Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ida y Vuelta: a Tail?

It was all over the news and the net yesterday: the missing link has been found! Darwin has finally been proven right!

Hold on a minute. There's no "missing link"--we have example after example of the evolutionary forebearers of Homo sapiens. Evolution was not in question--we already knew Darwin was right. Ida (the name of the fossil found) is not a direct ancestor of humans--the fossil represents a transitional form between lemurs and other apes.

I do not mean to denigrate what is obviously a very important and exceptionally well-preserved fossil that may provide important insights into primate evolution. My objection is to the media frenzy that gives the impression that this is the final resolution to a scientific debate about evolution that a) never existed and b) would not have been resolved by the fossil in question if it did exist.

We have Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Australopithecus afarensis, and more. Why is Ida, who isn't even our evolutionary forebearer, the "missing link"? I have a theory: it's about the tail. I think that somehow, through all the monkey-human-common-ancestor debate, through the discovery of early hominids, through all of the discussion about increasing cranial capacity and tool usage, everyone has really been wondering "what about the tail? What happened to the tail?" The media was holding out for something it could tout as a human ancestor (or something close enough) with a tail to finally declare the "missing link" found and the evolution debate settled.

You might say that this is all for the best--that the false debate, however belatedly, is finally being put to rest with one last hurrah. But here's a scenario that makes be cringe just to think about it: suppose it turns out that this fossil, which was recovered from a private collection, turns out to be something other than the specimen that the scientist in question thinks it is. Scientists makes mistakes--that's what peer review is for. Then suddenly we've breathed new life into a misconception about evolution that has been hanging around for way too long already.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I agree. Although the specimen is gorgeous and certainly helps to fill in the blanks in early hominid evolution, the "missing link" thing is bogus. Besides, doesn't every new transitional fossil just open up two more "holes" in the fossil record to a creationist?

    Also, I'm sure you saw this: