Last week I had a bit of fun criticizing the “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” episode of Doctor Who because some of its dinosaurs, such as a juvenile Tyrannosaurus and a pack of raptors, were not sufficiently feathery. Answers in Genesis jumped at the chance to critique my criticism, claiming that anything “with clear anatomical evidence of genuine feathers, such as Microraptor gui, are simply fossils of true birds.” This is the same argument Feduccia makes in his latest polemic, Riddle of the Feathered Dragons: Anything with complex feathers is a bird, and the fuzz, bristles, and other featherlike structures on other dinosaurs are either artifacts of the fossilization process, or otherwise have nothing to do with avian ancestry. Creationist groups will pick any tidbit of dissent to sow seeds of ignorance in the name of religion.
Creationists want to appropriate dinosaurs for the prehistoric creatures’ star power, but they hold the reality of these animals at arm’s length. Dinosaurs are powerful symbols not only of extinction, but also of evolution, and dinosaurs must be stripped of their most interesting aspects in order to fit the fundamentalist dogma that these animals were a distinct “kind” that were created, saved upon Noah’s ark, and totally wiped out for some unspecified reason during the past 4,300 years or so.
Many Americans have faith in this story. Some people fervently believe that Noah had to figure out how to keep Carnotaurus from eating all the other captive animals on board the ark, not to mention what to do with the prodigious piles of Apatosaurus dung. How can anyone take such notions seriously? We have an undeserved deference to faith in this country. Someone need only start a sentence with “I believe…” and whatever miasma spills out of their mouths becomes beyond reproach. But our essential and cherished freedom to express our religious beliefs doesn’t mean that those same ideas should be free from criticism and even ridicule. We have let our brains slide out of our skulls and through the door if we don’t question someone who claims that hypercarnivorous dinosaurs like Allosaurus lived in the Garden of Eden and honed their teeth and talons on coconuts before the Fall of Adam brought sin, and hence death by carnivory, into the world.
Creationism is concerned with dinosaurs only as marketing tools to sell their interpretation of a vengeful God. But if we pursue the never-ending questions in our interrogation of the fossil record, then we may actually begin to understand the simultaneously beautiful and brutal history of life on our planet. After all, the fact of evolution means that we once shared a common ancestor with the dinosaurs more than 305 million years ago, and that our own mammalian progenitors snuffled around in the undergrowth during the majority of the dinosaurian reign. If we can be humble enough to approach the fossilized dinosaur remains with questions, rather than prepackaged dogma, we’ll be better able to understand why we’re here at all.