Missing Links

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/22/2013

The search for missing links assumes the truth of evolution. One big assumption is that similarities in the bodies imply a biogenetic relationship and ancestry.

When I pick up a newspaper and see that scholars have proof of things that seem to conflict with my faith, it sends a little shiver of concern up my spine. I am like everybody else in that regard.

There is an article I really enjoyed reading in the L.A. Times from August 17. The headline reads, “Bones of New Human Ancestor Found in Africa.” A lot of you probably shuddered just like me when you read that. How can I reply to this? How do I respond to this? How do I explain this? It seems that once again the Christian view of the world is being undermined by new scientific evidence.

I thoroughly enjoyed the article, in part because I am not in the least hostile to this kind of research. I like fossils. I enjoy that kind of thing. In fact, I’ve got a bunch of them around my house. I have a case with my Civil War bullets in it, pieces of mosaic that I got from the shores of the Mediterranean at Cesarea Philippi earlier this year when I was in the Holy Land. I’ve got the first edition of the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, signed by Grant himself just a couple of months before he died. I’ve got all kinds of fun things in there, but I’ve also got trilobites, a mammoth tooth, a chunk of fossilized dromedary tooth, fish and ferns, and all of that stuff.

I’m not the least intimidated by the idea that there were things that used to exist that don’t exist now, which left their imprint in stone because the fossilization process took place, and now we have these things. Some of them are bones of creatures that are rather large and bizarre, and in earlier times were a frustration for Christians because they didn’t want to admit that such a thing existed. They thought that most of them were frauds. Many Christians who want to cling to a creationist view of the world still want to dismiss these things as frauds, especially when it comes to the question of missing links in the evolutionary trail between a non-human ancestor and human beings as they are today.

For the most part there is a lot of confusion and speculation regarding these ancient ancestors or alleged missing links that need to be clarified so that you are not taken by surprise by these kinds of articles. The real question is not, what are the fossils? what have we found?, what do they look like? where are the bones in the fossil record? how old are they? The real question is, what do they mean with regards to man’s supposed evolutionary development?

Apparently, they have found a new fossil, one that is an alleged ancestor to human beings. The article states that researchers in Kenya and the United States unveiled the jaws, teeth and bones of several individuals belonging to the new pre-human species. Apparently, it was a species that combined ape-like facial features, such as primitive jaws and ears (although I don’t know how they can get the ears out of it because ears are soft features that fossil skulls don’t have). But in any event, they had large canine teeth (those are the ones just to the side of your incisors) that have characteristics of apes. But they have other characteristics that are more like human beings, like an upright posture.

The new discovery allegedly pushes back the earliest date when human ancestors are known to have walked upright on two legs by a half a million years. This new fossil is called Australopithecus anamensis. There is an older one called ramidus that is supposedly 4.4 million years old. But Australopithecus anamensis falls between ramidus , which is the oldest, and Australopithecines afarensis, which you know as Lucy. Lucy is the skeleton which was discovered a couple of years back and hailed as a significant find in human paleontology.

What are we to make of this and what evidence does this give us for human evolution? I’ll give you a quick sketch that will help you to understand what is the essential fossil evidence for evolution. Where do the missing links fall, and what is the specific question that we have to address in assessing this information?

It is easy to get very confused about all of this because we hear these names like Nebraska man, Piltdown man, Swanscombe Cro-Magnon, neanderthal, Pithecanthropus, Homo erectus, Lucy, and Australopithecines. What a jumble of words and names. How do we make sense of this?

First I need to clear up a common misconception among creationists. This misconception causes them to say things that are foolish, frankly. The misconception is this: Man evolved from apes. Evolution does not teach that man evolved from apes, it teaches that man and apes have a common ancestor. Apes are pongids; men are hominids, in other words, two-legged primates that walk upright. The search for the missing link is the search for this man-like or hominoid ancestor that is a precursor to both modern apes and modern human beings. In other words, where is the transitional form, the fork so to speak, where apes and man went off in different directions and that links man to an earlier precursor. This is the missing link that is spoken of.

