A comment on the Gansus find

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An AP story this morning discusses a new fossil find in China of an early bird, Gansus, from about 100 million years ago. The headline reads “Bird fossils in China called a missing link in evolution.”

Now this is a neat find, and I urge you to read the story, but I’d like to discuss the headline as an example of the way the popular press mischaracterizes science sometimes, and adds to public misconceptions about evolution.

For example, a fairly typical response has occurred over at Uncommon Descent, where one of Dembski’s blogging group writes, “I guess I just don’t get it. Why has the missing link in bird evolution just been found, when I have been assured for years that there is overwhelming evidence in the fossil record that the enigma of bird evolution was already solved?”

One of the problems with press stories about science is that most of the time they add a “hook” about the significance of the story that is misleading in some way. In particular, the phrase “missing link” implies the mistaken idea that certain kinds of creatures have some special transitional status. But that is not true. Every fossil find is a link between earlier and later creatures, and they are all missing until they are found. The phrase “missing link” implies, especially to that part of the public that has doubts about evolution, that somehow the particular find in question is of a special creature whose existence somehow now “proves evolution.”

This is exceedingly simplistic: no one in science has ever claimed that “the enigma of bird evolution”, or any other aspect of evolution, has been “solved”; nor does anyone in science believe that any one find will “prove” evolution. The fact that evolution has occurred has been established by the accumulation of many, many thousands of pieces of individual evidence, of which this find is just one more.

One of the significant things here, is that Gansus, like the earlier find this year of Tiktaalik roseae, was found at the time and in the place that we would have expected, based on what we know already about bird evolution. In that sense it is a piece of the puzzle that fits in the right place: it is not a “rabbit in the Cambrian.”

Notice what the article says,

“Most of the ancestors of birds from the age of dinosaurs are members of groups that died out and left no modern descendants. But Gansus led to modern birds, so it’s a link between primitive birds and those we see today,” Lamanna, a co-leader of the research team, said in a telephone interview.

Previously there was a gap between ancient and modern species of birds, and “Gansus fits perfectly into this gap,” added Jerald D. Harris of Dixie State College in Utah.

In the “Evolution 101” class I gave last April, a two-evening talk to the layperson about evolution, I emphasized that we should stop using phrases like “missing link” because of the misconceptions it engenders. Notice the two quotes above: Lamanna simply says “it’s a link”, not a “missing link”: good for him. Harris says, “There was a gap between ancient and modern species …”. If might have been better (and I am not faulting Harris, because I know that newspaper reporters respond best to brevity) if he had said “there was a gap in our knowledge of ancient and modern species …” This would have made it clear that what is in doubt about this or any other evolutionary problem is the details about what happened, not whether evolution happened.

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67 Comments

A couple of notes.

First, this find beautifully corroborates Feduccia’s prediction that the common ancestor to modern birds is likely a transitional shorebird. Gansus was known from a hindlimb since 1981, and the limb morphology suggested a shorebird, but this is still corroboration. Feduccia’s in a small minority on the bird/dinosaur link, but on much of the rest, his Origin and Evolution of Birds is invaluable.

Second, Creation-Evolution headlines’ article on this find is particular execrable. They call Gansus a ‘duck’; they claim the find is a ‘known species appearing much earlier than already thought’ (Gansus has always been assigned to the Early Cretaceous), and they mock the idea that birds survived the KT extinction (most of them did not; the enanthornithines did not, and there was a major genetic bottleneck in the ornithurines). A shorebird, able to travel to find food, living largely off shoreline detritus and small shoreline scavengers, likely in the tropics, would be exactly the kind of species one would expect to survive a major catastrophe.

this is tangential, and i know i should know, but who is “DT” that is moderating uncommon discount, and how long has he (she?) been making playground threats to posters? “Wanna see me turn YOU into a missing link?” my goodness…

What is ancestral about Gansus? What about Gansus isn’t modern? This is simply an old skeleton from an extinct species that is no different from the birds we see today. This “modern” bird is exactly what creationists would expect because from our perspective, all animal families were complete from the beginning (eg. Cambrian Explosion, modern forms in ancient layers).

