Human Events (March 10, 2000)

The Missing Link that Wasn't
National Geographic's 'Bird Dinosaur' Flew Against the Facts


Nancy R. Pearcey

When National Geographic published the first pictures of a fossil creature that looked for all the world like a bird-dinosaur, it was hailed as a stunning coup. But now the creature has been exposed as a hoax--the latest in a series of embarassing reversals in evidence for evolutionary theory.

The fossil, dubbed Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, was picked up at a fossil fair in Tucson, Arizona, in February 1999 by Stephen Czerkas, who runs a small private museum in Utah. He was ecstatic when a Chinese dealer unveiled a foot-long slab of rock with fossilized bones embedded in it: The body was clearly a bird, while the tail was that of a dinosaur.

National Geographic convened a press conference last October, heralding the fossil as a crucial missing link, the first solid evidence for a new theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs (contrary to an older theory that they evolved separately). But the prestigious journal soon had egg on its face. Chinese farmers have grown adept at gluing fossils together in ways that increase their black-market value, and in this case, the body turned out to be from an early toothed bird while the tail was from a dinosaur.

This missing link was forged by glue, not by evolution, quipped Jeff Hecht in the New Scientist.

Worse, National Geographic was warned ahead of time that the fossil was probably a hoax, in a letter from Storrs Olson, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "There is no such thing as a feathered dinosaur," Olson says. Moreover, a paper describing Archaeoraptor, written by Czerkas, had been rejected by two scientific journals (Nature and Science). Yet astonishingly, National Geographic went ahead with its own publication anyway.

Now Chinese scientists are re-examining other important fossils, with devasting results. Already a second forgery has surfaced. Last April, Nature published an article by Keven Padian of the University of California at Berkeley on a pterosaur with a tail, found in the same fossil deposit where Archaeoraptor was found. It turns out that the tail was attached by a local farmer before selling it to Chinese museum.

Small wonder reporters are invoking the memory of the famous Piltdown fraud. (New Scientist referred to Archaeoraptor as "Piltdown bird.") Piltdown Man was a notorious fossil hoax in 1911 put together to provide the missing link between humans and apes predicted by Charles Darwin. From the start, it seems Darwin enthusiasts have been overly eager to find evidence to support the theory.

Dozens of fakes and reversals have recently come to light. Take, for example, the case of the peppered moths in England. According to the standard textbook treatment, during the Industrial Revolution, when the tree trunks were darkened by soot, a light-colored variety of the moth became easier for birds to see and eat, causing them to decline, while a darker variety flourished. Most biology textbooks show photos of the light moths against darkened tree trunks. But an article in The Scientist (May 24, 1999) by biologist Jonathan Wells reveals that peppered moths don't actually perch on trunks but in the upper branches--and that the photos were all staged. In one NOVA documentary, biologists glued dead moths onto the trees.

Or take the familiar drawing of embryos lined up side by side--fish, amphibian, bird, and mammal--allegedly supporting common ancestry. An article in the American Biology Teacher (May 1999), again by Wells, shows that these drawings were fudged--lengthened in some places, shortened in others--to make them appear more similar than they really are. These drawings continue to appear in most biology textbooks.

Another common image in textbooks shows Darwin's finches, found on the Galapagos Islands. In recent years, researchers discovered that in periods of drought, larger birds survived better and thus the overall beak size grew slightly larger. Evidence for evolution? No: When the rains returned, the beaks returned to their normal size. Yet a 1998 NAS booklet for teachers ("Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science") describes the increase in beak size WITHOUT MENTIONING THE RETURN TO NORMAL. The booklet then encourages teachers to speculate what would happen in 200 years if the increase continued indefinitely--whether "a new species of finch might arise." Writing in the Wall Street Journal (August 16, 1999), Berkeley professor Phillip Johnson comments, "When our leading scientists have to resort to the sort of distortion that would land a stock promoter in jail, you know they are in trouble."

In the months that the faked dinobird fossil was proudly on display at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall in Washington, D.C., some nine million school children filed by to see it--leaving with their imaginations filled with images of feathered dinosaurs that never existed. This is a disgrace, a powerful reminder that scientists often see what they want to see, especially when it supports a theory, like evolution, that they cherish.

Nancy Pearcey may be reached at P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041.