Thursday, May 21, 2009

Important Fossil Find Sheds Light on Human Evolution (For Who?)

Darwinius masillae - Ida

Very recently, the world was let in on the secret of Ida. Ida is the name given to the 47.5 million year old fossil remains of a primate, found in the Messel Pit, In Germany.

She is an enormously important find for the world of science, and has been described as the zoological ‘Rosetta Stone’ for understanding early primate evolution. This, is in part due to the fact that she is so well preserved that even individual hairs on her skin are visible. Ida lived at a time when researchers believe that the primate ancestral line split into 2 groups – one evolving into monkeys, apes and humans, and another that developed into lemurs and other lesser known primates.

This particular part of our evolutionary story has been hidden thus far. Like an old book which has been rescued from the fireplace – most of the tale unreadable, with only a few tiny remnants; the odd letter or word which has survived here and there. But now, suddenly, our metaphorical book gains a whole chapter!

But, hypothetically, what if Ida had been discovered in 1854? No doubt, some scientists would have been ecstatic (Darwin and Huxley spring to mind), but would she have changed the view of evolution’s sceptics? I doubt it. Will she change the view of today’s sceptics? I doubt it.

When Darwin was in the midst of defending his theories, he predicted that if he were correct, at some point someone would find a type of proto-bird with unfused wing fingers… low and behold 2 years after the publication of ‘Origin’, Archaeopteryx was discovered.

Owens’ response was to state that it was a “peculiar bird”, and then to proceed to dismiss it, ignoring its saurian features and even going so far as to argue how it couldn’t have evolved from reptiles by distinguishing its anatomy from pterosaurs rather than from dinosaurs. Huxley, of course, was not going to sit by idly, and upon publishing his counter examination, exposed Owen’s deceptive and biased analysis.

In 1863, Huxley published his “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature”, bringing to the forefront the key issues long before Darwin published his ‘Descent of Man’ in 1871. He clashed heavily with Owens in this arena.

Owens promised his religious colleagues that, where Linnaeus had failed to find any physical trait to separate out humans from the apes, he would succeed. Firstly he presented similarities as differences and when he couldn’t find any legitimate differences, he apparently made them up. He proclaimed that the Hippocampus minor was a uniquely human trait, not found in the brains of any other primate. Keep in mind, that Owens was a top anatomist of the day – this sort of obvious mistake would have been very difficult to make in earnest. But still he was unable to concede any error of any sort, employing rather than any logical reasoning in his defence, evasive maneuvering instead. This culminated in Huxley eventually indicting him for perjury. An Oxford University Professor once termed him a “Damned liar – he lied for God and for malice”.

In 1861, before the BA meeting, Huxley wrote:

"My dear Rolleston... The obstinate reiteration of erroneous assertions can only be nullified by as persistent an appeal to facts; and I greatly regret that my engagements do not permit me to be present at the British Association in order to assist personally at what, I believe, will be the seventh public demonstration during the past twelve months of the untruth of the three assertions, that the posterior lobe of the cerebrum, the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle, and the hippocampus minor, are peculiar to man and do not exist in the apes. I shall be obliged if you will read this letter to the Section. Yours faithfully, Thos. H. Huxley."

At a later point, when Huxley began to weary of debating the same thing over and over again – and winning, he proclaimed "Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once." - Thomas Huxley

Today, anti-evolutionists are continuing in this favoured role of blinkering themselves to the actual science happening around them. The goal posts are always moving – demands for the “missing link” (that will magically convert them and stop them from ignoring 2 decades of evidence??) keep coming, as if from a Creationists’ “Magic Porridge Pot” of demands. Will there be any anti-evolutionists/ creationists that hear about Ida, one of the most fascinating and enthralling discoveries of the century – and abandon their closemindedness? If we have learnt anything from the past 200 years, it is that unfortunately the answer will be no.