[Editor’s note: In June 1990 The
John Ankerberg Show taped a series of interviews with men from several
branches of the sciences regarding the evidence for creation. For
technical reasons we were unable to air these interview. Nevertheless,
we have decided to release portions of these interviews in a series of
articles so you could read the arguments that were being made at that
time—more than a decade ago.
Considerable effort has been made to quote the
gentlemen correctly. We have attempted to find the correct spelling of
the scientific terms used. However, the reader should keep in mind
that this is a transcription of oral interviews. Mistakes in spelling
and in the technical language should be laid at the feet of the
Dr. John Ankerberg: Dave,
you have done research into feathers. What did you find?
Dr. David Menton: I have a
sort of hobby and a layman’s interest in feathers, and indeed, in
birds in general. It may come as a surprise to a lot of people that
birds have, in fact, left a rather reasonable fossil record. Now,
we’re not just talking about archaeopteryx that is speculated to be
the first bird. Some would argue that there are even substantially
older birds found in the record. However, that’s debated.
In any event, it may come as a surprise that the
birds have left a fossil record. I understand that there is something
well in excess of 8,000 species of birds in existence today, and that
approximately 2,000 species of birds have been found in the fossil
record. Now this may be just a fragment of a bone, it may be an egg,
or a portion of an eggshell, it could be a single feather, but
nonetheless approximately 2,000 species of birds are there.
Usually fossils are skeletal parts. These are the
hardest parts and I guess the reason it’s surprising to find so many
bird fossils is that the bird skeleton is very light. It’s a very
unique skeleton in that respect. The skeleton, indeed the whole bird
appears to be an animal that has been formed to fly. To give you an
idea how light the skeleton can be in a bird, the frigate bird, which
has a 7-foot wingspan, has a skeleton that weighs the grand total of 5
ounces. This is less than the feathers of the bird would weigh.
Now, evolutionists perhaps are as confident
regarding the origin of birds and by implication of the origin of
feathers, which I really want to focus on, as they are about anything.
They’re quite confident that birds evolved 150 million years ago in
the Jurassic. There is some difference regarding what particular
reptile they may have evolved from. The Pygopodid reptiles rank high
in that category. And because there’s a great deal of confidence that
birds evolved from reptiles, there is then by implication confidence
that the feathers of a bird evolved from the scales of the reptile,
both being, as it were, cutaneous appendages. This has led, I think,
evolutionists to be somewhat less than objective, at least some of
them, regarding the assumed relationship of feathers and reptilian
scales. They have emphasized that the two are not very different.
Let me give you a specific example. Gerhard Heilmann
in his classic work called The Origin of Birds, said, "The most
striking peculiarity of birds is their plumage, which apparently has
nothing to do at all in common with the scaly covering of reptiles. So
much more surprising is it on examining these expressants
microscopically, to learn that the feather is nothing but a further
development of the scale." Indeed, he said that the feather may be
considered a cylindrical, fringed scale. This has led to a great deal
of speculation of how a scale could perhaps get longer and become
frayed and eventually form a feather.
I would ask the readers to look at the evidence for
a fossil bird to see the evidence for feathers in the earliest known
bird, according to evolutionary views, and decide for themselves
whether, in fact, there is an evolutionary precursor for the
feather—and I submit there is none—and whether reptilian scales, at
least as they exist today, and bird feathers as they certainly existed
in archaeopteryx, are, as Heilmann says, not very different.
According to some evolutionists, archaeopteryx would
be the world’s first bird, approximately 150 million years old. There
are six or seven fossils identified as archaeopteryx. Some of the
fossils are just merely feathers. Two have particularly good skeletal
component as well as feathers.
A distinctive feature of birds is the wishbone, as
everybody knows who has broken a wishbone at Thanksgiving dinner. And
archaeopteryx, like other birds, does have a wishbone. And as far as I
know this is unique to birds. It’s a fused collarbone, and the fused
collarbone helps to support the shoulder girdle in flight. Immense
forces are brought to bear on the shoulder in flight.
The important thing about the archaeopteryx fossil
is that we can see feathers. We see feathers in the wing, feathers in
the tail, and in fact, there’s evidence that there are even small
contour feathers on the head, even though archaeopteryx is often shown
with a scaly head, trying to emphasize its similarity to reptiles.
