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Physics, Fossils, and Functional Morphology vs. Pseudoscience

To support their claim that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, numerous antievolution publications—including grade-school science textbooks—assert that dragon legends were inspired by human encounters with fire-breathing dinosaurs. Here’s why that’s unrealistic.

Mainstream geologists and biologists accept the abundant physical evidence that the Earth is billions of years old; that all organisms are evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor; and that non-avian dinosaurs became extinct sixty-five million years ago (e.g., Gradstein et al. 2004; Prothero 2007). In contrast, young-Earth creationist (YEC) authors have long maintained that the Genesis account of creation and the biblical timeline are literally correct, placing the creation of the Earth and all types of organisms at approximately 6,000 years ago. A corollary of this position is that dinosaurs and humans were created on the same day and must therefore have encountered each other. The claim that dragon legends are based on such encounters has long been a mainstay of YEC literature, and in 1977, biochemist and YEC author Duane Gish took this concept up a notch in his children’s book Dinosaurs, Those Terrible Lizards, by positing that dinosaurs breathed fire. Other YEC authors followed suit (see references below), and dinosaurs now breathe fire in seventh-grade biology textbooks from BJU Press (Batdorf and Porch 2013; Lacy 2013).

In support of the idea that a real animal can produce fire, Gish (1977) cited the defense mechanism of bombardier beetles (Brachinus spp.), which spray a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone into the faces of would-be predators. Chemical catalysts cause the mixture to reach a scalding 100º C (Aneshansley et al. 1969). Subsequent YEC authors followed Gish’s lead and added imaginary details such as sparks or explosions or flame (Phillips 1994; Hamp 2000; Isaacs 2010; Paul 2010). In reality, the beetles merely spray hot liquid—which scalds but does not produce flame—and therefore provide no biological precedent for organic fire production.

Some YEC authors have cited bioluminescent animals and electric eels as biological precedent for fire production (Morris 1984; Petersen 1986; Morris 1988; Niermann 1994; Morris 1999; DeYoung 2000; Petersen 2002). However, the processes that produce bioluminescence (Haddock et al. 2010) and bioelectrogenesis (Pough et al. 2013) are chemically unrelated to combustion and generate little or no thermal energy. These processes are therefore irrelevant to fire production and provide no biological precedent for it.

Proponents of the fire-breathing dinosaur hypothesis have suggested a number of potential mechanisms of fire production, reviewed below, each of which is a separate hypothesis in its own right. Below, I use scientific data to evaluate each hypothesis. Each such hypothesis implicitly predicts that the mechanism is not only physically possible but that it will not cause serious injury to the animal. Each hypothesis is falsified if either of those predictions is not met.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? Physics, Fossils, and Functional Morphology vs. Pseudoscience JonBenet Murder Mystery Solved? (Not by Psychics) An Investigation of the Missing411 Conspiracy