Can scientists bring back an extinct dinosaur? Way back in 1990, a novel by Michael Crichton and subsequent movie by the same name, Jurassic Park, in 1993 used futuristic genomic biology to suggest how we might de-extinct the dinosaurs. Could we really retrieve dinosaur DNA from preserved dinosaur blood sucked up by an ancient mosquito and preserved in amber? Or maybe even clone preserved dinosaurs cells? Unfortunately–or fortunately!–real research conducted in the intervening years has dispelled most of these ideas but that hasn’t kept some from dreaming of new ways to bring back extinct organisms, including dinosaurs.
Today, we are not talking about cloning a dinosaur from preserved cells since no such cells exist. Rather the latest ideas have scientists starting with a modern bird lineage and gradually changing–via new genome editing tools that have been developed in the past few years–its genome, to gradually transform that bird into a small theropod dinosaur.
You might wonder, how would scientists know what changes to make to the genome in order for this transformation to take place? That is a good question, given that we do not have direct access—ancient DNA—to genomes of extinct dinosaur species.
The proposed technique for accomplishing this transformation involves taking the complete genome sequences of many bird lineages and comparing them to the genomes of crocodiles and other reptiles. Reconstruction of the diapsid ancestral genome permits chromosome evolution tracing in avian and non-avian dinosaurs. This comparison allows one to find all the common gene sequences between the two and to predict the sequence of those genes of the common ancestors. In addition, birds genomes are known to contains thousands of dead—inactivated—genes that, presumably, their ancestors—the dinosaurs—used. For example, all birds have several genes written into their genomes for making enamel teeth but no living bird species makes enamel-based teeth today (See: A flock of genomes reveals the toothy ancestry of birds). By making changes to the genome of a bird, scientists could potentially re-activate these genes causing a chicken to become something more like extinct birds and dinosaurs (See here and here and here for examples).
Whether a dinosaur genome can be inferred by comparative genomic studies of modern animals to make a whole dinosaur is debatable at best. However, I have little doubt—since it has already been done—that some dinosaur-like characteristics can be achieved through modification of modern bird genomes.
A dinosaur-bird is anathema to young-earth creationists
Young-earth creationists (YECs) insist that birds and dinosaurs are separate and unique creations called “kinds.” Even among what they call birds, they recognize about 200 bird “kinds” as separate and unique creations, for example, penguins vs. ostriches vs. waterfowl. As separate creation one would expect that, the transformation of one “kind” into another “kind” should not be possible..
The AiG research team along with Ken Ham recently penned a blog post expressing their abject rejection of any dinosaur-to-bird connection and, therefore, any possibility that this approach to de-extincting a dinosaur could be successful. However, in providing their rationale, they once again reveal numerous misconceptions about dinosaurs and birds. This isn’t the first time we have seen Ken Ham misunderstanding ancient birds and dinosaurs. For other examples see: Ken Ham Doubles Down on His Misunderstanding of Bird Feathers, Ancient Birds and Young-Earth Creationists and Penguin Teeth and Modern Birds: Ken Ham’s Misinformed Understanding of Fossil Birds.
Let’s look at how these problems manifest themselves in this most recent Ken Ham blog post. In “Will Jurassic Park be a Reality Someday?”, the AiG research team provides the following rationale as to why dinosaurs and birds cannot be mixed:
The claim that birds are dinosaurs (the article even calls them “avian dinosaurs”) is becoming increasingly popular. Many evolutionists will tell you that dinosaurs never died out—they evolved into birds. This absurd claim ignores the problem I mentioned above—there’s no known naturalistic process that adds the massive amount of information necessary to turn a dinosaur into a bird! These two types of creatures have massive differences (scales vs. feathers, different breathing systems, warm-blooded vs. cold-blooded, and so on) and huge amounts of unique information would be needed to turn one into the other, and there’s no known process that can do that!
Let’s start with the “massive differences” they claim separate birds and dinosaurs. Three are listed and all three are false distinctions. Thus one wonders how YECs define birds and dinosaurs if they are using characteristics that don’t correctly distinguish between the two groups?
Do feathers define a bird?
Starting with scales vs. feathers, even some YECs don’t agree this draws a distinction between birds and dinosaurs. I have written about how YECs have changed their minds and disagree with one another about whether feathers are unique to birds (For more discussion see my article: How have young-earth creationists responded to feathered dinosaurs?) or not. Research over the past decade has clearly demonstrated that many theropod dinosaurs did have a variety of types of feathers. If YECs include these theropod dinosaurs as birds, then they will be faced with a conundrum, because many of these birds share “dinosaur-like” characteristics with the “true” dinosaurs. So to which “kind” do they belong?
Do birds breathe differently than dinosaurs?
