Cladism Goes To The Chair 03: Their Favourite Demons

I’m going to illustrate their mistakes here, starting with Darren Naish – the archetypal poorly-educated yet ‘fact’-spouting, highly-entertaining but barely scientific cladist natural historian – mainly using exchanges between me and him on his blog. Yes I’ve already highlighted the scientific principles that should guide us (see Essential First Post ) but we’ve got to “take it to the street”, identifying and giving the lie to cladism as it is commonly peddled day by day, line by line, lie by lie. During the process we will gradually understand that he and others are merely up against the limits of their training but are fighting to save face for themselves, their peer group and their faith. But no matter how pathetic, they’re still a cancer in science and need removing. I’ll then show how he and his group are characteristic of the whole subculture of vertebrate palaeontology, not just the blogosphere part of it.

But at least as useful as that, we’ll later analyse the peer review episode I investigated when I offered an early version of the material in my imminent book, as a journal paper. Any delusions anyone might have had as to the usefulness, never mind quality assurance of peer review will have a hard job surviving the travesty thereby revealed. It will show how the problem-palaeontologists add, to their own inability to do good science, a determination to prevent anyone else doing it.

Raging against against evidence refuting their theory:

But first, an episode springing from Naish’s suggestion in one of his blog postings, that the feather or leaf-shaped things growing out of the back of the Triassic Longisquama, could not have anything to do with feathers: they weren’t homologous, he insisted, meaning it’s impossible they were inherited, as gliding structures, from a common ancestor that passed plumes of various designs for gliding down to dinobirds as well as Longisquama. (This despite all archosaurs carrying otherwise unexplained traces of such an inheritance on their backs, and the recent
release of a further study on Longisquama suggesting the plumes might or might not be homologous, and not claiming that they’re not.)

Naish dug his grave thus:

“Any discussion of Longisquama just has to include a section on its abuse at the hands of those who would wish it to be potential bird ancestor. I wish it didn’t need to be said again, but there is nothing bird-like at all about this animal, it fundamentally lacks any characters that might make it especially bird-like, those ridiculous structures on its back are not feather-like except in the most gross superficial sense (Reisz & Sues 2000), and the idea that it’s more bird-like than any non-avialan theropod, or even a sauropodomorph or ornithischian, is difficult to appreciate.”

[Everything I say now, I’d already told him at least twice before.]

“…lacks any characters that might make it especially bird-like”

If the plumes are homologous with feathers, then they obviously are relevant to bird ancestry, irrespective of what the rest of the animal looks like. And it doesn’t have to be a bird ancestor – he’s lying by suggesting it does. Homologous plumes simply clash with his theory.

And no evidence comes anywhere near refuting that homology – indeed if they were equivalent to feathers it would explain evidence no other theories explain so well: all sorts of patterned dermal growths on crocs, feathers on birds of course, quills on ornithiscian dinosaurs, patterned armour on animals once known as thecodonts apparently intermediate between dinosaurs and crocs, and even the fur of pterosaurs. (It looks like tortoises were part of it too.)

If the plumes were used for aeronautic purposes then it most certainly does have that bird-like character even if it has nothing else. And if furthermore the plumes were homologous but almost everything else about the animal differs from birds, even certain details of the plume structure, then it simply means the last common ancestor with birds was a long time earlier. And there’s absolutely no evidence against that either. After millions of years of divergence, considerable differences are exactly what you’d expect. Buchwitz & Voigt 2012 make clear, despite feeling obliged to employ considerable equivocation, that the basic root structure they have discovered is entirely consistent with the plumes’ being homologous with feathers.

But there never was any requirement that Longisquama was an ancestor of birds! Just being a significant cousin is enough, but Naish rejects the homology on the grounds of Longisquama itself not being an ancestor.

But these are subtleties. And with Naish we are dealing with someone too impatient to attend carefully to, far less consider, anything remotely complex that threatens to inconvenience his current beliefs. He’d much rather try to stamp on anything he doesn’t understand instantly, which is why he’s had to go into science with nothing more than English ‘A’-level and a third class degree in geology.

He gets full value from his English though! He has to, but too many mistake it for science. His comments are couched in terms of “…abuse…”, “…those who would wish it to be…”, “…ridiculous structures…”, and “gross”. Subsequently of course, he finds it easier to find words to insult any inevitably long list I’ve had to make of his endless errors, than pay attention to correcting them.

Longisquama’s plumes are likely to be early feathers, but Naish would rather eat his own carpet than accept it even as a possibility.

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