There have been many missing links that have been suggested, and there is a tree of ancestry that has been drawn for human evolution. Not only has it been drawn, it has been redrawn a number of times, which is a concern and I will talk about that in a moment.

Keep in mind that what is at stake here is not the idea that humans evolved from apes, but that humans and apes evolved from a hominoid ancestor, a man-like/ape-like ancestor. Our quest, then, is for the missing link.

There is a problem looking for this missing link because you must already be committed to the idea that a missing link exists. This is an important observation because all analysis of early hominids are based on certain assumptions. The search assumes the truth of evolution, and it assumes, because of evolution, that if there are morphological similarities (similarities in the bodies) that these similarities imply a biogenetic relationship and ancestry.

That is why the article says that there are some similarities here in facial features, jaws, ears, canine teeth with apes; but there are characteristics that look like men—they walked upright, for example. Therefore this is seen to be a link in the evolutionary chain between the two particular kinds of creatures that this fossil seems to be similar to. There is the conclusion that this must be a link between the two because of the presumption of evolution when the similarities to apes and humans to a certain degree are observed.

Virtually all of these kinds of assessments start with the belief that evolution is true. I had an interesting conversation last weekend with Steve from Hollywood who is a paleontologist and an evolutionist. He made the valuable and fair point that you have to start somewhere. You’ve got to suggest a paradigm or picture of how it might have happened, and then you’ve got to see whether the parts fit into that picture.

My problem with this point is that the picture is not just suggested—the picture in this case being evolution—it is asserted as being the only possibility. Then the evidence is made to fit, much of the time, into the picture in order to affirm evolution. I think fossil men is an example of those cases.

Fossil men can be broken down into three different categories: mistakes, frauds, or possibly bona fide missing links.

Some of you might remember Nebraska man discovered in 1922 by Harold Cook. It was considered to be an authentic link. It inspired the illustration of a hairy, stooped caveman in the London News. It was estimated to be a million years old. Now, this whole reconstruction was based on one tooth that turned out to be the tooth of an extinct pig. Nebraska man was a mistake. Throw him out.

Then was Piltdown Man in 1912. He had an ape-like jaw and a human-like skull. He was estimated at half a million years old. The consensus of the world’s greatest authorities at the time was that Piltdown Man was indeed an authentic link in the evolution of man.

It wasn’t until almost 40 years later in 1950 that fluoride tests revealed the skull was only a few thousand years old, not 500,000. The jaw itself was only 40 years old. It turns out that Piltdown Man was not a mistake, he was a fraud. The skull was a human skull, a combination of a human and ape jaw, eight teeth were filled, and the bone was treated with iron salts to give the appearance of age. What’s incredible about that is that not only was this exposed as a fraud at the time and all of the scientific community acknowledged it as such, they were somewhat embarrassed.

In any event, there are two examples of either mistakes or frauds that are not in the running as missing links. So you can eliminate those.

I need to be careful to say that just because there were mistakes and frauds, that doesn’t discredit what might be true links. That doesn’t mean that everything is a mistake.

You also have Cro-Magnon Man, Neanderthal Man and Swanscombe Man. These are now considered to be Homo sapiens—modern men. Their brain capacity was actually larger than modern man. Their skeletal features are virtually indistinguishable from modern man. If you took any of these race of men, gave them a shave, dressed them up in a suit of clothes and walked them down Rodeo Drive, no one would take notice. In other words, they are modern men so you can’t really consider Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and Swanscombe as missing links because they are just like us, just different races that apparently died out some 100,000 years ago.

When you eliminate the frauds and mistakes on the one hand, and those things that are clearly modern men on the other hand, you are still left with a handful of genuine, bona fide candidates for links that take us back in our evolutionary history. This is where all the big names and fancy terminology come in, and this is where most of the confusion is.

One of the earliest of those transitional types was known as Pithecanthropus, or Homo erectus, apparently about 1.5 million years old. Homo erectus walked erect, that’s why they called it erect man, yet his brain size was between a man and an ape. He used crude tools. Several of Homo erectus were discovered at a number of different places and were given local names like Java Man, Heidelberg Man or Peking Man.

