Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Scientists have been all abuzz about the find of a new fossil named Ida - a small female primate estimated to be around 47 million years old. How significant is the find - well, that is debatable but most agree that it is a big deal. PZ Myers at Pharynagula writes about the discovery and Ida's importance not just for humans but for all,
Phylogeny. A cladistic analysis of the fossil revealed another interesting point. There are two broad groups of primates: the strepsirrhines, which includes the lemurs and lorises, and the haplorhines, which includes monkeys and apes…and us, of course. Ida's anatomy places her in the haplorhines with us, but at the same time she's primitive. This is an animal caught shortly after a major branch point in primate evolutionary history.
She's beautiful and interesting and important, but I do have to take exception to the surprisingly frantic news coverage I'm seeing. She's being called the "missing link in human evolution", which is annoying. The whole "missing link" category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn't: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge. It's also inappropriate to tag this discovery to human evolution. She's 47 million years old; she's also a missing link in chimp evolution, or rhesus monkey evolution. She's got wider significance than just her relationship to our narrow line. . . .