Paleontologists are always looking for a “missing link.” It is what drives their very existence, this filling in of the evolutionary march from prehistoric days to the present. Paleontologist Jorn Hurum believes he has found one such missing link in Germany, a 47-million-year-old fossil he has dubbed “Ida.”
Acdording to National Geographic, Jorn Hurum, who is affiliated with Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway, said in a statement, “This is the first link to all humans, the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor.” This particular “missing link,” Hurum noted, exhibits a “bridge in the evolutionary divide between primates (humans, apes, monkeys) and their more distant evolutionary relatives, lemurs.
Hurum’s discovery, statement, book, documentary, and promotional website about his find has caused quite a stir in both the scientific and religious communities.
Creationists and religious fundamentalists see the elusive “missing link” as something to fear, ignorantly ascribing the “missing link” as a scientific charade that “proves” that man and ape are evolutionary kinfolk. But this is a red herring argument that doesn’t take into account that the fossil record is perforated with missing links in the evolutionary study of all modern species. These links, sometimes referred to as transitional fossils, are important in showing descent but are at the same time problematic in that the fossil record is incredibly incomplete and subject to the existence of a fossil record (which may not exist due to the conditions necessary for the formation of fossils). Creationists, religious fundamentalists, and evolutionary naysayers commonly use the missing link argument — an argument always used in the singular “link” and never in the plural “links”, which is the more accurate term — to show how inexact science is, how evolution is a faulty theory, and that the missing pieces of the puzzle are proof that a divine being created every creature in its unique form (i.e., there is no “missing link.”).
“Ida,” or Darwinius masillae, is just one of the many missing links that make their way to the divergence of primate evolutionary paths, one of which produced the primate forms of monkeys, apes, and humans, and another which produced animals such as lemurs. In fact, the gap is so large in the known fossil record, scientists are uncertain exactly where the divergence began. Still, “Ida” has a lemur-like skeleton. “Ida” also has primate characteristics such as opposable digits, grasping hands, nail-less fingers (as opposed to claws), and relatively short limbs.
Since the newly discovered missing link is dated as being from the Eocene era, a time period from which few fossil records have been found, the fossil will be entered into the religion versus science debate.
For scientists, the more important aspect of Darwinius masillae is that it was found in Germany, which might point toward Europe as being more important in the evolutionary spectrum than was heretofore believed. And regardless of where “Ida” stands on the evolutionary path, one thing is unique about the fossil: It is amazingly preserved. The 47-million-year-old fossil allowed paleontologists to study the fossilized record of fur, soft tissue, and even the remains of the animal’s last meal, which consisted of seeds, fruits, and leaves.
So is Jorn Hurum’s “Ida” really a missing link, another stop on the evolutionary road that has led to the present, or is she just another singularly unique prehistoric creature?
“Ida” is both. Her existence will not “prove” or “refute” the argument that every creature was “designed” for a singular purpose, nor will it prove or discount evolutionary theory. The missing link found at the Messel Pit in Germany suggests itself as a link in the overall concept of evolution and the record of life on the planet, just another piece of the puzzle. Whether one believes that Darwinius masillae was created by an omniscient force or was the end result of ages of natural selection — or a combination of the two methods of thinking — becomes the province of subjective accommodation.