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Ida’s Bust Maroons Retroactive Confessions of Ignorance about Primate Evolution

As I’ve discussed before, it’s often only when evolutionists think they have found some “missing link” that they feel safe enough to admit how little they actually knew about the alleged evolutionary transition in question. What happens when the link goes bust–as we’ve recently discussed is the case with Ida? We’re left with lots of admissions of ignorance about evolution and no links to fill the now-exposed gap.

This is why Colin Tudge’s book about Ida, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor (Little Brown & Co, 2009), is so intriguing. He thought he had a missing link to explain the early evolution of primates on the line that supposedly led to humans, so the book is filled with would-be retroactive confessions of evolutionist ignorance about primate evolution. For example:

Although, because of gaps in the fossil record, paleontologists have had to hypothesize about what happened after the primitive primate, they have determined that by 40 million years ago, there were, as we know, two distinct primate groups: those with wet noses–lemurs and lorises; and those with dry noses–tarsiers and apes and monkeys. At some point during the Eocene, this important split in primate evolution occurred; without it, humankind as we know it would not exist. Until the fossil in the photograph was found [Ida], no complete skeleton had ever been discovered of an “in-between” species to prove this split. Hurum was fast concluding that the specimen he was looking at could be one of the holy grails of science–the “missing link” from the crucial time period.

(Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, p. 13 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)

Except, of course, it now is becoming clear that Jørn Hurum (the Norwegian paleontologist who works at the Geological museum of the University of Oslo, who wrote the foreword to The Link) was a little too fast concluding that he’d found a “missing link,” meaning that apparently we don’t necessarily have “an ‘in-between’ species to prove this split.”

Tudge continues to admit the lack of fossils evidence for primate evolution during the Eocene:

Radical transitions in primate evolution occurred throughout the Eocene, from 56 million to 34 million years ago. Many scientists argue that the primates that were in the direct line of humans must have lived during the Eocene in sub-Saharan Africa, but exactly what kind of primates those would have been is not known because there are huge gaps in the fossil record. This is where studying Ida in her entirety and with a view forward opens up a new chapter in primate evolution. Just as Ida complicates primate history, she gives us hints of where a transition occurred in the great story line of primates, because she allows us to see a combination of complex primate traits all in one skeleton.

(Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 101-102 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)

Except now, critics are saying things like, “Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,” and, “What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.”

And what comes after the Eocene? The Link asks “what do we actually know about the post-Eocene primates?” and admits in its answer: “The short answer to this question, What do we know? Is, as ever, Not much.” (p. 173) More specifically, The Link admits the paucity of fossil evidence documenting primate evolution from the past 5 million years:

The primate fossil record is so sparse that only around fifty significant specimens exist from the past 5 million years. The most famous is Lucy, the 3.2 million year old australopithecine discovered by Donald Johanson in November 1974. Lucy revolutionized science by providing the first evidence of a primate that walked upright–a crucial link in our own evolution that distinguishes us from all other primates. But even Lucy, considered a remarkable specimen, was only 40 percent complete.

(Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 16-17 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)

These sorts of admissions come readily when you think you have, as The Link quotes Jørn Hurum saying about Ida, “the icon for the early evolution of primates,” (p. 243) which will “be the image of our early evolution for generations to come.” (p. 229)

Ida’s Theological / Environmental Punchline
Tudge’s book The Link appears to be aimed at high school or college students, to excite them about science and paleontology. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the book also has a not-so-hidden agenda to convert students to accept Darwin, using all the hype we’ve grown accustomed to seeing alongside the promotion of Ida. It even tries to convince students that their religious beliefs should perhaps be modified to accept Darwin. Consider these interesting passages:

Furthermore, said [Richard] Owen, if one kind of creature (like a bear) could turn by a succession of gradual changes into something quite different (like a whale), then the fossil record should contain the intermediate types. But it does not. The intermediates are missing. There are, in short, missing links. Owen said that the fossil record left Darwin’s idea in tatters. We may choose to believe for all kinds of reasons that Darwin was right–if not always in detail, then certainly in principle. Living creatures have evolved over time usually from simpler beginnings. There have been no interruptions. In general the changes has been slow. But Owen’s criticisms were and are valid too. If all we had to go on was the fossil record, we might be just inclined to believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. So how do we cope with this discrepancy? And what has all this got to do with Ida? (Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 16-17 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)

There will be readers who will find it somewhat strange that the author refers to the apes and ourselves collectively as we, as if Homo sapiens were simply another ape. Is it not strange indeed to see Ida, a 47-milliony-year-old creature who was scarcely even an anthropoid, as an ancestor, worthy to take her place in the family album, at least among the great-aunts? Surely we are above these creatures. Surely it is blasphemy to pretend otherwise. Many have thought so. Many a philosopher and cleric have condemned biologists for daring to emphasize our affinity with other creatures. … But many a philosopher and cleric, and of course many a biologist, have not been ashamed to be associated with the other beasts. St. Francis of Assisi, felt by many to be the most Christlike of the Christian saints, declared that the animals and plants were his brothers and sisters. Charles Darwin, who suggested that all creatures must have arisen in the deep past from a common ancestor, said in effect that this is literally the case. If everything is God’s Creation, why would we want to be aloof from it? Who are we to be so superior? (Colin Tudge, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, pp. 245-246 (Little Brown & Co, 2009).)

After pushing theistic evolutionary religious views on its likely student-readers, The Link then closes with the customary epilogue emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment. Again, there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment, but there’s a deep fallacy here: Tudge assumes that if you don’t endorse Darwinian evolution, you won’t support environmental protection. But in my experience many Christians of all stripes — theistic evolutionists and Darwin-doubters — have recognized the importance of protecting the environment.

One most certainly does need not to believe one is related to Ida to recognize the specialness of our world and the importance of protecting and preserving it. And Tudge is wrong to think he must denigrate human exceptionalism in order to motivate environmentalism.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, 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.