Yi qi Solved. Gee and Padian Judged.

What happens if you can’t deal with scientific novelty, but you’re paid to pretend you can… and then a big lump drops on you?

At the end we’ll see what Henry Gee and Kevin Padian managed to do, without their making much recourse to real science, but first let’s see how much we can resolve for ourselves of this “half-bird-half-bat” discovery*:

After saying that, we’d better do some science! Science is Explaining, so let’s try and explain…

1: …What that big bizarre spike is, sticking out of each wing,

2: …How Yi qi behaved, especially how it used the spikes, and,

3: …How it was related to other dinobirds.

1) The Spikes – What Were They?

We suspect from the overall shape of the animal – very long spindly arms and hands – that it was habitually airborne. The tail is very suggestive of aeronautics too (except we haven’t found the tail… but when we do, it will be very suggestive I’m sure 🙂 ). Yi qi also resembles close and more distant relatives that we also suspect of being airborne, and like them it also has big feathers, or rather “feathers”. But those plumes are not of modern design, with interlocking automatic “zips” holding the fibres of the feather together into a blade shape, which first appeared in Archaeopteryx Archaeopteryx‘ ancestor Anchiornis (actually, I expect Xiaotingia had the zips too – and the blade shape, lost in Yi, originated in the Permian). The feathers seem to have a stalk, where parallel fibres are stuck together, but once the fibres gradually diverge from that stalk they are on their own.

Spikes of that general nature are seen in bats, gliding mammals of today and yesteryear, and pterosaurs. They support stretched skin used as part of a wing, though they’re not usually that long. The authors not only deduce the presence of a gliding membrane but claim to see it, as dark wrinkles between the bones and alongside the feather fibres. I don’t know what fossilised non-pterosaur wing-membrane looks like, and I haven’t had as good a look at the fossil as they have, but I don’t doubt there was some wing membrane somewhere there, since nothing else I can imagine Explains the wing spikes.

From the Xu et al. 2015 paper.

From the Xu et al. 2015 paper.

2) The Spikes – How did they work?

They obviously stuck out behind the arm. Oh, wait: pterosaur spikes were ahead of the wing, within its plane but probably pointing in towards the body. You can just see one in wing ‘f’ in their wing-shape gallery (see below), inboard from the wrist, along the leading edge. (In pterosaurs they were sharply pointed; I think that means they didn’t point directly forwards and support the leading edge.) But Yi qi‘s spikes were very long, and if they pointed in any way forwards, the wing area, and especially the spot where its average force of lift ‘applied’, would be very far forwards. Also, long forward-pointing spikes in a wing do not appeal; you need firmness at the front of a wing, for one reason because if the front edge tilts up (or down) the air-stream will work to increase the tilt, making flight more challenging. Something hard or tightly tensioned near and parallel to or at the front of the wing needs to help prevent flimsiness at all points at the front, which doesn’t fit well with a long forward spike.

Yi qi’s possible wing layouts. My S option amidst Xu et al’s (2015) gallery.

Yi qi’s possible wing layouts. My S option amidst Xu et al’s (2015) gallery.

So they pointed backwards… or maybe backwards and inwards/outwards. The authors consider and depict both. But in their configuration ‘b’, the spike neither helps extend the wing’s width or breadth. But by pointing back or out, it could give the same membrane area as ‘b’ but using a shorter spike. So we reject ‘b’. In any case, when a configuration-“b”-style wing was folded up (which it surely could have been though it never seems to be shown like this), the skin near the tip of the spike would have been enormously overstretched. As shown in the ‘b’ image, the skin distance from spike tip to shoulder joint is a smidgeon over half the length of the humerus. When the elbow is folded up so that the humerus becomes parallel to the radius/ulna, imagine what the skin distance from spike tip to shoulder joint extends to: the full length of the humerus plus the length by which the spike exceeds the radius/ulna. Remember that in flight it was already supposed to be fairly tight so it couldn’t be asked to stretch (when at rest!) by a further 150%. We can therefore eliminate ‘b’.

