Beating the creationists at their own game? The presence of “gaps” in the fossil record is one of the main arguments creationists use against evolution. The transition from Coelurosaurian dinosaurs to birds is one such purported gap that creationists like to harp on about.  Evolutionary biologists would argue that Archeopteryx fills this gap quite nicely, but this is disputed by creationists, who argue that Archaeopteryx is a true bird and not a transitional form.

A recent study by Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, published in Journal of Evolutionary Biology, takes another look at the evolution of Coelurosauria but with a twist.  Senter takes on the creationists on their own terms, using a statistical method developed by creationists to visualise morphological gaps in the fossil record, to show that actually, there aren’t any morphological gaps in the fossil record between basal birds (including Archeopteryx) and a range of non-avian dinosaurs.  These findings will come as no great surprise to evolutionary biologists who have long accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and that Archaeopteryx has both bird-like and dinosaur-like features.   However, Senter’s rational for doing this study was that if you can demonstrate evolutionary relatedness between species under creationist’s criteria, then they will be obliged to accept the results.

This study is an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure that it really adds a whole lot to the creation vs evolution debate.  Firstly, I’m a little uneasy about the methods he uses. If they are not sound scientific methods, what does it matter what they show?

The methods Senter uses were adapted from the field of baraminology, a branch of creation science in which organisms are classified according to a creationist framework.  Baraminologists believe that each “kind” of organism was created independently and subsequently diversified – and view morphological gaps between taxa as evidence that the taxa were created separately.  Rather than use established methods for measuring  morphological relatedness, the baraminologists seem to have developed their own methods, which don’t seem to be in use outside of the creation science literature.

I’m not a statistician, or a paleontologist, so I don’t know much about these methods, but they seem to be similar to established methods for analyzing multivariate statistics, like principal components analysis and multidimensional scaling.  One of the methods, ANOPA (Analysis of patterns) is even published in a regular scientific journal.  However, a quick search of the Web of Science shows that this paper, published in 2004, has been cited zero times (with the exception of Senter’s paper) suggesting the method hasn’t been picked up by mainstream scientists.  And according to this critique of the method, there are good reasons why not, not the least of which is that there seems to be no statistical basis for identifying discrete groups in the data.  A similar method, that Senter applies to his data is classic multidimensional scaling (CMDS), as implemented in a software program developed by creationist Todd Charles Wood.  Multidimensional scaling is a standard statistical method, but here it uses a creationist measure of “baraminic distances” – which only appears in the creationist literature and isn’t used in standard paleontology.

A second problem with this exercise, is that now that Coelurosaurian dinosaurs and birds have been shown to be morphologically continuous using the creationists criteria, what is to stop the creationists just moving the goalposts and calling Coelurosaurian dinosaurs and birds a single “created kind”?  Also if evolutionary biologists use these method on other groups and find morphological discontinuity, do they then have to accept this as “evidence” for creation?

The problem with the fossil record is that (a) fossilization is rare, so absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and (b) new fossils are found all the time, so what looks like a gap in the fossil record at one point in time may be filled later on.  Senter demonstrates this really well in his paper, by re-doing the analysis based on what fossils were known at particular time points.  Using this time-series he demonstrates that up until around 2000, there were significant gaps in the fossil record for coelurosaurians.  However, with an explosion of new fossils in the past 10 years, these gaps have all but been filled.  The same is true for many other groups, including basal chordates, bony fishes, turtles etc.  Senter comments in the discussion

the recent explosion in the filling of fossil gaps should give creationists pause, for any such gap-filling is a serious challenge to creation science.

I don’t follow the creation/evolution debate particularly closely so I’d be interested to hear opinions about this paper from those who do.

SENTER, P. (2010). Using creation science to demonstrate evolution: application of a creationist method for visualizing gaps in the fossil record to a phylogenetic study of coelurosaurian dinosaurs Journal of Evolutionary Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02039.x


6 Responses to Beating the creationists at their own game?

  1. It seems sad to me that “creation science” is validated by any mention in a mainstream journal.

    Also, this sort of proof cannot add anything to the debate: creation science has created its taxonomies to fit its initial assumptions rather than on the basis of data, and so has shown that it cares more about validating its already-arrived-upon conclusions than forming new conclusions based on new evidence. Of course, any good challenge to these categories merely requires an adjustment in the terminology that creationists use regarding them, and it will be accounted for.

    The last point you made addresses the “gaps in the fossil record” argument perfy well: gaps in our knowledge of a phenomenon ectlsimply don’t imply the implausibility of that phenomenon, assuming that we had a good reason for believing in it in the first place.

    As a disclaimer, I don’t follow this debate particularly closely, either.

  2. John says:

    There is an interesting discussion of this at:

  3. John says:

    You have said:
    “A second problem with this exercise, is that now that Coelurosaurian dinosaurs and birds have been shown to be morphologically continuous using the creationists criteria”.
    Based on the the analysis of the study it would be more correct to say that:
    Maniraptors and birds have been shown to be morphologically continuous using the creationists criteria

  4. John says:

    To make this clearer the abstract should read:

    It is important to demonstrate evolutionary principles in such a way that they cannot be countered by creation science. One such way is to use creation science itself to demonstrate evolutionary principles. Some creation scientists use classic multidimensional scaling (CMDS) to quantify and visualize morphological gaps or continuity between taxa, accepting gaps as evidence of independent creation and accepting continuity as evidence of genetic relatedness. Here, I apply CMDS to a phylogenetic analysis of coelurosaurian dinosaurs and show that it reveals morphological continuity between Archaeopteryx, other early birds, and a wide range of nonavian MANIRAPTORS. Creation scientists who use CMDS must therefore accept that these animals are genetically related. Other uses of CMDS for evolutionary biologists include the identification of taxa with much missing evolutionary history and the tracing of the progressive filling of morphological gaps in the fossil record through successive years of discovery.

    The study shows continuity within maniraptors but no continuity between maniraptors and non-maniraptors.

  5. Layla says:

    I’m sure I’ve wandered on in here way over my head, but I’m not interested in arguing or debating, especially considering my educational level fails in comparison obviously, but I’m learning. 🙂
    I’m here because I’m very interested in new discoveries (or debunking s) relating to the field of creation/evolution.
    * In 4th grade, a fossil dig inspired me to want to be a paleontologist when I grew up. That didn’t happen but I still love rocks & fossils. (Not that anyone cares:) *
    -anywho… I’m curious 1st, about Mikes
    reply, specifically puzzling to me was:
    “…creation science has created its taxonomies to fit its initial assumptions rather than on the basis of data, and so has shown that it cares more about validating its already-arrived-upon conclusions than forming new conclusions based on new evidence.”

    hmm…why refer this way? As if “creation science” has become some entity on it’s own, capable of “caring”, “validating” etc.
    It reflects that creation scientists now (in your opinion) are all completely closed-minded , opposed to new data, or…void of accepting new ideas that don’t “fit”? IDK, What’s that about?
    As far as it goes, I’d appreciate insight from anyone else too… what is the most the common presumption ?
    And what are your views on a “God” factor, if any would care to share.
    I seek any potential enlightenment you’d like to offer.
    Thank you 🙂

  6. “But a stupid man will get understanding, when a
    wild donkey’s colt is born a man” (Job 11:12, Old
    Testament, Holy Bible)

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