Me, I was just surprised to see that FoxNews had a science section. Believe it or not, for years they were the only major news org without one. Anyway, you can see where some of the confusion creeps in. Gil and FoxNews refer to it as ‘the’ missing link, while the scientists are quoted saying it’s ‘a’ missing link.

Comment #106028

Posted by dre on June 16, 2006 10:03 AM (e) | kill

this is tangential, and i know i should know, but who is “DT” that is moderating uncommon discount, and how long has he (she?) been making playground threats to posters? “Wanna see me turn YOU into a missing link?” my goodness…

Nobody over there has a science education. DS is a retired computer technician in Texas whose job is to ban people who veer from the party line. Other people on that site have no degrees, or degrees in law, engineering, or some other non-science field.

You have to be philosophical about all this “missing link” stuff.

The subtleties of “We found this new fossil, C and it fits neatly between A and B, but it’s interesting because we expected more of X than Y” don’t make for a good headline.

Years ago, our opponents discovered the seductive appeal of the simple, easy to explain, answer. So as long as news items have to be simplified into a 200 word blurb, I’m happier with “Link found”, a positive statement, than “Scientists puzzled about Y, expected X” which is far more technically interesting, but makes it sound like the new evidence is somehow problematic.

This year has brought a bumper crop of well-publicized new finds, and if the casual reading public wants to go no deeper than “missing links piling up”, I’m OK with that.

Modern forms in ancient layers? Which forms, please.

steve s - “Other people on that site have no degrees, or degrees in law, engineering, or some other non-science field.”

C’mon, steve - engineering a non-science field? Why did I study all that thermo, chemistry, physics, etc.? Dern - I could’ve been drinking more beer!

As an engineer lurker on this site since the Kitzmiller decision, who considers himself pretty well versed in general science topics and especially in the science roots of engineering, I’ll accept an apology. No, I’m not a “scientist”, and certainly not a biologist, but you should be comforted in knowing that good engineers out here rely on our understanding of science every minute of every day.

Otherwise, keep up the good work.

Dave

bsb:

This is simply an old skeleton from an extinct species that is no different from the birds we see today. This “modern” bird is exactly what creationists would expect because from our perspective, all animal families were complete from the beginning (eg. Cambrian Explosion, modern forms in ancient layers).

If it’s an extinct species does that mean macroevolution occured? Or was a mistake made with this species and it had to be removed? Are you using “family” in the traditional taxonomic sense? If you are, where’s the dividing line between micro- and macro- within families?

some engineers are scientists. No argument there. But there is a big difference between a science degree like chemistry, biology, or physics, and an engineering degree. I know lots of engineers from college–at one point I had three engineer roommates–and they’re not scientists.

Not only journalists, but also many scientists, tend to hype their finds. It’s always an ego-boost, and more importantly a benefit to the grants process, to have people think that their find fills an especially large gap. I’m not saying this was the case here–from the little we read from the paleontologists themselves, they appear to be putting out little enough hype.

OK, basically we all know about the hype from various quarters. Krebs posts in order to educate lurkers, mostly not the various bloggers and commenters. My question–why doesn’t Dembski ever appear to be informed? Why does the humdrum creation of hype sucker him in repeatedly?

He’s off making the same lame comments that the typical creo-morons do every time that the gaps becomes smaller. In fact the media reports can be fairly confusing to the naive (I’m being charitable with my examples), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see DaveScot and AFDave fall for journalistic hype/nonsense. And sure, I’m not surprised that Dembski does either, but it is to his shame that he either writes as if he were taken in so that he can whine ridiculously (but effectively), or that he really is so ignorant that he doesn’t know any better.

At least he’s close to getting one thing right:

Dembski Wrote:

Sigh. I’m apparently too stupid to understand Darwinian logic.