Now we come to much of the meat of this posting: We Can Also Reject ‘a’. There wasn’t membrane on both sides of the spike.

This creature had very small bulges, or actually flanges, at the base of its humerus near the shoulder, for down-flap muscles to attach to. For this reason I don’t think it could flap well, if at all. You may point out that a number of flappers also seem to lack those bulges yet can flap well enough: for example the bat, bird and pterosaur in images d, e and f. But… I don’t think e is an ideal example of a strong-flapping bird (even though chicken and roadrunner humerus heads don’t have much of a flange), and bats and pterosaurs won’t necessarily attach the muscle(s) to a flange in the same way as dinobirds tend to. Anyway, the style of Yi qi‘s feathers don’t seem well suited to efficient thrust generation. They must have provided enough ‘glidachutability’ otherwise the group wouldn’t have left four fossils; nonetheless most agree Yi qi couldn’t flap.

This means it had to climb trees using its hand claws. The fingers must have pointed up the tree when pulling itself up but it wasn’t just the front, shortest finger claw that did the pulling up since that digit’s robustness doesn’t indicate to me it was the main one used for this purpose. Of course, for pulling, most if not all of the force involved would be tension sustained by the flexing tendon – and actually the front finger (they call it finger 2) as seen on the right of the fossil (its left hand) does seem to be bigger than the other claws visible on the other side. I expect the authors are right to attribute the finger bones on the left of the fossil (its right hand) to the middle and long fingers.

But did it pull itself up with claws II and III and point claw IV back down the tree? Or maybe digit II pointed up and did all the pulling on its own and the other two pointed down? I don’t think digit II was accustomed to doing it all on its own since it doesn’t look robust enough. I don’t think II and III did the pulling and IV pointed back down, because III doesn’t look able to diverge enough from IV. A good example of the structure it does not resemble, but which it would have to if the outer wing pointed down when climbing, is something like that seen in Confuciusornis. (What exactly Confuciusornis was doing with those massive first claws, ghod only knows. It certainly didn’t need them to get up into trees. Underwater fishing? Only joking! Or am I ?!)

From the original Hou et al reporting of Confuciusornis, via click for source.

From the original Hou et al reporting of Confuciusornis,
via click for source.

I think Yi pulled itself up trees (some conifers but a lot of palm-tree shaped trees in the Jurassic, so maybe they clung to trunks more than perching on branches) using any or all of its three finger claws (just as dromaeosaurs pulled on their prey with potentially any of all three fingers, with any primary feathers pointing forwards so bravely oh), so all three fingers pointed up the tree trunk. But if the spike had membrane outboard spanning to a finger, and also membrane inboard, then with the long finger IV pointing up, the spike would inevitably stick out at near right-angles to the arm (remember, ‘b’ is impossible). This would be hopelessly inconvenient, and not only would the spike get caught in projections from the tree, but so would any outer membrane leading to the fingers. The only way to avoid this would be if the spike was forced to point downwards when climbing, requiring any outer membrane to be extra stretched to something like twice its width while deployed in flight. Unbelievable.

Also, I doubt if digits supporting flight membrane to near their ends ever have big “****-off” claws on their ends; if there is a claw, there’s always a couple of finger joints between it and the membrane. This does seem to be a strict rule amongst membrane aeronauts. And in other animals these spikes don’t seem to have membranes on both sides of them. If the long finger had membrane down most of its length, that would stop it being used as a grub-winkler à la aye-aye. (But it never was anyway, not even with Epidendrosaurus/Scansoriopteryx. It couldn’t be, with feathers out to near the end, which they had.)

