Magazine article The Spectator

Dinosaur or Bird?

Magazine article The Spectator

Dinosaur or Bird?

Article excerpt

BONES OF CONTENTION by Paul Chambers John Murray, L17.99, pp. 270, ISBN 0719560543

By the middle of the 19th century the science of natural history was heading for collision with the biblical account of creation. Lyell's Principles of Geology, published in the 1830s, demonstrated that the age of the earth was vastly greater than the 6,000-year span allotted by biblical historians. Even before the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 the belief that God had created all living creatures in immutable form, and that the great extinct creatures of the fossil record were merely lost unfortunates drowned in Noah's Flood, had come under strain. Darwin's dazzling thesis, that natural selection could cause species to evolve, threw floodlight on a drama already well under way.

For many people the contradiction was unbearably painful. The physical evidence of gradual change was there for all to see, but faith depended on the absolute truth of the Bible. This emotional conflict is reflected in the fiction of the period; characters in novels (Norman May, for instance, in C. M. Yonge's The Daisy Chain, 1856) suffer breakdowns when seduced by rationalist thinking. By 1860, however, the stress was presumably less personal since the debate had become a public one. At the notorious Oxford Meeting, Wilberforce challenged the Darwinian supporters to produce what he believed to be an impossibility - a missing link, a transitional example from the fossil record, to demonstrate that species could alter.

With stunning timing, only a year later the Jurassic limestone deposits of Solnhofen in Bavaria turned up just such a fossil. The creature looked like a reptile, but it had wings and a tail of feathers. It was named Archaeopteryx, and did indeed seem to be part bird and part reptile - a feathered dinosaur. From the moment of its discovery up to the present day the opponents of evolution have recognised Archaeopteryx as a serious threat. For the palaeontologists it poses a different problem: where does it fit into the evolutionary history of birds? Is it a direct ancestor, a true missing link? Or is it a sideline which became extinct, an evolutionary dead end? …

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