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The Rise and Fall of Missing Link Superstar "Ida"

By Casey Luskin

This past May 20, there was a good possibility that your day started something like this: You crawled out of bed, logged on to the internet, and soon discovered that Google had changed its banner graphic to display the image of a small, long-tailed fossil primate.

Being the internet-savvy user that you are, you immediately recalled that it’s not uncommon for to change its design to observe holidays or honor famous historical figures. Nonetheless, you wondered what this cute brown mammal was doing on Google’s home page, so you clicked on the link.

Little did you know that this innocent fossil graphic was not just any link. It was a lure that had successfully led you into a carefully orchestrated PR campaign involving leading paleontologists, top TV networks, the internet’s most popular website (Google), and numerous other media outlets in a coordinated effort to promote evolution to the public.

The fossil, dubbed “Ida” by her discoverers, was introduced to the media as the “eighth wonder of the world” whose “impact on the world of palaeontology” would be like “an asteroid falling down to Earth.”

Famed BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough got involved, making a documentary titled Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link, to explain why Ida is “the link that connects us directly with the rest of the animal kingdom.” Co-sponsored by both the BBC and the History Channel, the program attracted a massive audience.

For those who don’t get their information from cable TV, Ida’s promoters also held a press conference generating a flood of news stories:
  • Good Morning America and Nightline covered the fossil.
  • National Geographic called her the “critical ‘missing link’ species.”
  • ScienceDaily and a Discover magazine commentator praised Ida as our “47-million-year-old human ancestor.”
  • Skynews told the public that “proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
  • With Google’s eager assistance, Ida went viral: One of the leading search terms that day was “missing link found.” Even the Drudge Report was reeled in by the media frenzy, briefly featuring Ida as the headline story.

    In a statement to the New York Times, a lead scientist in Ida’s team justified the hype: “Any pop band is doing the same. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

    Perhaps, but at what cost?

    One of the scientists who studied Ida admitted to the Wall Street Journal that “there was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study. It’s not how I like to do science.” Another scientist told, “The PR campaign on this fossil is I think more of a story than the fossil itself. . . . It’s a very beautiful fossil, but I didn’t see anything in this paper that told me anything decisive that was new.”

    Other critics weren’t so kind. One primate paleontology expert bluntly stated, “It’s not a missing link, it’s not even a terribly close relative to monkeys, apes and humans, which is the point they’re trying to make.” The expert further charged that the scientists promoting Ida “ignored 15 years of literature.”

    If someone bothered to delve into Ida’s original scientific paper, he would learn what the literature actually says. Scientists in the journal PLoS One wrote that Ida “could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved,” but added that “we are not advocating this here” (emphases added).

    Indeed, twelve of the sixteen primate traits that the scientists were able to identify classified Ida with monkeys. Ida’s website boasts of her monkey-like opposable toes, thumbs, foot-bones, face, and 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.

    Ida Falls from Her Throne
    Ida was originally hailed as the "eighth wonder of the world" whose "impact on the world of palaeontology" would be like "an asteroid falling down to Earth"? She was promised to be "the link that connects us directly with the rest of the animal kingdom." She was touted on a History Channel / BBC documentary, but then there was the bust.

    Well, in early 2010, Ida's critics finally started publishing technical articles critiquing the hyped view pushed on the public during Ida's unveiling in 2009. A March, 2010 news release from the University of Texas, "Recently Analyzed Fossil Was Not Human Ancestor As Claimed, Anthropologists Say," explains:A fossil that was celebrated last year as a possible "missing link" between humans and early primates is actually a forebearer of modern-day lemurs and lorises, according to two papers by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin, Duke University and the University of Chicago.

    In an article now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution, four scientists present evidence that the 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae is not a haplorhine primate like humans, apes and monkeys, as the 2009 research claimed.

    They also note that the article on Darwinius published last year in the journal PLoS ONE ignores two decades of published research showing that similar fossils are actually strepsirrhines, the primate group that includes lemurs and lorises.

    "Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution," says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. "Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What's amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it's nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn't already know from fossils of closely related species."
    Will BBC and The History Channel now publish documentaries retracting their prior claims about Ida's importance as a "human ancestor," or will they leave the public with the impression that Ida is a "missing link"? Perhaps they might publish a documentary about the scientific community's tendency to overhype fossils as part of a crusade for Darwin. I'm not holding my breath.