Other gliders usually have the membrane only on the inboard side of these spikes, and although some aeronautic benefit might be argued to be greater if the membrane were outboard, for any fixed area the leverage on the arms would be more handleable if the wing surface were inboard. And for much the same cost (in spike, and leverage at the shoulder) Yi could get more area inboard of its spike. (It needed more quality wing area than the others in its family because at pigeon-sized, it was bigger than them; just scaling up increases wing loading.)

Instead, I suggest the fingers of Yi supported feathers (of inferior design) as with Epidendrosaurus and Epidexipteryx. The spike pointed backwards or even outwards to some extent (c.f. the giant flying squirrel depicted as ‘g’). As in that example, I’ve given Yi‘s spike a terminal increased curve, which I’ve envisaged as cartilage, and which would take it slightly backwards/inboard. Note though, pterosaurs got by without such a gentle ending to their wing, so maybe Yi qi left it sharp too. This configuration would reverse the overall curve of the preserved spike in all examples the authors offer, to outwardly-convex. Indeed, in the fossil, the best example of the hand (which is on the right side of the fossil – the left hand), the spike does curve away from the finger. The spike on the other side is from a hand so jumbled that no relative positionings can be considered reliable.

It would have been useful if there were some mechanism whereby extending the wing sideways and tightening the propatagium, extended the spike out sideways. This would be an extension of the standard dinobird ‘hand parallel to humerus’ extension mechanism described by Greg Paul e.g. in PDW. If the ligaments/tendons were cunningly enough attached, the spike would not necessarily be extended when the arm was fully extended forwards (e.g. when climbing up a tree): if the inboard end of the propatagium ligament were attached a little way forward of the shoulder joint. Although the example gallery images don’t show any shoulder bones significantly forward of Yi qi‘s most proximal part of the humerus, the images in Padian’s comment on p41 show some decent potential anchor points on the coracoid or the front of the scapula.

However, the authors suggest there are traces of membrane between the fingers. Actually, the good hand, (on the right as we look) doesn’t show it (though that itself doesn’t mean it wasn’t there or even might still lurk there within the fossil); only the jumbled other hand does. Assuming the wrinkled traces actually are membrane, there is even some adjacent to the claw (on the left as we look) which was clearly not a true-life juxtaposition. In any case, if all those yellow arrow heads in the panel ‘f’ to the right of the “paintbrush feather” image, do rightly indicate membrane, then it must have been rather large – too large in the fossil, I would suggest, to show a shrunken, wrinkled, out-board-only membrane, in an area where most of the bones are not nicely laid out as on a neatly spread tablecloth.

I’ll leave it to others to guess what the membrane attached to at the inboard margin.

The question remains, what were all the huge feathers apparent in the fossil, doing? There must have been some on the forelimbs, unless they all came from the legs. If some sprouted from the hand/fingers as I suggest, they would appear likely to interfere with airflow to the outer portion of the membrane – unless this undesirability implies there was little or no membrane in the air-stream trailing the finger-feathers. On the other hand, could some large feathers have sprouted from the arm? It seems pretty clear that at the very least the humerus had them. In that case they would seem to be in danger of interfering with the membrane airflow there, but maybe it wasn’t a problem. Its relatives clearly did glide on such feathers, and if they worked at least a bit on their own, then why shouldn’t they also work in conjunction with a membrane. In my depiction labelled ‘S’ in the middle of a slightly new gallery, the dark turquoise (and why not? I don’t often use it! 🙂 ) plumes don’t necessarily show the full extent in life. I consider the extra width I’ve given to Yi‘s propatagium (in front of the elbow) more realistic.

As a name for the spike, the authors use “styliform element” (six syllables). Jaime Headdon tells us this was already in use for, e.g. the spike inboard of bats’ ankles. Gee, in his commentary, doesn’t mention that term but calls it a strut instead. Strut’s not bad especially in a wing, but it suggests to me attachment to something firm at both ends. I would suggest, if you were going to say “styliform…”, you might as well just say “stylus” and have done with it. I’ve used Spike here but I think in some ways Prong is better, but neither is from Latin, and superficial aura is so vital to many palaeontologists isn’t it…

(I’ve just noticed that the species name for Epidendrosaurus: ninchengensis, was re-used for Epidexipteryx! Oh well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it 🙂 . And it does make things easier to remember.)

