Creationists are on a campaign to “take dinosaurs back.” Earlier this year, the creationist crackpot Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesisthe organization that established the fundamentalist funhouse called the Creation Museumsaid, “Dinosaurs have been held hostage for decades” by his mortal enemy, the nefarious “secular humanists.” Ham is determined to appropriate dinosaurs for biblical literalists. (The organization’s website even sells a “We’re taking dinosaurs back!” bumper sticker.)
This isn’t about science. It’s about marketing. Ham is sore that natural history museumsmany of which actually run research programs and contribute new facts and hypotheses to our understanding of prehistoric life, unlike the Creation Museumuse dinosaurs to help visitors learn about the evolution of what Charles Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Why should people who accept natural selection and geologic time have all the fun? Creationists, in Ham’s view, should use dinosaurs as star attractions to get the public to imbibe the religious swill he and his organization peddle.
Dinosaurs are unlikely symbols of religious fundamentalism. The first dinosaurs evolved about 230 million years ago, and, with the exception of birds, perished about 66 million years ago. Archaic humans didn’t originate until 60 million years later, so it’s not surprising that Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and kin aren’t mentioned in the Bible. Of course, Ham and like-minded literalists would beg to differ. Non-avian dinosaurs were created on Day 6 of creation week 6,000 years ago, with birds being brought into existence on Day 5 (which is out of order with the fossil record). Creationists also fervently believe that Behemoth and Leviathan of the Old Testament were actually dinosaurs, all scientific and historical evidence to the contrary. I’ve never seen creationists propose that we lived in a Dinotopia per se, but a saddle-bearing dinosaur at the Creation Museum is meant not as a fanciful kiddy ride but as a historical reconstruction.
But dinosaurs with feathers are not welcome at Ham’s amusement park. Even though paleontologists have uncovered numerous dinosaurs with everything from bristles and fuzz to full-flight featherswhich document the evolution of plumage from fluff to aerodynamic structures that allowed dinosaurs to take to the aircreationists deny the clear fossil record. There’s plenty of reason for creationists to abhor dinosaur feathers. The mountain of evidence that birds are living dinosaurs, and that many “bird” traits were widely shared among non-avian dinosaurs, are among the most gorgeous examples of evolutionary change yet found. Put feathers on a Velociraptorwe know it had feathers thanks to quill knobs preserved along its arm bonesand you get something disturbingly birdlike, revealing the dinosaur’s kinship to the ancestors of Archaeopteryx and other early birds. Not surprisingly, creationist groups like Answers in Genesis don’t feature feathery dinosaurs in their literature and museum exhibits. Instead, they take pride in promoting out-of-date, monstrous dinosaurs that more easily fit their contention that these animals were created separately from all other forms of life.