    Ida's Bust Maroons Retroactive Confessions of Ignorance about Primate Evolution
    There's one final tale to be told regarding "Ida." As I've discussed before, it's often only when evolutionists think they have found some "missing link" that they feel safe enough to admit how little they actually knew about the alleged evolutionary transition in question. What happens when the link goes bust--as we've seen is the case with Ida? We're left with lots of admissions of ignorance about evolution and no links to fill the now-exposed gap.

    This is why Colin Tudge's book about Ida, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor (Little Brown & Co, 2009), is so intriguing. He thought he had a missing link to explain the early evolution of primates on the line that supposedly led to humans, so the book is filled with would-be retroactive confessions of evolutionist ignorance about primate evolution. For example: Although, because of gaps in the fossil record, paleontologists have had to hypothesize about what happened after the primitive primate, they have determined that by 40 million years ago, there were, as we know, two distinct primate groups: those with wet noses--lemurs and lorises; and those with dry noses--tarsiers and apes and monkeys. At some point during the Eocene, this important split in primate evolution occurred; without it, humankind as we know it would not exist. Until the fossil in the photograph was found [Ida], no complete skeleton had ever been discovered of an "in-between" species to prove this split. [Jørn] Hurum was fast concluding that the specimen he was looking at could be one of the holy grails of science--the "missing link" from the crucial time period.

    (Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, p. 13 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)
    Except, of course, it now is becoming clear that Jørn Hurum (the Norwegian paleontologist who works at the Geological museum of the University of Oslo, who wrote the foreword to The Link) was a little too fast concluding that he'd found a "missing link," meaning that apparently we don't necessarily have "an 'in-between' species to prove this split."

    Tudge continues to admit the lack of fossils evidence for primate evolution during the Eocene: Radical transitions in primate evolution occurred throughout the Eocene, from 56 million to 34 million years ago. Many scientists argue that the primates that were in the direct line of humans must have lived during the Eocene in sub-Saharan Africa, but exactly what kind of primates those would have been is not known because there are huge gaps in the fossil record. This is where studying Ida in her entirety and with a view forward opens up a new chapter in primate evolution. Just as Ida complicates primate history, she gives us hints of where a transition occurred in the great story line of primates, because she allows us to see a combination of complex primate traits all in one skeleton.

    (Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 101-102 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)
    Except now, critics are saying things like, "Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution," and, "What's amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it's nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn't already know from fossils of closely related species."

    And what comes after the Eocene? The Link asks "what do we actually know about the post-Eocene primates?" and admits in its answer: "The short answer to this question, What do we know? Is, as ever, Not much." (p. 173) More specifically, The Link admits the paucity of fossil evidence documenting primate evolution from the past 5 million years: The primate fossil record is so sparse that only around fifty significant specimens exist from the past 5 million years. The most famous is Lucy, the 3.2 million year old australopithecine discovered by Donald Johanson in November 1974. Lucy revolutionized science by providing the first evidence of a primate that walked upright--a crucial link in our own evolution that distinguishes us from all other primates. But even Lucy, considered a remarkable specimen, was only 40 percent complete.

    (Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 16-17 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)
    These sorts of admissions come readily when you think you have, as The Link quotes Jørn Hurum saying about Ida, "the icon for the early evolution of primates," (p. 243) which will "be the image of our early evolution for generations to come." (p. 229) But now that Ida has gone bust, where does the evidence actually stand?

    Lessons Learned
    Considering Ida and other examples, why is overhype so common within the field of human origins?

    The answer may be found in a 1981 article in the journal Science: "The field of paleoanthropology naturally excites interest because of our own interest in origins. And, because conclusions of emotional significance to many must be drawn from extremely paltry evidence, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the scientific disputes raging in the field. ... The primary scientific evidence is a pitifully small array of bones from which to construct man's evolutionary history. One anthropologist has compared the task to that of reconstructing the plot of War and Peace with 13 randomly selected pages. Conflicts tend to last longer because it is so difficult to find conclusive evidence to send a theory packing."

    (Constance Holden, "The Politics of Paleoanthropology," Science, p.737 (August 14, 1981).)
    The study of human origins thus exemplifies a field in which scientific objectivity can be overshadowed by the modern-day equivalent of ancestor worship.

    The lesson here is simple: Maintain a healthy skepticism regarding 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.