Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Missing Link?

For once the media seems to be latching onto a science story today, which is great to see; unfortunately some publications seem to be over egging the custard when explaining the significance of it. The discovery they are reporting is a 47 million year old fossil primate (Darwinius masillae) called "Ida" (the specimen is a female), a good example of the story can be found here at National Geographic magazine.

The thing that's odd in these articles is the incessant reference to a "missing link", to understand why this is irksome you need to appreciate that *every* fossil could be called a "link", "missing link" is just a piece of journalistic fantasy first coined by those anti-evolution chumps the creationists in a characteristic haze of ignorance. Usually the term applies to the idea that there should be a fossil that shows an animal that is half human and half monkey, thereby proving a "link" between our species and lower primates, to be missing you have to envisage the whole of evolution as a chain, this notion is of course nonsense, the fact of the matter is that there is a continuous and unbroken branching tree of ancestors (trillions of them) from modern humans like you and I right the way back to (probably) RNA based microbes at the base, every fossil we find is a single infinitesimal log slice out of a branch somewhere on that tree. It would be equally valid to say that Ida is a missing link to chimps, gorillas, rhesus monkeys, orang-utans and all other modern primates, the link to our narrow line is only a small part of the story. There is some chatter that Ida is a "direct ancestor" of humans, without DNA we have no way of knowing this, one thing is for sure though, judging by her life stage (juvenile) at death, as an individual animal she probably had no "direct" ancestors at all.

Ida is never the less a very important fossil, 47 million years puts her way back deep into the primate tree and at a major branch point in primate history, the state of preservation is utterly awe inspiring; the fact that we can see the outline traces of fur and the stomach contents is very unusual and perhaps allows us to consider this discovery from a more human perspective for a moment. Here was a little animal, not quite adult still with some baby teeth and perhaps still being cared for by her parents, a little animal who stumbled into a muddy lake one day after having feasted on berries and leaves in the forest. There she lay for millennia, ice ages came and went, mountain ranges rose and fell, continents drifted and the entire span of recorded human history flashed by in 0.02% of her total resting time; then on a day that wasn't special for any reason in particular, a distant relative cleaved her remains from the rock and released her sleepy bones into the warmth of the sun again.

Fossils are so cool!


Elizabeth said...

I'm glad you explained that. I was reading about Ida yesterday and wondering what it all meant as far as the 'missing link' is concerned.

Oranjepan said...

A science story or a commercial cross-promotion with a an Attenborough documentary and book?

Don't call me cynical as I think the quality of the specimen makes it deserving of the attention dor pure educational purposes irrespective of any wider significance.

That said I'm all for giving recognition to tree-climbers :D

Steve Borthwick said...

O - I find myself agreeing with your sentiment; its a tricky one, from one perspective you could say it's publicity so what's the problem; on the other hand the reporting quality has been patchy and there are obvious commercial angles to it.

As you say, it's a cool fossil regardless of the hype and if it encourages a few more kids to go down to Dorset on a Sunday to scratch around for ammonites on the beach then I would be happy with that.