Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Darwinius masillae and the Ever Elusive Missing Link

The latest “missing link” was unveiled yesterday. It is an early primate and the media is totally missing the point. In the stories it is being reported as a find that unveils the earliest ancestor of living monkeys, apes and even humans. The problem is: it simply is not. A few years from now when enough study is done and everybody forgets to keep up with the research, D. masillae will find its place where every single other known species is—at the tip of a branch.

Here is the way modern taxonomy works. All animal species are placed on a “tree” locating them where scientists suppose them to be in their relation to all other animals. Monkeys and Humans and other primates are all placed at the tips of branches that are connected to the same branch, and other groups are placed on other branches. However, all species are invariably placed at the tips of their individual twigs. There are no species at the joint of two twigs or branches. That is because science has yet to find a species that is clearly an ancestor to another.

Take Archaeopteryx lithographica for example. It is taught in most schools to be the ancestor of modern birds. However, it is more correctly referred to as the earliest known bird, because it is at the tip of its own branch. No known bird species descended from Archaeopteryx.

That is why these “missing link” stories are meaningless and misleading. There will never be an “Aha!” moment when some clear missing link is discovered. It simply doesn’t work that way. For that matter, there should be millions of missing links out there, literally hundreds of links for every existing species on earth. Why have we failed to find a single one?

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