3) Yi qi‘s relations with other dinobirds and their feathers.

Yi‘s feathers looked like this:

from Xu et al. 2015

from Xu et al. 2015

and some of its relative Epidexipteryx‘ feathers looked like… [see yellow and blue pic below.]

As mentioned above, this branch of dinobirds seem to have stepped off the ‘blade-shaped plumes’ path. Yi qi and all its relatives are usually considered Jurassic but by the Cretaceous all aeronauting dinobirds seem to have had modern feathers. Back in the Triassic, Longisquama had blade-shaped plumes, but they weren’t fibrous – they seem to have been like flattened balloons with a seam down the middle. Protoavis had feathers at least on its hands, and the drepanosaurs, e.g. Megalancosaurus, must have had plumes down the back but the detailed revelations have yet to arrive.

Epidexipteryx feather. Click for Zhang et al. 2008.

Epidexipteryx feather. Click for Zhang et al. 2008.

So the Jurassic had paint-brush-shaped (Yi qi and friends), and blade-shaped (Archaeopteryx/Anchiornis) types. Did the first evolve into the second? We have the isolated Praeornis feathers, with a coalesced strip down the middle, and a fringe of fibres sticking out on one side, and one on the other side… but then a third fringe overlapping the first fringe on just one side! Is that an intermediate form?

However, we also have all those dinosaurs from the other side of the dinobird tree, almost all vegetarian and quadrupedal, the most spectacular of which is surely Kulindadromeus. It has: some very thin fibres 1/5 of a millimetre wide; some things that look like hairy cornflakes with a scale base and a handful of fibres growing out of it; some impressive though thin armour plating on its tail; and the to-be-expected chicken-foot scales mainly on its lower legs. There are also ribbons of parallelly appressed fibres, a basically similar structure to the “flight feathers” of Yi qi.

Did Kulindadromeus have any blade-shaped feathers? I thought I saw a bunch of stuff that looked like it might be, but having spent a whole afternoon perusing it, I suppose it could be anything. One thing Godefroit et al.’s Kulindadromeus paper (Science 345, 451–455 (2014) ) did was blow that whole silly Prum feather category sequence out of the water, even for people who took it seriously in the first place, and another one I wasn’t familiar with:

“However, except for our monofilaments (which correspond well to Type 1 in Xu et al.), we could not assign with confidence the other two feather morphotypes in Kulindadromeus to categories described by Prum et al. or Xu et al. Further, fundamental discrepancies between these two previously published nomenclature systems remain to be resolved. Thus we felt that until new fossil material and a synthesis of existing nomenclature systems are available, interpretations of direct homologies between complex feather-types in Kulindadromeus and in Prum et al. or Xu et al. would be premature.”

The big question right now is not whether there was a common ancestor with plumes of some kind, of all dinosaurs and birds (there obviously was, and a long sequence of them, some ancestral to all archosaurs), but did Yi qi‘s feathers evolve into Archaeopteryx‘? I suspect they didn’t. First of all, the blade shape of modern feathers (like Ax.’) is hard to evolve from parallel fibres, as I explain in the book; second, because the triple-flanged Praeornis feather also looks hard to evolve from parallel fibres; and thirdly, most aeronautic dinobird lineages at the end of the Jurassic ended up with, I suspect, short tails (though Epidendrosaurus‘ is still long). (The exception, though the most successful one, led to Archaeopteryx and beyond.) Did something just prior to Xiaotingia evolve modern feathers and split into the Confuciusornis/Sapeornis etc lineage (starting with Xiaotingia)… and the other side then split into enant birds and the Anchiornis/Archaeopteryx/troodonts/dromaeosurs/ovis/moderns lineage? For some reason, Xiaotingia‘s head shape seems to make a remarkably similar bridge to that of Anchiornis, all the way back from Protoavis (remember the feather bumps on its arms) in the Triassic. (And no, Protoavis can’t be a chimera because it would have to be two different-sized chimerae of the same three animals, all three suitable sizes and with no clashes with the bones selected from each. Do the stats!) And of course, Xiaotingia has the long tail, as with Anchiornis/Archaeopteryx.