The feather of a bird has a shaft running down the
center. It has a feather vane on either side, and this vane is made up
of approximately 400-600 barbs that hook together to give the feather
its sort of airplane wing shape.
Feathers are essential for avian flight. They are
under control of muscles so that they can be tilted in flight to
increase lift, they can open and close rather like Venetian blinds in
flapping flight, so that on the upstroke wind can be allowed to pass
through the feathers of the wing and on the down stroke the Venetian
blinds can close as it were and give a power stroke in flapping
As I say, feathers are unique to birds. They are not
found among reptiles, certainly not among living reptiles. And the
question is, are they similar to the reptilian scales? I submit that
they are not similar in any sense of the word.
If you look at a feather under a scanning electron
micrograph, you will see a shaft running upward through the middle of
the feather, the vane on either side, and the barbs, which comprise
the vane of the feather. Each of these barbs, if it were removed,
would look like a small feather in its own right.
When one looks at a reptilian scale, one does not
notice an obvious similarity between feathers and reptilian scales.
Indeed, developmentally (that is, not in an evolutionary sense, but in
terms of embryologic development and in terms of the development of
the adult as the scales are shed or as the feathers are shed), there
is no similarity in the developmental pattern of a feather and a
A feather grows out of a follicle, much as a hair
grows out of a follicle, whereas a scale is a more like a fold, a
full-thickness fold, in the surface of the skin and is not a
If you look at a scale from below, you will see that
it looks like a little coin purse, or a flap. This is why we say that
the scale is really a fold in the skin and not a structure that grows
out of the tube-like follicle, as does the feather and the hair. There
are scales that are pointed on the end, but there are no scales that
we know of that have anything resembling barbs, making up something
like a feather-vane.
There are really three different types of feathers.
First, we have the so-called contour feather, which is the principle
feather of the bird. You find it on the wings and on the body. Then we
have the down-feather, which looks kind of like a ball of fuzz. The
down-feather comprises an under-plumage of the bird that serves for
insulation. And finally, we have a very fine feather called the
filoplume. These are small hair-like feathers. If you’ve plucked a
chicken, you’ve probably noticed the little hairs protruding from the
skin and these particular feathers are believed to be proprioreceptors.
That is, because the individual feathers are movable, particularly the
flight feathers in the wing, you need a way for the bird to know what
position the feathers are in at any given time as they’re tilted, to
produce slot-like effects. And the presence of the filoplume
apparently gives some feedback to the nervous system of the bird
regarding the status of its feathers.
Let’s look at the feather in more detail. The
down-feather has a shaft similar to the contour feather. However,
instead of having a flat vane on either side of the shaft, the
individual barbs are separate from one another and are not hooked
together to form an airfoil.
Next, the contour feather. If we were to remove
individual barbs we would see that each barb of a vane looks like a
microscopic feather in its own right. Indeed, each of these barbs has
approximately 800 barbules, which are like miniature barbs, that
protrude both anteriorally toward the tip of the feather and
posteriorally toward the base of the feather. It is these barbules
that interlock with a Velcro-like hook mechanism that hooks the
Anyone who has taken a feather knows that you can
pull a vane apart, and by stroking the feather—and birds do the same
sort of stroking with their beak—you can cause a torn feather to
rehook or reattach. So it is the presence of approximately 20 tiny,
little hooks sometimes called barbicels, on each barb that locks the
barbs together to form the vane.
If we pull this feather apart so we can look down
inside a little more, we can see the barbs crossing one another, and
we see the individual hooks, which look like a little cane protruding.
These hooks attach to a little trough that runs along the so-called
posterior barb and the radius of curvature of the hook just precisely
fits the radius of curvature of the little trough that it needs to
hook to. So it is approximately 700 billion barbicels that are on the
whole bird that need to be hooked in place to hold the feathers
together. And as I say, this is a rather Velcro-like arrangement that
allows a very light and yet very strong structure that we call a
I might point out that the entire feather structure
is dead, just like a hair, and that it is full of a product called
keratin, which of course occurs in human skin and hair as well. And so
the cell started out alive but gorged itself with keratin, went
through a program cell death, so that when the feather emerges from
the skin, like a hair it is a entirely dead structure. It’s like
building a ship in a bottle.
