Ida: Missing Link, Missing Evidence

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2009

In May of this year, a scientific paper was released that fanned the flames of the evolution/intelligent design debate to new intensity. It documented the discovery of an elegantly structured, beautifully preserved fossil of a haplorrhine, an ancient primate thought to be ancestor to both modern-day lemurs and “higher” primates, including human beings.

The spectacular fossil was named Ida after the six-year-old daughter of Professor Jorn Hurum of Norway’s National History Museum who headed up the research team. Ida has been variously described as the “eighth wonder of the world” and “the final piece of Darwin’s jigsaw.”

Secular sources heralded the discovery in glowing terms. The TimesOnline headline read, “Fossil find provides ’missing link’ in human evolution.” National Geographic rendered the phrase “’MISSING LINK’ FOUND” in all caps—in net-speak the equivalent to shouting. Fox News referred to Ida as a “Holy Grail” fossil that had instantly attained “celebrity” status.

The public announcement of the paper coincided with a PR campaign worthy of a rock star: a glitzy promotional website1 heralding “the link uncovering our earliest ancestor”; features on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” and “World News”; a full-length documentary entitled “The Link” aired on the History Channel; and a new book of the same title with advance distribution of over 100,000 copies. All this before other researchers in the scientific community had a chance to even begin to evaluate the claims.

Though this fossil find is remarkable in many ways, it is not unlike other discoveries touted as the final nail in the coffin of creation, which pronouncements, on closer examination, turn out to be premature with the discovery that the body was not quite dead yet.

When faced with such challenges, good ambassadors do not immediately react with scorn, derision, and abuse. Ridicule is not an argument. Instead, they separate the wheat from the chaff by calmly applying a three-step plan that is the core of all critical thinking.

First, get a clear fix on the facts themselves. Next, note the inferences and implications others have drawn from the facts. Finally, do you own assessment. Check to see if there is a good fit between the inferences drawn and the facts that they are allegedly based on.

How does Ida fair by this analysis? What can we adduce from the evidence by applying our three steps of critical thinking?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Ida, officially known as Darwinius masillae, was originally unearthed by an amateur in 1983 from a famous fossil graveyard called Messel Pit, an ancient crater lake in Germany. The 95%-complete fossil reveals a creature the size of a small raccoon with traits similar to both lemurs and small monkeys. She is an alleged ancestor of modern lemurs called a Haplorrhine. Radioactive isotopes in Messel’s volcanic rocks indicate Ida lived 47 million years ago during the Eocene period.

The journal paper, available to the public from the Public Library of Science,2 consists primarily of a detailed description of the structure and paleobiology (the study of the biology ancient creatures) of the fossil.

There is little question by anyone in the field of paleontology that Ida is a remarkable specimen. In addition to offering a finely-textured picture of skeletal structure, the fossil also reveals an intricate soft-tissue halo encircling the body showing hair, fingernails, teeth, and even the leaves and fruit left over in Ida’s digestive tract from her last meal.

“Ida, has a unique anatomy,” wrote National Geographic. “The lemur-like skeleton features primate-like characteristics, including grasping hands, opposable thumbs, clawless digits with nails, and relatively short limbs.”3

ScienceDaily offered more details, particulars that to evolutionists suggest Ida’s significance in the evolutionary order:

Ida was found to be lacking two of the key anatomical features found in lemurs: a grooming claw on the second digit of the foot, and a fused row of teeth in the middle of her lower jaw known as a toothcomb. She has nails rather than the claw typical of non-anthropoid primates such as lemurs, and her teeth are similar to those of monkeys. Her forward facing eyes are like ours—which would have enabled her fields of vision to overlap, allowing 3D vision and an ability to judge distance.4

Those are the facts, as far as I have been able to assemble them at this date. Now, what does it all mean? That is another issue entirely.

Inferences and Implications

The evolutionary establishment is generally buoyant about the significance of this find. “This little creature is going to show us our connection with all the rest of the mammals,” said Sir David Attenborough, well-known naturalist and broadcaster. “The link they would have said until now is is no longer missing.”5

A statement by the producers of the TV special reads, “She is a transitional species showing characteristics from both the non-human (prosimians and lemurs) and human (anthropoids, monkeys, apes and man) evolutionary lines.”6 The History site’s headline boasted, “This changes everything.”

Ida’s promotional website, The Link, was nearly rapturous in its praise of the discovery:

Now, for the first time, an incredibly complete early primate fossil has been discovered which provides us with direct evidence of an intermediate link between the human primate lineage and earlier mammals. Ida is an example of a transitional fossil between primitive primates and the prosimian and anthropoid branches, the latter of which eventually led to humans...She is the earliest, and one of the most significant links, ever found.7

Ironically, the authors of the scientific paper themselves were more restrained, at least in their publication: “Note that Darwinius masillae [Ida]...could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid [pre-human] primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here” [emphasis added].

Some have pointed out that this qualification seems disingenuous, since these scientists themselves were complicit in the media splash responsible for some of the more extravagant claims about Ida.

