Operational versus Historical Sciences

A reconstruction of Vectiraptor. Note the three bones in the reconstruction. These are the only bones found for this dinosaur. Image from Longrich, Nicholas; David Martill; and Megan Jacobs (2021) “A new dromaeosaurid dinosaur from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous, Barremian) of the Isle of Wight, and implications for European palaeobiogeography” Cretaceous Research 10.1016/j.cretres.2021.105123

Most creationists are familiar with the concept of operational versus historical sciences. Operational science studies things that happen in the present, historical science attempts to study things in the past. Operational science studies things that are repeatable while historical science tries to understand things that happened once in the past. In a previous post, I noted that science works best when it is applied to things that have been observed and that it gets progressively worse when it is applied to things that have not been observed. We can make a broad comparison between that statement and observation and historical sciences. After all, observational science studies things in the present: we can repeatedly check our observations, therefore observational sciences are very certain. In contrast, historical sciences are, by necessity, extrapolation, and therefore are much less certain than observational science.

Defining operational and historical sciences allows us to point out that looking into the past, be it the theory of evolution or creation science, will often be much less certain than studying the present. It is an effective counter to the argument that we should trust science when it tells us that the Earth is millions of years old because science also gives us super computers, airliners, the internet, and all kinds of wonderful things upon which we rely. The former (an age of millions of years) falls under historical science while the latter (computers, airplanes, and the internet) falls under operational science. Despite the usefulness of knowing the difference between these two types of science, I think it is still helpful to remember that both operational and historical sciences suffer from the same limitations. It is not that historical science suffers from a unique limitation that operational science does not, it is that both suffer from the same limitation, but the effect is more noticeable in historical science.

Let me give a concrete example. An article came out recently describing a new dromaeosaur dinosaur from the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. The dinosaur was named Vectiraptor and is believed to be a eudromaeosaur.[1] 

To explain the significance of Vectiraptor, dromaeosaurs are rare in Europe. Dromaeosaurs, or more properly, the family Dromaeosauridae, is the group that contain the familiar “raptor” dinosaurs. Further, dromaeosaurs come in several varieties, including Unenlagiinae, Halszkaraptorinae, and Microraptoria. The group Eudromaeosauria includes the most familiar (the “classic”) dromaeosaurs, such as Velociraptor, Utahraptor, and Deinonychus.

Now, dromaeosaurs are well known from North America and Asia. Of the three genera mentioned above, Utahraptor and Deinonychus are both from the United States and Velociraptor is from Mongolia and China. Thus, naming a new dromaeosaur from Europe is significant, simply because of its rarity.

While the material for Vectiraptor is distinct enough that it was given its own genus, it is, unfortunately, based on very little material. The entire recovered skeleton of Vectiraptor consists of two vertebrae and part of a sacrum.[2] The sacrum is a series of fused vertebrae in the hip. That is it: Vectiraptor is based on three pieces of bone.

Now, some people may wonder, “Is three bones enough to go on? Can we really name a new genus of dinosaur based on three pieces of bone?” The answer is, yes we can. The authors of the paper that described Vectiraptor noted that describing it was difficult because of its fragmentary nature. However, they were still able to provide a list of four characters that are only found together in the family Dromaeosauridae.[3] In other words, the material for Vectiraptor is fragmentary, but it can still be compared to more complete material from other dinosaurs, and those comparisons can be at least good enough to show that there was a dromaeosaur that once lived in what is now the Isle of Wight. Is this identification speculative? Sure. Is it subject to change? Definitely. The purpose of describing Vectiraptor in a paper like this is so that other researchers can read the description, draw their own conclusions, and challenge those conclusions, if necessary. In fact, that very thing has already happened with another dinosaur from the Isle of Wight called Yaverlandia.

When it was first described in 1971, Yaverlandia was identified as a pachycephalosaur, that is, as a bone-headed dinosaur. Yaverlandia was based on fragmentary material: it consists solely of a skull cap.[4] In more recent years, some paleontologists have taken a new look at Yaverlandia and concluded that it is actually a theropod dinosaur,[5] possibly a troodontid.[6] For reference, the family Troodontidae is a group of dinosaurs that bear a passing resemblance to dromaeosaurs. If Yaverlandia had to be reclassified from a pachycephalosaur to a theropod (possibly a troodontid), then it is possible that Vectiraptor may also have to be reclassified at some point in the future, especially considering that it is based on fragmentary material.