It is probably true that living birds have anatomically-different breathing structures than many dinosaurs did. It also appears from paleontological research that all extinct lineages that are considered to be “birds” had a similar breathing system to living birds. But did all dinosaurs use a different breathing apparatus than birds? The answer is certainly no. Some dinosaurs had lungs that were more like bird’s lungs than reptile’s. This has been known for ten years (some examples here, here and here) and has gained support as more well-preserved fossils have been discovered. In fact, it now appears that a unidirectional airflow lung is common to the ancestors of alligators, dinosaurs and birds and thus dinosaurs that had a different breathing arrangement are the exceptions rather than standard condition.
The AIG research team links to another AIG article in support of their claim that there is a clear distinction between birds and dinosaurs, but that article is from 2008. The claim might have been excusable at that time, though there was some evidence to the contrary that should have given them pause. At any rate, their claim doesn’t hold water today.
Warm-blooded vs. cold-blood distinction
Similar to the breathing system claim, it is true that all living birds are warm-blooded and all living reptiles are cold-blooded, but it does not follow that all dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Many—maybe most—were cold-blooded, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many theropod dinosaurs (those walking on two legs, of which some are thought to have become modern birds) were warm-blooded. Similarly, they likely incubated their eggs and took care of their young much like birds do today. Instead Ham links to another YEC article from 2008 for support. And that article is written as if the authors only considered, or were aware of, dinosaur research from before the year 2000.
Where are the massive differences between dinosaurs and birds?
If these supposed differences do not clearly delineate all birds from all dinosaurs, what characteristics can? Ken Ham says that feathers, body heat production and lung design represent massive differences between dinosaurs and birds. But when we look at the fossil record, we discover that none of these traits are exclusive to one group vs. the other. So where are the massive differences? They must be found in the “and so on” that follow the aforementioned characteristics, but we don’t know what these other traits are, because the blog post does not say.
A taxonomic puzzle that YECs pretend doesn’t exist
There are extinct species possessing traits similar to birds and dinosaurs, which are very difficult to classify, despite the YEC rhetoric that says that all animals are easily placed into certain categories. The bottom line is that it is very difficult for anyone, including every expert who has studied dinosaurs, to know where to draw the line between a “bird” and a “dinosaur” (for instance).
It is difficult to understand why YECs like Ken Ham believe that assigning organisms to mutually exclusive “kinds” or even larger categories is simple, when clearly it is not a simple process to assign fossil species to either dinosaur or bird categories (or human vs non-human for that matter, see: Tricksy Hominin Fossils: Hobbitses are Human but Homo naledi is not). They treat the subject as if they have infallible knowledge of what a bird is despite the fact that the Bible never defines the specific characteristics of birds. In fact, the Bible never defines the characteristics of dinosaurs, nor even mentions their existence. The Bible doesn’t state explicitly that only birds have feathers. In fact, the Bible references the creation of flying creatures (sometimes translated as “birds” in the English language). For example in the New King James Version (Gen 1:20): “let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens of the earth.” These flying creatures seem to include bats and, one would presume, even Pterosaurs, which were flying reptiles.
To add further confusion, YECs refer to penguins as “birds” because they have feathers. Furthermore, they also believe that penguins were created to swim in the ocean and not to fly, thus mixing modern secular taxonomic categories of birds with their own categorical system, which is confusing and has no Biblical support.
|I have written about YEC taxonomic confusion in a series of posts about the significance of ostriches mentioned in the book of Job.|
There is a more rational alternative to Ken Ham’s pigeonholing (pun intended!) of animals into simple categories that is available to YECs based on their own ideas for other organisms. Why don’t they simply hypothesize that the lineages of animals possessing both dinosaur and bird-like features were neither birds nor dinosaurs but rather represented a separately created category of animals all of whom are extinct today? They could appeal to their own assessment of synapsids as an example. Synapsids were a diverse group of animals that are neither amphibians, reptiles, or mammals, but were their own distinct type of animal that, like the dinosaurs and extinct lineages of bird-like dinosaurs, also are all extinct today. Extinct, that is, unless you include one lineage of synapsid that became all the mammals. Significantly, Ken Ham and the Ark Encounter accept that these wholly different animals—the synapsids—once existed so why don’t they propose that there was yet another wholly kind of animal created, very similar to a dinosaur in most respects, but that also had feathers, bird-like lungs and were warm-blooded? How different would this be than saying that God created civets separately from cats and hyenas, even though they share similarities with one another?
Update: In fact, some YECs have made the suggestion I make above. In an abstract for this years ICC (International Conference on Creationism) the authors draw the following conclusion after studying the fossil record: “The existence of multiple created kinds of non-avialan dinosaurs, non-avian avialans, and avians without an enormous morphological gulf between these groups, although historically unexpected in creationism, is argued through this study to be an accurate picture for their designed organization.” Here is a clear admission that Ken Ham is wrong in assuming that dinosaurs and birds are separated by massive differences.
