The history of the brief life of the Archaeoraptor forgery was reviewed. The claim that the fossil was a dinosaur-bird transitional form consisting of a bird-like body and a dinosaur-like posterior turned out to be a fake. The forgery illustrates some of the difficulties of interpreting the history of life from teeth and bones. It also illustrates how easy it is to fool the authorities, although in this case the forgery was so poorly done that it was exposed within a matter of months.
One of the most recent forgeries used to prove evolution is that of Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, commonly called Archaeoraptor. Dubbed the evolutionary find of the century, it purportedly proved that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. The find was first announced in October 1998 at a press conference at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The announcers included paleontologist Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller’ Alberta; Stephen Czerkas of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah; and Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
The first documentation about the Archaeoraptor find was published in a full-color, well-illustrated feature article in the November 1999 issue of The National Geographic Magazine. The article touted it as “a missing link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could fly” (Sloan, 1999, pp. 99). Rowe et al., wrote that the
Archaeoraptor fossil was announced as a “missing link” and [was] purported to be possibly the best evidence since Archaeopteryx that birds did, in fact, evolve from certain types of carnivorous dinosaur[s]. It reportedly came from Early Cretaceous beds of China that have produced other spectacular fossils transitional between birds and extinct non-avian dinosaurs (2001, p. 539).
The find, “once proclaimed as a key intermediate between carnivorous dinosaurs and birds,” turned out to be a Piltdown man forgery story all over again (Zhou, Clarke, and Zhang, 2002, p. 285; Bergman, 2003, 2006). It is part of what some now consider an epidemic of fraud in science, especially in the area of evolution (Feder, 2006: Chang, 2002; Rowe et al., 2001).
The fossil was discovered in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China, the location of many new putative feathered dinosaur species. The National Geographic Society “trumpeted the fossil’s discovery … as providing a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds” (Simons, 2000, p. 128). The turkey sized Archaeoraptor was also used by certain prominent paleontologists to prove that birds evolved from dinosaurs and provided a “long-sought key to a mystery of evolution” (Simons, 2000, p. 128).
The “missing link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could actually fly” which had the “arms of a primitive bird and the tail of a dinosaur” was touted as a “true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds” (Sloan, 1999, p. 100). The “true missing link” soon “soared off in a burst of media fame” (Chin, 2000, p. 2221).
Suspicions Arise Early
The fossil caused no small sensation. Nature reported that as a result of the find the “palaeontology community has been rocked by a Chinese ‘bird’ fossil that may be a new species” (Dalton, 2000a, p. 689). The importance of the fossil was indicated by the 1.6 million dollar price set on it by the insurer because the experts judged it as “an important link in dinosaur and bird evolution” (Dalton, 2000a, p. 689). Nonetheless, suspicions about the fossil arose early. Monastersky wrote that
Red-faced and downhearted, paleontologists are growing convinced that they have been snookered by a bit of fossil fakery from China. The “feathered dinosaur” specimen that they recently unveiled to much fanfare apparently combines the tail of a dinosaur with the body of a bird (2000, p. 38).
The paleontologists had doubts because of “the concerns about the tail” due to the fact that the bones connecting it to the body are missing and the slab showed signs of reworking. The dinosaur-bird evolution supporters had convinced themselves, however, that the two parts belonged together as part of one animal until they could no longer deny the overwhelming evidence against this conclusion (Monastersky, 2000, p. 38).
Xu Xing evaluated the fossil and found a “strong resemblance” between the rear half of an unnamed dinosaur and the Archaeorapter (Grant, 2007, p. 78). High-resolution computed X-ray tomography evaluations confirmed Xing’s evaluation. He now had clear evidence that the fossil consisted of two “unmatched pieces, skillfully pasted over” (Simons, 2000, p. 130). The body has now been identified as that of the fossilized fish-eating bird called Yanornis martini and the tail as that of the small winged dromaeosaur Microraptor zhaoianus (Zhou, Clarke, and Zhang, 2002, p. 285). M. zhaoianus was a medium-to-large sized animal—all known specimens of M. zhaoianus are larger then Archaeopteryx except a recently discovered example (Xu, Zhou, and Wang, 2000, p. 705).
The forgery was not skillfully done but was “put together badly and deceptively” by, it appeared, amateurs (Simons, 2000, p. 130). When carefully examined by X-ray tomography “it took about five minutes” to determine that the fossil had been faked (Dalton, 2000b). In the end the whole story involved “zealots and cranks,” “rampant egos clashing,” “misplaced confidence,” and “wishful thinking” (Simons, 2000, p. 128). Simons adds that this is a story in which not one of those involved was entirely innocent (2000, p. 128).
Even the original article noted that the bird section was part of a bird more advanced than Archaeopteryx, the “earliest known bird,” but the tail was “strikingly similar to the stiff tails of a family of predatory dinosaurs called dromaeosaurs.” Before the forgery’s exposure the scientist supporters rationalized these major contradictions by claiming that this “mix of advanced and primitive features is exactly what scientists would expect to find in dinosaurs experimenting with flight” As Chin notes, “none of these problems sank in at the National Geographic” and so they printed their story (2000, p. 2221). This is one more example of evolution misleading research, resulting in incorrect conclusions, which is exactly what happened in the Piltdown fiasco.
Paleontologist Philip Currie, a leader of the dinosaur-to-bird evolution theory and a member of the National Geographic Scientific team that supported the validity of the find, said “this embarrassment will follow me the rest of my life” (Friend, 2000, p. 2A). The editor of the National Geographic Magazine claimed that the Archaeoraptor article was “reviewed by six leading paleontologists” and the staff worked on the story “for a full year” to insure accuracy and high standards of both facts and presentation (Allen, 2000, p. 541). None of these six experts detected the hoax.
In the end, the Archaeorapter fiasco was “a disaster for science” (Dalton, 2000a, p. 690). In a field based on little empirical evidence, many assumptions, and strong personalities, the Archaeoraptor affair was not surprising. It also illustrates the conflicts historically common among scientists in the paleontology field (Chang, 2002). The unprofessional, at times even fraudulent, behavior of the leading participants in this case is far from what one would expect from highly trained professionals. Holden concluded that a problem in paleontology is the fact that this field naturally excites much interest because of our curiosity about the origins of life, and
because conclusions of emotional significance to many must be drawn from extremely paltry evidence, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the scientific in disputes raging within the field. … The primary scientific evidence is a pitifully small array of bones … One anthropologist has compared the task to that of reconstructing the plot of War and Peace with 13 randomly selected pages. Conflicts tend to last longer [than in other fields] because it is so difficult to find conclusive evidence to send a theory packing (1981, p. 737).
The fact is, paleontology is an “unexacting kind of science” (Medawar, quoted in Hill, 1986, p. 209). Tattersall and Schwartz have even questioned if paleoanthropology is a hard science. And, although the whole field of paleontology field is more sophisticated today, the fact remains that “modern as the undertaking has become, it continues to be riddled with controversies and dominated by personalities” (Holden, 1981, p. 737). The unmasking of forgeries and new research is forcing so many revisions in the evolution field that a Time magazine senior science editor wrote that, as a former science teacher, many facts he believed to be true in evolution have been found out to be false. He later reminisced that “just about everything” he taught his students in this area has turned out to be wrong (quoted in Headland, 1997, p. 605). This is not the first major forgery used to prove evolution, nor will it be the last (Chin, 2000). Nor is evolutionary biology the only scientific discipline where fraud is a problem. The related area of archaeology, which shares several features with that of paleontology, has had its share of fraud as well (Feder, 2006). Nonetheless, much progress has been made in these fields in the last century by many dedicated researchers.
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