The dinosaurs of our childhood aren’t around anymore. The sluggish, swamp-bound pea-brains that haunted museum halls and trundled through picture books have been eviscerated by agile, hot-blooded, and, often, feathery dinosaurs that more accurately reflect what Tyrannosaurus rex and kin were actually like. What’s more, thanks to a heap of lovely fossils, we now know that even the most fearsome of the tyrant dinosaurs were closely related to the avian dinosaurs—the birds—that flit around our backyards today.
Not everyone is pleased with the dramatic dinosaur makeover. In “How Science Ruined Everything,” io9’s Esther Inglis-Arkell said, “Dinosaurs used to be cool, feathers came in, and now it’s like, they’re going to ruffle their plumage when they come after me, and that is not scary.” It’s not surprising that the new imagery of enfluffed dinosaurs makes Velociraptor and company seem more like chickenosaurs than the monsters we grew up with. I used to hate fluffy dinosaurs, too. When feathery dinosaurs started to appear in museum shops and poorly-rendered fuzzballs strutted through basic-cable documentaries, I mourned the loss of the reptilian monsters I once knew. But when I dug into why dinosaur depictions have changed so radically, I came away with a new appreciation of dinosaur feathers.
Paleontologists have uncovered scores of fluffy, fuzzy, bristly, and otherwise spectacularly-adorned dinosaur species throughout the group’s family tree. Feathers weren’t meant for flight from the start; at first they were adaptations for insulation and display—for showing off. By comparing the microscopic features of dinosaur feathers with those of modern birds, paleontologists are answering one of the most perplexing dinosaur mysteries: What color were they? (Some were iridescent blue; some were black and white like a magpie; and some had rust-colored stripes along their tails.) We can finally start to explore the beauty of the dinosaur palette, something I was told as child would be totally impossible. I’ll trade evolutionary secrets for slightly silly dinosaurs any day.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Some people would rather go back to the days before 1996—when Sinosauropteryx, the first fluffy dinosaur, was announced—to a world of naked dinosaurs. If you’re one of those people who loathe dinosaur feathers, there’s a group that will commiserate with you: creationists.
Creationists are on a campaign to “take dinosaurs back.” Earlier this year, the creationist crackpot Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis—the organization that established the fundamentalist funhouse called the Creation Museum—said, “Dinosaurs have been held hostage for decades” by his mortal enemy, the nefarious “secular humanists.” Ham is determined to appropriate dinosaurs for biblical literalists. (The organization’s website even sells a “We’re taking dinosaurs back!” bumper sticker.)
This isn’t about science. It’s about marketing. Ham is sore that natural history museums—many of which actually run research programs and contribute new facts and hypotheses to our understanding of prehistoric life, unlike the Creation Museum—use dinosaurs to help visitors learn about the evolution of what Charles Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Why should people who accept natural selection and geologic time have all the fun? Creationists, in Ham’s view, should use dinosaurs as star attractions to get the public to imbibe the religious swill he and his organization peddle.
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.
To help them dispute the evidence, creationists have become followers of a group of misguided researchers who denounce the idea that birds are living dinosaurs. Paleontologists such as Alan Feduccia, Larry Martin, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, and John Ruben insist that birds sprang from a different ancestor, one more closely allied with crocodiles than dinosaurs. They also claim that feathered dinosaurs such as Microraptor must be birds that lost the ability to fly. These scientists, while they have made worthwhile contributions in other areas of fossil research, have not provided a reasonable, testable hypothesis for an alternate bird origin, and they take an entirely critical approach to the work of others. In other words, they are acting a bit like creationists—pushing a particular agenda, unhindered by evidence, because of a preconceived conclusion.
Groups like Answers in Genesis have latched onto these scientists to give their religious tracts a science-ish veneer. If Feduccia, Martin, and a handful of other scientists disagree with a dinosaur origin for birds, the creationists suggest, then the entire idea of avian evolution becomes suspect. Creationists even crib arguments from these paleontologists—who are fully on-board with the concept of evolution—to make themselves seem wiser in the eyes of their followers.
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.