It is important to remember that YECs believe that penguins, ducks, ostriches, raptors, etc., were all created as separate kinds with no ancestral relationship to one another. How then do these “kinds” share many similar combinations of characteristics if common ancestry is not the cause? They talk about God using a common template for creating kinds that are similar (e.g. from an AiG article Common Design Means Common Ancestry “it would make sense for the Creator God to use similar design plans for his creatures when best suited for particular functions.”). In this model, God uses some common elements for multiple “kinds” while adding unique traits for each kind.
But this begs the question, why couldn’t a particular characteristic, like a feather, be a design element that God chose to use in one bird-like kind, but not use in another? Put another way, why must all “birds” have feathers? YECs might point to the fact that all birds have non-functional genes for teeth as evidence that God made a template bird—presumably in his mind before creating the world—that had usable genes for making teeth that He then used to make all “kinds” of animals we identify as birds. Presumably there were a few kinds of birds that used the tooth design template, but those lineages all went extinct even after surviving the trip on Noah’s Ark. The only kinds of birds that survived to the present are the 196 kinds of birds (Avian Kinds according to AiG) in which God de-activated that part (the existence of teeth) of the “bird” template when he created them. The de-activated gene becomes a common feature of may bird kinds creating what some YECs will confess is the appearance of common ancestry for these lineages, however YECs insist that the appearance of common ancestry is actually evidence for common design.
Is the lack of dinosaur DNA evidence in support of a recent global flood and young age of all fossils?
Continuing on in Ken Ham’s blog post we find the standard YEC claim about DNA preservation:
“Will Jurassic Park become a reality? Probably not. DNA is highly complex, and even if some DNA has survived since the flood of Noah’s time, it’s likely far too degraded (even in just a few thousand years) to reconstruct a complete genome.”
The phrase “even if” is a new wrinkle in the typical YEC response to ancient DNA. It’s the first sign I’ve seen that AiG might be hedging against the possible discovery of dinosaur DNA. By why hedge? Why not predict, absolutely, that scientists will recover dinosaur DNA someday? They should be asking themselves, “Why don’t we find dinosaur DNA?” This especially since YECs constantly appeal, however inappropriately (see footnote 1), to amazing soft tissue preservation. YECs should also consider that DNA has been retrieved from the earliest Egyptian Pharaohs more than 3000 years old in conditions that are not conducive to DNA preservation.
If a YEC could find just one bone from any single member of the 100 different “kinds” of dinosaurs and pterosaurs that YECs claim died less than 4500 years ago, they should be able to retrieve some DNA from that bone. This would be a tremendous achievement and would grab headlines all over the world. Would not the ability to extract DNA from an animal believed to have gone extinct over 65 million years ago force scientists to reconsider the “evolutionary timeline” that they currently follow? (see footnote 2)
Ham asserts that DNA is unlikely to have been preserved in Flood deposits because it degrades too quickly, but it is unclear why he believes this. There is an abundance of evidence that contradicts his opinions regarding ancient DNA. Consider that scientists have retrieved ancient DNA from many remains preserved in pre-Ice Age deposits. In the context of the YEC timeline of Earth’s history, these deposits must have been laid down within just a few hundred years of the Flood, and yet they have yielded entire genome sequences! (See references) Why then should Ken Ham believe that recovering DNA from remains that are supposedly a mere 200 years older and laid down during a global flood is impossible? Quite the contrary, YECS should expect, and predict, DNA to be widely preserved in Flood sediments. Hence, they should believe that retrieving at least partial dinosaur DNA is not only possible but highly likely if they truly roamed the earth after a global Flood less than 4350 years ago. After all, YECs are quick to point out the soft tissues have been preserved in many dinosaurs bones so why not DNA?
I have examined the response of YECs to ancient DNA more thoroughly in the article: Where’s the DNA? Young Earth Creationism and the Search for Ancient DNA.
According to Ken Ham why did dinosaurs go extinct?
“Two of every kind of dinosaur were taken on the ark with Noah, and, after the flood, all dinosaurs (as far as we know) eventually died out for the same reasons creatures die out today (lack of resources, shrinking habitat, climate change, humans killing them, and so on).”
This ad hoc explanation has always sounded a bit desperate. Why would nearly one hundred “kinds” of dinosaurs and pterosaurs (and all 78 kinds of Synapsids for that matter!) all have survived a worldwide flood on Noah’s ark only to expire almost immediately after departing the ark? Equally perplexing is that fact that nearly every kind of modern bird (none of which are found in the supposed “Flood” portion of the fossil record) survived after the Flood. The wholesale loss of dozens of kinds, which are not related by common ancestry to one another, doesn’t make sense. Even if YECs are right about rapid extinctions, why did dinosaurs, pterosaurs and synapsids leave no evidence of their short life on Earth after the Flood?
