Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Does This Look Like One of Your Relatives?

I’m not going to waste a lot of time critiquing the latest claim that scientists have discovered the “missing link” which “proves” that human beings descended from monkeys. But here’s a broad outline of the facts:

What we see above is a 47-million-year-old fossilized skeleton of a “lemur monkey” affectionately named Ida. Why is Ida so special?

She has “human-like nails instead of claws” and “opposable big toes." Plus the shape of her talus bone (which is in the foot) apparently resembles that of humans.

That’s all very nice and good. But to be honest, I’m struggling to emotionally connect with this 1 foot, 9 inch specimen whose head and tail reminds me of a T-Rex (and looks like no human I’ve ever met)?

While some claim that the impact of Ida is “like an asteroid falling down to Earth,” I’m not quite willing to be so dramatic. After all, here’s another way to interpret the evidence:

1) 47 million years ago, there was a lemur monkey who had nails, opposable big toes, and a state-of-the art talus bone.

2) The end.

See what I’m getting at? Is it not possible that what we’re witnessing here is just another monkey? That it has nothing to do with humans? Or am I missing something?

Apparently, I'm not the only the one who's skeptical, because NBC’s chief science correspondent Robert Bazell is also ignoring the hype. In this article, he quotes Dr. Tim White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. White said, "Three words: Over the top."

Robert Bazell continues:

“The people who promoted this event make a big deal out of the possible place this newly discovered fossil plays in the evolution leading to humans. But if you read their actual scientific paper in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal ( the scientists make no such claim.

“The big question about this finding, White said, ‘is whether it is the 'Mother of All Monkeys?’ and that is not even resolved. With years of study the scientists will learn whether this is the creature that stands at the intersection of one group of primates that went on to be best represented by lemurs today or another group that went on to be chimps and humans. But they don't know yet."

I guess the message is: “Let’s not get carried away here.”

Uh oh….Too late...

In my Apr. 23 blog post, Materialism is Dead: Now What?, I wrote:

I've broken down neo-Darwinism into four main ideas: (1) that life can be produced "by chance" in a soup of chemicals, 2) that life can come from non-living matter, 3) that genetic mutation is the key to the creation to new species, and 4) there is a logical evolutionary continuum between apes and humans.

Literally 150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there is still ZERO evidence for the first 3 tenets, and surprisingly little evidence for the final one.

Even with this week’s events, that analysis remains intact.

**UPDATE, MAY 22, 2009**

I like this comment at Uncommon Descent:

"It’s just hard to believe that all of humanity (including Mozart, Newton, Da Vinci, etc) descended from what looks like a piece of roadkill someone peeled off an interstate."

A few more articles expressing some much-needed skepticism towards the "missing link"...

Science writer Brian Switek...

"The bottom line is that the hypothesis that Darwinius is closer to anthropoids than tarsiers or omomyids does not have strong support… The grand claims about it being our ancestor, though, can not be upheld as true… They have gone hand-in-hand with the History Channel to create an aura of sensationalism around the fossil…I can only hope that Darwinius will eventually receive the careful analysis it deserves."

Chris Beard, who is the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History:
"Ida is not a 'missing link' – at least not between anthropoids and more primitive primates. Further study may reveal her to be a missing link between other species of Eocene adapiforms, but this hardly solidifies her status as the 'eighth wonder of the world.'
London Times science correspondent Mark Henderson:

"There is a feeling out there that publication has been rushed, and that the data don't fully support the sweeping claims that are being made.

"It is far from certain that the adapids, the group to which Ida belongs, are the ancestors of modern monkeys, apes and humans. The consensus view is that the adapids were an evolutionary dead end, and that anthropoids (monkeys etc) are the descendents of animals that looked more like modern tarsiers. This would be an issue even if this discovery had been announced in the normal way. But it's especially serious given the publicity blitz behind Ida.

"PLoS ONE, like most journals, normally release their papers to journalists under embargo, to give them good time to prepare a story and consult independent experts.

