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The Evolution of “Ida”: Darwinius masillae Fossil Downgraded From Ancestor to Pet

A few months ago, “Ida” was sitting on top of the world. She’d been lauded as the “eighth wonder of the world” whose “impact on the world of palaeontology” would be like “an asteroid falling down to Earth.” Falling, indeed. On October 21, Nature published an article announcing that “[a] 37-million-year-old fossil primate from Egypt, described today in Nature, moves a controversial German fossil known as Ida out of the human lineage.” Wired also published a story, noting that, “[f]ar from spawning the ancestors of humans, the 47 million-year-old Darwinius seems merely to have gone extinct, leaving no descendants,” further quoting a paleontologist calling Ida “a third cousin twice removed … only very distantly related to living and fossil anthropoids.”

But Ida was given quite a ride by the mainstream media, while it lasted. Originally:

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. …

  • 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.

Casey Luskin, “The Big Ida: The Rise & Fall of Another Missing Link & Other Media Hype,” Salvo 10 (Autumn, 2009).

It only took a few months for Ida to go from celebrity-status “missing link” to just another extinct lower primate. As Nature is now reporting:

Teeth and ankle bones of the new Egyptian specimen show that the 47-million-year-old Ida, formally called Darwinius masillae, is not in the lineage of early apes and monkeys (haplorhines), but instead belongs to ancestors (adapiforms) of today’s lemurs and lorises.

“Ida is as far away from the human lineage as you can get and still be considered a primate,” says Christopher Beard, a palaeoanthropologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in either research team.

Rex Dalton, “Fossil primate challenges Ida’s place,” Nature, Vol. 461:1040 (October 21, 2009).

The good news is that it seems that cooler heads are now prevailing regarding Ida. Wired notes that the current reporting about disagreements over Ida are an improvement, “the sort of dialogue that was missing from Darwinius‘ overhyped debut.”

Where else have we seen an “overhyped debut” of a fossil, without “dialogue”? Exhibit A: “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus).

In fact, with its article titled “Humanity Has New 4.4 Million-Year-Old Baby Mama,” Wired was one of the numerous major media outlets assisting in the overhyped debut of Ardi. But most of those abettors didn’t say anything about the ambiguity and dissent over Ardi’s reconstructed skeleton. It seems that other missing links also debut with a lot of hype and without much dialogue.

Calm, collected, and careful scientific analysis is going on somewhere in the background here, but little scientific dissent from the media’s storyline is being disclosed to the public. Instead, we see that the media, working with certain evangelistic tribes within the academy (see illustration at left), are unashamedly using these fossils as opportunities to push Darwin.

How long “Ardi” will retain favored link status is anyone’s guess.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.