Uncommon Descent, June 16, 2006.

He may not be too stupid to understand “Darwinian” logic, but he puts on a pretty good show of not understanding evolutionary science and its methods in the least. And evidently he doesn’t understand journalistic logic either.

I really can’t say whether or not he is putting on his followers, who generally are too stupid even to recognize what is “Darwinian logic” and what is hype (they wouldn’t be creationists if they did). But it is certainly plausible that one as ignorant of science as he is really does not know the difference between journalistic hype and true science any better than his followers are.

After all, none of his work reflects scientific knowledge. He did seem to think that his early NFL and EF stuff really was scientific, apparently without his noticing the need to work with empirical data. He appears to have a truly abysmal lack of knowledge of what is actually published in journals, and probably mostly does get his “knowledge” of evolution from the media.

Well, OK, Dembski shows his appalling incompetence once again. What’s new? True, but we really should not forget just how egregious his mis-education of others is, for he surely could do better if he had any desire to understand what he is talking about. It is not clear to me that he is particularly bright, but he seems capable of understanding reasonably complex subjects, hence he could learn to recognize media hype, vs. “Darwinian logic”, had he the desire to educate his believers decently.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

As for the use of “modern” in the context of the press releases/news reports: the authors were trying to avoid the (admittedly complex) taxonomic terminology of paleornithology. Gansus is, based on phylogenetic analysis of the new data, the oldest recovered member of Ornithurae (the clade containing all living birds [Neornithes], Ichthyornis, and Hesperornithiformes. Ornithurae and closely related taxa (together, the Ornithuromorpha) represent one of the speciose branches of post-Jurassic birds; the other being the Enantiornithes (“opposite birds”). Enantiornithes seem to have been the more common of the two lineages during the Cretaceous (especially among land birds).

It retains some features present in extinct Cretaceous birds that are lacking in modern birds (e.g., it has non-heterocoelous presacral vertebrae), but in general has many derived features. However, the Cretaceous toothed bird Ichthyornis shares even more derived features with Neornithes (the clade of all living birds) than does Gansus.

hey Glen:

Sigh. I’m apparently too stupid to understand Darwinian logic. Filed under: Intelligent Design — GilDodgen @ 10:23 pm Comments (21)

dre Wrote:

this is tangential, and i know i should know, but who is “DT” that is moderating uncommon discount, and how long has he (she?) been making playground threats to posters? “Wanna see me turn YOU into a missing link?” my goodness…

That would be DaveScott, as he’s known on UD. In fairness, he’s actually parodying himself on that thread (who would’ve thought?). He’s in the habit of threatening and banning dissenters on UD with cheesy one-liners signed “ds”. In the UD thread on AtBC this habit’s been parodied with threats coming from “dt”: DaveTard.

I want to support 2hullis here. It’s a mistake to draw a firm line between scientists and engineers (or doctors - another related profession.) Engineers of whatever type have to learn a lot of science. I’m sure the extent to which someone absorbs the big picture and appreciates the subtler elements of gaining scientific knowledge varies by person, but I think that is true of scientists also.

So I suggest we not throw the baby out with the bath water. I regularly get thanked by people in the engineering and medical fields for defending evolution, not because they use it, are responsible for teaching it, and do anything to contribute origianl knowledge, but just because they support good science and the overall scientific enterprise.

I would definitely call engineering and medicine science related. And some engineers and some doctors are scientists. But I don’t think an engineering degree is a science degree. And I consider the number of anti-evolutionists who are engineers and doctors to be evidence for this. But this thread should be about Gansus, so I’m not going to pursue it further.

george, thanks for the clarification.

i’m aware of davescot’s antics, and i’ve seen him addressed as “davetard” before. i guess i just never would have thought he’d acknowledge his own ridiculous character or the low regard in which he is held.

now i know.

steve s - “Other people on that site have no degrees, or degrees in law, engineering, or some other non-science field.”