Others’ assessments have been more sober-minded. Brian Switek, a science writer who also blogs for Smithsonian magazine’s Dinosaur Tracking, wrote:

The grand claims about [Ida] being our ancestor cannot be upheld as true. The researchers simply did not do the work to support their case...I hardly think this is a responsible way to conduct or communicate science, flooding the media with poorly supported claims...The overall poor quality of the paper and the disproportionate hyping of the find make me wonder if this research was rushed into publication so that the media splash would occur on time.8

Now it’s time to take a closer look. What is our own assessment? Are the conclusions of evolutionists compromised in some way?

Assessment: Missing Link?

The first thing to note here is that Ida provides no meaningful “link” to human evolution. I am not a Darwinist, but even on their own terms the “missing link” language is misleading.

First, there is a 47-million-year gap between Ida and the first true humans, appearing 100,000 years ago. Ida is 44 million years removed from the earliest hominids—“Lucy,” for example, a 3.18-million-year-old specimen unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974. Consequently, making the connection between Ida and modern man requires not a “link,” but an intercontinental superhighway.

Second, the language itself is misleading. Mark Henderson, science editor of TimesOnline, himself a committed Darwinist, makes this point:

There is no such thing as the missing link. For all its popular appeal the concept has no meaning in science because there is no fossil that can fully explain an evolutionary transition all on its own. Even in the plural the phrase can be misleading because evolution is supremely well attested in the fossil record...If some of the pieces have still to be found, the overall picture is perfectly clear. Thousands of fossils can still be thought of as missing links because their discovery adds to understanding of how evolutionary trees branch out and older species give rise to new ones.9

Darwinian biologist PZ Myers posted this on his blog, Pharyngula:

The whole “missing link” category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t. There is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge.10

Notice the claims implicit in the remarks of both of these evolutionary scientists: 1) The roads that link destinations on the Darwinian map cannot be seen, only inferred from fragmentary evidence, yet 2) the evolutionary road map itself is not in question. These comments raise two central questions: What is a “transitional form,” and how do we know when we have one?

When Is a “Transition” Really a Transition?

According to Darwinism, the development of living things was a slow, gradual process advancing by minuscule steps over long stretches of time. If you could collapse the process through time-lapse photography, it would look like an animated cartoon made the old fashioned way: a series of images—each slightly modified from the one before—flashing in sequence to create a fluid, visual story of descent with modification.

Each “page” in this sequence would be a transition. The story for any particular branch of the evolutionary tree would be made up of thousands upon thousands of steps of transition (“pages” of the animation), with each successive stage not only fully functional itself, but also better adapted to its environment than its predecessor.

Of course, no such animation exists because the fossil record has not provided paleontologists with the pages needed to create a fluid visual history. Even so, it still is possible, at least in principle, to reconstruct the account from fragmentary evidence. There are two different ways to look at this process.11

First, a fossil may be identified as transitional if it is closely connected in time with a series of other fossils, and the sequence—when taken as a whole—displays a gradual development from one kind into another. Fuz Rana, author of Who Was Adam?, explains what this would look like for human evolution:

To uphold the theory, the hominid fossil record should be rooted in a single knuckle-walking apelike primate that existed between 6 and 5 million years ago. Over time, a variety of hominids should appear in a branching, treelike pattern from this ancestral form, and a clear evolutionary pathway from this supposed ancestor to modern humans should be evident [documenting] the gradual emergence of the anatomical and behavioral traits that define humanity.12

An illustration may help here. If you fly over Orange County in Southern California at low altitude, you can clearly see the transition between the southbound 405 and the westbound 55 in Costa Mesa near my radio studio, followed by the link to the 73 toll road through Irvine to San Juan Capistrano, finally hooking up with Interstate 5 headed south to San Diego. The route consists of a series of connected segments that flow seamlessly, creating a clear course from Costa Mesa to points south. Even if small clouds or smog obstruct some of your vision, the section-by-section pathway is obvious.

This illustration parallels the first way of identifying evolutionary transitions: seeing gradual anatomical changes in the fossil record that document relatively unambiguous, evolutionary pathways that directly link one transition to its successor.

Darwinists readily acknowledge that this sort of evidence has not been forthcoming, though, as you can see, it is the kind of data required to give us confidence that any alleged ancestral relationship is credible.

In the absence of a gradual, step-by-step record of evolution, paleontologists have adopted a second approach to identifying transitions. On this method, if a fossil is midway in development between two other specimens (if it shares physical characteristics of both) and falls between them in time, it is considered transitional even if the distances in time are very great. This is the empirical situation paleontologists actually face when surveying the fossil record.

Note the second definition of “transitional form” implicit in the following statement about Ida: “The experts concluded Ida was not simply a lemur, but a ’lemur monkey,’ displaying a mixture of both groups, and therefore putting her at the very branch of the human line” [emphasis added].13 Simply because Ida’s bodily characteristics (morphology) rest between two groups on the Darwinian tree of life, she is immediately declared the common ancestor—the missing link—between both groups.

