Archaeopteryx – The Fossil that Proved Darwin was Right

1859: Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.” Other scientists had proposed evolutionary theories before but Darwin was the first to work up a detailed case of how natural processes could transform one species into another.

Darwin claimed that even Classes could change – for example, the Class Reptilia could evolve into the Bird Class Aves.

“Where is the fossil proof??” exclaimed doubters. “Where is a transitional fossil that links one Class with another?”

The absence of missing links between Classes bothered Darwin.
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Class to Class evolution would have to bridge immense gaps in anatomy and physiology:

  • Reptiles are a “Low Class.” They’re cold-blooded and can’t raise their body temperature much without basking in the sun. Birds are hot blooded and have so much metabolic heat that they can keep warm even in the snow.
  • Reptiles have scaly skin. Bird skin is clothed in feathers.
  • Reptiles have small, weak hearts and lungs. Birds have huge hearts and extremely efficient lungs.
  • Reptiles have small brains. Bird brains are gigantic, compared to their body mass.
  • Reptiles usually don’t spend much time in caring for their young. Birds lavish parental care on their babies.

Before 1861, it was hard to imagine how evolution could remake a reptile and make it into a bird.

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Archaeopteryx changed all that. It was a bird because it had the complex flight feathers clearly preserved.  Feathers implied hot-bloodedness. And the brain appeared to be bigger than what a typical reptile had. Plus – the hind legs had long, narrow ankles, like a bird’s, not the flat-footed feet of a reptile. Archaeopteryx had three main hind toes pointing forward and a smaller toe pointed inward – the bird pattern, not the five-toed hind paw of a typical reptile.

The Archaeopteryx wing had three fingers arranged like a bird’s, not five as in most reptiles.

But Archaeopteryx  possessed extraordinarily primitive, reptilian features too. The tail had a long line of bony vertebrae. Modern birds have only a short, stubby vertebral column in the tail. Archaeopteryx had the three fingers of the hand separate instead of having the outer two fingers fused together.

Archaeopteryx had big, sharp claws on each of the three fingers instead of the blunt-tipped fingers of typical birds.

And Archaeopteryx had a mouthful of teeth instead of a modern bird’s beak.

More evidence of how birds evolved came in 1868. Professor Cope in New Jersey and Professor Huxley and Phillips in Oxford showed that meat-eating dinosaurs had been put together all wrong. Dinosaur legs weren’t flat-footed and five-toed. Carnivorous dinosaurs, in fact, had long, slim legs with ankles held high off the ground, and the hind foot had three main toes pointing forward. So these dinosaurs had bird-style legs.

Dinosaurs bridged most of the gap between primitive reptiles and Archaeopteryx. Most progressive paleontologists accepted the theory that Archaeopteryx evolved from a dinosaur.

The case became iron-clad in the 1880’s to early 1900’s. Excavations in the American West uncovered small meat-eating dinosaurs, like Ornitholestes, that had very long arms that matching those of Archaeopteryx closely.  The missing links were no longer missing. A primitive reptile had evolved into a primitive dinosaur which evolved into an advanced meat-eating dinosaur. And that dinosaur had evolved into Archaeopteryx, which in turn evolved into modern birds.

This is your last chance to see Archaeopteryx at HMNS. The exhibit is closing after labor day weekend. Don’t miss your chance to see the only Archaeopteryx on display in the Western Hemisphere.

A priest and a scientist walk into a bar…

So a priest and a scientist walk into a bar…for centuries, science and religion have squared off. Are they mutually exclusive, or can they coexist? Can a higher being be incorporated into scientific principles, or can science be used to explain the core beliefs of faith? Today’s guest post from Amy, our director of adult education, discusses your chance to answer these questions, as HMNS brings a priest and scientist together for a friendly discussion. Learn more about the two men and the issues at hand, and don’t miss your chance to hear both Father Coyne and Dr. Ayala speak at HMNS this upcoming Tuesday, April 27 at 6:30 p.m.

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in
harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).

In a world changing every day by science, many grapple with the debate of Science vs. Religion. Some think the two are not compatible, while others think the contrary. What kinds of questions belong to the discipline of science and what questions do not?  How can a scientist justify faith while insisting on scientific, empirical rigor in other matters?  Is such justification necessary? Questions like these will be addressed in a spirited discussion by Drs. Coyne and Ayala at HMNS.

Father Coyne first came to HMNS in 2003 to speak with Dr. Steven Weinberg in a program entitled The Presence of God in the Universe. Coyne returned in 2009 as part of the Darwin2009 Houston Lecture Series celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of the Species.

San Diego, CA
Creative Commons License photo credit: Girl flyer

Dr. George V. Coyne, S.J. served as Director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years. Father Coyne founded and hosted the Divine Action series of conferences to bring together scientists and theologians from around the world. He retired as Director in August 2006 but still serves on the research staff and is President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, a development arm of the Observatory.

The Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world (tracing its origins to Pope Gregory’s reform of the calendar in 1582) has been headquartered in the papal summer home of Castel Gandolfo since 1935, but it opened a branch in Tucson in the mid 1980s to take advantage of the area’s world-renowned astronomical facilities. In 1993, it inaugurated the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mt. Graham, Arizona.

Dr. Francisco Ayala was also part of the popular lecture series hosted at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  You can read Dr. Ayala’ previous blog post here. Dr. Ayala is an evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist who has vigorously opposed the entanglement of science and religion while also calling for mutual respect between the two. He is a University Professor of Biological Sciences, professor of philosophy, and professor of logic and the philosophy of science at the University of California at Irvine. He specializes in evolutionary genetics and uses DNA to track the path and flow of evolution. This March Ayala was awarded the 2010 Templeton Prize which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

The mission of the museum is to “enhance in individuals the knowledge and delight in natural science and related subjects.” This lecture is a unique opportunity for our museum members, students and members of the community to hear two world-renown scientists address questions about Science and Religion to enhance their “delight in science” regardless of their religious beliefs.

The HMNS Distinguished Lecture entitled Science and Religion presented by Drs. Coyne and Ayala on April 27 is sponsored by KUHF 88.7 FM and the Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas and is open to the public.  For ticket information click here.