Excerpts from Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and



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Excerpts from

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and

the Evolution of Bird Flight (1998)

by Pat Shipman

The very first Archaeopteryx to be recognized was a feather impression dark and clearly delineated on the pale, honey-colored limestone slab. Hermann von Meyer first announced the specimen in 1860. It was a small thing, a feather only about 60 millimeters long and 11 millimeters wide, or about 2.5 inches by one-half inch . . .


No other single, isolated find could have proved so neatly the existence of an ancient bird. Feathered wings are uniquely avian. Flying or flightless, large or small, northern or southern, forest-dwelling, plains-living, or aquatic, all birds have feathered wings and nothing else does. In truth, feathers and wings comprise the quintessence of birdness, even if the point had not been so clearly evident before 1861. There could be no serious question about the sort of creature from which this feather was derived. Drawing by Gerhard Heilmann (1916)
Any niggling doubts that there might have been in 1861 were quickly resolved by the finding of one of the three most important specimens, the one destined to be known as the London Archaeopteryx. Within a month or two of the finding of the feather, Hermann von Meyer announced the existence of a fossil skeleton of Archaeopteryx lithographica, a name he coined that means “ancient wing” and also refers to the lithographic stone that preserves the wing. The suffix “pteryx”—meaning wing—is a common one among formal names of bird species. By choosing this name, von Meyer did more than immortalize one of the fossil’s main features . . . He declared it to be a bird despite some unmistakably reptilian features. He also made the London fossil the type specimen of the new genus (Archaeopteryx) and species (lithographica) . . . .
But the skeleton of the bird (or not-bird, to those who opposed von Meyer’s view) was not in von Meyer’s possession. It was part of a collection belonging to Carl Häberlein, a local physician and amateur antiquarian who sometimes accepted fossils in lieu of payment from the quarrymen he treated. In 1862 his hoard numbered 1,703 other fossil specimens, including 23 reptiles, 294 fishes, 1,119 invertebrates, and 145 plants . . . The catch was that Häberlein had not only a collection by also a beloved daughter, who in 1862 needed a dowry. Häberlein decided to open the question of where Archaeopteryx was to nest; he put the entire collection up for sale. As he doubtless hoped, he provoked a brisk international scrimmage as the prestigious museums of Europe vied to acquire this prize . . . .
While he waited for offers to come in, Häberlein nurtured an aura of mystery about his Archaeopteryx specimen, the crowning glory of his collection. For a while, no one was allowed to make drawings or photographs of it, but this secrecy spawned rumors that it as a fake. In a sense, the accusation was hardly surprising, given the half-reptilian, half-avian status the specimen was purported to show. Archaeopteryx was a rather neat fulfillment of the predictions of the new and highly controversial theory of evolution first published just a few years earlier. Accidentally finding a perfect transitional form between birds and reptiles was an occurrence too fortuitous and too well-timed to be believed by the skeptical. Eventually Häberlein permitted a select few scholars to inspect his prize, so as to certify its genuineness and heighten interest.
The currency of arguments over evolutionary theory had an enormous effect on the status of Häberlein’s Archaeopteryx. In England, Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species had been published only two years earlier, in 1859, and florid public debates were raging . . . Darwin’s audacious theory implied not only that humans were mammals, like all others, but that they, too, were subject to the evolutionary laws of Nature.
In 1860, as Thomas Huxley was still stoutly defending his friend Darwin’s thesis in England, The Origin of Species was published in a German translation made by paleontologist Heinrich Bronn. His was a translation with a difference. Prior to 1860, evolutionary ideas had met with scathing opposition in Germany that was orchestrated by Rudolf Virchow, then the most important man in German biological science. Aware of Virchow’s strong disapproval of evolutionary theory, Bronn made two insidious changes in Darwin’s thesis. First, he omitted Darwin’s most pregnant sentence—“Light will be shed on the origins of man and his history”—and the only one in which he addressed the inflammatory issue of human evolution . . . . Second, Bronn appended to Darwin’s text a series of his own criticisms of the theory, some fair and others far less so, in an attempt to insure that no intelligent reader would read and accept Darwin’s words too readily. Once Bronn’s translation was published, Virchow and his followers attacked Darwin’s book, as might have been expected . . . .
When the first Archaeopteryx was found, natural history had been an immensely popular hobby for several decades. Fossils and ferns, birds’ eggs and beetles, and other specimens of every sort were being avidly collected and classified by dozens of keen amateurs and many scientists alike. In 1853 and 1854, life-sized models of extinct animals, including a then-new and improved reconstruction of the dinosaur Iguanodon, were placed in the gardens of London’s Crystal Palace. Originally designed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was reconstructed at Sydenham, where it and the dinosaurs were a popular tourist

