Early Birds, Unisex Fish

We still don’t know exactly how birds got their wings. Literally and figuratively. But we’re learning more about when and how they started.

Scientists in Europe and China found fossils of birds that lived roughly 120,000,000 years ago.

Other scientists found genes with some ‘feather’ instructions in alligators. That’s old news. What’s new is that one team coaxed alligator embryo scales into growing into something like very simple feathers. Part of a simple feather, anyway.

I’ll be talking about those birds, alligator feathers, and why discovering something new doesn’t upset me. Also a chimp, the French Revolution something Benjamin Franklin said and evolution.

Cool Hand Tommy?

(From AP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

There may be some comfort in knowing that things could be worse. Then again, maybe not. Imagining what might be “worse” seems distressing, too.

Either way, Tommy the chimp lost his bid for freedom when a New York State appeals court said he wasn’t human. (July 15, 2016)

More accurately, the Nonhuman Rights Project lost its case. They’d noted that chimps are a lot like humans, and said they deserve basic human rights.

I’ll agree with the first part. Chimps and humans are very much alike.

How I see the second point is a bit more more complicated. (February 2, 2018; January 14, 2018; March 10, 2017)

I think we’re obliged to treat animals humanely. That’s not a new idea. (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 25:4; Proverbs 12:10; 1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18)

I also think we’re animals. And we’re people, made “in the image of God.” That comes with responsibilities. Loving animals the way we should love people is a bad idea. So is mistreating them. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 361368, 17011709, 1951, 2418, 24152418)

But I think the New York State court’s decision was reasonable. Re-thinking our laws and customs about treating animals makes sense. Giving chimps human rights doesn’t.

Oddly enough, I’ve yet to hear of a court case involving animals and voting rights. I can see the campaign posters in my mind’s eye: “Fluffy for Senator.” And that’s another topic.

“Sapere aude”

(From Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Fête de la Raison/Festival of Reason” at Notre Dame, Paris, during the French Revolution)

I’ll give folks running the Cult of Reason credit. They knew how to put on a show. Nothing wrong with that, by itself. Deifying reason: that, I have a problem with.

Putting God at the head of priorities makes sense. Putting anyone or anything else there doesn’t. (Catechism, 21122114)

I’m not happy about Cult-related vandalism. Not that devotees of the goddess Reason saw it that way. Or Huguenots with their faith-based objections to “idolatry.” Most likely.

The Cult of Reason was mostly a 1790s thing in France. My guess is that it didn’t last long enough to make much impact on how folks see reason and faith today.

On the other hand, I think Age of Enlightenment ideas and attitudes are still with us. That’s not an entirely bad, or good, thing.

Kant said Horace’s “Sapere aude”/”dare to know” described the Age of Enlightenment. I think that makes sense. I get the impression that many Europeans were fed up with faith-themed propaganda of the Thirty Years War. (August 20, 2017; November 6, 2016)


“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was revolutionary. Literally.

The basic ideas make sense. I take “freedom, equality, fraternity,” seriously.

Partly because I thought they sounded good while growing up. Partly, mostly, because I’m now a Catholic.

The French Revolution didn’t, I think, live up to the slogan’s promise.

But I still think the three ideas make sense.

Respecting everyone’s dignity and recognizing human solidarity is a ‘must.’ So is supporting freedom, particularly religious freedom. Everyone’s freedom. (Catechism, 1915, 19281942, 21042109, 2239, 22842301)

Those are ‘Enlightenment’ ideals. But having “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” isn’t new. Neither is seeing “all the people” as “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites….” All people. (Luke 2:10; Acts 1:911; 2 Corinthians 2:17)

Some Christians have acted as if the “good news” mattered. Some haven’t. A few get recognized as Saints. Some go pretty far in the other direction. Why, I don’t know.

Noticing what they did is easy enough.

I can make educated guesses about motives and intent. But “judgment of persons” is God’s job. (February 4, 2018)

I see the Thirty Years War as a particularly nasty turf war. It ran from 1618 to 1648.

The Age of Enlightenment might have happened anyway.

What we call the scientific revolution started around the mid-1500s.

The Age of Enlightenment was more social and philosophical than “scientific.” But I think many Europeans were learning that reason makes sense. And that ‘business as usual’ might not be the best option.

Folks who had grown up on ‘God says kill them’ propaganda were leery of religion.1 I think that’s understandable.

Enlightenment ideals like encouraging knowledge and equal treatment still make sense. Assuming the religion is superstition and requires ignorance doesn’t. (January 12, 2018; April 28, 2017)


Valuing reason won’t do much good if it’s not matched with willingness to think.

Mindless optimism makes no more sense than unthinking pessimism. Not to me.

I’ve learned that “the common sense of most” isn’t all that reliable. But I still think Tennyson had the right idea.