The other thing is the longest finger: rear of course in Yi qi & co., and middle from Xiaotingia on. One assumes this changed with modern feathers, because they allowed harder downstrokes, leading to arm-twisting better handled by the main wing support being the middle finger. Note, Epidexipteryx‘ longest two fingers are quite close in length.

We have so many categories of feathers, and so few examples of them from 150-190-280 million years ago. If only I were the type to say “We Need More Fossils”… :-S . I’ve a feeling Yi qi split from the line to modern birds a long, long way back into the Jurassic, but that might not be right.

Incidentally, if the claws are II, III and IV as the authors suggest, thought to be the formula in modern birds, I presume they also consider the first “theropods” with 3 hand fingers to be I, II and III. Probably they favour the sudden mutation view where the favoured embryonic finger buds shifted along one, which is one solution, but another is the reduction of five or four original fingers down to three, in two separate lineages. We may also have Yi qi‘s lot, and the lineages leading to dinobirds with modern feather structures, in two separate lineages…

So much for dinobirds. Now some problematic humans…

4: Padian on Yi qi

Kevin Padian was asked to write the News And Views piece (pp40-41) on the Xu et al. (2015) announcement of Yi qi in the same edition of Nature.

Sentence 1:

“When the first dinosaurs with feathers or feather-like structures were brought to light by Chinese scientists in the mid 1990s, they cemented the hypothesis of the dinosaurian origin of birds and provided spectacular evidence about the origin of flight and the primordial functions of feathers.”

Translation:

“Although I had argued fiercely against dinosaurs being feathered, and ridiculed Greg Paul and Robert Bakker for saying it in the 1980s, my mob not only pretended that never happened, but even managed to turn the potential disaster of feathered dinosaur fossils into a PR triumph by demonstrating that birds and dinos must be related. Feduccia et al. had said they weren’t, and this clashed with our claim that birds came from dinosaurs, so proof of feathered similarity showed Feduccia was wrong. But even though this showed only one of the three possibilities of: ‘dinos from birds; birds from dinos; or neither from either’, was wrong, we pretended killing that third one left only our own favourite alive (even though Paul advocated feathers partly because he thought some dinos came from birds!). And we’re still getting away with it because no-one in science journalism or other media has ever had the moral or scientific integrity to stand up and denounce this obvious piece of blatant nonsense as unacceptable pseudoscience. And the power of cladist groupism to convince, recruit and bully the weak-minded remains so powerful we could build on this to pretend also that feathered similarity was better explained by the view that dinosaurs turned into birds by running along flapping their arms, whose miraculously aerodynamic feathers had already evolved for something else.”

On the spike:

“Further analysis of this structure and the rest of the body related to it – such as whether the tail created lift or drag – will require other discoveries.”

Something a bit odd there? The tail might have created lift OR it might have created drag?? A simple slip of expression? It’s almost as if he doesn’t realise that wings and tails generally create both (unless the tail is needed to create negative lift along with the inevitable drag).

“To fly actively, an animal must be able to execute a flight stroke that can generate a vortex wake that propels it forward. No evidence presented so far suggests that Yi qi had this ability.”