C’mon, steve - engineering a non-science field? Why did I study all that thermo, chemistry, physics, etc.? Dern - I could’ve been drinking more beer!

I would have to say that engineering by definition is a non-science field. It is, of course, supported by science, and a good engineer has to be educated in physics and other science areas.

What seems to be important in the confrontations with creationist engineers is that engineers don’t particularly need to learn the scientific method. They do the labs, and certainly are taught some things about science’s methods, but if they don’t particularly care to learn what science is all about, they really don’t have to.

I think that engineers in general sometimes come in for attacks on these forums which are not deserved. Of course DaveScot and his ilk are causal in this. The fact of the matter is that an engineer who is intellectually honest and interested in science has a good leg up on understanding science from his training, while the DaveScots of this world have a lot of technical training that they are able to confuse with science, thus to avoid scientific methods completely and to take up ID.

I think of engineers as being much like physicians in this way. Physicians and engineers have enough science training that they could well deal competently with science, and enough technical training of which they are (rightly) proud that they may arrogantly claim to be expert in opinions which have not come via science at all.

I hate to see either group rubbished in general, but the fact that neither physician nor engineer training is aimed at producing scientists does mean that both groups supply pseudoscience with a disproportionate number of recruits. The majority in both groups is fairly sane and committed to sound science, yet a minority in both groups finds pseudoscience to fit with the way they work well enough that they feel no need to abandon nonsense.

Various pressures upon the actual scientists does keep the level of pseudoscience among them generally low–at least in the areas within which the scientists work. Mostly, those who receive actual “science degrees” really do have to understand science and its methods in order to get their degrees.

So that while engineers and others may very well be competent in science, there are no great barriers to taking up pseudoscience among engineers (well, most would have trouble if they abandoned the physics that relates to their designs, but denying evolution generally has no repercussions in their work). There are actually quite a number of barriers for those with science degrees, and especially for practicing scientists, that tend to prevent their adoption of pseudoscience.

Obviously the barriers do not always work (Wells). On the whole, though, science and its participants maintain their integrity through formal and informal sanctions against BS.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

steve Wrote:

hey Glen:

Sigh. I’m apparently too stupid to understand Darwinian logic. Filed under: Intelligent Design — GilDodgen @ 10:23 pm Comments (21)

Thanks for clearing that up. I guess I see WD at the top, as well as credit for the blog going to him in the search engines and in the headings of Uncommon Descent, and forget that others do blog there as well.

Of course Dembski does remain responsible for the BS that occurs on his blog, but is not as responsible as if he were the actual author. That is to say, he shouldn’t allow GilDodgen to tell lies about science, yet, whether or not he would write the same things, he does give Gil the green light to misrepresent science.

Oh well, so it goes at UD. I apologize to anyone who was misled for my lack of attention to detail and for misattribution.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Dembski only drives the Short Bus on the Information Superhighway. Much of the noise is made by the passengers.

steve s - “I know lots of engineers from college—at one point I had three engineer roommates—and they’re not scientists.”

In your original statement, you said “non-science” not “non-scientist”. I agreed I’m not a scientist. But being put in the same “non-science” category as lawyers was clearly uncalled for and either uninformed or arrogant. Since you had three engineer roomates to inform you, what does that leave? :)

So, no apology?

Otherwise, keep up the good work - and I’ll keep up mine. If you knew what it was, you’d thank me for having a science AND engineering education.

Dave

Nothing to apologize for.

Glen Davidson Wrote:

He did seem to think that his early NFL and EF stuff really was scientific, apparently without his noticing the need to work with empirical data.

The wonderful thing about the NFL and the EF is that they are mathematical theory, not scientific ones. As such, they can be explicitly disproved. Scientific theories on the other hand always have a quantity of evidence for or against them, and therefore cannot ever be said to be disproved or proved completely.