I sympathize with Yeats, but see reasons for hope. In the long run. (December 3, 2017; October 5, 2016)

“…There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
“And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law….”
(“Locksley Hall,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835))

“…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….”
(“The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats (1919))

Dreams of a science-fueled technotopia were fading in my youth. I run into more “the centre cannot hold” attitudes these days. How many folks really feel that way, I don’t know. And that’s yet another topic. (January 28, 2018; November 3, 2017)

What was I talking about? It wasn’t the Cult of Reason or poetry. Let’s see. Tommy the chimp. Chimps and humans. The Enlightenment. Knowledge. Religion. Right.

Seeing religion and science, faith and reason, as mutually exclusively didn’t really take hold until the 19th century. I’ve talked about English politics, muddled thinking — on all sides — faith and reason, before. (September 22, 2017; April 28, 2017)

Maybe folks like Huxley and others using evolution as a talking point in their political activism helped their cause.

I strongly suspect it also helped many see evolution as anti-establishment. And therefore dangerous. (October 28, 2016)

Evolution, particularly human evolution, is still a hot-button issue.

I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s closer to home than flat Earth beliefs.

I don’t have a problem with seeing myself as a person and an animal.

That’s partly because I’ve looked in mirrors and seen apes in zoos.

Not that I have trouble telling the difference between chimps and humans.

We’ve got less body hair and generally wear clothes, for one thing. We’re better at walking upright, too. Much better. And smarter. Much smarter.

Zoos started out as menageries, a sort of royal status symbol. They didn’t start morphing into zoological gardens until the 19th century. And that’s yet again another topic.

“Truth Will be Truth”

I’ve been around humans too long to think appealing to common sense always works.

But that doesn’t keep me from trying. Even though I think Emerson and Franklin were both right.

“Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)

“Mankind naturally and generally love to be flatter’d: Whatever sooths our Pride, and tends to exalt our Species above the rest of the Creation, we are pleas’d with and easily believe, when ungrateful Truths shall be with the utmost Indignation rejected. ‘What! bring ourselves down to an Equality with the Beasts of the Field! with the meanest part of the Creation! ‘Tis insufferable!’ But, (to use a Piece of common Sense) our Geese are but Geese tho’ we may think ’em Swans; and Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”
(Benjamin Franklin (1725))

I suspect, but don’t know, that punctured pride accounts for at least some ‘religious’ rejection of evolution.

The way I see it, we’ve known we were made from the stuff of this world for a very long time. What’s new is how much we know about the “dust” God used. (January 14, 2018; July 23, 2017; February 3, 2017)

An Early Bird

(From Raúl Martín, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The baby bird may have had feathered plumage”
(BBC News))

Baby bird fossil is ‘rarest of the rare’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (February 5, 2018)

Scientists have unveiled one of the smallest bird fossils ever discovered.

“Fossils of birds from this time period are rare, with baby fossils seen as ‘the rarest of the rare’.

“Scientists say the discovery gives a peek into the lives of the ancient, long-extinct birds that lived between 250 and 66 million years ago….”

This little fossil is helping scientists learn how today’s birds got started.

We seem to be finding more small fossils these days. I figure that’s partly because scientists are learning what to look for, and developing new analysis tools. But no matter how much we learn, we can’t find something that’s not there.

I figure that’s one reason we find so many fossils of critters that lived in or near muddy water. (May 5, 2017)

The specimen, MPCM-LH-26189, was very well preserved, including fossilized soft tissue. They didn’t find evidence of feathers, or lack of feathers. MPCM-LH-26189 isn’t much of a name. I’ll take the “LH” and call it Louie.

Louie lived in what’s now the Las Hoyas formation near Cuenca, Spain.

That part of the world was an “inland lacustrine environment” in Louie’s day. Lake country, in other words.

That was about 127,000,000 years back. Pterosaurs were Earth’s biggest fliers. Flowering plants were new, on a geologic time scale. The climate was a bit warmer than today’s, with much more oxygen than we have.

Louie was small, about as long as your little finger. The scientists said it “might have been largely featherless when it died.” It was very young, so they’re not sure which Enantiornithes species it is. Maybe Concornis lacustris or Iberomesornis romerali.2

There won’t be a test on any of this, so try remembering those names only if you feel like it.

Genesis and Secondary Causes

Raúl Martín’s picture of Louie shows a critter that’s substantially cuter than the baby blue heron I mentioned last week.

I talked about Genesis, St. Thomas Aquinas and natural causes too. Basically, I think God creates everything. That includes physical laws whose effects we can observe and study.

Secondary causes, creatures following these laws and acting according to their nature, don’t bother me. Ignoring them doesn’t make sense. Partly because everything reflects some facet of God’s truth. (March 2, 2018)

But thinking everything reflects part of God’s truth doesn’t guarantee recognizing it. And that’s where I started talking about a baby blue heron and medieval bestiaries.


