The Missing Link that Wasn't:
National Geographic's 'Bird Dinosaur' Flew Against the Facts
by Nancy Pearcey
March 10, 2000
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 embarrassing 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
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
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.
Used by permission of author