The feather grows out of a "tube," rather like
squeezing toothpaste out of a tube except, as the toothpaste emerges
it hardens, because it dies. The keratin becomes very substantial and
strong. The feather emerges from the skin, although down in this
tube-like follicle, all of the components of the feather develop from
Down at the bottom of this tube that we call the
feather follicle in the skin, is a ring of cells that grows not only
the shaft along one side, but the barbs as well. And this is all
rolled into a tube much like a mailing tube. The shaft of the feather
runs down one side; there is the growth zone along the base; and the
individual barbs are protruding at a steep angle on both sides. The
entire structure is rolled into a cylinder and meets on the other
The feather then grows out of the skin looking like
a thick hair. A shell breaks off the surface of the feather, the
cylinder opens up and the individual barbs all hinge down, thus
substantially increasing the width of the feather.
It’s in this sense that I say making a feather down
inside of a follicle is like a rather extreme case of building a ship
in a bottle, then pulling the ship out of the bottle and having all
the rigging finally stand up and everything lock into place. Usually,
we build the ship outside the bottle and then put it in. All of this
is produced, as I say, from living cells, which go through programmed
cell death to form a feather.
Nothing remotely like any of this occurs in the
reptilian scale. There is no development similarity whatsoever. The
only thing we can say that the two would share in common at all is
that both are made out of a protein or actually a large family of
proteins that we call keratins.
There is no evidence of a pre-feather. Archaeopteryx
comes packaged with perfectly modern type feathers. The material in
which the fossil has been formed in the case of archaeopteryx, is of
such fine grain that it has allowed us to actually see the detail down
to the level of the barbs and hooks. And all of this suggests then,
that archaeopteryx had a feather structure that was not significantly
different from that of modern birds.
More importantly, the feather that exists on
archaeopteryx, particularly in its wings, is the type of feather that
we associate with flying birds. That is, it is an asymmetric feather
vane, one vane is narrower than the other. In birds that do not fly,
but hop along the ground, such as the chicken, the two vanes of the
feather are approximately equal. But in the flight feathers of the
birds that are powerful fliers, one vane on the wing feather would be
much narrower than the other vane.
This is the type of feather that we see in the wing
of archaeopteryx. All of which is consistent with the idea that
archaeopteryx was a bird. It had a wishbone, or fused collarbones,
like a bird, and does not then represent an intermediate form between
reptiles and birds. Rather, it is an interesting bird that is extinct
and bears features we no longer see in modern birds, although the
digits on the hand of the wing is seen in some modern birds.
All of this is consistent, I believe, with the
creationist point of view that birds, like bats and many other
organisms, appear suddenly in the fossil record without known
ancestral forms. This certainly is true of feathers.
I mentioned, I think, that there are some scales
that do have a little ridge on their surface, that is instead of being
discoid, there would be a little dorsal ridge. Sometimes this ridge
protrudes as a point. But it requires a great deal of
credulity—certainly much more than I have—to believe that this scale
can be gradually transformed by increasing its length beyond that
which we see in reptiles into an ever longer keratinized form and that
this rod-like structure protruding from a scale could then develop
lateral rods that would form the barbs of the feather and that these
barbs could form hooks. Certainly nothing even closely approximates
that structure on modern reptiles or fossilized reptiles.
The feather and the scale are greatly dissimilar
structures, but the feather and the hair are similar in many important
respects. Now, why don’t the evolutionists focus on this fact? That,
for example, the feather grows out a tube-like follicle in the skin,
the hair grows out of a tube-like follicle in the skin. All of the
growth matrix where the cells are dividing in the feather is confined
to a little dermal papilla down at the bottom of the feather and the
same is true of the hair.
This is not emphasized, however, because nobody is
suggesting that birds and mammals have an evolutionary relationship.
Evolutionists do not believe that birds evolved from mammals or that
mammals evolved from birds. Yet, I believe, that if one wished to
speculate, you could make a stronger case for a presumed evolutionary
relationship of feathers and hair follicles, than you could for
feathers and reptilian scales. This is not done because it does not
fit the current scenario. I believe that when one looks in detail at
the so-called transitional forms, you’re going to find similar
problems to this in other fossils as well—that the argument does not
stand up to a detailed criticism.