You cannot move even a stiff table mat up and down at a reasonably shallow angle through the air without generating thrust. It might be not be in the direction you are facing but generating thrust in the right direction is incredibly easy. And vortices will almost always be produced. As to whether you need to create a vortex of a certain kind before you can get any thrust, that’s wrong, and I don’t care who might have said it was true (Rayner ’79 apparently, which I think I read way back, though I suspect he was referring to a special category of examples). It’s wrong, even if only in the sense that both thrust and vortices are easy to generate to the point of inevitability (given of course the vital requirement that the wing already provides lift when steady!). It will be necessary for a successful flapper to generate thrust at an efficiency it can afford; and making clever use of vortices under special circumstances can massively help efficiency, but insisting we must wait for proof that a flapper could generate just the right sort of vortex before considering the possibility that it produced any useful thrust is blatant incompetent bullshit in both physics and philosophy of science. [In fact Xu et al. brought this up and Padian was just buying into it, it seems.]

“Furthermore, in flapping animals, the outboard skeletal elements (wrist, hand and so on) are primarily responsible for thrust, the essential component of powered flight, but these are not particularly long in Yi qi.”

At first I couldn’t believe he said that in view of Yi‘s incredibly long arms and hands as seen in the depiction accompanying his piece, but what he means is, in membrane flappers, i.e. bats and pterosaurs, the hand plus wrist must be very long. His hidden assumption is that feathers, which were definitely used for aeronauting in Yi‘s close relatives, were not used by Yi even though its big feathers, like theirs, are plain to see. But we’re not going to excuse him for this since assuming Yi didn’t use feathers was completely unjustified. He is wrong to say Yi’s hand, which is substantially longer than say the shoulder to hip joint distance, or its longest leg bone, is too short for flapping. In fact a good rule of thumb from modern birds, to help guess whether something could fly, is whether the humerus is over 50% of the shoulder joint to hip distance. Yi‘s is 100%. Getting away with being right for the wrong reason isn’t good enough for someone in his position.

And then:

“…we are left in a quandary. An animal with a strange structure that looks as if it could have been used in flight, borne by an animal that otherwise shows no such tendencies.”

It’s very wrong to say it shows no tendencies towards aeronauting. Its forelimb bones are thin and very, very long; it has big feathers; and even it’s size is right. But the best of all is this:

“In a gliding animal, the centre of lift of the aerofoil should be fairly congruent with the centre of gravity of the body – if the bulk of the animal’s weight falls too far behind the centre of lift, the back end will sag and the animal will stall.”

Wow. Deep breath… as Henry Gee would say. It looks a bit like he’s saying the centre of gravity and the centre of lift don’t need to coincide vertically in flapping animals though they do in gliding animals.

Three things, the most irrelevant (or is it the most relevant?) first:

If I were advising Padian over this I’d say, since you’re obviously never going to get the hang of physics, stick to the knitting and go for the pose. You may as well try to sway the readership by saying centre of mass, and centre of pressure. I don’t, since those in the know will know I know the proper terms and am simply trying to optimise comprehensibility just as they’ll know you’re bullshitting, but those only slightly in the know are still there for you to impress.

Second, this is at least the third time just in this piece, where he’s said something that looks very dodgy, but hasn’t gone back to resolve ambiguities. We are now entitled to conclude, from this piece alone, that his strategy is to say enough to hint that he might be some kind of expert, but not enough to reveal that he actually isn’t. I was right, wasn’t I, when I said in 2012:

“I had recognised an imperious disdain, … and a tendency to sprinkle broken bits of philosophy of science jargon inappropriately over his erroneous theories like camouflage on a caddis fly larva, that I particularly associated with Padian.”

Or maybe a bower bird, with its edifice impressively decorated with randomly collected bright berries, beetle carapaces etc… which aren’t actually where they’re supposed to be. Philosophy of science, aeroengineering, information science, he does it with everything. He goes slightly too far since his incompetence can actually be seen, but then again, by whom? Maybe the odd competent reader is so infrequent that he’s actually judged it just right.

