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Darwin fossil hyper-hype

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Published: 23 May 2009(GMT+10)
This is the pre-publication version which was subsequently revised to appear in Creation 32(1):44–46.

Franzen et al., (Ref. 8)

Fossil of Darwinius masillae

The well-preserved fossil of Darwinius masillae, the subject of an orchestrated media campaign of hype. The length, with the tail, is about 90 cm (3 feet).

The orchestrated multimedia blitz over this fossil is almost unbelievable. The paleontologists even got Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, to officiate at the public “launch” of Ida (the cute nickname for the fossil), when it was unveiled—like a new sculpture by a famous artist—to the assembled journalists.

Within days of the publication of the science journal paper, they have announced a book (The Link), a special website (The Link) devoted to the story and a feature-length documentary by Atlantic Productions (The Link). Sir David Attenborough wrote and narrated a special version for the BBC.1

They scheduled all these for broadcast/release within days of the publication of the paper. And it is all aimed at laymen; the general public.

Attenborough said, “This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all mammals. The link they would have said until now is missing … it is no longer missing.”2 But note his careful wording. The layman, including most reporters, hears “they have found the link between humans and apes”, but Attenborough meant a possible link between primates and the rest of the animal kingdom. This duplicitous approach seems to be rather deliberate, and not just with Attenborough. The repeated emphasis on “The Link”, in all the marketing hoopla, reinforces this. This is the same sort of deceitful debating tactic as saying evolution means change, change occurs in organisms (example of loss of eyes in a cave fish, for example), therefore evolution (molecules to mankind) is a fact—see Don’t fall for the bait and switch.

And just to cap it off, in this “year of Darwin”, they named the creature after the atheists’ hero, Charles Darwin: Darwinius masillae. (One wonders what Charles Darwin would say now, if only he could (cf. Luke 16:26–31).) As Richard Dawkins said, Darwin enabled him to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”. That is the reason for all the hoopla over Darwin, which seems to be at fever pitch in this “Year of Darwin”.

The claim that Darwinius ‘could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’ tacitly admits that it has not yet been confirmed

I don’t think I have ever seen such blatantly over-stated claims on a fossil find, and I have seen a few, including one by a major co-author of this paper: Philip Gingerich’s claims for Pakicetus back in 1983. Gingerich had a couple of scraps of a skull of a mammal from Pakistan and claimed it as the evolutionary precursor of whales. He embellished the story with an artist’s drawing of what Pakicetus (“whale from Pakistan”) looked like, with legs becoming flippers, a tail fluke developing and the imaginary creature diving for fish. Cute. Gingerich claimed it was “perfectly intermediate, a missing link between earlier land mammals and later, full-fledged whales”. With such a strong, confident claim from the fossil expert, who could doubt that evolution was true? Seven years later, other paleontologists published a paper describing the rest of Pakicetus and the now almost complete fossil showed that Gingerich’s imagination had really run away with him and the animal was not the missing link he thought it was. See: Not at all like a whale.

Apparently many paleontologists appreciate this sort of over-the-top, publicity-seeking behaviour in support of evolutionary story-telling, because they recently elected Gingerich the president of the American Paleontological Association.

Gingerich likened finding Ida to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in archaeology (which finally enabled the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics)! His collaborators on this paper are willingly joining in the hyping. In a televised meet-the-press, co-author Dr Jørn Hurum said, “It’s really, really hard to pinpoint exactly who gave rise to humans at that point, but this is as good as it gets, really.” According to ScienceNews, Hurum said, “This is the first link to all humans … truly a fossil that links world heritage.”2 And, “It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail. This fossil will probably be the one that will be pictured in all textbooks for the next 100 years.”3

Hurum has a reputation in his own right in Scandinavia for frequent appearances on television and radio to promote his views of evolution and paleontology.4 At the press conference with the researchers, a journalist asked about the appropriateness of all the hype over a supposedly scientific discovery and Hurum told The New York Times, “Any pop band is doing the same. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Hurum also likened the find to discovering the “lost ark of archaeology”5 while co-author Jens Franzen hailed it as “the eighth wonder of the world.”3 Wow!

The claims

An article in the New York Daily News summarized the claims as follows [numbering added]:3

  1. “… the long-sought missing link between humans and apes.
  2. “… the fossil of the lemur-like creature dubbed Ida shows it had opposable thumbs like humans and fingernails instead of claws.
  3. “… hind legs offer evidence of evolutionary changes that led to primates standing upright—a breakthrough that could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

Comments:

  1. To be fair, the paleontologists did not actually say it was a link between humans and apes, but it is understandable that journalists might interpret what they said in this way.6 They were claiming that Ida might shed some light on what might have been the connection between mankind’s supposed evolutionary ancestry, as a primate, and non-primates. Dr Jens Franzen said at the press conference at the celebratory “launch” in New York, “We are not dealing with our grand-grand-grandmother, but perhaps with our grand-grand-grandaunt.” Note that Franzen here admits that the creature is not an ancestor of humans, so Ida is not a link between humans and anything, not even with the hypothetical precursors of primates in general.
  2. Lemurs have opposable thumbs (hallux) and fingernails instead of claws too, but almost no-one has considered them to have anything to do with man’s ancestry. Furthermore, like other primates, but not humans, they have them on their feet, which is good for grabbing onto branches, but makes walking upright rather difficult.
  3. Note the careful wording. The authors imagined some hint of characteristics that might be relevant to walking upright tens of millions of evolutionary years later. I could find nothing in the published paper that substantiated this conjecture.7 And note that this “could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.” This tacitly admits that it has not yet been confirmed, contrary to many other hyped-up fossil finds that have been paraded as “proof” of evolution (the story of human evolution has been a very adaptable, ever-changing story—see Anthropology and apemen Q&A).