Tortured Logic

There is a serious problem with this approach, though. To illustrate, imagine yourself now flying tens of thousands of feet higher than your earlier pass over Orange County. Instead of scattered clouds, a massive front covers the continental U.S. save for occasional gaps that allow you to glimpse short pieces of highway every few hundred miles.

Your task is to determine which sections of road connect with each other to form routes to specific destinations like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle. Would you be justified in inferring a connection if one section in west Texas fell between a length of highway in central New Mexico and one in southern Arkansas as long as each section ran roughly in the same direction?

I think you can immediately see the peril of this approach. Clearly, there would be no way to tell from the empirical evidence alone which sections of road connected with other segments of highway to lead you to a specific destination. In the same way, how can we have confidence that one specimen in the fossil record is the ancestor of another specimen that is millions of years removed from it in time?

You might reason that, since the land mass is continuous, all roads must be connected in some way. But if you made that assumption flying over Hawaii, you’d be wrong. Hawaii is a cluster of islands. All highways do not connect, but branch out briefly and then stop at the shore.

The lesson here is simple: You must first know that the highways link up before you can trust that any particular segments of the roadway connect the route. By parallel, you must first assume that evolution is true before you can place alleged transitions in their “proper” evolutionary pathways.

This is precisely how paleontologists proceed. Henry Gee, Senior Editor in biological sciences for Nature, is candid about the problem of reconstructing evolutionary lineage given the fragmentary fossil record—a problem complicated by “deep time,” his term for the eons that may elapse between specimens.

Regardless, Gee is convinced we can “recognize various attributes that suggest kinship to humanity,” even though (since fossils never come with birth certificates) we “would never know whether this particular fossil represented your lineal ancestor.” What is the source of Gee’s confidence? “ not in doubt, because if we didn’t have ancestors, then we wouldn’t be here” [emphasis added].14

You can immediately see the problem with Gee’s approach. The minute you make his assumption, you corrupt the process. There is a big difference between demonstrating that a fossil might be transitional based on the empirical evidence itself, and declaring that a fossil probably is transitional because the paradigm requires it.

Simply put, fossils are declared transitions in virtue of the favorable connections they create on the Darwinian map. But whether or not life is connected in that way is the very thing at issue in the debate over evolution. Gee is arguing in a circle.

Of course, if you assume what you need to prove, it all makes sense. Your mind can easily fill in gaps, even when they are many and massive. When new information disqualifies one scenario, the pieces are merely moved around to suggest another.

Track the suggested pathways of human evolution displayed in National Geographic over the years and you’ll see what I mean. The map is constantly shifting. Routes originally thought to be on the superhighway to modern man are now considered evolutionary dead ends, but the underlying map is never in question.

More Problems

And there are other hazards to this approach. There is too much room for speculation, wishful thinking, and error. For example, here are three sections of “highway” that initially appear to be a convincing chronicle of the evolutionary transition from reptiles to birds:

Despite the visual depiction above (taken from the Nova website), paleontologists now know that Archaeopteryx could not have been the ancestor to modern birds because it shows up in the fossil record millions of years after true birds actually appear. Two crow-sized birds (referred to as Protoavis, or “first bird”) found in the Dockum Formation in Texas date 75 million years older than Archaeopteryx.15 Clearly, the child cannot come before the parent. Yet the illustration endures.

You might have noticed another problem with this diagram—one I caught quite by accident just as I was finishing this article. Look at the dates. Velociraptor is not the oldest fossil of the three, but the youngest. Nova explains the discrepancy this way:

Experts don’t know what Archaeopteryx’s closest dinosaur ancestor looked like—fossils haven’t yet been found—but they think it might have looked somewhat like Velociraptor (hence our showing it here, despite its much later age).

Why do the experts think that Archaeopteryx’s closest dinosaur ancestor looked like Velociraptor even though it had to exist 100 million years earlier? It must have. The Darwinian paradigm demands it.

Regardless of Nova’s assurances, given the discovery of Protoavis the empirical facts of the fossil record are exactly the opposite of Nova’s illustration: birds first, then Archaeopteryx, then Velociraptor crossing the finish line 40 million years later.

The Missing Link to the Missing Link?

Though Ida is a magnificent fossil that promises to yield a wealth of information for paleobiology, mapping out this Haplorrhine’s place in the grand scheme of Darwinian evolution is another matter entirely. Biologist Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution, puts the task in perspective:

There’s absolutely no way to know—and many Darwinists acknowledge this—whether in fact any other animals evolved from this one or not, much less humans. So the line of ancestry and descent is completely speculative.16

Despite the claim of Ida’s promoters that “This changes everything,” our three-step critical-thinking analysis indicates that the evidence itself fails to persuade. As scientists with a more sober outlook have pointed out, media claims exceed the facts. Further, even the most restrained assessments seem to be poisoned by the dangerous tendency to reason in a circle by assuming what evolutionists are required to prove, then offering it as evidence to support the ruling paradigm.

One could say it is just too early to assess this find thoroughly because the broad scientific analysis has just begun, and there is some merit to that qualification. For now, though, based on our three-step evaluation, it appears that Ida—as others before her—may be, as one wag put it, just another missing link to a missing link to a missing link.