“Ida” is being touted by scientists as “the missing link” in the evolutionary fossil record. (A good Wall Street Journal article sums up the find).
Is Ida really a or even the missing link? You would think it was as certain as death, taxes, and a disappointing Giants’ season. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Here are three points that I think give us good reason to question the importance of the discovery of Ida:
1. The discovery of Ida is only profound in the context of a pre-assumed evolutionary chain.
The WSJ article sums this up:
Anthropologists have long believed that humans evolved from ancient ape-like ancestors. Some 50 million years ago, two ape-like groups walked the Earth. One is known as the tarsidae, a precursor of the tarsier, a tiny, large-eyed creature that lives in Asia. Another group is known as the adapidae, a precursor of today’s lemurs in Madagascar.
Based on previously limited fossil evidence, one big debate had been whether the tarsidae or adapidae group gave rise to monkeys, apes and humans. The latest discovery bolsters the less common position that our ancient ape-like ancestor was an adapid, the believed precursor of lemurs.
This means that the discovery of Ida really only further reinforces an anthropological presupposition (that “there is a link between these species, we just have to find it…”).
2. The assumption of this evolutionary chain colors the interpretation of the evidence.
Again, the WSJ article says:
Since the fossilized creature found in Germany didn’t have features like a tooth comb or grooming claw, it could be argued that it gave rise to monkeys, apes and humans, which don’t have these features either.
Again, the connection between Ida and monkeys, apes, and my litle brother is based upon a presupposed chain of evolutionary history, and this gives rise to the prevailing thinking, which sees that Ida has certain features and doesn’t have others and that she must therefore belong to a transitionary species. But this is not even close to lock-and-key evidence. Maybe Ida and her little German friends simply belong to an extinct species that doesn’t fit into a pre-drawn box of convenient catergories.
3. There is no consensus about Ida, even among those who assume the existence of the evolutionary chain.
The WSJ article says:
Scientists won’t necessarily agree about the details either. “Lemur advocates will be delighted, but tarsier advocates will be underwhelmed” by the new evidence, says Tim White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The debate will persist.”
Clearly, Ida does not speak clearly with her fossilized jaws, and it seems unwarranted to put the weight of our human identity upon her little back.
It could be she is just a marvelously preserved dead animal.