From Wolpert’s rebuttal

So if Dembski had managed to use the geometry of induction properly to quantify that some search algorithm occurring in the biological world had, somehow, worked better than all but the fraction 10^{-50} (say) of alternative algorithms, then there would be a major mystery concerning the modern biological mantra. This would be true regardless of whether neo-Darwinists had performed the proper rituals in settling on that mantra.

However, Dembski does not do this.

There is a big difference between “using science” and “being a scientist”. I have been trained in both science and engineering (in my field people commonly go into both), and in my experience engineering is not science. It uses information gained by science, but it does not use the same processes used by scientists to develop practical applications. Science’s goal is to learn about the universe. Engineering’s goal is to apply that information to solving problems in human society. Engineers must understand the knowledge gained by science, and they must understand the needs of society, but a detailed understanding of how science gains its information is not really relevant to the engineering field. That is not to denegrate engineering. Ultimately the vast majority of scientific knowledge would be of no consequence without engineering. Engineers are generally the ones who translate scientific discoveries into useful applications. However, due to today’s specialization in careers an understanding of how scientific knowledge is obtained is not really relevant to using it effectively for societal gain, thus these aspects seem to be largerly ignored by engineering. That does not mean that engineers can not learn such things on their own, but it is not a standard component of an engineering education as far as I have seen.

And the basic problem is that unless you are going into biomedical engineering/bioengineering, environmental engineering, or agricultural engineering a detailed knowledge of biology and evolution are not very important to an engineer, so they do not seem to be emphasized. That does not mean that no engineer is knowledgeable on biology or evolution, but it is not something you should expect an engineer to know by default (unless they are in a biology-oriented engineering field).

steve - why are you acting so arrogant? I of course don’t know you personally, so I can’t conclude you actually are arrogant, but you’re not helping your case.

Hey - I’m on your side! I am not a troll or a detractor to the usual good information I’ve come to enjoy reading on this site. I have increased my knowledge of biology, science, and evolution doing so. I’ve used information from this site, probably including information directly from you, to counter IDiots’ and YEC’ers assertions elsewhere.

You insulted consciencious engineers comparing us to having equivalent (low)science knowledge as lawyers. That is just about as mind boggling as some ID claims and accusations I’ve heard. Perhaps you know less about what we do and need to know than you think you do.

Please consider embracing your allies rather than alienating them.

Dave

As an engineer, I’d have to agree that most engineers do not think like scientists. Echoing Todd, we know science and we use science, but we don’t do anything to discover new knowledge and develop theories. We’re problem solvers rather than critical thinkers. In university, we even had a very well-respected hydrology prof who was a Climate Change denier (no Creationists afaik). But do give us some credit; we have boatloads more scientific knowledge than a lawyer or whatever.

Hmmm - we seem to have lost sight of the original topic here. There have been some good comments made here, and I definitely agree with 2hulls that despite any differences among different fields which investigate and/or use science, it is counter-productive (and wrong) to stereotype any profession and to alienate individuals who support our cause.

For what it’s worth, I’m a tech director and a math teacher - should my thoughts about and support for science be discounted?

So anyway, does anyone have anything to say baout this subject of accurately portraying the significance of new fossil finds to the public?

You insulted consciencious engineers comparing us to having equivalent (low)science knowledge as lawyers. That is just about as mind boggling as some ID claims and accusations I’ve heard. Perhaps you know less about what we do and need to know than you think you do.

Why so down on the science knowledge of lawyers? While most lawyers aren’t highly trained in science, it is not rare to find some that are. What is more, most would at least be able to find the flaws in ID, since they have been trained to treat data with more respect and “due process” than your average slob/creationist (ok, lawyers are also trained to get around treating data with respect and due process–my point being that they have to know how to treat evidence properly even when they don’t do so).

There are strengths and weaknesses across the professions. I would not automatically take a lawyer or an engineer to be competent in biology, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility in either one.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

At dinner and before ordering, customers will be required to answer 3 questions”: 1. What is your name? 2. What is your quest? 3. What is the proposed phylogenetic history of Gansus yumenensis?