Thirdly, before considering whether he’s right to imply centre of gravity positioning is less important for powered flyers or even flappers, I have a funny feeling I’m the only person to mention centre of gravity in relation to dinobird flight. In fact I’ve been banging on about it for years… perhaps to the point where Padian has at last noticed it might be a usefully impressive-sounding concept worth slipping into his spiel. [He actually seems to be taking it straight from the Xu et al. 2015 supplementary information, so perhaps they tried to copy my usage! I won’t quote them since I don’t think it’s very edifying.] I mentioned it in comments on Burgers and Chiappe years ago on the dml, and even more in my explanation of four-winged flight by vodroms. (BTW – Sanker Chatterjee: I peeped at the recent update to your book. My term “Hermeans” for four-winged types preceded the terms of both Agnolin & Novas (2013) and of you. I’ve told you your bi-plane configuration won’t work, but my refusal to pander to the peer review system doesn’t mean you can ignore the laws of physics! Our days of pleasantries are over! You, as they say, are nothing to me now! You, as they say… toilet! :-[ ) Anyway, I’m known now for stressing the need for rear wings in types with very long heavy tails because of trim issues, and Padian or Xu et al. at least seem to have appreciated its general relevance even if Chatterjee hasn’t.

So those of us, and there are some, who have been wondering why on earth Padian mentioned c. of g., might now know the reason.

And yes, even though with flappers the “centre of lift” moves around a bit, its average position is of course still vital. Birds with “swallow tails” get extra tail lift and such birds also customarily have wings strongly angled at the wrist. (Compare what comes to mind when you think of the wrist bend of kite vs buzzard; of tern vs gull; of frigate bird vs albatross.) This is because the wings have to be held a long way forward to compensate for the extra lift at the back so important is the position of the centre of lift/pressure, even when flapping. (Not that it wasn’t immediately obvious from first principles.)

In fact any comment on the centres of either mass of pressure need to wait for the arrival of Yi‘s full hindquarters. There seem to be big feathers associated with the tibia; along with the tail, the toes, pelvis and most of the femur are missing.

A large chunk of my book, say tens of thousands of words, were explicitly on the evolution of flight (the rest was background to the study) and not once did I have any occasion to mention one useful contribution Padian had made. There were however plenty of examples of him being a bad example. He must have been paid a couple of million dollars or more over the years, to teach principles of science through the example of palaeontology, so god help his students and those who paid for them. And worse, any time someone such as myself might be stupid enough to put forward something for publication, someone like him will be there to make sure nothing gets through unless it reflects well on those who think like him.

Padian started his piece by violating elementary philosophy of science to such an extent as to seem to deny it exists: “three theories, take away one, equals one: Ours!” Moving swiftly over the information science wasteland his unqualified cladist gang thrive on, we notice that Yi qi, being a glider, really doesn’t fit Padian’s views at all well. Neither the version where birds go from running along the ground direct to flapping, nor where one group climbs trees and flies from there, welcome this new thing that either is gliding, or is also gliding. Two groups? But a competing theory that suggested many dinobirds, including the initial lineages, were gliding all along, isn’t worried by two groups of aeronauts appearing at almost the same time. If parsimony is useful in science this would be a good place to use it. In fact, Yi qi etc. are actually a bit earlier than Archaeopteryx… so not only does the old timing paradox of Jurassic Archaeopteryx supposedly evolving from later types threaten to recur, but even though those supposed ancestors might have been found in the late Jurassic, they now have to have to appear earlier still. And of course it’s easier to envisage Archaeopteryx evolving from something like Yi qi‘s clan which preceded it and were in trees, than from a multi-ton allosaur that didn’t and wasn’t.

Will Padian acknowledge this? I’d not only be surprised if he did, but disappointed, since his only use is as a demonstration of the uselessness of the peer review system, and of how to exploit groupism, through posing.