Following that, in 1932, there was another fossil found in India that was different. This was named Ramapithecus, 9 to 14 million years old. It consisted of several teeth and jaw fragments, and because the incisors and canine teeth of this creature, although ape-like, are smaller than those of modern apes. Some evolutionists consider this to be a form of hominid or along man’s evolutionary line, although there were problems with this. Some consider them just simply apes and ancient apes, but it still is a contender for man’s ancestry.

Australopithecines africanus was another that walked upright, also known as Eoanthropus or Homo habilus . The majority of these were found in East Africa by Richard Leakey. You might recall that name because of the Leakey family who has been significant in human paleontology over the last 60 years or so. Leaky believed that Africanus walked upright. So this was more evidence of an ancient human ancestor.

Finally, in 1974, Donald Johanson discovered a 40% skeleton, which is rather remarkable because most of these skeletons were not skeletons at all but just little bits and pieces of bones. He named this discovery Australopithaecus afarensis , or more popularly known as Lucy. She was unique because of her great age and also because of her completeness. Lucy was the earliest known hominid, and possibly the candidate for the first ancestral human.

Then there is this new finding, Australopithaecus anamensis. And the question is, where does anamensis go? It seems that anamensis is even older than Lucy.

What does all this mean? How do we stack these up in terms of human evolution? Does all of this bona fide, ancient fossil evidence of hominid creatures really support the fact that human beings evolved?

Well, answering the question is not so easy because there are a couple of problems. One of them is the problem of fossil evidence, which is acknowledged here in the article. “Fossils of such ancient ancestors are so rare, and the hints they offer of humanities gone so tantalizing, that many scientists spend their careers jousting over the proper interpretation of ancient teeth, bone chips and dust.”

I think it was Hugh Ross who said that the hominid bones in all the world wouldn’t fill one large coffin, and the very best skeletons are only 40% complete. So we’re really working with a paucity of evidence, which makes the job much more difficult. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is the problem of dating, which is critical because dates that are given are valuable because they offer what might be independent evidence that a new fossil form is temporally intermediate to two other forms. If we have a form that is more advanced than an older form and less advanced than a younger one, then it seems to fit time-wise in the evolutionary timeline.

Now, if we have a separate date that dates it as younger than the more primitive form and older than the more advanced form, that’s all the better. But there is a problem there too. Even among evolutionists there is a debate about the dating of these fossils. The article says, “But several researchers suggested this week that those two fossils actually may belong to a later species such as afarensis (Lucy). It is a challenge to date such ancient fossils precisely even under the best circumstances.”

Here’s the point: There are lots of possible missing links. Some of them can be disregarded because they are phonies or mistakes. Others you can disregard because they aren’t links to modern men, they are modern men. But there still is a group of fossil men left that possibly qualify as transitions. The problem is that nobody knows how these things fit together. All of the possible scenarios about how they fit together are based on a commitment to evolution, to begin with, which makes the findings suspect.

Secondly, these possible scenarios are constantly being shifted and changed, a it turns out that many that were considered missing links in the past actually lived at the same time with each other, therefore they weren’t ancestral to each other. That’s the problem with the interpretation of the this evidence.

I see no good reason why all of these primates could not be considered to be contemporaneous—some apes, some forms of true men, some which died out with time as some forms/races of men have, and some of which have endured, as many races of men have. In other words, there is another explanation for the evidence that fits perfectly what a person would expect if God created. Yet that alternative is never considered. Why not? Because evolution happened. It must have happened.

The history of hominid paleontology is a history of shifting charts, shifting theories, and many uncertainties. Simply put, it doesn’t fall neatly together into a nice evolutionary package, and it never has. The evidence supports human evolution only because it must, because evolution is assumed at the outset.

There is a wonderful quote in this article which I think is disarmingly honest.

“Could the new species be the ancestors not of modern human beings, but of the great apes of contemporary Africa? Could the fossil fragments exhumed from several sites be the mixed bones of more than one species? Do the three early hominid species now identified lie in the same lineage? Or are they just distant relatives? Peter Andrews, an expert on early apes and human origins at the Natural History Museum in London sums it up this way, ‘It seems to me that this fossil raises more questions than it answers.’”