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Return of the Rafting Primates: New Tarsier-Like Fossil Poses “Problem” for Early Primate Evolution

Casey Luskin


The news media are abuzz about a newly discovered fossil of a tarsier-like creature that is about 55 million years old. If you haven’t visited the zoo lately, tarsiers are tiny adorable primates with giant eyes. In the tank for Darwin as always, CNN calls it a “missing link” and claims it “provides a strong connection between humans and their possible ancestors.” According to the New York Times, it “brings scientists closer to pinpointing a pivotal event in primate and human evolution.” One scientist called it “one of the most important discoveries in the history of paleoprimatology.” Exactly what has been found? Is this a genuine prize for evolution or does it look more like another bust, like “Ida”?

Although the fossil is not complete, much of it was recovered, and at 55 million years old, it’s also the earliest primate fossil ever discovered. But what the fossil’s old age means is that it’s extremely far removed from human origins, making claims that it somehow connects us to animals highly tenuous.

The technical paper in Nature has classified it within Tarsiiformes, the group that includes modern tarsiers. The paper states that “its skull, dentition and many aspects of its appendicular skeleton resemble tarsiiforms,” however evolutionary primatologists are excited because “in terms of calcaneal shape and metatarsal proportions within the foot, the new taxon recalls anthropoid primates.” Translation: most of its body is tarsier-like but its feet, which are only a centimeter or two in length, have proportions that are somewhat like those of monkeys. The CNN article says that “it resembles the feet of modern-day marmosets.”

More than anything else, however, its feet are unique, as the technical paper states:

This combination of foot proportions is unique among living and fossil primates and their nearest relatives.

So basically it’s a very old tarsier-like fossil, with unique feet — an interesting find to be sure, but not exactly an earthshattering piece of evidence supporting Darwinian evolution.

A Biogeographical Problem for Common Descent
In fact, the fossil actually underlines a very severe problem for the Darwinian story. It was unearthed in China, and since it’s the earliest primate fossil ever discovered, the NY Times reports, “The finding adds weight to the evidence that primates originated in Asia — not Africa — and that they emerged relatively soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs, which happened about 66 million years ago.” This poses a biogeographical conundrum, as the Times acknowledges:

K. Christopher Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and an author of the journal report, said: “We’ve heard of the ‘out of Africa’ theory of human evolution, but that’s recent history. So there may now be the ‘into Africa’ problem.”

How and when did some primates finally make it to Africa, which was an island until as recently as 16 million years ago, to set in motion the emergence of the human species?

As we have seen before, when Darwinian biologists discover terrestrial organisms living in isolated island locations to which they could not have migrated, the scientists resort to explanations like “rafting” on vegetation across vast stretches of open water. To preserve common descent, they’re pretty much forced to come up with something like that, however awkward and implausible. This seems to be the direction they’re going in explaining this fossil, as the Times reports:

There is evidence that 38 million years ago, some primates had apparently crossed open water to colonize the African continent.

But what is that evidence? It is that the oldest fossil primates appear in Asia, but we find fossil primates in Africa more recently, around 38 million years ago. And then, of course, we find fossil primates in South America (another isolated island at the time) even more recently, about 30 million years ago — which requires another rafting trip. And as always, keep in mind that one primate alone can’t make these trips — you either have to have multiple primates rafting essentially simultaneously, or a pregnant primate, or the lineage will quickly die out even if the rafting voyage is successful.

To put it another way, the evidence for rafting is that we know common descent must be true, therefore there must be continuity of descent between ancient primate fossils, therefore rafting must have taken place. Never mind that small primates like tarsiers have very high metabolisms and would be hard-pressed to survive such a trip. Still, common descent is true, ergo rafting must be common. Right?

Retroactive Confessions of Ignorance
When so-called “missing links” are discovered, we often see their announcements accompanied by what I call retroactive confessions of evolutionist ignorance. It’s only after evolutionists think they have plugged some “gap” in the evolutionary record that they will forthrightly discuss in the media the fact that the gap existed to begin with. This is suspicious, because it makes you wonder what gaps they aren’t acknowledging right now, or whether the gap wasn’t filled quite as fully as they’re telling us.

In the case of this fossil, the opening sentence of the Nature paper admits:

Reconstructing the earliest phases of primate evolution has been impeded by gaps in the fossil record…

Likewise, in the CNN article one of the paper’s co-authors acknowledges, “For the first time, it really shines a light on an important phase of primate and human evolution that we just had very little information about before.”

The risk that evolutionists take when making these retroactive confessions of ignorance is that if the new fossil doesn’t sufficiently fill the gap, then they’re stuck with a confession of ignorance but no satisfactory data to fix the problem. For example, if we had “very little information” about this “important phase” of human evolution before this fossil was discovered, but this tiny 55 million-year-old fossil isn’t even on the line that led to humans, then what in truth does that say about our present knowledge of human evolution from this “important phase”?

Image credits: Top: Wikicommons. Beneath: by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature. Xijun Ni, Daniel L. Gebo, Marian Dagosto, Jin Meng, Paul Tafforeau, John J. Flynn & K. Christopher Beard, “The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution,” Nature, Vol. 498: 60-64 (June 6, 2013). Copyright 2013.


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.



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