"For media outlets that had bought the rights, such as the BBC, it was a different story -- full access, weeks or even months in advance. Is it really right that full embargoed access to important and controversial research findings should be restricted on the say-so of the authors, to media that best suit their publicity strategy? Especially when money has changed hands?"

And finally, a parody by science writer Ed Yong...:

“Yesterday, the entire world changed noticeably as the media, accompanied by some scientists, unveiled a stunning fossilised primate. The creature has been named Darwinius masillae, but also goes by Ida, the Link, the Chosen One and She Who Will Save Us All.”

**UPDATE, MAY 27, 2009**

If you ain’t bored yet…here's even more Ida news...

From Times Online...

Christophe Soligo, a specialist in early primate evolution at University College London, is an admirer of Ida – but concerned over what he fears may be hype.

“This is an absolutely amazing fossil,” he said. “But to suggest she might be the missing link in human evolution is simply too much. There is a great risk of discovery bias, where we read too much into a good fossil just because we have it available.”

Robert Foley, professor of human evolution at Cambridge University, believes many people misunderstand the huge timescales involved in assessing fossils.

“This animal lived around 47 million years ago but human-like creatures only appeared in the last 2 million years,” he said. “That’s a gap of around 45 million years with many other species lying between us and that era. Any one of them could be called a missing link. Really, the term is meaningless.”

The science and the hype have had one unexpected benefit, however - they have unified in outrage two famous rival paleontologists: Elwyn Simons of Duke University, who maintains that primates emerged out of Africa, and Christopher Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, who counter-argues for an Asian Eden.

“Dr Simons phoned me for the first time in 10 years to share his outrage about this malarkey and, for the first time in a decade, I agree with him,” said Beard last week.

“First, the paper is shoddy scholarship because it avoids comparing Darwinius masillae with similar fossils to put it into a proper context. The roll-out was extraordinary and it is now clear that the scientists were under pressure to meet the showbusiness deadlines. The tail was wagging the dog– or maybe the lemur.”

Simons does not buy the spin either. “It’s absurd and dangerous,” he said. “This is all bad science and it plays into the hands of the creationists, who look for any excuse to discredit evolution.

“Darwinius is a wonderful fossil, but it is not a missing link of any kind. It represents a dead end in evolution. It tells us nothing that we do not already know, except that people will be overwhelmed by hype.”

**UPDATE, JUL. 21, 2009**

Scientific American pours on

“On May 19 the world met a most unlikely celebrity: the fossilized carcass of a housecat-size primate that lived 47 million years ago in a rain forest in what is now Germany… Ida’s significance was described in no uncertain terms as the missing link between us humans and our primate kin… But a number of outside experts have criticized these claims. Not only is Ida too old to reveal anything about the evolution of humans in particular (the earliest putative human ancestors are a mere seven million years old), but she may not even be particularly closely related to the so-called anthropoid branch of the primate family tree that includes monkeys, apes and us.”

“Critics concur that Ida is an adapiform, but they dispute the alleged ties to anthropoids. Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago charges that some of the traits used to align Ida with the anthropoids do not in fact support such a relationship. Fusion of the lower jaw, for instance, is not present in the earliest unequivocal anthropoids, suggesting that it was not an ancestral feature of this group. Moreover, the trait has arisen independently in several lineages of mammals—including some lemurs—through convergent evolution. Martin further notes that Ida also lacks a defining feature of the anthropoids: a bony wall at the back of the eye socket. ‘I am utterly convinced that Darwinius has nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of higher primates,’ he declares.

“Adapiforms ‘are related to the strepsirrhine group of living primates that include lemurs from Madagascar and galagos [bush babies] and lorises from Africa and Asia,’ insists paleontologist Richard F. Kay of Duke University. Claims by the authors to the contrary notwithstanding, he adds, ‘they are decidedly not in the direct line leading to living monkeys, apes and humans.’ Kay and others believe that a primitive primate from China called Eosimias is a better candidate ancestor of anthropoids than is Darwinius.”

**UPDATE, OCT. 23, 2009**

New article on Ida Fossil Controversy: Oh Ida, Where Have Thee Gone?

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