What 'Ida' give for a missing link

Casey Luskin
Washington D.C. Examiner and San Francisco Examiner
June 8, 2009
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As a follower of the evolution debate, I love it when new “missing links” are found.
 
Not only does the media plunge headfirst into a crusade for Darwin, but suspiciously, it is only after unveiling the breakthrough that evolutionary biologists admit how precious little evidence they previously held for the evolutionary transition in question.
 
Take the recent media coverage of a fossil primate named “Ida,” hailed as the “eighth wonder of the world,” whose “impact on the world of palaeontology” is being compared to “an asteroid falling down to Earth.”
 
Google.com changed its home page to pay homage to the fossil. Famed BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is making a documentary to proselytize for Ida, “the link that connects us directly with the rest of the animal kingdom.”
 
According to Ida’s PR team, this hype is acceptable. “Any pop band is doing the same. We have to start thinking the same way in science,” said one of the lead scientists studying Ida to The New York Times.

Yet accompanying this marketing and evangelism are the customary retroactive admissions of ignorance about our prior knowledge of evolution. Attenborough said that when Darwin-skeptics previously demanded a link to prove human evolution, “the link they would have said until now was missing.”
 
Similarly, Ida’s website (every missing link has a personalized website these days) admits that, “before Lucy,” the famous australopithecine hominid fossil, “there are massive gaps in the fossil record, and scientists have only had fragments of fossils to study.” 
 
So there you have it. Before this fossil, “the link … was missing.”  There were “massive gaps,” and scientists “only had fragments” upon which to base their evolutionary hypotheses.
 
Why didn’t we hear about these gaps before? If you believe the preaching, Ida solves all our problems; as National Geographic reported, she is the “critical ‘missing link’ species.” As is too-often the case, this is media hype.
 
If one bothers to delve into the actual scientific paper, one sees the admission that Ida “could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here....” 
 
Moreover, 12 of the 16 primate traits which the scientists were able to study classified Ida with monkeys. Ida’s website boasts of her monkey-like opposable toes and thumbs, monkey-like foot-bones, monkeylike face, and monkey-like binocular vision.
 
By now you should be getting the picture: Ida was a young, small-brained, monkey-like primate, whose evolutionary importance is anything but clear. 
 
Forgive me for being skeptical of the media’s claims that “proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin's theory of evolution” (Skynews) or that Ida is “a 47-million year old human ancestor” (ScienceDaily).
 
She may be an exceptionally well-preserved fossil, but she’s hardly cause for apocalyptic comparisons to running for asteroid shelters.
 
We’ve seen this kind of ancestor worship in the media before.  In 2006, paleontologists reported bones from the hominid species Australopithecus anamensis.
 
After finding a couple of teeth of “intermediate” size and declaring the fossil a “missing link,” MSNBC called it “the most complete chain of human evolution so far.”  In another retroactive confession of ignorance, biologists finally admitted that before the fossil, “the origins of Australopithecus were obscured.”
 
If a couple 4 million year old teeth of “intermediate size” make “the most complete chain of human evolution so far” then I feel quite comfortable being a scientific skeptic of Darwinian evolution.
 
Even the late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr conceded that the earliest fossils of our genus Homo “are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap,” without “fossils that can serve as missing links.”
 
Whether conscious or unplanned, Darwinian confessions of retroactive ignorance make the reasonable observer wonder, How strong is the evidence for Darwinism today?
 
The lesson is simple: keep a healthy skepticism of media hype over “missing links.” Anyone who believes the hype that we've found the “missing link” has either forgotten history or isn't looking very carefully at the evidence.
 
Casey Luskin is an attorney with a B.S. and M.S. in Earth Sciences from the University of California at San Diego.  He writes at evolutionnews.org.