What makes the identification of Vectiraptor so uncertain? The fact that paleontology is a historical science certainly doesn’t help. No one today has seen a live Vectiraptor, so its appearance, behavior, and ultimately its classification will be subject to change. However, Vectiraptor is based on very little material. This lack of material is what really makes the identification of Vectiraptor subject to change. Surely the information we glean in operational sciences is better than a few bones, right? Well…

Let me introduce you to the rarest bird in the world: the Nechisar nightjar, Caprimulgus solala. It is so rare that no one has seen a living specimen. It is so rare that the only thing we know about it is a single wing. This wing was found on a road in southern Ethiopia in 1990, and was found to be distinctive enough that it was described as a new species of nightjar in 1995.[7] Even in recent years, this species is considered valid[8] and there have been attempts to find it, or at least to tell birders how best to identify it should they come across it.[9] Despite all attempts, no new material has been found.

Even though the Nechisar nightjar is considered a separate species, we cannot rule out the possibility that it has been misidentified. In fact, there is an opinion piece that poses the question, do we know the variation within a single species well enough to know that the Nechisar nightar does not fall within the variation of a different species?[10] Perhaps future research will reveal the Nechisar nightjar to be an unusual variation of a different species of nightjar or confirm that it is a separate and unique bird. Who knows: with so little material to go on, there are bound to be some mistakes in its identification.

I should point out that the Nechisar nightjar is not alone. There are other species of animals (animals that are presumably still alive) that are known from a single specimen or a small handful of specimens. It is just the way things are: someone collects a unique looking animals and no one has yet been able to find that species again. Note that this is the same situation with Vectiraptor and Yavilandia: the speculation exists because they are based on sparse material.

I believe that the distinction between operational and historical sciences is helpful. As already mentioned, it is a good counter to those who insist that we should trust science when it comes to long ages since we trust technology. I think it is also helpful because introducing the concept of historical sciences can highlight how science can be limited by a lack of information. If an event happened in the past, it may be impossible to recreate the event, in which case we simply cannot know what actually happened. That is a relatively easy concept to grasp. Then it only takes a little more explanation to point out that even operational sciences can lack significant amounts of data. And that is the thought I want to leave with you. All science is subject to change because all science is based on limited observations. The distinction between operational and historical science comes down to how much information is missing, not whether “good science” is being followed. Historical science is not bad science or poor science, it is just a science where the limitations of science become more apparent.

Thoughts from Steven


[1]Longrich, Nicholas; David Martill; and Megan Jacobs (2021) “A new dromaeosaurid dinosaur from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous, Barremian) of the Isle of Wight, and implications for European palaeobiogeography” Cretaceous Research 10.1016/j.cretres.2021.105123

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Galton, Peter (1971) “A primitive dome-headed dinosaur (Ornithischia: Pachycephalosauridae) from the Lower Cretaceous of England and the function of the dome of pachycephalosaurids” Journal of Paleontology 45(1): 40-47

[5]Naish, Darren and David Martill (2008) “Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: Ornithischia” Journal of the Geological Society, London 165: 613-623

[6]Longrich, Nicholas; David Martill; and Megan Jacobs (2021) “A new dromaeosaurid dinosaur from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous, Barremian) of the Isle of Wight, and implications for European palaeobiogeography” Cretaceous Research 10.1016/j.cretres.2021.105123

[7]Butchart, Stuart (2007) “Birds to find: a review of ‘lost’, obscure and poorly known African bird species” Bulletin of the African Bird Club 14(2): 139-157

[8]Lawrie, Yvonne; Robert Swann; Peter Stronach; Yoav Perlman; J. Martin Collinson (2017) “The taxonomic position and breeding range of Golden Nightjar Caprimulgus eximius (Aves: Caprimulgidae)” Ostrich 88(3): 281-286

[9]Butchart, Stuart (2007) “Birds to find: a review of ‘lost’, obscure and poorly known African bird species” Bulletin of the African Bird Club 14(2): 139-157

[10]Forero, Manuela and Jose Tella (1997) “Sexual dimorphism, plumage variability and species determination in nightjars: the need for futher examination of the Nechisar Nightjar Caprimulgus solalaIbis 139: 407-409

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