Charles Darwin could not have asked for a better present for his 200th birthday. The discovery of Ida, or Darwinius masillae, has sparked fascination in the science world with many claiming it to be the “missing link”. Although many scientists would argue that the concept of a “missing link” is totally false and undermines the very concept of natural selection, no one can disagree that the specimen belongs to an ancestral root which ends with higher primates like chimpanzees and humans. The discovery of such a specimen only adds to the existing evidence supporting the concept of natural selection as the means of origins for all species. And sadly, amidst such evidence and scientific accomplishment, some people outright reject natural selection and couple it with religious implications.
Main slab of Darwinius masillae holotype fossil from Messel in Germany
The fossil, Ida, is around 47 million years old which would indicate that it would have been around 20 million years after the demise of the dinosaurs. It’s early mammalian and late reptilian attributes would suggest that Ida was one of the first mammal ancestors, specifically one that would later branch out into other primates. The investigation of the fossil’s significance was led by Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. He said the fossil creature was “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor” and described the discovery as “a dream come true”. The female animal lived during an epoch in Earth history known as the Eocene, which was crucial for the development of early primates – and at first glance, Ida resembles a lemur. But, the creature lacks primitive features such as a so-called “toothcomb”; a specialised feature in which the lower incisor and canine teeth are elongated, crowded together and projecting forward. She also lacks a special claw used for grooming. Ida’s opposing thumbs, which is only relative to higher primates like chimps and humans, coupled with its long tail and large eyes indicates that she might have used the long tail for balance whilst gripping and swinging from branches. The large frontal eyes would indicate that she would probably be a night creature with stereoscopic vision.
Radiographs of the type specimen of Darwinius masillae from Messel in Germany
The term “missing link” was coined by creationists in order to undermine evolution. The term generally points out missing transitional species or intermediary life forms. This, however, is a false generalisation as all life forms according to natural selection, are in transition. Therefore, a “transitional form” is a human construct of a selected form that vividly represents a particular evolutionary stage, as recognised in hindsight. The term is inaccurate in its depiction of evolution as a chain when, in fact, it is more like numerous branches continuously growing and evolving.
Another misconception of natural selection would be when people assume that one modern species can “turn into” another modern species. For example, a horse cannot turn into a dolphin and a chimpanzee will not evolve into a human. These are modern species with no relevance to each other except that we all have common ancestors. The span of evolutionary development is millions of years. Therefore, we can only witness gradual changes in traits within our lifetimes. The domestication of dogs is a prime example of how humans over just a thousand years or so have managed to combine dog breeds to make their own categories. Not enough maybe to generate a new species but breeds have their unique characteristics.
The general misconception of natural selection arises due to conflict between religious notions of human existence. The evolution fact is a part of our everyday lives. We constantly take flu shots and vaccines for evolving viruses and we use various pesticides for constantly changing weeds. Astonishingly enough, chimps genetic make up is around 98% identical to humans; a clear indication of our common ancestor.
Overall, the discovery of Ida is a triumph of human intellect. The fact that we, as a species, can find evidence of our primitive ancestors is fascinating. Natural Selection is just as true a science as nuclear physics. It is not a theory but a fact backed by thousands of available fossil records. Science is a perspective based on facts and constant revisiting of those facts. The beauty of science is that it is not absolute, but like us, it is continuously evolving. Trying to understand the origins of our species is the first step towards our wisdom. The struggle between truth and belief may not have been resolved and constant demonisation of science may not have subsided. What is evident, however, is that as time goes on, our knowledge is accumulating. To hinder its process would be criminal to our intellectual progress as a species