What did they find?

The scientific paper8 does not contain any hint of the over-the-top statements (above) that we have been hearing in the media blitz. The paper describes an exceptionally well preserved fossil of a lemur-like creature (95% complete), which is unusual for primate fossils.

The authors of the paper did not find the fossil; Dr Jørn Hurum convinced the University of Oslo to purchase the main part from private collectors (it cost a million dollars!). That means that the taphonomy (the exact location/situation) of the fossil is not known with certainty, although it apparently came from the Messel Pit in Germany, which has been well-studied. When collected in 1983, the collectors split it into two pieces and sold them separately. The lesser half ended up at a private museum in Wyoming, USA, and had been studied by Jens Janzen (a co-author of this current paper) in the early 1990s. He recognized that there had been some doctoring of it to make it look as complete as possible. The researchers brought the two parts together for study. They used X-radiography to distinguish the real fossil from doctored parts.

With such a complete fossil, the detailed description took a large part of the paper. The fossil has a basic body pattern and toe and finger nails like lemurs, but lacks two features that are peculiar to lemurs: a toilet claw on a toe and grooming teeth (a row of fused teeth), both used for grooming, so it is not “just a lemur”.

There is nothing in the paper that substantiates the outlandish statements made to the lay public. The only relevant section includes a table and discussion that claims that the creature has more similarities to the Primate suborder Haplorrhini (which includes tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans) than the other suborder, Strepsirrhini (which includes lemurs, lorises, etc.). However, the authors classified Darwinius as belonging to the Strepsirrhini and said they are not advocating otherwise. Strange. Maybe they said this to get it through the referees, because a proposal to shift the group that includes Darwinius (Infraorder Adapiformes) from one suborder of the primates to the other would certainly have been controversial, as well as very difficult to justify. With the public media fest orchestrated, a delay in the publication of the paper would have been embarrassing. Nevertheless, the claim that Ida is at all relevant to the evolutionary story of human origins depends on the authors establishing what they expressly disavowed in their paper.

Furthermore, there are absolutely no other fossils connecting Darwinius, or its kin, to humans or even to any of the claimed evolutionary ancestors of man. There is a gap of some 40 million evolutionary years!

Drawing: Bogdan Bocianowski. See Ref. 8.

Artist's reconstruction of Darwinius masillae

Reconstruction of what Darwinius masillae could have looked like. Commissioned by the paleontologists, it does not support the media hype about its relevance to human evolution; it is so similar to creatures living today.

Looking at the fossil and the artist’s reconstruction, it strikes me as absolutely unremarkable in appearance. If you saw this creature in the jungle, you would think “lemur” or similar. It should be of concern to evolutionists that something they say is 47 million years old is so similar to modern primates like lemurs.

Evolutionist skeptics of the hype

Interestingly, a number of evolutionists are criticizing the over-hyping of this fossil. Ann Gibbons, in a commentary on ScienceNow9 gave air to some criticism:

“‘It’s an extraordinarily complete, wonderful specimen, but it’s not telling us too much that we didn’t know before,’ says paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
“‘This is the first link to all humans,’ said Hurum at the press conference.

“Many paleontologists are unconvinced. They point out that Hurum and Gingerich’s analysis compared 30 traits in the new fossil with primitive and higher primates when standard practice is to analyze 200 to 400 traits and to include anthropoids from Egypt and the newer fossils of Eosimias from Asia, both of which were missing from the analysis in the paper. ‘There is no phylogenetic analysis to support the claims, and the data is cherry-picked,’ says paleontologist Richard Kay, also of Duke University. Callum Ross, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois agrees: ‘Their claim that this specimen should be classified as haplorhine is unsupportable in light of modern methods of classification.’”

[Note added: Brian Switek, science writer, in The Times online 26 May criticized the hyping of Ida. Following mention of other hyped discoveries (a mammoth and a marine reptile), he wrote, “Frozen mammoths and giant marine reptiles are fascinating, but they do not strike at the heart of the evolution/creationism culture war in the way that a potential human ancestor does. This is why I wish more care had been taken in promoting Ida. ... Likening Ida to the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark only compounds the problem; creationists will undoubtedly argue that these metaphors reveal that evolution is a religion with its own holy relics.” This shows that the concern from evolutionists over the hyping of Ida does not necessarily stem from concern for truthfulness, but from the realization that this will backfire in the “culture war”, which is really the war against the God of the Bible.]

Preservation in shale?

