Firstly, I guess an apology is in order. Its been a hell of a long time since number 4 went out; I got rather caught up with other things and this series then languished on my list of half-written articles. So, apologies for that!

But before we get cracking with the final 3, I thought I'd pick up on an episode of fakery that just wasn't. This is the tale of Archaeopteryx, who has weathered the storm and has retained its place as perhaps the greatest example of a transitional fossil that we have.

The idea that birds are descended from maniraptoran dinosaurs was first proposed by the brilliant english biologist Thomas Huxley. Whilst at the time it was perhaps a musing of his, we have slowly piled on more and more evidence to the point that it is now case closed: birds did indeed evolve from maniraptoran dinosaurs. There are so many intermediate fossils now that even if we do need to dispense with some fossils because they've been faked, the hypothesis still holds. Get used to it.

But this didn't stop Prof. Fred Hoyle (astronomer), Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe (mathematician), Dr. L. Spetner (physicist), Dr. R. Watkins (medical doctor) and J. Watkins (photographer) from contending that the famous Archaeopteryxes were faked. Now, why would they do such a thing? After all, and I mean this sincerely: Sir Fred Hoyle was an incredibly clever man, and his early work on nucleosynthesis today remain among the most cited papers in astrophysics. In terms of his public outreach, he was truly the Stephen Hawking of his day.

That's the thing though. Whilst Hoyle's early work was undeniably brilliant, there is no doubt that he made an absolute fool of himself in his later life.

They say that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Well, in this case, Hoyle's hammer was panspermia, the idea that life was seeded from outer space. It didn't stop there, though; he also believed that we are subject to a continual rain of viruses and genetic material from space, and this rain of genes was the principle cause of evolution - not Darwinian natural selection, which he believed to be the dogma of a nihilistic scientific elite.

Hence an adaptive transition from reptiles to birds, perfectly exemplified by Archaeopteryx, just didn't seat very well with Hoyle's model of evolution*. He and Chandra Wickramasinghe realeased a series of papers over the course of a year contending that it was just a normal dinosaur fossil with feathers stuck on. Whilst Hoyle was not a Christian, writings such as these have delighted the creationist community due to his impressive scientific credentials.

Hoyle contended that the Archaeopteryx specimens were probably faked by Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum.

The conspiracy goes like this. In 1860, a debate was held at Oxford University between proponents of Darwinism, most notably Thomas Huxley, and detractors, including Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

It's suffice to say that Wilberforce, who Owen had wholeheartedly backed, lost the debate. Owen was furious and paranoid about losing the debate, so he had Archaeopteryx forged by cementing feathers on a maniraptoran dinosaur - almost as a mockery of what he thought was a contemptable theory**. Huxley and Darwin refused to stoop to his level and remained silent to maintain their reputations. Darwin didn't mention the fossil in OOTS until the later editions because he knew it to be fraudulent, and Huxley rarely mentioned it in his popular talks. Owen also remained silent for the same reasons.

Understandably as astrophysicists, neither he nor Wickramasinghe had the first clue about fossils, and hence most of their arguments were quite easily dismissed. Tom Kemp wrote that
"Certainly the claim that Archaeopteryx is a fake should be investigated. But the investigation should be done by those who actually understand fossils, not a couple of people who exhibit nothing more than a Gargantuan conceit that they are clever enough to solve other people's problems for them, when they do not even begin to recognise their nature and complexity."
Nonetheless, having suffered a loss of integrity from the Piltdown Man hoax, BMNH scientists could not ignore the charge, and in 1985 the fossils were subject to rigourous analysis. This included analysing the petrology for grain differences, spectrophotometry to analyze for foreign elements, analysing for air pockets in cement, carbon-14 dating of putative adhesive blobs, and electron microprobe analysis to compare the spectra from different parts of the material, carried out at an unbiased laboratory.

The specimens were found to be genuine. Indeed, during this analysis, hairline cracks were found to correlate between the part and counterpart, providing almost definitive proof for authenticity. Despite this, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe published a book in 1986 denouncing the fossil, and launched their conspiracy theory to explain it.

The point that I'm trying to make here is that, paleontologists don't treat accusations of fraud lightly. Paleontologists worry about the possibility of fossils being faked, because it would imply that you hadn't analysed your fossil carefully enough to notice the tell tale signs of fakery. Even in the case of Archaeopteryx, where the perpetrators clearly had a vested interest in finding that the fossils were faked, the fossils were still subject to detailed analysis, all so that we can place our faith in the fossils. I must say that I have been nose to nose with the London specimen, and there is absolutely no reason to suspect fakery from seeing the fossil itself - which might've been a very ligitimate reason for pushing for extra tests. But, ultimately, the call for testing was made purely on principle.

We have many, many transitional fossils now; I even just passed one on my way upstairs in a display in my department. But, that doesn't mean we don't need to stay on our toes, and keep in mind that fakes do sometimes turn up. Just sometimes.


* Although, it is interesting to note that in an earlier book, the intellegent universe, he didn't seem to reject the evolution of birds on Earth. "There is no possibility, for example, of the eggs of birds passing safely through the atmosphere from space, so that birds must have arisen by evolution here on the Earth."

** This is despite the fact that he squandered over 2 years worth of museum funding to procure the fossil. Despite his failings, Owen really was a more honourable man than most people give him credit for, and it is a bit of a slap in the face that his statue in the NHM, the revolutionary institution that he founded, has been replaced with Darwin's, who had next to no input into its creation.