And who uses the likes of Padian for peer reviewing and opinion pieces? Step forward Henry Gee, earth science sub-editor at Nature, and contributor of another gobbet of drivel in it to accompany Xu et al. 2015 (a week prior) – because one wasn’t enough:

More on Unicorns  A newly discovered tiny dinosaur sported an intriguing structural accessory

His name hasn’t been welcome in a byline for some time (maybe they have to keep him for legal reasons) but you can tell it’s him “by the claws of the…” unicorn:

5: Gee on Yi qi

While Padian likes to make gestures at least towards the nitty-gritty layers of science, Gee prefers to fly almost entirely at the heights of fancy, frolicking in what he imagines are delightful philosophical aerobatics. In fact a good scientist must rattle up and down the levels of knowledge; it’s not just a good sign when you seem to do higher-level stuff, it’s all about how you make lower “data” levels and higher abstractions work together.

Gee helps our understanding of Yi qi by relating it to unicorns. You know, that business of how unicorns… are something we seek, but… do we know when we’ve found one… or something. But then he explains:

“Palaeontology is always about hunting for unicorns. Because fossils sample diversity from the past that might not exist today, there is always the chance that one will dig up something that defies categorisation”

Useful advice. But if we’re hunting for something, don’t we already have a concept of it? How can finding something that defies categorisation be a good example of hunting for something? Ah right… we hunt novelties. But the unicorn concept isn’t novel 😦 .

Although Henry prefers never to touch the ground, he brushes reality enough here to reveal that he never realised the scansoriopterygid group were gliders; he thinks that this discovery means this is another example of dinobirds taking to the air instead of one continuation of their earliest niche down a different flight path from later more successful lines; and he buys entirely into all the deceptions of Padian’s first sentence.

It wasn’t just necessary to adopt the unicorn paradigm, it had to be done through Jorge Luis Borges dealing with them in his essay ‘Kaffka and his precursors’. I’m not going to be nasty and say he’s just woven that in to show off; I’m prepared to accept he’s so steeped in literature he can’t help referring to it after all he’s got to do something with all the time he doesn’t spend improving his science. But look, here’s a Henry Gee unicorn story that does make sense:

“Henry used to dream he was a great statesman of science, bringing power, grace and pointedness to uncertain areas of science like a unicorn cantering through a misty forest. He thought only he knew about this dream but one day he tripped over a paper unicorn, and realised the person who made it also knew his dream… and at the same time realised that he was, as he had secretly feared all his life, like the unicorn, a fake.”

This unfolding Yi qi episode demonstrates before our eyes how Finding The Best Explanations For Evidence, i.e. the real identity of science, continues to be usurped by a proxy of science that has slithered into existence: Peer Review, used by people who must relate to science somehow whether they can do it or not. Almost everyone now thinks that is real science! Not only does this make it easy for science to fall into the hands of power brokers totally inexpert at what they’re doing except for the politics of it, but it allows an error correction prevention system to be set up where anyone who complains about peer review is automatically considered unqualified – even those not just competent at the subject matter but qualified in knowledge science!   Into this gap between real science and peer review is now funnelled the entire formal activity of this historical science, inevitably unprotected by experimentation, and safe from eradication, like bedbugs hiding in the seams, until the parasites expand to take over the entire bed. Remember at the end of Rosemary’s Baby where Mia Farrow thought that at last everything was all right but then leaned over the cot and saw her baby’s eyes? That’s how I felt when I discovered years ago that Henry Gee was a sub-editor at Nature. The horror goes on and on.

 

 

* Xing Xu, Xiaoting Zheng, Corwin Sullivan, Xiaoli Wang, Lida Xing, Yan Wang, Xiaomei Zhang, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Fucheng Zhang & Yanhong Pan (2015) A bizarre Jurassic maniraptoran theropod with preserved evidence of membranous wings. Nature, 521, pp70-73. doi:10.1038/nature14423
Published online 29 April 2015

Supplementary Information (621 KB) Free online:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v521/n7550/full/nature14423.html#supplementary-information

 

 

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