The fossil is embedded in shale. The Messel shale has yielded many other interesting and very well-preserved fossils. The shale is supposed to have formed in a lake bed created by volcanic activity. This lake bed, “filled with water, which seemingly, one way or another, accumulated gases that poisoned the animals individually, episodically, or periodically [refs]. The result is a diverse fauna of exceptionally preserved insects, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals [refs].”8 [my emphasis]. It stretches the imagination to think what gas could have killed such a wide range of creatures in repeated episodes. ScienceNews reported,

“The scientists believe she was overcome by carbon dioxide gas whilst drinking from the Messel lake: the still waters of the lake were often covered by a low lying blanket of the gas as a result of the volcanic forces that formed the lake and which were still active. Hampered by her broken wrist, Ida slipped into unconsciousness, was washed into the lake, and sunk to the bottom, where the unique conditions preserved her for 47 million years.”2

This is much ado about almost nothing other than a nicely preserved fossil for which they had paid a lot of money.

There is a mixture of fossils of terrestrial and aquatic creatures. Did carbon dioxide gas kill fish as well? It would have to be a prolonged period of carbon dioxide blanketing to de-oxygenate the water for the fish to be killed. And such fish would bloat and float, which is not conducive to being buried and preserved/fossilized.

Also, how could the creatures then get preserved with such detail, with the slow accumulation of sediment in the lake, as per the deep-time evolutionary approach to the geology? Even the soft body outline of Ida is preserved, and remnants of her last meal (fruit and leaves).

Wikipedia commons

A fossil microbat from the Messel oil shale

A fossil from the Messel oil shale of a bat that is very similar to today’s microbats.

This could be yet another example of catastrophic burial associated with Noah’s Flood. Recent studies have shown how fine-grained rocks like shale can form very quickly, contrary to long-standing evolutionary notions. See: Mud experiments overturn long held geological beliefs.

Stasis

Many other interesting and well-preserved fossils have been found in the Messel bed. Some of the best preserved are clearly recognizable, such as a bat, which is clearly a bat—a microbat that probably had echolocation. Fish found include bowfin, perch, gar and eel. Reptiles include crocodiles, alligators, turtles and a snake. And there are quite a few birds and mammals. Considering the supposed 47 million years of time, the similarity of so many of these creatures to today’s survivors speaks of stasis—creatures reproducing “after their kind”, not evolution.

Summary

Sadly, the gullible will be further convinced with all the bravado that evolution explains our origins and they therefore have no need for a Creator. But this is much ado about almost nothing other than a nicely preserved fossil for which they had paid a lot of money. And in the Year of Darwin, evolutionists, and especially atheists, are keen to milk it for what it is worth to push evolution to the public. If this is the best they have, Bible-believing creationists have nothing to fear.


Addendum (March 2010)

In two papers published this month, one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the other in the Journal of Human Evolution, paleontologists show why Darwinius does not have anything to do with human ancestry: “Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,” says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. The authors show very clearly that Darwinius is in the group that includes lemurs and tarsiers, which has no features that would enable it to be classified as an ancestor to apes (to which evolutionists claim the ancestors of humans must belong).

  • Anthropologists say fossil was not ‘missing link’ http://www.physorg.com/news186758868.html

Recommended Resources





Further Reading

References

  1. The Film: A major documentary film on Ida and her place in our history; http://www.revealingthelink.com/more-about-ida/the-film Return to text.
  2. Common Ancestor of Humans, Modern Primates? “Extraordinary” Fossil Is 47 Million Years Old, ScienceDaily, May 19, 2009; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090519104643.htm. Return to text.
  3. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/05/19/2009-05-19_missing_link_found_fossil_of_47_millionyearold_primate_sheds_light_on_.html#ixzz0G934GaPW&B Return to text.
  4. Meet Jorn Hurum, The Man Who Found The Missing Link Or Ida, The 47 Million Year Old Fossil; http://www.softsailor.com/news/3220-meet-jorn-hurum-the-man-who-found-the-missing-link-or-ida-the-47-million-year-old-fossil.html, posted 20 May 2009. Return to text.
  5. Fossil frenzy, The Scientist.com, http://www.the-scientist.com/templates/trackable/display/blog.jsp?type=blog&o_url=blog/display/55725&id=55725, 21 May 2009. Return to text.
  6. Even The Scientist, which you might think would normally take care not to use ambiguous wording, referred to Darwinius masillae as “our new 47 million-year-old primate ancestor”. http://www.the-scientist.com/daily/2009/05/21/ Return to text.
  7. In the journal paper the authors describe the interfacing surface of the foot’s talus bone with the fibular (calf bone) as being steep. They claim this is a characteristic of the suborder of primates that includes monkeys, apes and humans (not only humans). They also admit that there are non-primate mammals that have a similar steep angle. (pp. 17–18) Return to text.
  8. Franzen J.L., Gingerich P.D., Habersetzer J., Hurum J.H., von Koenigswald W., et al., Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723, 2009. Return to text.
  9. Gibbons, A., “Revolutionary” Fossil Fails to Dazzle Paleontologists, ScienceNOW Daily News, 19 May 2009; http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/519/1?etoc Return to text.

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