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Birds and alligators are closely related, both belonging to the Archosaur group”
(BBC News))

How dinosaur scales became bird feathers
Rory Galloway, BBC News (November 22, 2017)

The genes that caused scales to become feathers in the early ancestors of birds have been found by US scientists.

“By expressing these genes in embryo alligator skin, the researchers caused the reptiles’ scales to change in a way that may be similar to how the earliest feathers evolved.

“Feathers are highly complex natural structures and they’re key to the success of birds….”

“Closely related” is a relative term. Today’s alligators and crocodiles and critters which eventually became today’s birds had a common ancestor. That was something like a quarter-billion years back.

How long we’ve had birds depends on how you look at it. The last I checked, what is and what isn’t a “bird” was still getting sorted out. Dinosaurs with bird-like anatomy showed up about 165,000,000 years back.

When and how bird-like metabolism started is still a good question with no clear answer. I suspect that what we’re learning about alligator lungs is a clue. They’ve got the same high-efficiency one-way airflow that birds do.

More like Protofeathers

(From MBE, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Normal embryonic scales (L) compared with the elongated scales after genetic modification (R)”
(BBC News))

Inspired by this research, I suppose someone could write a ‘based on actual events’ screenplay. Something like RampageThe Alligator People and Alligator II: The Mutation meet Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Now that I think of it, that could make a good story. Think ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’

I’d say they just don’t make films like The Devil Bat any more. But Krrish 3 was released in 2013.

Someone, somewhere, may be enough like the fictional Mr. Squibbs to fear that mad scientists may unleash feathered alligators on an unsuspecting world.

Much more seriously, these scientists didn’t even come close to getting an GMO alligator with feathers. What they did get was little alligator scales shaped like part of a feather.

Feathers are enormously complicated structures. The modified alligator scales look much more like ‘protofeathers’ we’re finding on some dinosaur fossils.3

Another Early Bird

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Fossils of feathered dinosaurs help explain how flight evolved”
(BBC News))

New evidence on how birds took to the air
Helen Briggs, BBC News (October 9, 2017)

New fossil evidence has pushed back a key step in the evolution of bird flight by millions of years.

“Skeletal changes that helped birds take to the air happened 120 million years ago, during the hey day of dinosaurs, according to a specimen from China.

“Features such as fused bones were thought to be present only in relatively advanced birds, living just before the dinosaurs went extinct….”

This bird/dinosaur fossil may help us understand how avian flight evolved. What finding Pterygornis dapingfangensi did was redefine when bird-like wing/hand and pelvis structures showed up.

The PNAS paper describing Pterygornis dapingfangensi, the 120,000,000 year old bird, was submitted in May of 2017. I don’t know when the research was done, most likely 2016 or early 2017.

Pterygornis dapingfangensi likely enough was the earliest known bird with a fused pelvis and carpometacarpus. At the time the paper was written.

Pterygornis dapingfangensi lived about 40,000,000 years earlier than the previous record holder. Our knowledge of early Cretaceous critters in what’s now northeastern China is piling up fast these days.4

Amazon Mollies: Female-Only Fish

(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Amazon molly is thought to be a hybrid of two different species”
(BBC News))

Amazon fish challenges mutation idea
Jonathan Ball, BBC News (February 13, 2018)

Evolutionary theory suggests that species favouring asexual reproduction will rapidly become extinct, as their genomes accumulate deadly mutations over time.

“But a study on an Amazon fish has cast doubt on the rapidity of this decline.

“Despite thousands of years of asexual reproduction, the genomes of the Amazon molly fish are remarkably stable….

“…Prof Manfred Schartl … said:’The theoretical predictions were that an asexual species would undergo genomic decay and accumulate many bad mutations and, being clonal, would not be able to rely on high genetic diversity to react to new parasites or other changes in the environment.

“‘There were theoretical predictions that an asexual organism would demise after around 20,000 generations.’…”

A dedicated creationist might pounce on this as proof that evolution is a lie. Maybe even a Satanic plot. It’s been a few years since I saw it described as “the religion of the antichrist,” and that’s still another topic. Or maybe not so much. More about science and faith later.

“Theoretical predictions” go back at least to 1932. The idea is that harmful mutations accumulate faster when critters don’t mix with each new generation. It makes sense, and helped explain why so many critters come as males and females.

But New Mexico whiptails are an all-female species. Parthenogenesis, starting the next generation asexually, seems to work for some critters. Not many, though.

Some species alternate between sexual and asexual reproduction. Others don’t use male genetic material, but need males to trigger reproduction.

Some snakes and lizards work that way too. So do a few scorpions, aphids and bees.

Parthenogenesis and the Basle Trial

I’ve read, but not confirmed, that a rooster went on trial in Basle after laying an egg.

Apparently folks were concerned that the egg was spawned by Satan and would become a cockatrice.

