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Further Reading

COLUMN

The Big Ida

The Rise & Fall of Another Missing Link & Other Media Hype

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 Google.com 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:

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?

Hype Balloon Busted

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 Live-Science.com, “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.

Wetherington’s Whoppers

Ida’s story is a tragic one. Long ago, she was fossilized after falling victim to some unfortunate accident, only to suffer a far worse fate millions of years later—becoming the victim of an absurd case of media hype, making her the centerpiece of a crusade for Darwin. Sad to say, she does not represent an isolated case of evolutionists overstating the case for human evolution.

For example, during a hearing before the Texas State Board of Education in January 2009, anthropologist Ronald Wetherington (of Southern Methodist University) testified that human evolution has “arguably the most complete sequence of fossil succession of any mammal in the world. No gaps. No lack of transitional fossils. . . . So when people talk about the lack of transitional fossils or gaps in the fossil record, it absolutely is not true.” Wetherington then insistently told the board that there were no “weaknesses” in neo-Darwinism worth disclosing to students.

The data, I suggest, says otherwise.

Our genus Homo is supposedly descended from the australopithecines, an ape-like genus whose name literally means “southern ape.” Hominid fossils thus generally fall into one of two distinct categories: human-like fossils or ape-like fossils. What Wetherington failed to acknowledge was the current absence of transitional fossils to bridge the gap between ape-like and human forms.

In 2004, the late authoritative evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr conceded that the earliest fossils of our own genus Homo “are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap,” and that we do “not hav[e] any fossils that can serve as missing links.” The following year, two paleoanthropologists noted in Nature that the earliest fossil members of Homo have “been described as . . . ‘without an ancestor, without a clear past.’”

Likewise, an article in the Journal of Human Evolution concluded that the origin of Homo required “a genetic revolution” since “no australopithecine species is obviously transitional.” One commentator said this shows a “big bang theory” of human origins because “the first members of early Homo sapiens are really quite distinct from their australopithecine predecessors and contemporaries.”

Negative Reinforcement

Wetherington’s misstatements of the facts went further, as he told the Texas State Board that in the human evolutionary tree, “every fossil we find reinforces the sequence that we had previously supposed to exist rather than suggesting something different.” Yet the very first fossil he touted as “transitional”—the “Toumai skull”—refutes his claim.

When the Toumai skull was first reported in 2002, paleoanthropologists were presented with a dilemma. The skull was far too old for its modern appearance. But if evolutionists accepted it as a direct ancestor of humans, then many subsequent human ancestors would have to be thrown out of our family tree. Authority Bernard Wood lamented in Nature that if we place Toumai “at the base, or stem, of the modern human clade,” then the fossil “plays havoc with the tidy model of human origins.” Wood even observed that Toumai shows how “a single fossil can fundamentally change the way we reconstruct the tree of life.”

This doesn’t sound much like a fossil that “reinforces the sequence that we had previously supposed to exist.” And if that weren’t enough, some experts have suggested that Toumai is no evolutionary link, but merely the skull of a female gorilla.

Objectivity Overshadowed

Like evolutionist David Hillis, whom I critiqued in Salvo 9, Wetherington obviously overplayed his hand. But, considering Ida and other examples, why is this so common within the field of human origins?

The answer may be found in a 1981 article in the journal Science:

The field of paleoan-thropology 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 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 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. •

 

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