Tuesday, August 09, 2005

"Missing links"

Kevin Drum says:
When USA Today runs an article on September 26th about the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity, as I hope they do, will they feel obligated to print a rebuttal from one of the many crackpots on the web who say that Einstein was wrong? I suspect not. Why then, do they feel the same need with evolution, which, if anything, rests on a more solid evidentiary foundation than relativity?
In reference to Chris Mooney's wise words on editorial pages and the op-eds that balance them:
More generally, while the op-ed page may be the place for airing a range of opinions, it is emphatically not the place for the airing of falsehoods and misinformation. This is a classic example of "balance" run amuck.
All because USA Today ran a meaningless op-ed, then ran a mediocre editorial.

The op-ed was by the Utah state senator who wanted 'divine design" taught in Utah's schools. The gentleman from West Jordan, having borrowed from HGTV, decided to try borrowing from the History Channel:

[Supporters of evolution] claim that there are mountains of scientific proof that man evolved from some lower species also related to apes. But in this tremendous effort to support Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, in all these "mountains of information," there has not been any scientific fossil evidence linking apes to man.

The trouble with the "missing link" is that it is still missing! In fact, the whole fossil chain that could link apes to man is also missing! The theory of evolution, which states that man evolved from some other species, has more holes in it than a crocheted bathtub.
If one were so inclined, you could say he seems to be missing a few links himself, IYKWIMAITYD. You see, the fossil record doesn't preserve everything. It preserves some things, things like Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and Homo ergaster.
On the graphic, stolen boldly from the Smithsonian, the solid lines represent actual fossils we've found. Age is determined by radioisotope dating. Dashed lines indicate transitions that lack fossil intermediates.

We can assume one of two things. We could assume that those dashed lines represent real gaps that will never be filled. We could also assume that something was in that gap, and we can look for it.
Creationism says we should go home and stop looking. Science, however, is a process of asking interesting questions and trying to figure out an answer. The question here is, what came between Australopithecus garhi and Homo rudolfensis? Was it magic? Or did an ancestral population split: one half evolving in one way, the other half becoming distinct in another?

It wasn't until 1964 that Homo habilis was located. H. rudolfensis was described in 1986. Before then, there was a big gap right in the middle of this graphic. Now, the gap is smaller. As more research is done, more gaps are filled in.

If you had a magnifying glass, you would be able to see lots of tiny gaps in that graphic. Every new specimen would divide a gap into two new gaps, but the gaps would get smaller and smaller. Are those gaps "missing links"?

No. The idea of a missing link is basically an artifact of "typological" thinking, the idea that H. sapiens is always one way, while our ancestor was always another way. One day you'd have apes, the next day, humans. This is not evolution. Evolution is gradual, evolution is slow evolution works in increments.

There will never be a single missing link. There are thousands of links between humans and the rest of the primates.

As Darwin wrote:

As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification; it can act only by very short and slow steps. Hence the canon of `Natura non facit saltum,' which every fresh addition to our knowledge tends to make more strictly correct, is on this theory simply intelligible. We can plainly see why nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation. But why this should be a law of nature if each species has been independently created, no man can explain.
That last line is a problem that remains for creationists today. Of course a "divine designer" could create things that way, but why should it? Evolution can answer that question, creationism cannot.

Mooney is right that the Op-Ed page shouldn't be a place for lies or misinformation. In fact, it's not the right place to be advancing a claim that seems entirely driven by scientific facts. Buttars's title is "Evolution lacks fossil evidence." If USA Today's science editor chose to write a story about the state of fossil knowledge, that would be useful. Why that claim deserves to be evaluated by a state legislator on an opinion page is beyond me. Why any paper would choose to print lies is a question for another day.