YECs should be enthusiastically scouring the world for these remains in an attempt to find dinosaur DNA. It shouldn’t be hard to find at least one good sample. If humans really did hunt dinosaurs after the Flood, they would certainly have kept their claws, horns and bones as souvenirs and for tools just as humans have collected trophies and other parts from every other animal they have hunted over time. The crazy head-projections of a Pterosaur (see image below) would be such an incredible trophy that it should have been passed down from generation to generation. Wouldn’t those remains, and the DNA found in them, be fantastic evidence that they were alive less than 5000 years ago rather than having died more than 66 million years ago!? Afterall, we have sequenced the genomes of ancient hunters living in Africa (see reference) so if we can sequence the hunters 4000 years ago why can’t we sequence the DNA of the hunted? Actually we have and can (see references) but no dinosaurs are known from ancient hunting sites.
Welcome to Noah’s Park: An adventure 4350 years in the making
The lack of a widely-promoted YEC initiative to find young dinosaur bones and attempt to recover DNA from them is both curious and very telling. After all, what YEC devotee wouldn’t be wildly enthusiastic about donating vast sums of money for a YEC dinosaur DNA project to prove secular science wrong? And yet, they don’t seem to want to invest their considerable assets in projects that truly test the predictions of their own worldview even if a positive result would greatly benefit them. Rather than a replica of a dinosaur on their Ark Encounter theme park attraction, wouldn’t a real dinosaur-bone and DNA evidence exhibit provide the greatest attraction?
Some reference of note on ancient DNA studies:
Mathieson, Iain, Iosif Lazaridis, Nadin Rohland, Swapan Mallick, Nick Patterson, Songül Alpaslan Roodenberg, Eadaoin Harney et al. “Genome-wide patterns of selection in 230 ancient Eurasians.” Nature 528, no. 7583 (2015): 499.
Meyer, Matthias, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, Cesare de Filippo, Sarah Nagel, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Birgit Nickel, Ignacio Martínez et al. “Nuclear DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos hominins.” Nature 531, no. 7595 (2016): 504.
Cole, Theresa L., and Jamie R. Wood. “The ancient DNA revolution: The latest era in unearthing New Zealand’s faunal history.” New Zealand Journal of Zoology 45, no. 2 (2018): 91-120.
Lan, Tianying, and Charlotte Lindqvist. “Paleogenomics: Genome-Scale Analysis of Ancient DNA and Population and Evolutionary Genomic Inferences.” (2018): 1-38.
Mitchell, Kieren J., Agustin Scanferla, Esteban Soibelzon, Ricardo Bonini, Javier Ochoa, and Alan Cooper. “Ancient DNA from the extinct South American giant glyptodont Doedicurus sp.(Xenarthra: Glyptodontidae) reveals that glyptodonts evolved from Eocene armadillos.” Molecular ecology 25, no. 14 (2016): 3499-3508.
Haile, James, Duane G. Froese, Ross DE MacPhee, Richard G. Roberts, Lee J. Arnold, Alberto V. Reyes, Morten Rasmussen et al. “Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 52 (2009): 22352-22357.
Seersholm, Frederik Valeur, Mikkel Winther Pedersen, Martin Jensen Søe, Hussein Shokry, Sarah Siu Tze Mak, Anthony Ruter, Maanasa Raghavan et al. “DNA evidence of bowhead whale exploitation by Greenlandic Paleo-Inuit 4,000 years ago.” Nature Communications 7 (2016): 13389.
Beck, Raymond Kelly. The molecular genetics of prehistoric hunting: Inferring prey population histories with ancient DNA. The University of Utah, 2015.
Haak, Wolfgang, Peter Forster, Barbara Bramanti, Shuichi Matsumura, Guido Brandt, Marc Tänzer, Richard Villems et al. “Ancient DNA from the first European farmers in 7500-year-old Neolithic sites.” Science 310, no. 5750 (2005): 1016-1018.
Footnote 1: Soft tissue preservation is a complex topic but for our purposes here the YEC exaggeration of how well dinosaur bone tissue has been preserved contradicts their approach to ancient DNA. If cells could be so well preserved what reason do they have to believe that pieces of DNA would not also be preserved?
Footnote 2: YECs generally believe that preservation of DNA beyond a few thousand years is impossible and so any DNA found in dinosaurs, or synapsids or pterosaurs for that matter, should confirm the YEC model of earth-history in their minds. However, the maximum lifespan of DNA molecules in the environment is not known and poorly understood. There are some studies that have suggested that meaningful DNA preservation much beyond one million years is unlikely but the science of DNA preservation and retrieval from specimens is still young and it is not know if there might be special situations that allow for DNA to survive for many tens of millions of years under the right conditions.
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