Fossil Friday: Darwinius, or How Wishful Thinking Makes a Missing Link

Photo: Darwinius marsillae and Franzen et al. 2009, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In 2008, Norwegian paleontologist Jørn Horum acquired the best preserved fossils to date that were discovered from the private collection of the Natural History Museum in Oslo. The magnificent fossil originated from the famous Eossen region (about 47 m.m.) in Germany and was named Darwinius marsillae But she became more famous under her pseudonym “Ida”. To fund an expensive purchase of the fossil (allegedly at $750,000), Hurum organized a unique publicity stunt that included a book with a sensational title. Link: Uncovering Our Early Ancestors (Tudge & Young 2009) and a television documentary for the BBC and The History Channel entitled missing link. Narrated by no less than the last Richard Attenborough and advertised with an ironic television ad, he even compared the significance of the discovery to events such as Pearl Harbor, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

excessive fossil

The massive media campaign led to global headlines that not only called the fossil the missing link but simply “The Link” or “The Eighth Wonder of the World” (Randerson 2009). In the original description the authors claimed it Darwinius is the long-sought missing link in the evolution of human beings, the group of primates that includes not only apes and apes but also us humans (Franzen and others. 2009). Early criticism focused on media hype, reckless study, and evidence that Ida could have been a lemur instead (Baras and Huber 2009And the Beard 2009And the Dalton 2009; see also Luskin 2009aAnd the 2009 bAnd the 2010).

Two new studies of the fossil published within a year Sefer et al (2009) And the Williams and others. (2010) He actually refuted the original bold claim and showed it Darwinius It belongs to the well-known Adapoid group, which is closer to lemurs than to human primates. The original authors tried to defend their point (Gingerich et al. 2010), but were hard-pressed to explain why their phylogenetic analysis based on a few characters and a few taxa outperformed opposing studies based on many characters and taxa, and thus a much broader database.

It seems that no one in the scientific community or even the media has swallowed this failed apology for an exaggerated fossil (see Wikipedia An article about Darwinius). Public opinion today is that Darwinius Not a missing link at all, not even a true ape, but just another representative of a relatively unimportant early side branch of primates.