Just don’t ask me what my favorite color is . …

I have a quick question that someone here may be able to answer. Is there any comprehensive website or database that tracks fossil finds in a way that crossreferences them to the putative tree of life? If so, where can I find it?

If not, I think such a website would be a valuable tool for both educating the general public and as a quick reference for all students of evolutionary biology.

The way I envision it, it begins with a phylogenetic supertree, based only on known shared genes among all organisms (for simplicity’s sake, ignoring for a moment lateral gene transfers). This could be and has been relatively easily generated by utlizing known sequences in the database, and could be expanded and refined automatically when new sequences and organisms are discovered.

Graphically, this would be overlaid on top of a timeline. This would not be an automated process, but rather a rough one, with both molecular clocks and fossil evidence being utilized to place the tree branching points at the appropriate location along the time axis.

From that, the branching points and links between them would be the major points of interest, with a hyperlink leading to a file for each point and branch. For each known fossil find then, we would attempt to fit them onto our projected tree. Of course, some fossils would clearly be terminal branches, and would require the creation of a new file. Each file could contain any sorts of information on the organism, including descriptions, pictures, and explanation of the reasoning for it’s placement, fun facts, acknowledgment of controversial elements, relevant literature references, etc.

Of course, this last step would be enormously labor intensive. I imagine it being set up as a sort of wiki, where various users could enter information on different known points as they learn about or discover them. Access would have to be managed by someone and limited to known scientists, to prevent vandalism by ID/Creationists. The end product however, should be an ever-expanding database accessible to all that shows what we know about evolution and how we know it, and what still is left to be learned.

So again, my questions are; has anyone done anything like this? And if not, would someone, please? The closest thing I’ve found is the tree of life project ( http://tolweb.org/tree/ ), but I imagine something a bit rougher, with a greater emphasis on the branching points and links than the end points. I think if there was a good reference to where a lay person could easily find which links are “missing” and which ones have been found, that would help people to understand how in fact we know that evolution is real.

Engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. and science — Well yes, unless they attend a university that has general education requirements which include a semester of biology. That won’t be much, but at least they’ll be exposed to the theory of biological evolution and some of the supporting evidence…

To conclude: Unlike ID, my hypothetical

1. Used observations to make predictions. 2. Suggested research to differentiate between competing hypotheses. 3. Reported failed experiments. 4. Suggested alternative methodologies to gather additional data.

Although preliminary, I suggest I’ve accomplished more biology than ID theorists have in the past decade.

As a final note, no one suggested the obvious extension to my work, an important area of research that should be considered in light of leftovers, DUCK SOUP or, if your prefer the original.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

One doesn’t necessarily have to be formally trained in a scientific discipline to have a good understanding of the various fields. Knowledge can come from personal interest and private study - from having a brain and a mind of one’s own.

In any case, most people accept evolution as fact without an intensive understanding of the biology, physics and chemistry at play. Even on a strictly observational and intuitive level, evolution makes more sense than any creationist ID mumbo jumbo.

Peter

PS: The Missing Links were a great band!!

One doesn’t necessarily have to be formally trained in a scientific discipline to have a good understanding of the various fields. Knowledge can come from personal interest and private study - from having a brain and a mind of one’s own.

In any case, most people accept evolution as fact without an intensive understanding of the biology, physics and chemistry at play. Even on a strictly observational and intuitive level, evolution clearly makes more sense than any creation-science-YEC-ID mumbo jumbo.

Peter

PS: The Missing Links were a great band!!

Even on a strictly observational and intuitive level, evolution makes more sense than any creationist ID mumbo jumbo.

except when the intuition is being utilized by a creationist, whereupon evidently it’s the exact opposite.

Intuition is based on current and past knowledge and experience; if the majority of your knowledge comes from arguing biblical narratives… well you get the idea.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on June 16, 2006 9:06 AM.

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