Evolution in the News - November 2020
by Do-While Jones

Confronting Bird/Dino Misinformation

Scientific American gave a bogus explanation for why birds and dinosaurs are so diverse.

There are two strange things about the Scientific American article reviewed in this column. The first is the timing. It appeared on page 44 of the November 2020 print issue under the title, “How Birds Branched Out” with the subtitle, “Modern birds are incredibly diverse. A new study reveals how they achieved their spectacular evolutionary success.” The on-line version of the article was titled, “How Birds Evolved Their Incredible Diversity” with the subtitle, “An analysis of 391 skulls shows that birds evolved surprisingly slowly, compared with their dinosaur forerunners.” The on-line article was dated August 24, 2020. 1 Why was the print version delayed until November? Perhaps it wasn’t good enough to make it into the August issue, and they needed some filler for the November issue. (Honestly, we wouldn’t have addressed it if we weren’t one page short this month. )

The second strange thing was placement. The printed version of the article (which failed to show how birds evolved) was filled with misinformation. This placement was ironic because it immediately followed a set of five articles in a section titled,

Confronting Misinformation

Viral lies, overwhelming uncertainty, and leadership that amplifies falsehoods and fear: no wonder we feel anguished by our information environment. 2

That set of five articles, which had to do with the election and COVID-19, appeared in the issue just before the American elections on November 3. That makes sense. But why follow that set of articles with an article so obviously full of misinformation?

Bored Birdwatcher

Kate began her article with this explanation:

This past May, when it finally sank in that I was going to be stuck at home for a very long time because of the pandemic, I took up a hobby that had never especially appealed to me before: birding. 3

Here’s what she “learned” watching birds.

Birds are dinosaurs, the only lineage to survive to the present day. They arose in the Jurassic period, between 200 million and 150 million years ago, from the theropods, a group of two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs whose members include both the behemoth Tyrannosaurus rex and the daintier Velociraptor. For tens of millions of years birds evolved alongside other dinosaurs, diversifying into a number of small-bodied, fast-growing, feathered fliers, along with a few large-bodied, flightless forms. 4

Birds are not dinosaurs. Calling a bird a dinosaur does not make it a dinosaur. The entire narrative of dinosaurs evolving into birds is fiction.

In any case, the idea was that after the mass extinction, the neornithine birds had the place largely to themselves. Free of competition from other dinosaurs (not to mention a whole bunch of other vertebrates that also perished, including the pterosaurs, those flying reptiles that had long ruled the skies), birds abruptly exploded into a multitude of forms to fill the many newly vacant ecological niches. 5

How do they know that? (They don’t.)

To investigate, the team carried out a detailed shape analysis of 391 well-preserved skulls from modern birds and extinct dinosaurs using high-resolution 3-D scans of the specimens. The scientists used the results to reconstruct the animals’ evolution.

What the researchers found was that dinosaurs evolved 1.5 to three times faster than birds in all regions of the skull. After the mass-extinction event brought the Mesozoic era to a close and ushered in the Cenozoic era, birds branched into most of the major modern groups, from hummingbirds and penguins to birds of prey and songbirds. 6

It’s all misinformation stated as fact! That’s why people “feel anguished by our information environment.” Scientific American should look in the mirror to find the source of the anguish.

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1 Kate Wong, Scientific American, August 24, 2020, “How Birds Evolved Their Incredible Diversity”, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-birds-evolved-their-incredible-diversity/
2 Scientific American, October 12, 2020, "Confronting Misinformation", page 28 https://www.scientificamerican.com/report/confronting-misinformation/
3 Kate Wong, Scientific American, August 24, 2020, “How Birds Evolved Their Incredible Diversity”, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-birds-evolved-their-incredible-diversity/
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.