“The Link,” or Science Fiction Double Feature: Dr. X Builds a Creature…

(Cue music.) Or, rather, a lemur. Almost every TV channel it seems ran a commercial announcing a documentary about the fossil find of the century, The Link, which will be encored on the History Channel tonight. “Ida,” as the female holotype of Darwinius masillae has been playfully dubbed, is the prehistoric prosimian that is the focus of attention. The story of her discovery is the stuff of every good science-fiction B-movie from the 1950s : A “secret study” conducted by an “international team of scientists,” has led to earth-shattering results that can only now be revealed to the world. Think Creature from the Black Lagoon (because of the fossil find) meets When Worlds Collide (because of the impact that will be felt on your everyday life) and you’ll be close to the stated importance of the program. All that’s missing are some Tesla coils, a hidden lair in a dead volcano, the fallout from an atomic explosion, and a UFO landing on the National Mall. Presumably such extra features, along with more specifics about the significance of her all too brief life — “a child when she died, but she’ll change history forever” — can be gathered from the just-released book, The Link.
It’s just a jump to the left…
Of the cladogram, I mean. There is one clade of primates called the Strepsirrhini (“wet noses”) that includes the lemurs, the dwarf and mouse-lemurs, the Aye-aye, the lorisids, and the galagos. Ida falls within this suborder according to one hypothesis.
With your hands on your hips…
You will kindly note the other clade of primates termed the Haplorrhini, the sister group of the strepsirrhines. This taxon of the “dry noses” contains the apes, monkeys, and tarsiers. An alternative phylogenetic hypothesis would place Darwinius at the base of this assemblage.
All the brouhaha thus boils down to whether Ida had a wet nose or a dry nose that — given her status as a transitional form — was occasionally runny. The theme of The Link is that the latter is a sure bet. For myself, regarding these two alternative evolutionary scenarios, I say…Let’s do the Time Warp again…
Anyhow, there I sat yesterday evening, with voyeuristic intention no less, my gin and tonic prepared and my lit cigarette firmly affixed in its black holder, shivering with antici……pation. For, indeed, I wanted to go up to the lab in order to see what’s on that slab. But it wasn’t the rain that was to blame for my later symptoms of underwhelment. No. It was that after all the commercial hoopla, I expected to hear a speech close to that given by the indefatigable Dr. Furter (Tim Curry) just prior to the dramatic vivification of his creature. That is, my expectation was to see and listen to a pronouncement much like this:
Tonight my conventional unconventionalists, you are to witness a new breakthrough in phylogenetic research and career paradise…is to be mine!
It was strange the way it happened. Suddenly you get a break…All the pieces seem to fit into place. What a sucker you’ve been…what a fool. The answer was there all the time [on the fossil market, that is]. It took a small accident to find it…an accident! And that’s how I discovered the secret, that elusive ingredient, that spark…that is
The Link. Yes. I have that knowledge. I hold the secret…to evolution itself!
My interest of course did not concern who actually said it. Or that he would be wearing a tee shirt and jeans as opposed to a green surgical smock over a corset and fishnets (and adorned with oversized pearls). Not at all. What I instead wanted to view was a program where the could-be’s and perhapses, the equivocations and qualifications, the oh so many “well, on the one hand…but, then again, on the other” semantic hedges, that are de rigueur in documentaries about evolution, had been dropped with an unabashed flair.
Is it not The Link? Does it not change everything? I asked.
Obviously, as no doubt anyone of you could have told me, my expectations were misplaced. Part of me also desired to see an animation of Ida throw a bone into the air and then have the scene immediately segue to that of a futuristic Pan Am spacejet on its way to an orbiting station called “Darwin 9000,” set to the opening strains of Johann Strauss II’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” I was mentally blending genres in my hopes, true, but in my defense the commercial had promised so very much.
Alas, the disappointment that soon arose in me after the documentary stemmed from the vagueness of it all…that The Link is actually a kind of, sort of, nth cousin mth removed of the side lineage that some hypothesize possibly gave rise to the distant ancestors of what quite conceivably became the hominid branch of the Darwinian tree. And to think that I could have been watching reruns of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or the cult classic, The Phantom of the Paradise.
To be certain, the authors of the PLoS One paper were appropriately circumspect in their paper, so one should not misconstrue my peeve as really being about the finer details of basal primate taxonomy. As far as I’m concerned, Ida may well be the transitional taxon linking the Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini. Fine. Who is going to get strung out — to again borrow a phrase from the illustrious Dr. Furter — if the Notharctidae and Cercamoniinae are rendered by implication paraphyletic, wastebasket taxonomic groupings? Who? Nor is there a limit to such theoretical gratuity…should someone even want to posit that each and every genus in the Cercamoniinae, from Anchomomys to Darwinius to Pronycticebus, is in its own right a missing link — the same way, you know, that everyone’s special — no complaint will be uttered from this quarter. Not so much as a peep.
Irksome, though, was the way in which an old story was sold as something profoundly novel. While watching it, I could almost hear the creator of this work of science fiction (defined by that definitive fount of knowledge Wikipedia as “science-based depictions of phenomena that aren’t necessarily accepted by mainstream science,” emphases mine) singing as the fossil was presented: In just seven days…I can make you a humaaaannnnnn. (My sincerest apologies to Richard O’Brien of the Rocky Horror Picture ShowR for the way I have twisted his lines and songs from the film.) But the issue is that a familiar feeling emerged while watching the piece, the one we have all had in the theater. It arises the moment you realize that you know the plot, the narrative. The only difference is that the characters and the actors playing them have changed, along with the music and the CGI effects. Eight years ago it was the Urwhale. Last year it was the Ursalamander. Last night it was the Urmonkey. Still, the same story…
That said, I would not have been so underwhelmed had someone just blurted out in the first few minutes — like the inimitable Charles Gray does at the end of Rocky Horror — the central theme of the documentary, that “crawling…on the planet’s face…some insects called the human race. Lost in time…lost in space…and meaning.”
R(Rated R) — For mature audiences only.

Richard Sternberg

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Sternberg is an evolutionary biologist with interests in the relation between genes and morphological homologies, and the nature of genomic “information.” He holds two Ph.D.'s: one in Biology (Molecular Evolution) from Florida International University and another in Systems Science (Theoretical Biology) from Binghamton University. From 2001-2007, he served as a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and from 2001-2007 was a Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Dr. Sternberg is presently a research scientist at the Biologic Institute, supported by a research fellowship from the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute. He is also a Research Collaborator at the National Museum of Natural History.