Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Alien viruses from outer space and the great Archaeopteryx forgery


The 'London specimen' of Archaeopteryx (in this case, a cast), now the holotype of A. lithographica. Image by H. Raab, from wikipedia.

Today I want to talk about something completely different. During the 1980s astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle proposed (with his colleagues Chandra Wickramasinghe, Lee Spetner and R. S. Watkins) that the London Archaeopteryx specimen [shown here: image by H. Raab] was a forgery, made by pressing chicken feathers into plaster laid about the skeleton of the small predatory dinosaur Compsognathus.

This much is well known; also well known is Hoyle et al.’s claim that the specimen was originally acquired by Richard Owen “as a known fraud, with the intent of trapping Darwin and Huxley into claiming it in support of the evolutionary theory” (Hoyle & Wickramasinghe 1986, p. 112). As Gould (1987) argued, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s idea that Owen was a creationist and that it would have been to his advantage to discredit Archaeopteryx is a gross and thoroughly naïve misunderstanding of just about every aspect of Victorian palaeontology and sociopolitics, let alone Owen’s personal motivations and philosophy. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe seemed not to credit or even realise how Owen sunk time, effort, work and money into the reality of Archaeopteryx, nor what impact the unveiling of involvement in a hypothetical forgery would have on Owen’s personal reputation, or on that of the British Museum.

Perhaps not as well known as it should be is that Hoyle et al.’s ideas were published in the British Journal of Photography. I have no wish to cast aspersions, or to say anything negative about that venue, but it certainly cannot be considered a normal outlet for scientific results and I somehow doubt that it meets (or met) the standards of peer-review or any conditions usual for scientific results. The bulk of what Hoyle and Wickramasinghe had to say went into a book, Archaeopteryx The Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery (Hoyle & Wickramasinghe 1986). They explained how Lee Spetner (a physicist based in Rehovot, Israel) had initially proposed the forgery idea in correspondence, and how R. S. Watkins both photographed the specimen on behalf of the group, and suggested British Journal of Photography as a publication venue.

This rather unfair cartoon of Fred Hoyle is credited to 'Paul S' and appeared in Moreton (1988).

We know from published articles, footnotes in papers, and Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s book that a few ‘formal’ meetings were held between Hoyle et al. and research and curation staff at London's Natural History Museum (at the time known as the British Museum (Natural History)). I wonder how friendly these meetings were (minutes do survive). Numerous to-ings and fro-ings in the scientific press were published, most appearing rightly critical of the Hoyle et al. idea, and some being very critical of Hoyle himself (e.g., Charig 1985, Williams 1985, Benton 1987, Connor 1987, Moreton 1988).

The museum's Alan Charig and colleagues published an authoritative response in Science* (Charig et al. 1986). Stating at the outset that they “reject this forgery hypothesis unequivocally” (p. 623), they refuted in detail all of the evidence alleged to support the claim. They pointed to the many methodological and philosophical problems inherent to it, and showed time and again how the supposedly suspicious details raised by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe couldn't be taken as evidence of forgery, but were instead genuine geological features or artefacts resulting from decades of preparation (Charig et al. 1986).

* Why Science and not Nature? Hmm.

The ‘Archaeopteryx is a forgery’ idea remains popular among creationists and others on the lunatic fringe, but even they fail to appreciate the bizarre logic behind Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s argument. As explained in their book, Hoyle & Wickramasinghe (1986) sought to show that Archaeopteryx was a forgery because it proved an obstacle to their idea that dinosaurs and other Mesozoic vertebrates had been transmogrified by viral and/or bacterial storms that had rained down on the Cretaceous world from outer space, grafting new genetic information onto the animals and causing them to change into the birds and mammals of the Cenozoic (Hoyle & Wickramasinghe 1986). In other words, they were seriously proposing this sort of thing…

[‘Transmogrification event caused by incorporation of alien bacteria’ should really say ‘Transmogrification event caused by incorporation of alien VIRUSES’. My bad, sorry.]

As a pre-Cenozoic bird, Archaeopteryx did not fit and had to be explained away (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were generally unaware of other pre-Cenozoic birds, and ignored Mesozoic mammals entirely). Had this entertaining scenario been presented to the public at the same time as the ‘Archaeopteryx is a forgery’ claim, it is doubtful if it would have been taken as seriously as it was in some circles.

Part of this text is adapted from the biography of Alan Charig that Richard Moody and I published a few years ago (Moody & Naish 2010). I’ve been saying for ages that I wanted to bring the true weirdness of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s evolutionary model to the fore, and what better way than to do it than with cartoons.

PS – this article was not intended as a full critique or evaluation of the ‘forged Archaeopteryx’ claim. I don’t feel the need to address this because it’s a total non-starter: there are now more than ten archaeopterygid specimens (most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Victorian sociopolitics), and – even without the feathers – the skeletal anatomy of Archaeopteryx demonstrates an affinity with Cenozoic birds (Hoyle et al. very wrongly assumed that Archaeopteryx was skeletally identical to Compsognathus), as do a huge number of other Mesozoic maniraptoran fossils (many of which are feathered).

For previous Tet Zoo articles relevant to Archaeopteryx and some of the other issues touched on here, see...

Refs - -

Benton, M. J. 1987. Why Archaeopteryx is not a fake but suffers from too much publicity. Geology Today 3, 118-121.

Charig, A. J. 1985. Is Archaeopteryx a forgery? Biologist 32 (3), 122-123.

CHARIG, A., GREENAWAY, F., MILNER, A., WALKER, C., & WHYBROW, P. (1986). Archaeopteryx Is Not a Forgery Science, 232 (4750), 622-626 DOI: 10.1126/science.232.4750.622

Connor, S. 1987. Riddle of missing rock resurrects Archaeopteryx controversy. New Scientist 115 (1573), 27.

Gould, S. J. 1987. The fossil fraud that never was. New Scientist 113 (1553), 32-36.

Hoyle, F. & Wickramasinghe, C. 1986. Archaeopteryx The Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery. Christopher Davies, Swansea.

Moody, R. T. J. & Naish, D. 2010. Alan Jack Charig (1927-1997): an overview of his academic accomplishments and role in the world of fossil reptile research. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 89-109.

Moreton, S. 1988. Is Archaeopteryx the only old, cracked fossil? Geology Today 4 (3), 83-84.

Williams, N. 1985. Fraudulent feathers? Nature 314, 210.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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