Feathery Dinosaurs and a Turkey in Tennessee

(With apologies to actual turkeys, wild or domestic) 

The people of Tennessee are rebelling against creationism in their schools.  An anti-evolution bill passed in both the House and Senate last month, and now it can only be stopped if it gets a veto from the governor.

Today the National Center for Science Education announced that citizens of gathered nearly 4000 signatures on a petition to urge a veto.

There’s nothing specific in the bill about creation or intelligent design, but NSCE’s executive director Eugenie Scott sees this as part of a new tactic designed to make the bill “legally bulletproof”.

References to religion can be fought in court, as happened in Dover, PA in 2005 when a Republican Judge ruled that Intelligent Design was religion and not science and can’t legally be taught in public schools.

The Tennessee bill is more insidious, using terms like “critical thinking” that sound hard to refute. The bill would make it impossible for schools to stop teachers from “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.”

Scott says the result will be that the estimated 25% to 30% of teachers who want to teach creationism will be free to do so. And unsupported fringe views on global climate change will find a place in the classroom as well. Read NCSE's press release here.

Now, if teachers want to encourage students to think about controversial areas in science, they could have them discuss the benefits dinosaurs got from feathers. A new fossil find from China published yesterday in Nature shows even some of the bus-sized behemoths of the Cretaceous were feathery. Here’s a write-up in the New York Times. The previously unrecognized carnivore, a relative of T. rex, has been named, Yutyrannus huali, which means “beautiful feathered tyrant”.  

The feathers pose an interesting evolutionary puzzle since these huge dinosaurs couldn’t possibly have gone airborne. So why bother growing features? Insulation? As one dinosaur expert says, their bulk put them in more danger of overheating than freezing. Some scientists have suggested the plumage was used for display to attract mates. Many birds do this today. A peacock’s tail doesn’t do anything for his flight ability.

One thing that’s not in question is that the dinosaurs and their feathers are products of evolution – only the details are missing. (The image is an artist's conception that originally appeared in the New York Times)