning of Chapter 2 Adam is the only human in the garden, or how the "seven days" had to be re-interpreted in the book of Daniel as "a day to God is as a thousand years to man." Of course, if you don't happen to be a Biblical literalist, portions of the story can be read as metaphor and then all these problems disappear. Maybe that says something right there about the proper way to read religious texts.

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