The trial, or at least the story, may have more to do with European folklore than historic fact.

That said, female birds lay the occasional egg without a male bird’s involvement.

But not often, and the hatchlings generally aren’t healthy. They don’t live long either.

We’ve developed turkey breeds where the fatality rate isn’t quite so high. But that’s more about human ingenuity than natural process.5

All mammals, humans included, come as male and female. I could argue that it’s not just natural — it’s the only possible way for ‘higher’ animals to reproduce.

There’s almost certainly some reason why so many critters need males and females. Maybe it’s because the male/female pattern reshuffles the genetic deck for each generation. Or maybe there are other reasons we haven’t found yet.

What we’re learning about Amazon mollies at least hints that parthenogenesis can work pretty well. They’ve got very few harmful mutations in the gene pool. Maybe that’s because the ‘unlucky’ fish didn’t live long, or didn’t reproduce well.

Or maybe There’s another reason. Or reasons.

Life: Still Learning

We live in a world where large critters are either animals or plants. Mostly.

Animals move around, don’t have roots, and eat. Plants are sessile. They literally put down roots, ‘eating’ by slowly dissolving and absorbing stuff from rock and soil.

Except for sundews, pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. They supplement their diet with animals they catch in specialized leaves.

Some animals are sessile, like corals, sponges, barnacles, blue mussels, sea anemones and hydras. Mainly sessile. The last two don’t move much, and aren’t fast. But they can move.

Thinking of “life” as plants and animals, and not much else, works well enough for everyday life. And it’s accurate, as far as it goes.

But we’re learning that life is a whole lot more complicated. And interesting, I think.

Plants, Animals, and Speculation

Maybe the way life developed on Earth is the only possibility. Or maybe not.

That’s one reason I hope we find life elsewhere. We’re learning quite a bit about life in general by studying this one example.

We’d likely learn much more if we could compare what happened here with other instances.

I’ve wondered if animals moving around and plants staying put is a ‘universal’ part of development. It makes sense.

‘Eating’ soil and rock, using energy from sunlight to convert substances into living tissue and chemical ‘fuel,’ works with roots and leaves. It’s hard to imagine critters moving around and ‘taking root.’

But the eastern emerald elysia, Elysia chlorotica, looks like a swimming leaf. It’s a sea slug with chloroplasts it gets by eating algae. Imagining a critter like that growing its own chloroplasts isn’t hard. How and whether that would work, I don’t know.

Dictyostelium discoideum, a sort of amoeba, hatches from spores. When food runs out, the amoebae join to form a sort of slug. The slug moves before releasing spores. Most land vertebrates living in sunlight, including humans, synthesize a little vitamin D in our skin.

That doesn’t make us plants. Sea anemones look a bit like plants, but they’re animals. Their nerves and muscles aren’t all that different from ours.

And moving around hasn’t always been a typical animal lifestyle. A two-thirds majority of animals were sessile up to about a quarter-billion years back.

Today’s non-sessile animals are bilaterally symmetrical, with distinct left and right sides. Maybe that’s a ‘universal’ too. Even if it is, we’ve learned that today’s bilateral body plans aren’t the only possibilities. (October 13, 2017; December 23, 2016)

Pursuing Truth

I’ve read that the Aberdeen Bestiary’s phoenix represents the Resurrection.

What the folks who made medieval bestiaries would have made of the New Mexico whiptail lizard, I don’t know.

Tales of the phoenix predate Europe’s Middle Ages by millennia.

Ancient Greeks associated the φοῖνιξ/phoînix, a bird that rises from its predecessor’s ashes, with the sun. Herodotus apparently wasn’t sure that the phoenix was real.

Ancient Egypt’s Bennu sounds phoenix-like. Whether Egyptians borrowed a Greek idea, or Greeks picked the tale up from Egypt is a good question. Or maybe they both heard about a unique and immortal bird from someone else.

I talked about Genesis, platitudes, perceptions and greeting cards last week. Since I think God creates everything we can observe, studying this universe isn’t a problem. Neither is accepting what we learn. (March 2, 2018)

I don’t “believe in” evolution or science. Or having fun. Not as a reason for living. Certainly not as a substitute for God.

But enjoying life’s pleasures is a good idea. Wanting something good isn’t a problem. Trouble starts when I let desires override reason. (Ecclesiastes 2:2425; Catechism, 1809, 2535)

Science and religion both pursue truth, or should.

Faith, the Catholic version, means accepting “the whole truth that God has revealed.” Including what we find in nature. When we learn something new, it’s an opportunity for “greater admiration” of God’s work. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 142150, 283, 341, 2500)

I say that a lot:

1 Several centuries on a steep learning curve:

2 Learning how an early bird grew:

3 Feathers, birds, and alligators:

4 Early birds and their world:

5 Still rethinking reproduction:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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