Show navigation

The missing link—has it been found?


Subscribe to our Question of the Week:

missing link
Question: "The missing link—has it been found?"

Every so often, news outlets will report that someone, somewhere, has finally found “the missing link.” The discovery, supposedly, bridges the gap between humans and apes, proving with hard evidence that man is descended from other primates via evolution. This makes for sensationalist news and excellent click-bait on the internet. It is, however, all sizzle and no steak. These headlines not only misconstrue the nature of fossil evidence for evolution, but they also downplay the long, sordid history of false claims to missing links of prior generations.

The most recent such sensation is the 2013 discovery of a cluster of hominid bones in a South African cave. Researchers working on the fragments have claimed they represent a newly discovered species, one filling the gap between modern man and our more ancient evolutionary ancestors. The find has been named Homo naledi, after the cave where the bones were found.

There is much yet to be learned about the H. naledi fossils, and even those pieces of information won’t cement it as a sure-fire missing link. Despite the major questions left unanswered, the bones are already the subject of a National Geographic documentary, Dawn of Humanity. And, predictably, news outlets have raced to call it a “missing link” and other thrilling titles.

Scientifically, H. naledi has not yet been carbon dated (as of the writing of this article). It might well fall into a date range well outside of expectations. The assignment to the genus Homo is only temporary, since scientists aren’t actually sure if it belongs there or not. Inclusion in the same genus as humans is mostly due to assumptions about how the bones came to be in the hard-to-access cave. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, which researchers assume means they were “buried” by pre-humans. However, other scientists have noted that the size, shape, and content of the skeletons are dissimilar enough from other members of Homo that naledi might well belong in a completely different genus.

Further, it would take more than a single “link” to make the chain complete. The phrase “missing link” gives the impression that fossils supporting human evolution show a smooth transition, with one or two gaps. In reality, the “chain” is mostly missing. There are far more steps missing in the fossil record than are available.

In short, it’s too early to tell exactly what discovery of H. naledi means, if anything. That being said, history doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. To this point, all human-like fossils have eventually been classified as fossilized remains of prosimians, monkeys, apes, and humans. And most discoveries touted to fill in those gaps turn out to be failures.

Take, for example, the fossil Darwinius masillae, also known as “Ida.” Ida looks exactly like a modern lemur except that she lacks the tooth-comb and grooming-claw common to modern lemurs. This was breathlessly interpreted to mean she was an evolutionary transition from prosimian (the group to which lemurs belong) to monkey, since monkeys don’t have tooth-combs or grooming-claws. This is only one possible interpretation, of course, but it suits sensationalist news outlets and evolutionists just fine.

The other, more likely possibility, is that Ida suffered from phocomelia. This is a condition that can either be inherited or, in humans, caused by prenatal exposure to the drug thalidomide. It results in drastic deformities, up to and including the lack of entire limbs. But headlines about a dead deformed lemur aren’t nearly as exciting as those about a new species that might fit somewhere within the presumed family tree of human evolution.

Unfortunately, Ida is not an isolated case. Example after example could be given of fragments of bone and pig’s teeth that have been imagined into ape-men and marketed to the public. Bones of humans have been wrongly categorized with the bones of apes to create non-existent ape-men species. Diseased human skeletons have been distorted to look more ape-like and put on display. Even the wide range of potential anatomical variations among humans has been misinterpreted, not only among dead human specimens but among living humans as well.

Modern Australian Aborigines, for example, are known for their (relatively) deep-set eyes, short faces, heavy brow ridges, and larger jaws. These features, classified as “ape-like” by scientists of recent history, coupled with the archaic Aboriginal culture, led Darwinists of the 19th and 20th centuries to conclude that Aborigines were some kind of primitive ape-men. Some 19th- and 20th-century Darwinists thought that all non-Caucasian people were ape-like and therefore inferior to whites. Darwin himself wrote,

At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. . . . The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla (The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, 1887, p. 156).

Notice how Darwin coupled Africans and Aborigines with gorillas and contrasted them with Caucasians, despite the fact that Africans, Aborigines, and Caucasians are all 100 percent human, while gorillas are 100 percent ape. The same happens today with Neanderthals, who appear to have been another group of humans with superficial “ape-like” characteristics. They appear to have suffered from pathological conditions like rickets and arthritis that exacerbated their superficial ape-like characteristics. Not only can ordinary humans be born with “ape-like” traits like heavy brow ridges and large, jutting jaws, but pathologies like cephalic disorders, syphilis, scurvy, and rickets can make them look even more ape-like later in life. Yet everything we know about Neanderthal culture suggests they were just as human as modern-day Australian Aborigines. They were skilled hunters, lived in complex societies, buried their dead, and practiced religion.

The bottom line is, deformities and variations within genomes involve the duplication, misplacement, loss, and/or reshuffling of preexisting genetic information and are observed in the natural world and have mechanisms that are identifiable and understood. But the evolution of prosimians into monkeys or monkeys into apes or apes into humans would involve the addition of new genetic information into a genome, a process that has never been observed in nature and whose mechanisms have not been identified by scientists. Fossils supporting that transition have not yet been found.

It is no wonder, then, that the “missing link”—and in fact, most of the evolutionary chain—is still missing.

Recommended Resources: Battle for the Beginning: Creation, Evolution, and the Bible by John MacArthur and Logos Bible Software.

Related Topics:

Is the similarity in human/chimp DNA evidence for evolution?

How does creationism explain vestigial organs?

What is the Intelligent Design Theory?

Is creationism scientific?

What is theistic evolution?

Return to:

Questions about Creation

Return to: Home

The missing link—has it been found?

The GQ Network