attraction . . . . A few years later, in 1859, the publication of Darwin’s book catapulted his theory into the intellectual spotlight, and his ideas quickly became the main topic of conversation among the many throughout Europe who had a scientific interest. One of the more telling arguments against The Origin of Species was this: if over time there has been a gradual transmutation or evolutionary change of one type of organism to another, where are the transitional forms? Indeed, the gap between reptiles and birds was often cited as an unbridgeable gulf for which no intermediate form could be imagined or found. Darwin himself foresaw this objection, entitling the sixth chapter of his book “Difficulties of the Theory” and dealing first of all with the “absence or rarity of transitional varieties,” especially in the fossil record.


“But,” Darwin writes, voicing may readers’ doubts, “as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?” He answers the question in the tenth chapter, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record” . . . .
The striking contrast between the vastness of the sedimentary record and the scarcity of fossils can only mean this, Darwin reasons: only a tiny proportion of all of the creatures that once lived on the earth have become embedded in sediments, fossilized, and then found and recognized by learned scientists. The expectation of finding a perfectly graded series of transitional forms recorded in the rocks of the earth is thus probably a vain hope. The fossil record preserves only intermittent glimpses of the millions of life forms that have inhabited this earth, not a complete record.
Thus when the first Archaeopteryx skeleton was announced to have a mixture of avian and reptilian features, it fulfilled the hope of finding a truly transitional form. The specimen became the cause célèbre of both sides, the believers wanting to display the specimen and prove their point and the nonbelievers hoping to refute its transitional status. Who was to have control of the specimen and thus the immense power of making the first scientific interpretation of the specimen? A fervent attempt was made to keep the specimen in Germany, where it would be placed in the state collection in Munich. But J. Andreas Wagner, a professor of zoology at Munich University and a kindred spirit to the great pathologist Virchow, objected. Wagner could not believe that a transitional form existed between reptiles and birds, and therefore Archaeopteryx could not be one. In 1861, although he had not yet seen the specimen for himself, Wagner expressed his views in a paper delivered to the Munich Academy of Science, called “A New Reptile Supposedly Furnished with Bird Feathers.” Its title gives away Wagner’s main point. He ignored von Meyer’s name for the specimen, which had precedence according to the rules of nomenclature, and proposed a new one, Griphosaurus, to reflect his view of the specimen as a feathered reptile. Wagner added at the end of his paper:
In conclusion, I must add a few words to ward off Darwinian misinterpretation of our new Saurian. At first glance of the Griphosaurus we might certainly form a notion that we had before us an intermediate creature, engaged in the transition from the Saurian to the bird. DARWIN and his adherents will probably employ the new discovery as an exceedingly welcome occurrence for the justification of their strange views upon the transformation of animals. But in this they will be wrong.
The controversy had taken wing.
Wagner’s damning view did little to help the movement to keep Archaeopteryx in Germany. In the end, the British Museum (Natural History) procured the skeleton, which was henceforth known as the London Archaeopteryx. Together with the rest of Häberlein’s collection, the British Museum paid £700, of which an astounding £450 was for the Archaeopteryx itself. The fee was paid in two installments in 1862 and 1863. This was perhaps the only time in history that a paleontological discovery contributed to a young lady’s dowry, and a very handsome contribution it was. [21-26]


  1. How did the Archaeopteryx fossil fit into the debate regarding Darwin’s Origin of Species and the question of transitional forms?

  2. What does this episode tell us about the nature of scientific change? Is it just a matter of the facts “speaking for themselves” or do scientists always interpret their evidence? Explain.

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